Paul Peditto takes you behind the camera to prepare you for the production of your first movie. A must-read etiquette guide for the Writer On Set.
Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago and has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
If a Studio or Mini-Major is making it, you’re probably not reading this. You got paid six-figures, you’re in the Writer’s Guild, hooked up with both manager and agent, and are living large on the right side of the Hollywood Country Club gates!
I know nothing of your experience. I can’t imagine what strolling onto the set of a 20-million dollar movie that I wrote would be like. But I do have that experience for lower-budget films. I wondered if there was an etiquette guide for the Writer On Set? I couldn’t find one so let me throw a few thoughts at you about this rare occurrence.
What a surreal feeling! It’s an unnatural relationship when the writer leaves the world he projected in his mind for the flesh & blood, steel & electrical cable world of movie reality – a reality you created. You are the God of this world! Or…were.
In a perverse turn of events, the more successful you are as screenwriter in visualizing your world, the less important you become when it finally becomes a reality. God at Script level. Tolerated Tourist in production. And sometimes – the “tolerated” part is in question.
This is because you, as writer on set, don’t have much of anything to do. What’s your job? Yes, if script changes are needed you’re on it (if you’re still on the project). But everyone else is working at 1000 miles a minute and you…you’re a tourist, catching glimpses of scenes and characters you know so well—hell, you created them. But that was then, this is now. Here, it seems the lowliest PA has more responsibility than you.
This isn’t one size fits all. The writer-on-set of a Studio flick or big-budget Indie would certainly be persona non-grata if he/she had been replaced by a second, third, or fifth writer. You wouldn’t be invited down there and it might be misconstrued if you even asked to do so. Bad manners. I mean, why the hell would you even want to? You were paid, now go away.
‘Course stuff happens, circumstances change. Maybe they didn’t make their day and the writer has to build a new bridge to go from A to C. Writer-on-Set as insurance policy.
With micro-budget though, that changes. Chances are greater you’ll have more to do if only because you’re also likely to be one of the producers, and/or director of the project. You’ll be moving 1000 miles an hour wearing that hat.
Because it had been over a decade since my previous feature-length, when it came time to make Chat, I wanted to be on set. Damn it, I wanted to see it made! If that meant being a tourist on my own project, then so be it.
Fortunately Boris Wexler, being the director and adult in the room, reasoned that I would need some on-set job.
Etiquette Rule 222: If you want to check out the making of your movie, find an on-set job to validate your existence, otherwise risk being utterly freaking useless.
I was given the role On-Set Photographer. Well, actually 2nd On-Set Photographer. We had already hired a qualified photographer with a 7D camera to take publicity stills. My shots would be supplementary, more behind-the-scene style to be used for social media campaigns. Because we weren’t paying the pro photographer anything, she would only be around for an hour or two every day. That’s where I would come in. I would be on-set much more in terms of hours and could fill in the gap. And yes, I would have a PURPOSE! I would no longer just be the ah, you know…
For the production we were scheduled for eighteen 12-hour days, spread out over two months. I recall exactly two times in those eight weeks where the services of the writer were needed. Once, a camera angle changed, they wouldn’t actually be seeing a computer when the character says “she disappeared into… that thing.” The director looked to me for the answer. Yes, I had a purpose! Now THEY needed ME! I came up with the devastating: “she disappeared…into the computer.” Another time three fill lines were needed for two characters talking before a phone call happened. Conversational stuff, but needed. The director and others looked to me for the lines. OH YEAH! WHO NEEDS WHO NOW! I penned the lines like Shakespeare.
In the 822 hours between these two episodes, I learned another etiquette rule…
Endeavor, Writer-On-Set, to stay the hell out of the way of those actually making the movie.
I made myself useful. I’d help the PA’s carry in and set up steaming trays of pasta. I did my best to lay off the bite-size Snickers so some worthy grip or gaffer could have the chocolate goody. I could have been selfish and eaten all of those bite-size Snickers, sitting around waiting the damn shot set up at 4 in the morning, but no!
