What Does a Writer do on Set?

Posted: October 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

As you may or may not know, I’ve been super busy on the writing front lately – finishing my feature project, writing scripts for various submissions and working on my next collaborative feature length screenplay. I’ll be talking about all of these in posts to come, but that’s why the blog has been a little slow of late. However, you’ll be pleased to know we’re back focussing on all things ‘screenwriting’ and today I have a very interesting guest blog for you. I’ve mentioned my friend Alec a number of times on here, and he’s very kindly written a post for me to feature. I’ll leave him to do the introductions and I hope you all enjoy!

Alec McAulay is an award-winning screenwriter and script consultant working between Japan and the UK. He is currently studying for a PhD in Screenwriting at Bournemouth University. You can find out more about Alec and KIBO Factory at www.kibofactory.net

The 10-minute short film “Dark River”, prodcued by Nameless Films in association with KIBO Factory, is based on a true story. It is scheduled for release in early 2013.

What exactly does a writer do during production? While there is an abundance of material out there on the writing process covering everything that happens from the half-formed idea to the first day of principal photography, there is relatively little available on what writers do during filming. Of course, the received wisdom is that the writer’s role ends once the final draft is delivered. The director, actors and production staff then inherit the story and characters, and the writer sits back and waits (im)patiently for the finished film like an anxious parent waiting for a child to return from their gap year in Thailand. John August, writer of ‘Big Fish’, in his blog describes being on set tersely as “boring”, before adding, “if you don’t have a job on the set, it gets old incredibly fast.”

Director Stephen Frears insists his writer is there during shooting. However, it would seem that he is in a minority. Most of the time, the writer is not on set, and when they are, they often have nothing to do. I have no idea how many productions take place with the writer present (though it is a set of figures I’d like to see), but whether or not the writer does participate, and the role they perform, very much depends on their relationship with the director. So when my short horror script ‘Dark River’ went into production at the end of September and the director, Anthony Gilmore of Nameless Films in Nagoya, invited me down for the shoot, I took the opportunity to explore first-hand exactly what a writer does during filming.

It seems obvious to me that the first thing the writer does is respect the parameters set by the director, so I started out by asking Anthony exactly what it was he wanted me to do. I got a two-word answer: “Dialogue tweaks.” Some of the dialogue is in Japanese. Anthony doesn’t speak Japanese, so he wanted me there to work with the actors on those lines. One line in particular was key to creating the tone of the film. I don’t want to give too much away while the film is still only in post-production, but it had to do with the translation and delivery of the word “Thud!” The line had been put into the script in English. We had a working Japanese version of the script that functioned in terms of allowing all nationalities during the shoot to stay on the same page, but for dramatic effect and emotional rhythm the Japanese dialogue needed work. I spent most of the first morning working with the very talented Naoko Nakano, who would deliver the ‘Thud!’ line. We talked about its thematic resonance, its context in terms of what precedes and follows it in the script, the impact we wanted the line to have on the audience, her interpretation of her character… We finally agreed a Japanese translation that we were both happy with, and then worked on the timing, cadence and stress in the performance of the line.

That particular task went very well and it made sense to have me there to carry it out. This was my first time to be writer-on-set, but I have been on dozens of different productions in various roles and always take the opportunity to observe how the director works. Everyone has something to teach you. I found Anthony to be quite a unique combination as a director; someone with a keen eye and confident vision, able to execute it elegantly, but also open to suggestions and very collaborative. As the shoot progressed, I was able to expand the boundaries of my role, not because I was trying to impose, but because Anthony and DP Ryan Seale would open up spaces and invite me into them.

By way of example, there is a scene where a speech is given by a real estate agent advising a client that the apartment he is thinking of renting once hosted a murder-suicide. When I wrote the scene, I envisaged the performance as comic, in counterpoint to the content of the speech. Anthony and I talked a bit about this in the script development phase. Rehearsing with the actor on set (the lines are in Japanese), the actor told me he had rehearsed it ‘straight’ with Anthony the previous week. I wasn’t privy to the rehearsals, but felt sure we should at least see the comic performance on one of the takes, to give Anthony options. I told Anthony about this conversation before the scene was shot, and he was happy with the advice I had given the actor.

