They’re Making My Movie: Lessons From Set For Screenwriters

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They’re Making My Movie: Lessons From Set For Screenwriters

As a screenwriter there isn’t anything more exciting than going on set of a film you wrote. It’s like a projection screen realizing your consciousness. You walk past the trailers, craft services, and then notice the giant penguin you wrote exists. Some poor prop department member had to go build a giant penguin, just because, drunk in the wee hours of the morning, you typed “giant penguin.”

The excitement lasts until you sit and watch the first scene filmed. But this is also where the most valuable lesson from being on set comes into play. The truth is that being on set, as a screenwriter, is surprisingly boring.

While everyone else has a strictly defined, urgent job to do, you basically just need to stay out of the way, and only speak when spoken to. And as the scene gets filmed, there’s not a ton of discovery for you apart from taking in the performances. You know the lines. You wrote them (hopefully).

Even in a simple two-person dialogue scene, on a low budget film, you’re likely looking at at least a half dozen takes of the scene, if not more, to capture the master shot and the close-ups for both speakers.

By take four, or six, or nine, or twelve, you might think you yourself, “Man, did we really need that line?” Words are cheap. It costs you nothing as the screenwriter to sit at your computer and churn out dialogue or incidents.

The consideration of what goes on the page is different at the point of creation than it is at the point of realization. Where, in the script, a half-page monologue might feel vital, when you sit on set and watch it performed, you may realize that the actor could have sold that entire monologue with a look and a grunt.

Story utility goes into sharp focus. When the crew spends 8 hours rigging up an explosives sequence, and you quietly realize you could have just alluded to it without affecting the story, the cost of your words is inescapable.

While being on set as a writer is sort of like embedding with a military unit without holding a gun, it’s also an invaluable way to understand the craft of screenwriting better, from the pragmatic perspective of physical production.

Are you mindful of production hurdles when tackling your writing?

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