Written By — April | May 2012
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On Receiving “Notes”
Nicholas Kazan

Why Arthur Miller never wrote Free and Clear.

This harrowing story is the most instructive one I’ve ever heard about script notes. I repeat it to every producer and studio executive I meet.

The story reflects poorly on my parents. As a matter of privacy, I don’t normally reference my family. In this case, it’s unavoidable. My father was director Elia Kazan. He died in September 2003, a few weeks after his 94th birthday. When I flew to New York for his funeral, I heard that critic Martin Gottfried had just published a book about Arthur Miller and was giving a reading. Out of curiosity and perversity, I went, hoping to see Miller there and invite him to my father’s service.

Miller was not in attendance, but this story was waiting for me.

In 1947, Miller’s play All My Sons won the New York Drama Critics prize for Best Play, besting Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. (No comment.)Everyone eagerly awaited Miller’s next play. In anticipation, a Broadway theater was booked and a production company formed.The most eminent producer in town, Kermit Bloomgarden, wanted to produce the play.Many prominent investors, including the famous producer and director Joshua Logan, lined up to put money into the production.

Miller finished his new play, Death of a Salesman, and gave it to Elia, who loved it and agreed to direct it. Bloomgarden was equally enthusiastic.(Another prominent producer, Cheryl Crawfold, had right of first refusal but read the play and turned it down, paving the way for Bloomgarden. Crawford was the first of many experienced readers to misjudge the text. She wept at opening night, both in response to the play and to her own poor judgment.)

Having pleased his director and producer, Miller gave the play to the investors. To everyone’s shock, Josh Logan and others were horrified. They said they were withdrawing their investment because the play was “unproducable.” Not flawed. Unproducable.

Their reason? They said the audience would be unable to follow the story, unable to distinguish what was in the past from what was in the present.

Miller was plunged into despair. He consulted Elia, who now agreed with Logan’s assessment. Elia suggested Miller consolidate the impressionistic “flashbacks” into one section.Bloomgarden agreed. Miller then consulted my mother, who was a mentor to him and other playwrights; she suggested he eliminate the flashbacks altogether.

Fortified with this abominable advice, Miller rewrote his play. No one quite knows what Miller did, but when he finished, everyone agreed the result was god-awful.

Miller decided to stand by his original text: “If it’s going to fail, let it fail the way I wrote it, rather than the way I rewrote it.” Elia changed his mind again and decided to direct the play in its original form. Bloomgarten produced it. I don’t know whether Josh Logan remained an investor. I do know some investors dropped out and the financing became shaky. Miller’s former agent Leland Hayward (another extremely experienced theater person) had, sight unseen, signed on to put up $4,000; after reading the play, he cut his investment to $1,000.

Before the play went into rehearsal, there was another bump in the road. Bloomgarden decided audiences wouldn’t go see a play with death in the title. He suggested some- Thing sunnier: Free and Clear (a phrase from the play’s final scene). Those involved conducted an informal poll. According to Miller, 98 percent of those asked said they would not go see a play called Death of a Salesman.

Miller refused to budge, and this time Elia supported him.We can ask ourselves now: What would this play be if we didn’t know from the outset that Willie Loman was going to die? Would it still feel tragic? Would it work at all?

The play opened with the original structure and title, and the rest is history. The audience on opening night sat in silent shock and then exploded, rising to their feet and applauding, hooting, screaming. Many continued to clap long after the actors had finished their curtain calls. Others sat in their seats, stunned or sobbing, unable or unwilling to leave the theater.

Since then, Salesman has been done thousands of times, in virtually every country in the world. By almost any standard, it is one of the five best American dramas of the 20th century.Many critics consider it the best.

And no one has ever been confused about what was in the past and what was in the present.

I am sure you can see my questions:

—If the most successful producer of that era wanted to change the title, and if he and two of the leading directors of the time considered the play “unproducable” and further agreed on what the problem was, and if all these “experts” were wrong in every respect about a play regarded as a masterpiece, how does anyone ever dare to give notes?

—Why is it that, in Hollywood, every producer, studio executive, and development person just out of college feels entitled to make suggestions on every script they receive? How can they be so confident of their opinions? Are they truly unaware of the damage they can do?

—Why is every draft from every writer considered just a “work in progress,” a rough approximation waiting to be improved by the wise counsel of a dozen or more readers?

—Why do we writers accept notes that will destroy what we have so painstakingly created?

—And if we refuse to make destructive changes, why are we considered “difficult” rather than “principled and passionate”? Why are we not considered experts, both in general and, most especially, on the distinct universe of the script we have written?

I told the preceding story to, and asked these questions of, a friend who runs a major studio. She said, “So what does this mean? Are we supposed to give no notes at all?!”

I said, “No. Give notes, but as suggestions, not mandates. Feed the writer. If the writer is inspired by your idea, great; if not, drop the subject because the note is probably wrong. The writer may not be able to tell you why it’s wrong, but trust him or her, it is.”

The fact is: We know. We live with a script for months, often years, and we know what a script wants to be—and what it doesn’t. We also know that if, with the best of intentions, the DNA of a script is altered, the animal that results will not be pretty to look at.

I made another suggestion to my friend at the studio: “If a writer you respect believes in the script, hold a reading.Hear the text. Before you say with confidence that something doesn’t work, find out what the movie is. It’s drama, it’s alive: Give it a chance to breathe.”

Of course, a reading won’t always validate the writer’s view . . . And that’s its beauty: It simply exposes the text, usually revealing problems of some sort—either the same problems the studio sees, ones the writer fears, or problems neither anticipates.Regardless of the “result,” a reading is always a valuable and revelatory tool. It should be standard practice.

Let me be clear. I don’t mean to suggest here—to do so would be absurd—that every screenplay is a cinematic equivalent of Death of a Salesman. But accomplished and experienced writers work for months or years on a screenplay and then are given notes by executives who have to read three or six or nine screenplays over a weekend and are expected (or expect themselves) to give detailed, helpful, and well-considered notes. A lot of good work and careful thought can be overlooked by tired or overwhelmed executives.

There’s one more lesson to be gleaned from this story.Salesman broke new ground, and that was part of the problem: Being unfamiliar with what the play was doing and how it worked, readers thought it wouldn’t work at all.

Similarly, it often seems that the better a script is (the more novel and daring its approach), the less likely it is to be properly read and understood. Again: I don’t mean that every “daring” script is good or unappreciated. I do mean that the best scripts might have the most difficult time being recognized.

So the next time someone reads your script and either really hates something that you know works or makes cavalier and foolish suggestions—“just spitballing”—perhaps you should ask them: Did you ever hear a song for the first time and hate it and then two weeks later find yourself singing it?

Nicholas Kazan’s plays include Mlle. God and Blood Moon.Among his numerous screenplays are Frances, Reversal of Fortune, and Dream Lover.
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