Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Art of Letting Go, Part 2 – Writer on Set

On Sunday a short film I had written commenced shooting. In somewhat of a rarity for me I was on location for a few hours until having to leave for a personal commitment. It reminded me of one of my favourite exchanges from The West Wing:

JOSH (paraphrased): Everyone’s running around, working. Me, I’ve got nothing to do. I’m like a writer on a movie set.
DONNA: Have you ever been on a movie set?
JOSH: No, but I hear stories.
An actor/performer I mentioned to that I was on set replied:
Haha that's the trouble with having the writer on set. They always get super frustrated.
Well, I don’t know about being frustrated but it certainly is an experience for a writer. A fact the producer raised during a lull between set-ups. And this is the reason:
The definitive version of the movie is in my head. I’ve seen it, lived it, breathed it for months before it gets anywhere near a set. In full 3D digital with perfect picture quality and awesome sound.
Only problem is, unless someone invents the Precog technology from The Minority Report, that’s where it will stay with an audience of one.
So a raft of people (okay, a smallish raft in this instance given it’s a no budget short) have to breathe life into the architectural document known as the script. That’s when the changes start, through different interpretations, altered circumstances, problem solving, a variety of reasons.
Most you kind of shrug at – a scene is moved from an external to an internal setting due to the constraints of the location or to what may be more visually appealing. The scene plays exactly the same (well, almost) so I’m not going to lose any sleep over things like that.
They couldn't obtain the location I visualised (and wrote the script in) during the drafting process so there were always going to be changes in the how the scenes played out spatially. Fair enough. It was a funky little location in the heart of the city.
But suddenly there are extras and some of these extras are talking and saying things that aren’t scripted (raised eyebrow)! Then there are lines being improvised by actors at the end of scenes some of which grate a little. You spend a lot of time refining the script (and with this one workshopping it with the actors) for lines to be made up on the spot without perhaps the same level of attention or forethought.
I pretty much sat in the corner and stayed out of the way. Indeed, I wrote a fair few scenes longhand for a new feature script. I was only asked directly to alter the script once as a prop was not available but that was an easy fix. Otherwise, I quietly raised a couple of points, particularly regarding a line of improvised dialogue that simply didn't ring true. Minor things but there’s that imaginary perfect film that keeps nagging at me.
Of course, it depends entirely on the director – I’ve worked with directors who will ask me to talk through scenes and character motivations with actors before the camera rolls; others where I haven’t been invited on set at all; and occasions like Sunday where I sit and absorb what I referred to as “frantic inactivity” where crew scurry to set up the technical requirements for a scene which can seem to take forever.
Ultimately, all you can do is trust that it will all work out in the end and there will be a perfectly good facsimile of that movie playing in your head. I hardly saw anything through the monitor and no rushes as yet but the director seems happy with Day One of the two day shoot. The proof will no doubt be in the edit where the next phase of storytelling occurs. Whether I have any input into that we shall see…
It’s all fascinating for a writer but in the end you realise the script is only a blueprint and that can take some getting used to. I enjoyed the day and, despite some early teething problems as the crew settled into a rhythm, everyone was enthusiastic and very positive.
Me, I was like a writer on a movie set with nothing to do… :-)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Joy of Having Friends Who Are Actors and Performers

I was moved last week to write the following status update on Facebook:

One of the great joys of having so many friends who are performers/actors is watching them strut their stuff live, like tonight, and seeing a completely different side - it's some awesome form of magic and alchemy. 

The passion, the joy, the talent - the creation/inhabitation of "someone else" up there. It's Grace dancing in front of a big crowd, it's Rhoda belting out "911! Emergency" so that the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, it's watching Luc ad libbing his socks off in a play he had to stand in as lead at insanely short notice...

It's many and varied moments - in professional shows, amateur theatre, it doesn't matter - that just make me nod and smile. It really is kind of special...

This all started Sunday week ago when an actress I met all the way back in 2005 in a PAC1 workshop performed (as a dancer) in the city for the Chinese New Year’s Concert including a ballet piece. She was terrific in front of a big crowd - poised, elegant and danced so well. It could only but make me smile on a balmy summer’s night.

That was the beginning of a week of events including a script reading on Wednesday that was far and away the best I have heard at Script Lab to date; and attendance at three different Fringe Festival shows, Thursday through Saturday.

Again, wonderful discoveries – an actor I never knew could sing excelling in a musical; an actress I only know through Facebook who wrote and directed that show stealing proceedings with an hilarious number re being a vegetarian in charge of the meat section of a supermarket; getting a text afterwards from another actress asking if I had been in the audience because they recognised my laughter; the power of one person shows – the first with direct interaction with the audience; the second through amazing transformations playing five separate characters.

I always try and get along to support friends where I can. Amateur shows at bowling clubs, old church halls and established co-op companies through to professional undertakings. Recently, I’ve also seen 1940s America recreated at Christmas time with the Andrews Sisters; and a fiercely intelligent young actress play a ditzy chef in her first major production. All magic in their own ways.

I come away from these productions vowing to write for the stage – and indeed there is a first draft adaptation of one of my feature scripts somewhere and the beginnings of another piece. So, who knows… one day, maybe.

There is plenty of energy in Perth right now as the Fringe festival is in full swing with great venues and a diverse range of shows. Unfortunately, I simply can’t afford to go to everything but rest assured, it is a great thrill and privilege to see actors you know give full voice to their talent in front of an appreciative audience.

Long may it continue!