Defining The Job Of "Screenwriter"
The first time I stepped foot on a movie set, I was struck by the almost military-like division of labor. Everyone had a rank. Everyone had a job. If you were the gaffer, you were in charge of rigging the electrical to carry out the DP’s vision, which in turn was in accordance with the director’s vision, which in turn was being monitored by the producer, who in turn was being employed by the studio.
I, meanwhile, found myself wandering around like an orphan, hands in my pockets, feeling very much like I had no place on the set. No job.
Of course, we writers do have a job on the set; we just haven’t done a very good job of defining it. Here’s one vision for a screenwriting job description for the entirety of the filmmaking process (informed by a number of conversations with Ted).
The screenwriter’s job is to be the story expert.
Not artsy enough? Well, we call this site “artful” for a reason. Sets aren’t artsy. They’re vocational.
Naturally, our story expertise is most evident during the writing of the initial drafts of the script. My goal is, however, not to write a good script. My goal is to write a good movie. As such, my intention is to stay as involved as possible in the development, pre-production, production, post-production, testing, reshooting and marketing of the film.
And I’ve achieved that goal.
“That’s nice,” you might grumble. “You’ve obviously got a director and a producer who don’t care if you step on their toes.”
That’s not the case at all. In fact, an essential part of defining your job is making sure that you’re not unnecessarily interloping on someone else’s job. I’ve seen PA’s try and move C-stands. The grips don’t take too kindly to that.
Similarly, by defining myself as a story expert, I put forth that I am in charge of story supervision in the way the DP supervises lighting and the exposing of film. Note that the DP doesn’t demand sole authority. He works for the director, and must both bend to his will as well as translate his needs into light and film. I work for the director as well. My purpose on the set is to help caretake the story I have created. My implied contract with the director is this: “There will be times when you make non-story choices that happen to also affect the story of the film. I was hired for my expertise in telling and retelling the story of the film. Use me. Question me. When I bring up a story issue, listen to me the way you listen to the script supervisor when she bugs you about continuity. In return, if you tell me “no,” I’ll accept that.”
What I do not bring up are issues beyond the scope of story. I may have thought the dinner date scene should be at a TGI Friday’s type of place, but the production has put the scene in a small Thai restaurant. Not really story. I keep my mouth shut.
However, if a major story point is that the female romantic lead hates this restaurant because she used to be a waiter in a place just like it and frat guys would hit on her constantly, it’s within my story expertise to say, “Hey, if you’re still interested in preserving this beat, your choice of restaurant is clashing with it.”
It helps to make this objection prior to the building of the set, of course. One of my rules of thumb: we shouldn’t complain about built sets any more than a DP should complain about a cloudy day. If you’re stuck with it, offer ways to adjust the story so that its integrity is preserved. Okay, she wasn’t a waiter in a Friday’s. She had an apartment above a Chinese restaurant just like this one, and the smell finally drove her insane.
When we work as story experts, we demonstrate that our allegiance is to the story of the movie, not the story of our script.
Furthermore, as the story expert, I believe I offer a valuable service in the editing bay. Pace, cutting style and choice of takes aren’t particularly within the writer’s bailiwick. Narrative certainly is. Chronology is. The inclusion or exclusion of scenes, lines or even meaningful looks…all of these editorial choices can have serious impact on the story.
If I explain every editorial suggestion or critique in terms of story, then I continue to define myself as a professional who deserves to be in that room. I’m not conforming the film to my script. I’m protecting the story from other technicians who simply aren’t as story-insightful as I.
I know some of this is rankling to read. It’s easy to insist with righteous indignation that we created the whole damn thing out of sheer will and brilliance, and therefore we shouldn’t have to play games to protect our own creative expression. “Just do it the way I wrote it!”
Unfortunately, that’s the attitude that gets us kicked off sets, and that hurts both the writer and the movie. I’m no utopian; I don’t expect directors and producers to wake up one day and turn creative control of feature films over to the writers. Besides, we’re not the only ones who have to be artful in what we say. Directors are forever mincing words with actors. DP’s are always massaging the directors. Producers, of course, spend most of their waking lives wheedling diplomatically with the studios who are financing the films.
Film is collaborative. Everyone must work together, and the only way that can happen is if everyone knows who reports to whom, and who does what.
The writer’s work doesn’t end with the words “The End.” Our work ends at the premiere. We are the story experts, our talents are unique, and we all deserve the chance to do our job.