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… :-)

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