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Even if the Limbic System Kicks in, Always Say 'Yes'

April 16, 2006|Craig Mazin | Craig Mazin is a screenwriter and producer whose credits include "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4," released Friday.

Any screenwriter with even the briefest experience in this business has gotten his share of notes--suggestions for improving a script served up by a producer or studio executive. Often, these are bad notes. By "bad," I mean horrendous.

When we start reeling from bad notes, the rational frontal lobe shuts down and the limbic system kicks in. That's the part of the brain responsible for the "four Fs": feeding, fleeing, fighting and mating.

You can't eat during a notes session, and mating is difficult unless you're into public sex with people who are as unattractive as you.

That leaves fleeing and fighting. Running out of the room in tears may make it difficult to get your parking validated, so most writers simulate fleeing by going limp and letting the hot waves of stupid comments wash over them like a red tide. These writers tend to commit suicide by the age of 50.

Other writers fight back. They argue, defend, deny and resist. They explain in detail why the notes are wrong. They roll their eyes so hard you can actually hear squeaking noises coming from the back of their orbital sockets. These writers tend to die of heart attacks by the age of 50.

There is, however, a third way. Always say "yes."

Saying "yes" to every suggestion, no matter how awful or insane, doesn't actually obligate you to do anything. What it does do is buy you goodwill and time. If producers and executives just wanted writers to follow orders, they wouldn't need us in the first place. They'd do it themselves. Like any other human, what they want is to be considered.

If you say "yes," and a day later the idea still seems about as smart as pumping a dirigible full of hydrogen and flying it around New Jersey, then call up and say, "You know what? I thought about that one note. Can't do it. Here's why."

"I thought about it" is what they crave.

But this rule isn't just about gaming your employers. There's another benefit. Sometimes, contrary to our "no" instinct, the right answer turns out to be "yes." This has happened to me more times than I care to admit, and I hate giving other people credit for the ideas I've stolen . . . but, OK, just this once.

The "Scary Movie" films always begin with a cold open that features celebrity cameos in a self-contained spoof. Ideally, you want the cameos to bear some relation to the characters from the film you're spoofing.

About two weeks before we needed to shoot our cold open for "Scary Movie 4," I received the following suggestion from the studio: "We think it would be a good idea to see Shaquille O'Neal and Dr. Phil playing themselves trapped in the bathroom from 'Saw.'"

Frontal lobe: down. Limbic system: party time!

Now I understood that Dr. Phil and Shaq are extremely popular, and they both seemed like excellent people to put in a spoof. But together? These two people have absolutely no relation to the characters in "Saw," and, even worse, have no relation to each other. Furthermore, they were going to play themselves, which was a serious departure from the formula that had worked so well for three movies. What was I supposed to do with these two in that locked room? I couldn't see the scene. I couldn't see the logic.

Still, I heard myself say, "OK, sure. Lemme give that a shot." That was my actual voice. The voice in my head was advising me to either fake my own death or go to law school, which frankly seemed redundant.

I ran to my wife. "Can you believe this? I'm supposed to write a scene where Shaq and Dr. Phil are trapped in a . . . "

That was as far as I got before she started laughing. It was already funny to her, and all she had heard was two names mentioned in conjunction. More to the point, all she had heard was the very thing I had wanted to say "no" to.

Behold the magic of "yes." Three days and many revisions later, I had a funny scene on paper. Two weeks later, we shot the scene. A month ago, we previewed that scene. The audience laughed and cheered.

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