How to get punched in the face

Last week you and I went down the rabbit hole on how to give great notes.

It was fun, positive, felt like a real bonding moment.

This week we’re talking about how to get punched in the face, kicked in the nuts, stabbed in heart.

Welcome to How to take notes like a champ.

Expectations managed

What I expect: “Morten, you’re a genius, we don’t have a single note. Congratulations! Also, we definitely need to be paying you more. Here take all the money!”

What I get: page upon page of second-by-second notes.

When we conflate our story with our own self worth, every note is a stab to our hearts. It hurts so bad, because when a note says “this isn’t working” we hear “you suck.”

I’m not saying this to shame you for having a fragile ego.

I’m saying it because this was me.

Every note I got was a personal attack, and it was exhausting.

I would get mad, fight the notes, flat out refuse to do them.

I’d come home from work and be a fountain of negativity.

It made life worse for me and the people I love.

No bueno.

What changed for me was learning to separate myself from the story.

I know we’re getting into self help territory, but this is important.

You are not your story.

Say it with me out loud:

I am not my story.

Me as a director. Also me walking past the stuffed animal section in Target with my kid.

Me as a director. Also me walking past the stuffed animal section in Target with my kid.

We cannot have a healthy, sustainable careers as a directors if we don’t learn to separate ourselves from our work.

It’s not easy.

It’s necessary.

Yes, coach

Think of yourself as a pro athlete.

Like an athlete, you give your films everything - your heart, soul and passion.

But Pro athletes have coaches who give them feedback, help them get better.

For creatives this feedback often comes in the shape of notes.

Use it as an opportunity to get better.

I know you, like me, have high ambitions. That’s awesome.

If you want to 10x the power of high ambition, combine it with low ego.

Allow yourself to be coached.

Allow other’s ideas to help you make your story better.

If you’re the only person allowed to have good ideas about a story, you’re limited to one brain.

By inviting our collaborators and critics to have a say, we hone our vision, we’re reminded of our North Star.

And we drastically expand your “good idea surface.”

It’s not some altruistic act of generosity.

Taking notes is inherently selfish.

At the end of the day, your name is on the film, if it’s a good idea and it helps the story, it will benefit you.

A framework for taking notes

I read something recently that stuck with me.

Take every note the same way: “Huh, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll try it.”

Whether you think it’s a good or bad note, the idea is to be open to it, and give it a shot.

The way we work we’re fortunate we can try things out. Especially when writing or editing.

If you try something that doesn’t work, you can change it back in seconds. And if you get lucky, it might give you another idea for how to take the note, and fix the thing that actually caused it.

We humans are terrible at distinguishing good from bad.

If someone shows you a cut and asks you “Is this good?”, the options for a reply are vast.

If someone shows you two versions of a scene and asks you if you prefer A or B, you’ll have an answer in seconds.

Use this to your advantage when trying out notes. Ask “better or worse” instead of “good or bad.”

Dealing with bad notes

We’ve all been there, notes come in and they suck.

Terrible ideas.

They don’t understand what you’re doing.

They missed obvious things in the cut etc.

Few note givers have the ability to use the framework we discussed in last week’s newsletter.

When this happens it falls to us to re-engineer the notes. This is often called asking “what’s the note behind the note?”

Remember what Neil Gaiman told us: They’re probably right that something is wrong, their solution is probably wrong.

There are 3 ways you can tackle notes like this:

  1. Have an open, honest conversation with the note giver. I find talking to people tend to solve 80-90% of things that are confusing or unclear in written notes.
  2. If that’s not possible, you need to dig deeper to figure out a way to use the note to make the story better.
  3. Push back: If you can’t find a solution, it’s time to stand your ground. Remember, you are the Guardian of the Story’s Heart. Some notes will test your vision, and it’s your job to push back if a note takes the story in the wrong direction. When you have a strong reason and you’re able to communicate why you’re right, pushing back can earn you good will and respect. The note giver will also have a clearer sense of what your story is and isn’t.

Note that this is a sequential process. If you’re the kind of filmmaker who wants to push back on everything it will be difficult for your collaborators to work with you.

You’ll end up with either an echo chamber of yes-people, or a miserable work environment.

Don’t be that director.


The takeaways I want you to have from today are:

  • You are not your story.
  • Be open, be coachable.
  • Try notes on to see if they fit.
  • Push back when the heart of the story is in danger.