Writers on Set – Your Purpose Isn’t What You Think

Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Writers on Set – Your Purpose Isn’t What You Think

So you’ve written a screenplay and by some miraculous act of a warm and loving universe, it got to the right people. Now those people have invested a bit of money, found a director, cast your characters, and hired an entire crew. My god, your words and ideas are going to be captured on tiny computer cards! And they want you on set to help out should any problems arise during filming. Awesome.

Just know this – how long they’re going to want you on set is inversely proportional to your level of intrusive brooding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen writers melt down and destroy their own projects because they wanted to puppet master every little detail.

This subject was on my mind as I watched a short film/TV pilot that I’d written called “Reasonable Men,” come to life in a dark and dusty Pittsburgh basement last week. It was a small project that quickly blew up into something much bigger. I was on set through a majority of the filming, trying to walk that tricky line between detached and hovering – which is way harder than you might think. As a writer, you want things to turn out perfectly – just the way you saw them in your head. But unless you’re directing your own piece, you’re not the one in charge. That distinction goes to the director.

So how do you avoid Chernobyling on set? Well first of all, calm the hell down. Take a few deep breaths for the love of god. And if that doesn’t work, see a doctor. Modern science has created some wonderful pharmaceuticals.

Otherwise, all you need to do is remember one simple rule.

Unless you’re doing a one man/woman show, storytelling is COLLABORATIVE!

You want great performances from your actors? Let them make their own choices along the way. Let elements of the character burst from within them instead of playing an adult version of “Here comes the choo-choo.” Don’t spoon feed them. If they make the discoveries themselves, you’re much more likely to get the riveting or hilarious delivery you hoped for.

You want the set to look amazing? Let the producers and set designers have at it. Let them get creative. Don’t tell them they have the Beatles poster on the wrong wall or that the makeup should have more purple in it. It’s what they do. Let them do it.

Want great shots and a well paced film? Let the director/DP figure out the best way to deliver the visual narrative to the audience. If there’s one thing directors and DP’s hate, it’s anyone saying, “Are you sure that’s the best angle for this? We can’t even see his sideburns. Don’t you think we should see his sideburns?” They like you making suggestions about their shots as much as you like them making suggestions about your dialogue.

So if you’re not there to be a human hornet just zipping around from one room to the next making everyone nervous, then what exactly are you there to do? Well, I’m glad you asked. Your main job on a set as a writer really boils down to one main thing. Remember this and it will go a long way toward tempering any inclination you may have to sulk and be grumpy.

You are there to HANG OUT AND EAT COOKIES.

Yup, that’s it! Why? Cause your work is done. You did all your heavy lifting months ago at your laptop when you created the characters, outlined the plot, and crafted your witty dialogue. At this point, your main job is to crap around with the photographer and the extras beside the craft services table. You are there to enjoy the experience.

Now obviously that’s not entirely true. Occasionally you’ll have to do some honest to god work. But as most writers who’ve ever been on set can attest, flipping through magazines or playing games on your phone is how you’ll spend a majority of your time.

On this particular shoot, I was really only needed one time. I was taking a nap on the couch upstairs when I heard, “Cramer, we need you!” from the basement. So I sprinted downstairs trying to pretend I hadn’t just spent the last fifteen minutes drooling.

Apparently one of the actors was having trouble with a mini-monologue on page 14 and it was throwing off the scene. So the question became, “Can we change this somehow to make it a bit easier to deliver?”

As a writer, there are two ways you can react to this. The first is to start melting down and tell the actor, “It’s your damn job to learn my words! Say it the way I wrote it!” It’s America, damn it. That’s a choice you’re allowed to make without being sent to the Gulags. But what’s going to happen is the actor will keep screwing it up, the crew will blame you for the following twenty-six needless takes, the work will suffer, and the actors and director will change it without consulting you anyway. So you might as well just listen and help.

Your second option is to say, “OK. What’s the problem?” Don’t take the proposed change as a personal insult to your ability. More often than not (on good productions with quality actors anyway) it’s just that the phrasing or action you’d originally written doesn’t fit the actor’s interpretation of said character. This is fine – desirable even. Why? Because if the actor has internalized your character that fully, it means your script is jumping from the page to the camera. It’s coming to life. It’s vibrant.

Just know that if you choose this option, everyone on the crew will be cramming suggestions into your ear canal. The director, the actors, the producers – they’ll be scribbling notes in the margins of their scripts and mashing paper in your face going, “What about THIS?” Don’t get annoyed. They’re just trying to help. The solution is to simply say, “I’ve got an idea but I need a minute or two.” Then go find a secluded desk or table somewhere away from the insanity where you can concentrate on the task in front of you.

Or… and it’s going to seem like this is one of my dumb little jokes, but it’s a serious suggestion…
Go to the bathroom.

Go pee. You’re alone and divorced from all the chaos of the set. No one is likely to bust in there with a script and say, “What if he said DOG DIRT instead of CABIN FEVER!” And if they do, you’re on the wrong production.

That’s how I solved the minor hiccup on last week’s production. I took a nice long piss. By the end of it, I’d figured out how to condense six lines of dialogue into one and not really lose any of the meaning. (Special thanks to Gatorade.) And filming ramped back up within minutes.

Would I rather have had the actor say what I wrote verbatim? You bet. I wrote it that way for a reason. Was it worth sending the whole production into a death spiral over? Hell no. In a lot of ways the actor stumbling over his lines made the overall production better. It forced me to realize that his block of dialogue could easily be consolidated, which in turn kept the energy up and the flow going in that particular scene. In the finished product, will any viewers have the slightest idea there was originally more there? Not unless we’re selling autographed scripts on eBay someday, and if that’s the case then the omission of those few lines must not have mattered much.

Now obviously these types of suggestions are only valid on productions where people seem to know what they’re doing. Occasionally you’ll get an actor (or even a director) who just randomly changes things for the sake of changing things with no consideration given to the story. That’s an entirely different ballgame. I’ll have stories about that in coming blogs. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

In the end, “Reasonable Men” turned out better than I could’ve ever hoped. Amazingly enough, it did so despite the fact that not every line was delivered precisely the way I’d envisioned before showing up on set. Hell, not every line was even delivered at all. But that’s OK, because it was the COLLABORATIVE EFFORT OF EVERYONE INVOLVED that made the production so exciting to be a part of.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do as a writer is to remember that the story isn’t yours alone. In order to become something truly extraordinary, the story has to belong to everyone on set. Because then and only then can your narrative be brought to life in the way that it truly deserves.

Ya know – the way you pictured it in your head all along.

And hey, if nothing else – free cookies.

photo credit: Mrs Magic via photopin cc

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