Then we shot the first take, the ‘straight’ version, and two things immediately became clear. One, the actor gave a performance so chilling, so unnerving, that there was no need to do the comic version. Anthony was gracious enough to ask what I thought, but it was clear to both of us that the ‘comic’ take was now superfluous. (For the sake of this article it might have been more interesting to see what happened if I had asked for that take…). The second thing that was apparent, only to me, was that I should never underestimate what an actor can do with my words. Quite simply, I had no idea how scary the speech I had written was till I heard someone else say it.

This episode illustrates the role I feel writers are best suited to on set, as a sounding board for the tone and cohesion of the narrative as it evolves. As the flow and rhythm of the film builds, the crew often find themselves fighting the light, getting behind schedule, and inevitably discussions turn to what can stay and what can go. On these occasions, Anthony and Ryan would double check with me that the editing solution they were thinking of did not mean a huge sacrifice in terms of emotional rhythm or motif elements, etc. After a short discussion between the three of us, an insert shot of the lead female character got cut. On the other hand, on another occasion, the real estate agent, talking to the lead character, says about an apartment, “Japanese don’t like old properties. They prefer new things.” A discussion developed between director, actor, and location manager (hey, sometimes it is the grip, or the carpenter) about the appropriateness of the line and what alternatives were available. I stepped in to point out that the line foreshadows something that happens six pages later, when the lead character thinks about giving up something ‘old’ for something ‘new’. The line stayed.

Reading that last sentence over now I realize it sounds like I was there to fight for my line, but that is not my meaning. Everyone on a film shoot is myopic. The DP watches the frame, the lighting director the light, the script supervisor the continuity, the actors their own role. Only the director is looking at the big picture, but he or she can get distracted by an infinite amount of trivia – a car parked in the wrong place, a shortage of lunches, the opening times of stores, an actor in the wrong costume, a battery that hasn’t been charged (all decisions Anthony had to make a call on during the Dark River shoot). The writer on set can be myopic about story – the director’s back up on this element if you like. The writer can consider how the script has evolved now that it belongs to these creative collaborators, and how it should continue to be nurtured in the right direction. Actors and crew bring so much to a film but story can be secondary to their own performance in the moment. The director can get caught up in that moment. That it is when it is valuable to have you, the writer, there on set, standing a little removed, keeping story as your primary focus.

Last year I gave a talk to postgrad Screenwriting students, outlining a case study of the development process to production of an award-winning short I had written. Most of the students had never seen their writing produced so I was there to provide a snapshot of the nuts-and-bolts issues involved. It really is a watershed as a screenwriter to have your work turned into a film. Screenwriting craft does not make sense till it happens and it is incredibly difficult to teach the realizations it brings. There are two thrills as a screenwriter when your work is produced: firstly, seeing a scene or moment on screen exactly as you wrote it in your visual storytelling; and secondly, seeing something new that enhances your work added by talented, creative collaborators.

I experienced both on Dark River. The film was shot on the RED Scarlet, creating absolutely gorgeous images. Here is the screen direction I wrote to introduce the main character:

A large RED BOWLING BALL. The ball drops away to reveal the face of ARCHIE, 27, fair hair and blue eyes. He swings the ball back, and bowls.

This moment was shot in ECU, exactly as it is written. Watching this on the monitor, the RED capturing the stark red of the ball, the blue eyes of Archie staring intently as the ball falls away, gave me chills.

The surprise was the performance of Matthew Thomas Lott, who completely inhabited the role of Archie. But he inhabited it in a way I did not expect. He said my lines, and followed my screen directions, but very quickly into the shoot, watching him work, seeing the way he moved, reacted to things, looked at people, blinked, I realised he had taken full ownership of Archie. Any preconceived notions I had of the character quickly fell away, and I did not talk to Matthew about the character in case those preconceived notions compromised his nuanced bringing of the character to life. He approached me once to ask about a line. I simply said to him, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” I think it was good advice.

We all hand over our final draft before production, and keep our fingers crossed that they will make our script-plus-added-value. Sometimes they do. Other times, they mess it up. I feel fortunate to have been part of Dark River’s production. This cast and crew would have shot a very good film without me there, but I like to think they shot a better film because the writer was part of the shoot.

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