WRITERS ON WRITING: On the Set of Red Eye

Carl Ellsworth is known for his work on Red Eye (2005), Disturbia (2007) and The Last House on the Left (2009). Before writing Red Eye, Carl wrote for various television series including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Cleopatra 2525 and Xena: Warrior Princess. Follow Carl on Twitter @CarlEllsworth.

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One might say that Phone Booth is a claustrophobic thriller about a sniper holding a guy hostage in a phone booth. However, there’s still a considerable amount of physical space between the good guy and the bad guy—space where lots of other things can happen around the central characters that can be utilized to hold the audience’s interest. In the case of Red Eye, my aim was largely experimental, predicated on a couple of basic questions: “Is it possible to shrink that space down so that your good guy is literally sitting next to your bad guy for an extended period of time? And if so, can it be sustained?” I was absolutely convinced the answer was “yes” and I was determined to prove myself right. This determination, along with a personal fascination with airplanes, took me to the world of commercial air travel and the random nature of seat assignments. In that regard I think Red Eye is the very epitome of “You never know who you’re going to sit next to.” Several years and one September 11th later (for obvious reasons, I tabled the idea for several months after that), I had the script in hand. Oddly enough, I had written it first and foremost to get myself a staff-writing gig on any one-hour television drama that would have me. Much to my chagrin, that didn’t happen; but I had made it known to my TV agents that if the staffing season didn’t go in my favor, I still wanted to get the script into the feature world.

red eye

Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy star in DreamWorks Pictures’ suspense thriller at 30,000 feet, Red Eye, written by Carl Ellsworth. ABOVE: Helmer Wes Craven gives some direction to star Rachel McAdams on the location set of Red Eye. PHOTO: Gemma La Mana.

In March of 2004, my wish came true. DreamWorks bought the script, and for the next three months, I worked with the studio execs getting the script to the place they felt it needed to be in order to take it out to talent. By the end of July, Wes Craven had been signed to direct the movie. By September, the movie was “greenlit;” and although I remained the only writer on the project till that point, I knew that as the days wore on, the chances of that continuing were not in my favor. I mean, c’mon, this is Hollywood. It was only a matter of time before the big guns were called in, right? My paranoia intensified. I thought Steven Zaillian had found the key to my apartment. No, wait. Red Eye is a thriller, kind of creepy in places, Wes Craven’s directing so he’ll probably feel more comfortable if—I mean Zaillian can write anything in his sleep, don’t get me wrong, but—hey, is that Ehren Kruger watching me from the tennis courts across the street?

Quite thankfully, this future reality never materialized. Even if somehow, someone, somewhere had overlooked the fact that no other writer had yet to be brought onboard by the time production started, I sure as heck wasn’t going to be the one to point that out!

Principal photography was set to begin November 15, 2004 at the Ontario Airport. But up until a couple of days before, I wasn’t really sure where my “place” was going to be. In fact, I was hesitant to even ask if I was needed on the set or could even be there.

Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth. PHOTO: Gemma La Mana.

You see, over the previous few months, I’d (Robert DeNiro voice) “heard things”— all sorts of stories about how writers are usually never on the set more than once or twice, or how their presence sometimes intimidates directors so much they end up (gasp!) banned from the set entirely! I mean, jeez, these were stories more horrific than a Wes Craven flick! But just when they were about to eat me alive is about the time Marianne Maddalena, Wes’ longtime collaborator and producer, asked me quite nonchalantly, “So, you’re coming to the set, right?” “I guess, is that okay?” I asked. “Uh, yeah,” she replied. Needless to say, I gave myself plenty of commute time on the gridlocked I-10 East. I arrived early at the Ontario Airport parking lot, the sight of the production “base camp.” Seeing no one I knew, I headed … where else? Straight to the craft service tent! While I was sifting through the cold cuts and digging in the cooler for a Mountain Dew, I noticed a man standing off to the side. He was an unassuming fellow, eating a sandwich, talking on a cell phone. A big, blue bag, about five times thicker than any laptop bag I’d ever seen, dangled from his shoulder. He wore an orange badge that had one of those blue crosses with a snake running up the middle. This was Gary, the paramedic on set. Standing a few feet away from Gary was his medical cart—a portable hospital on wheels filled to the brim with everything from Dramamine to defibrillators. As I took in the scene of Gary, prepared for whatever emergency might come his way, I happily ate my own sandwich and chugged my soda, secure in the fact that all was right in the world. After all, this was a milestone night in my life, the first night of production on my first movie. Things were getting set up for the first shot of an all-night shoot, the script pages had been distributed to the cast and crew … everything was set. All I’d have to do was kick my feet up and watch as pure movie magic unfolded before my tear-filled eyes.

But, that’s when the emergency call came. Not to Gary the medic, but to me. “Carl, Wes needs you in his trailer.” It was Cody, Marianne’s assistant. “I’ll be right there,” I replied. “Better bring your laptop,” he added. Oh shit, I thought as my eyes glanced over to Gary. He had his medical bag. But, I didn’t have mine.

