Freelance writer Erik Miller takes readers on a tour through the real-life drama of a film intern, and advocates that such an experience is essential to the screenwriter’s complete understanding of the craft. Previously published in Script magazine.
A wise teacher once told me that to succeed as a screenwriter one must have four things: talent, practice, connections and luck. Let me add a fifth dimension to becoming a fully-fledged cinematic storyteller: experience on a movie set.
The story is inspired by actual events in Philly Mob history, and also includes elements from the life of a friend—Frank Sisto, an actor who has appeared in various films from Analyze This to Once Upon a Time in America. Frank heard that I graduated from the University of the Arts’ Writing for Film and Television Program, and wanted to see what I could do with a pen.
After sending him several samples of script pages, character biographies and travel articles, Frank gave me an encouraging thumbs-up, a sign that I was in good-standing but not yet “made,” so to speak.
Insight #1: If your connection asks you to send a sample, go overboard for that person. Write more than requested. Flaunt your talent at every opportunity.
I held my breath all summer until Labor Day, to the point of giving up hope, when I received a surprise call from the 2nd Assistant Director, inviting me to the first production meeting the following Monday at 12:00 sharp.
“Um, sure, that’s in two days? I’ll be there, no problem!”
One moment I’m lounging at the Jersey shore, living in my parents’ house, working as a bus boy, and the next, I’m packing my bags for Pittsburgh to participate in the second-most expensive independent film after The Passion of The Christ.
Now that’s an inciting incident!
Insight #2: When they give you short notice to start working, don’t complain, just arrive promptly. If you have a job, consider giving it up to get your foot in this business.
Two days and $1,000 later, I’m on location, a minnow in a tumultuous sea of talent, producers, extras, stand-ins, directors, photographers, grips and onlookers.
I fumble with my walkie-talkie as the 2nd A.D. tells me to follow him closely. Disoriented, and fatally inexperienced, I do what I’m told, trying not to reveal the green behind my ears.
My first job is to hop a bus to “base camp” where I’m to make photocopies of “sides.” Say again?
Insight #3: “Base Camp:” where equipment is stored and the trailers are parked. A transport travels to and from base camp to the “set,” where the film is actually shot.
The 2nd A.D. gives me a time limit. I’m sweating now because all the trailers look the same to my virgin eyes, and I don’t know a soul. Finally, the DGA trainee shows me the photocopier and puts the script in my hand.
Insight #4: “Sides” refer to the sections of the script that are to be filmed that day, and are distributed to cast and crew. Normally several pages long, sides are copied in compact sizes to fit snugly in the hand.
Only now I realize that I don’t know how to use a photocopier. Thinking fast, I call up a friend and ask her what these arcane buttons mean. My shame knows no bounds.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks.
Insight #5: Before initiating your internship, school yourself in the ways of basic office equipment like copiers, multi-line phones and computer software (Excel)—quick results and technical know-how pays off big time.
With a little help, I copy the sides and rush back to set, stapling pages madly on the way.
I don’t even finish when the 2nd A.D. gives me a new task. Yikes!
But just when you think being an intern is all about monkey-work, you get a mission that actually impacts the film.
The 2nd A.D. tells me to scout the area, and find an appropriate backdrop for a scene where two mafia guys talk business while a surveillance camera takes snap shots.
“But find it in 10 minutes or else forget about it.”
Aye, Aye, captain, no problem!
I didn’t actually say that, but imagine how fast this screenwriter dashed through the Pittsburgh streets, searching for something that corresponded with the mood and tone of the scene (yeah, yeah, writer-boy, just do your job, time’s money).
I find a Slavic restaurant called Olde Europe, which seems like an adequate hangout for a pair of Sicilian wiseguys to discuss leg-breaking over a wholesome cup of cappuccino.
The 2nd A.D. gives me the green light, so I carry the still-photographer’s equipment to the site.
Standing there is Joe Pistone himself (a.k.a. the real Donnie Brasco) who makes sure everything is kosherly “gangster.”
The still-photographer says she needs a new lens.
“Sure,” I say, “I’ll go tell the A.D. to order it immediately.”
Her response qualifies as our …
Insight #6: When speaking to superiors, you don’t tell them anything, you ask. Indeed I do just that, and we get what we wanted. A little diplomacy and respect for the Hollywood hierarchy goes a long way.
Another common job for interns is “locking up” areas, which means you make sure nobody—crew or pedestrian—walks into view of the camera or disrupts the filming process when the A.D. calls “rolling!”
When night hits, I’m in charge of locking up a well-trotted alley while Giovanni Ribisi gets his money-shot. Not something I want to screw up. While cameras roll, a derelict drunk stumbles towards me with a bottle in his hand. Just what an intern needs on his first day!
“Sorry sir, you can’t pass through here.”
“What?” he slurs, “I live here! You don’t own these streets!”
From the corner of my eye I see my intern comrade running to the police for help.
“Look,” I say, “I don’t want you to get arrested, so you better just go.”