I also took on the humble but necessary role of Coffee Bitch. I would make runs to Starbucks for our iron-man DP Fred Miller, for Boris and crew. I was happy to go. Picked up the tab, too. These were the people making my movie happen. Don’t be a pain in the ass, Writer – chip in where you can!
Don’t be a diva either, suggesting shots to the director you see in your head. I had those nasty thoughts on several occasions and did my best to not pull Boris away and whisper in his ear. Making even a couple camera suggestions as writer out loud in front of the full crew and actors will pretty much guarantee you get bounced from your own set, even on a micro-budget.
Find a quiet place in the corner between the location sound and the boom mic guy. Make yourself small. Get out of everyone’s way. If the Script Supervisor gives you a nasty look as you crowd her at the monitor, don’t take it to heart. If you’re in the way of the Art Department folks who are moving couches, don’t mutter and apologize—damn it, get in there and lend a hand! If they need to control street traffic for an exterior shot but no PA’s are available, move your ass down the end of the street and control that traffic! Even if it means you don’t get to see the scene you woke up at 3am to see? Yes! This is micro-budget! All hands on board! Here’s another etiquette rule…
Put down the damn bite-sized Snickers and help the people who are making your movie come to life!
I found myself being the court jester, always trying to pick up the troops. Example: 6 a.m., into the 11th hour of shooting at a plastic surgeon’s office. Crew is beat down, sleepless, 3rd all-nighter of the weekend. Our director working closely our DP on a rig for the 5D(shown above), an overhead shot of an actor strapped to a liposuction table, pushing down right into his screaming mouth a la the Coen Brothers. And where was the Writer-On-Set during this critical moment? Drawing howls of laughter from the PA’s as I took out a pair of silicon implants, placed them to my chest…
- OFFER DRUNK ACTORS BEDS, NOT WHISKEY BOTTLES
How do you handle a drunk actor? Do they teach that in film school?
This happened to me on Jane Doe. The actor was someone who had been in some big movies like The Godfather and Marathon Man. He was the classic 3rd-guy-on-the-right—a face you might recognize but not a name. When we hired him, we knew he’d seen better days, but I just had to have him in the flick. This was the guy who grabbed the suitcase in the original The Getaway and got punched out by Steve McQueen. He killed Fredo in the rowboat in Godfather 2!
So in he stumbled, drunk. We tried to shoot this scene: He’s playing the 110-decible-bandstand music-playing next door neighbor, marching band cap on, having tea and donuts with Jane and Horace, lifting his donut to find a cockroach on it. He’s supposed to say:
RUDY THE BANDSTAND MAN: Recall the Norwegian proverb: ‘The life of man is like the flight of a swallow through the lighted feasting hall. Out of the dark, a brief moment of noise, and back into the dark.’
We’re shooting on film, a strict three takes per shot ratio. There was no time for blown takes. But our guy couldn’t get through it. “The life of man is like the flight of….sorry…what?” The life of man is like the flight of…huh?” Meanwhile we were pinning PETA-approved cockroaches to donuts and watching our guy just stare at them and…cut!
With a background in theater I knew about improvisation. Thus the Writer-On-Set became truly critical at last! I changed the lines to something he could master, like: “Norwegians live the longest. Because of pores. They keep the pores open in Norway.” He got through the shortened lines, lifted the donut, stared at the bug and chewed the donut just inches from the bug! Yes!
Afterwards he came to me. “Sorry for the commotion.” “Hey man, no sweat, you pulled it out.” “Hey, you got 20 bucks, I need… you know.” ‘Yeah, sure” I said, leading him to a bed. “Let me go get some money.” I left and came back in ten minutes, he was passed out, dead to the world. I tucked the $20 in his pants. He earned it. Last rule of etiquette for writers-on-set.
Offer drunk actors beds, not whiskey bottles.