On the Set
by Carl Charroux
The Director has one job on the set.
As Harry Callahan said in the 1983 file Sudden Impact- “Make my day.” (Story by Charles B. Pierce and Earl E. Smith, screenplay by Joseph Stinson)
Make their day. This is what Directors are reminded to do ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. This means – they have a number of pages to shoot, within a certain amount of time and in order to stay on budget – they must accomplish this – they must make their day.
To make their day – they have tools they use.
The power tree on a set is different based on the medium.
• Film is a Director’s medium
• Television is a Producer’s medium
• Theatre is the Actor’s medium
What – nothing for the Writer?
The Writer enjoys their power in ”hyphenate“ mode
• In TV, Writer-Producer is a very powerful position
• In Film Writer-Director role carries a ton of juice
But if your only contribution to a project is writer – the set can be a very difficult place to be.
The number one struggle is accepting that the script is usually a guide for the Director – not a final product.
Some Directors will become very creative and literally make changes to the script prior to shooting. Others will do this on set as needed.
Why does this happen so often? The script is usually the most flexible thing you have as a director. Unfortunately this can be huge reason why a project succeeds or fails.
Changes. As a Writer you better get accustomed to this. You will get notes from Producers, Network Executives, Directors, etc. In TV – the Writer’s room is made up of a group that ends up making changes to your script. In Film – often another Writers are hired to do re-writes of your script, on big budget films the average amount of Writers is 12! These additional Writers come from many different areas including the attached talent. In TV, series stars sometimes have their own writer on the set to make dialog changes for them as needed (which they get a producer credit for).
On occasion you will hear stories about Writers not wanting credit for their work. These are some of the reasons why. I’ll never forget the look on a couple of my friends face telling me about scripts they had sold and got made. It was utter disgust. Both of their stories were all about how their scripts were changed and looked nothing like their original vision. Check out Ken Levine’s blog highlighting this issue. (http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2015/02/just-cause-they-dont-change-your-words.html) Sad but unfortunately true.
But that’s all before we start shooting – let’s get on the set and see what other things influence the final product.
Here’s another thing you need to accept as a Writer- If you are working with a powerful/experienced Director you will most likely not be allowed on set. They want to eliminate any issues that could occur during filming. But if you actually get on set – here are some things you can expect to see.
Location. There are times when the location has been seen by a Director prior to shooting – but there is a big difference when lights, camera and actors are there. Dialog rarely has major changes – but words can be changed to accommodate exits, entrances and props. Most Writers are okay with these types of changes – (even though they hate it).
The Writer is often not on the set due to the changes that can often happen and the struggle with seeing this happen.
This also happens a lot with Actors. Actors will often change dialog without telling anyone and hope to get away with it. Sometimes they just “go up” (make a mistake) on their lines.
If there is a Script Supervisor on set, their job is to monitor the script and Actor for accuracy. But – they are there for the Director – NOT the Writer. So they will check with the Director if the mistake is okay – and if so – the production moves on.
And depending on time – the Director may have to keep the take. Remember they must make their day. Time is a big factor. Elements are also part of this. The sun coming up or going down can influence the amount of takes.
Speaking of Actors, one of the worst places for a Writer to be is in the middle of an Actor and Director. If an Actor goes to you directly to discuss the script be very careful. The last thing you want to do is cause an issue on the set – for example – If an Actor disagrees with the Director on what a line means or about delivery of a line – they may go to the Writer to try and get justification for the action. If this is in conflict with the Director – this can cause lots of problems. My advice is to not get involved. Remember – your loyalty should be to the guy who actually hired you – that is if you want to come back.
As a Writer you are in many senses a Director – but only on the page – NOT on the set. Some Writers struggle with this. You may not have seen things the same way as the Director.
I now think of writing a script like giving birth to a child. And if I shoot it myself – then I am raising that child – but if someone else shoots it – then I am giving up my child for adoption. And being on the set is like watching someone else raise your kid.
It’s a tough thing to watch – but IF you get on the set – you should realize you are almost always powerless and be prepared for anything.