The stern look in my eyes communicates that cops are approaching.
“Understood,” he says as he bows and shakes my hand.
He tries to walk away, but not before the police rough the poor bugger up a bit. What does this teach us?
Insight #7: Filming in the inner-city can get dangerous for interns who must deal with the public. If your company hasn’t hired policemen, and you’re not versed in the art of verbal self-defense, then carry a walk-talkie close at hand (or more preferably, a large bat).
By 5:00 a.m., I’m eating “Circles of Death” (pizzas) with other interns, sharing phone-numbers and e-mail addresses. I meet kids my age who are aspiring directors, writers, producers and actors. (Later in the month, we actually come together to film a short, and I’m able to try my hand at script supervising).
Insight #8: Carry your black book at all times, because opportunities for networking, creative collaboration and building friendships are virtually endless during your internship. If you can get involved in side projects, do it!
When I get back to my room, I drop dead on the bed. I learn quickly that every moment of rest is precious, and free time is fleeting. Yet just as I feel somewhat confident, I make my beginner blunder …
The following night they tell me to take “time codes” which means that you record the time in and time out for each department, like punch cards. It’s an important job and it only happens at the very end of the long 12-hour shoot, which means that your superiors will likely be impatient to get sleep, rightly so.
So while I wait for the crew to clean up, I play with the walkie-talkie, checking out the latest gossip on Channel 3. But meanwhile, the 2nd A.D. is calling my name out on Channel 1! When he finds me, he’s pissed, and I get a verbal ass-whopping (again, rightly so). My badge of honor—the walkie-talkie—is removed from my hands as if I’m a crooked cop. My mood turns like the weather that morning—miserable.
I feel embarrassed, but worse yet, I miss out on whatever responsibility the 2nd A.D. wanted to give me in the first place. As I sulk back to the hotel, I come to a realization, and decide:
Insight #9: Always stay in touch with your department. Focus on your immediate job. If someone outside of your department gives you a task, ask your boss first.
The next day they remove me from the set to the office for unrelated reasons. Just as I think my life is over, as I assume that I’m stuck for the rest of the month inside a cubicle copying call sheets, I meet the Line Producer.
Like a good mentor, he invites me to “shadow” him and shows me the positive points of the office. Here, you can work in a less stressful, more comfortable atmosphere, and still learn about the process of filmmaking.
The office is truly the “command center,” the brain of the whole moviemaking body. It’s where all the calls come in, and all the money and information goes out.
There is a lot of power in the office, and many opportunities for writers because people have more time and energy to learn about your background, in contrast to the set, which is the battlefield.
Once word gets around that I am a screenwriter, the director asks me to read his script and make comments. I’m given the task to write the first draft of the credits, and proofread the final draft of the screenplay. (I also do such glamorous jobs as running through the streets during a hurricane to get Dennis Hopper a tea packet, and pinning up curtains over the room where dailies are shown (but I get to watch those dailies!).
Whichever way you choose, either the office or the set; you will be changed into a more informed, and therefore a better screenwriter after you work on a movie.
That is the whole point of this article.
What tangible results can I claim due to this internship?
I’m now completing the first draft of a script for an independent client, and have been offered a job as a Production Assistant (P.A.) on an upcoming comedy this year.
While the business benefits are important, so is the opportunity to mature as an artist, and to grasp the bigger context of which screenwriting is only a part.
Sometimes as writers, we can forget that our masterpieces are not ends-in-themselves, but rather means-to-an-end, blueprints; important yet small contributions to a greater project.
Before I came to Pittsburgh, I wrote screenplays according to how I wanted it to read, or what I thought makes a visually exciting setting. Now I write for myself, and then rewrite for the director, then for the actor, then for the art director, then for the cinematographer, then for audience, etc …
Now I write for We.
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to one’s unique vision, but screenwriters can fall into solipsism if they forget that cinema is a social art; a collective effort which must satisfy a spectrum of different tastes and preferences (external to self) if it is ever to reach fruition.
It’s not merely about writing for the producer(s) at the pitch meeting. It’s about writing while keeping the whole team in mind, because their enthusiastic participation in the project will ultimately determine whether your story turns into a successful film or not.
Insight #10: Write to inspire the entire crew.
The experience of observing actors rehearsing lines, script supervisors checking for continuity, directors rewriting dialogue to keep up with the times, producers arguing over budget because that explosion scene is too damn expensive, and the lighting crew casting just the right shadow on the actress’ face all constitute a priceless education for the screenwriter that can’t be found in college or books.
In the end, any position on a movie set makes us better writers because it frees us from the ivory towers of academia and the abstract clouds of our imaginations, and drops us into the nitty-gritty realities where scripts evolve from words on paper to events in life.
As the wise teacher said, “How can you write a story if you don’t know where it’s going?”
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Erik Miller helped create four nationally-aired shows for Nickelodeon’s TVLand in 2002. Erik also writes and speaks on politics and spirituality.