The Stand By Writer
over here…So here’s the kind of story that drives screenwriters nuts. We’ve created a small village in which to shoot, and we’ve built about five buildings. In order to save some money, the producer opted to not finish the back of one of the buildings, and wouldn’t you know it, but suddenly we find ourselves needing to shoot behind that building. The back is half wood siding (good) and half plywood (bad).
What do we do?
Well, every studio film crew has a guy called the “stand by painter”. If you need something painted on the spot, he’s your man. The stand by painter managed to paint the plywood in such a way that it looked like wood siding, and that’s all we needed.
Here’s the part screenwriters hate.
There’s a stand by painter, but there’s no stand by writer???
I relayed this story to a friend. He’s an Academy Award nominated writer-director (a truly great one at that). He’s directed movies from what he’s written, he’s directed movies from what other writers have written, and he’s written movies that others have directed…so he’s got a pretty good perspective on this whole concept. He’s very much in favor of the stand by writer, but he believes that the objection to this concept isn’t so much from the companies as it is from the directors.
So directors…I’m talkin’ to you. Here’s my pitch for the stand by writer.
I’m lucky enough to work with a secure director who enjoys my presence on the set. And since I work for a studio that would like to see me direct one day, I’ve been sort of “practice directing” in my head on this movie (note to the DGA…in my head, okay?…not stepping on anyone’s toes). I think about how to shoot the scenes. I think about pacing, angles, wardrobe, performance notes, editorial decisions, overlapping, transitions…all the stuff required of a studio director.
What I’ve come to learn is that “directing thinking” is vastly different than “writing thinking”.
When I write, my mind wanders. Possibilities are necessarily expansive. The totality of the story is constantly at the forefront. An hour goes by where I just think. Decisions aren’t really decisions—the delete key is ever so close, and what was certain an hour ago is now preposterous.
When I’m in my directing mind, what I’m doing is concentrating entirely on the work of the day. I have a scene. Pages. The story of that scene must now be reverse engineered into geometric perspectives, angles that I diagram onto a blueprint of the set, just like this. Sizes must be considered, as well as how the scene will hopefully be edited. Continuity must always be monitored. There is no time to go backwards. There is no time to stop and think for a while. The day is long, exhausting and entirely focused on the capturing this one scene.
When you’re in the directing mind, it’s only natural that the obsession of the writing mind are neglected. It’s only natural. Why not have a writer there to turn to when you realize that you need some additional dialogue to help bridge a transition? Why not have a writer there who can offer a second line of defense against errors of omission? Remember, everything’s being shot out of sequence. And even though there’s a script supervisor, a producer, a line producer, an assistant director and a studio executive, at Hour 12 of a long shoot day in which everyone is concentrated on getting this one shot off right before the crew goes into overtime, the one person who is probably thinking hardest about this moment in the context of the whole story in chronological order…
…is the writer.
Consider this story, which is instructive for two reasons.
The link doesn’t work unless you cut and paste it into your browser window. The URL is http://www.wordplayer.com/forums/scriptsarc05/index.cgi?read=40628
First, it proves the writers’ point. We should be there.
Second, it proves the directors’ point. We are often unnecessarily negative, and our attitudes can be undermining.
If we could remain positive and helpful on the set, we’d be a major boon to the production. It would be possible, I think, to collectively bargain for a guaranteed offer for “stand by writer” services. Those services would not encompass the writing of actual pages, but would simply account for our presence and consultation. The writer could turn the offer down, but at their option.
The key, of course, is understanding exactly how one is supposed to behave on a set. Thinking about the job from the director’s point of view can help every one of us understand why they’re loathe to have another “author” around.
Think of it this way.
What if you were hired to write a screenplay, and a director was attached. And what if the studio said, “Oh, and by the way, the director would like to sit in a room with you while you write. And read what you’re writing over your shoulder. And then comment.”
Still, that’s pretty much what we’re asking to do when we request a presence on the set. Given that, I suggest we approach the task with the utmost respect to our directing brethren. They are the coauthors of the movie, but just as we are the sole authors of the screenplay, they are the sole authors of that shooting day’s work.
See how that works?
If writers could learn to be respectful of this fact, and if directors could learn to be less fearful of writers, the stand by writer would help accomplish something that everyone wants.