My bag, my laptop, all my stuff was in my car that was parked in the crew lot a mile and a half up the road, and the last shuttle van had just left. “Idiot! Stupid, stupid!” that voice in my head yelled, “What were you thinking not bringing your laptop?! What, did you think the script was finished? Just fine the way it is?” “Shut up!” I yelled to myself just as the shuttle van pulled back in. The commute to and from my car should have been 10 minutes. But the driver, evidently a witness to the schizophrenic-like fit I was having with myself, shaved three full minutes off that. She dropped me very near the maze of Star Wagons where I spotted Carly, Wes’ assistant, who pointed me to the door of his trailer. I knocked. After an anxious beat, Wes Craven, always a reassuring smile on his face, opened the door and ushered me in. I sat on the sofa and took out my laptop as Wes began talking to me about some last-minute problems he had with the night’s pages and the subsequent changes he wanted to make to the pages that, according to my watch, were going to be shot but a mere 30 minutes from then. I nodded the okay as the perspiration began flowing through my T-shirt and soaking into my black V-neck sweater (which I wear for just such occasions). I booted up my Mac and plugged it into the printer that Carly had just set up. But my laptop wasn’t recognizing the printer. I asked Cody if his laptop (a dreaded PC) would work and if it had the proper screenwriting software installed. Fortunately, it did. I chucked my beloved Mac and, with hardware issues solved for the time being, started talking with Wes and Marianne about the proposed changes. The general mood was calm, but I was far from it. I was dealing with technical glitches, trying to generate snappy, utterly brilliant script fixes for Wes Craven while simultaneously fighting the other voice inside my head that was insisting at any moment, someone was going to not only notice but comment upon the beads of sweat forming on my forehead.

For the next 10 minutes, we tweaked, cut and pasted. Wes gave the okay and headed out to the van that was waiting to take him to the set. But my job wasn’t finished. I had just made the changes in record time and was feeling pretty good. But then I realized—I’d forgotten to change the settings on the screenplay software in order to tell it to start the next revision—I had typed the new material on the current draft color of the script, which meant the actors and crew would have a difficult time deciphering what the new changes were. The sweat started pouring again. I frantically opened the back-up copy of the script, set the next revision color, erasing all the existing asterisk marks of the last revision so that all new asterisk marks could now clearly denote the changes we’d just made in Wes’ trailer. Phew. Deep breath. Crisis averted. Then, another thought sank in: This was only day one … of 48.

Thinking back on this one instance has made me realize that much of my experience throughout the production was akin to being a “first responder”—an onset “script medic,” if you will. I think the term paints the best picture as to what my job became once the cameras started rolling. As I would soon learn, a script medic has to worry about all of the above and then some. Because I didn’t have the luxury of a two-ton, hundred-page-a-second Xerox® copier warming up in the parking lot or a stock room filled with clean, three-hole punch paper in every color of the rainbow, I had to make do with the two-page-a-minute printer and the single ream of paper in Wes’ trailer. I then had to rely on the informed opinions of Carly and Cody, as well as my own instincts, for how best to distribute the revisions as quickly and as efficiently as possible with the little time we had. Together, we would decide how many sets of the new pages were needed, who on the cast and crew should get them immediately, who should get them later, and who didn’t need them at all. It was a hectic, adrenaline-charged process that, at that point, had nothing to do with putting pen to paper.

Another big facet of my “script medic” work involved acting as a liaison between the director, producers and studio executives. Because it was impractical and impossible for Wes Craven to be available at all hours during the shoot, a big part of my job was simply being on call and accessible to anyone and everyone. I was responsible for verbally communicating (not always the easiest thing for a writer) notes and ideas from the studio directly to Wes, the actors and the producers, and vice versa. This proved to be the most stressful part of the job because, inevitably, when creative decisions, suggestions and ideas are being conveyed indirectly through second parties, something’s going to get missed, misconstrued or misunderstood. The result can often be panic, depression, frustration, cold sweats and emotional outbursts of varying pitch and intensity. Such is the occupational hazard of the script medic, who himself is not immune to the heretofore mentioned symptoms.

Bearing this information in mind, the script medic must always remember that his first and most important responsibility should always be to the “patient.” No, the patient isn’t the movie or the even the screenplay, but the story. In the case of Red Eye, the story happened to be a suspense thriller where the prospect of changing even one line of action or dialogue could’ve been the equivalent of tipping over the proverbial domino. So my job was to be the objective, emotionally distanced onset expert for that story in order to prevent any “domino effects” from occurring. At the same time, I was constantly on the lookout for anything that might improve the story as well. All this meant I had to be as open as possible to all ideas equally. I had to take those ideas and run them through my head as quickly as possible to determine how they might affect the story. I had to be ready with reasons why some of those ideas could work and why others probably wouldn’t. I would communicate those reasons as clearly and as calmly as possible to Wes, the studio execs … whatever the case might have been and then implement whatever decisions were reached to the best of my ability whether I agreed with them or not. Because, when you’ve actually had the great fortune of making it to “the set,” you’ve eventually got to let go and put something on film. And that buck stops with the director—period.

So when it’s finally time to call “action,” the script medic respectfully backs away, takes a seat and watches the magic unfold—but not before checking the laptop battery, the paper status, the Mountain Dew supply and the cell phone charge.

Originally published in Script Magazine July/August 2005

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