WGAw PROGRAMS INDUSTRY SEMINAR AT 2007 AMERICAN FILM MARKET
What more can a screenwriter do for a film after he's delivered the final draft? That was the question raised by an American Film Market seminar programmed by the Writers Guild of America, West. "Keeping Writers on Board: The Business Case" explored the benefits of utilizing a screenwriter beyond scriptwriting.
Moderator Howard A. Rodman (writer of Joe Gould's Secret, Savage Grace, August) is former chair of Screenwriting at USC School of Cinema, has served as artistic director of the Sundance Screenwriting Labs and sits on the Board of Directors of the WGAw. He asked his panel of screenwriters to discuss ways in which writers can help before, during and after production.
Andrea Berloff addressed the situation in which a film is based on real, living people, as was the case with her screenplay for World Trade Center directed by Oliver Stone. She explained that the writer may serve as an interface between the producers and the subjects who have real life concerns. "There can be a trust and bond that forms between the subjects and the writer which is important to the film, as you want the real people to support the film when it comes out."
According to Nicholas Kazan (writer of At Close Range, Reversal of Fortune, Fallen) there are other ways the writer may be of value before shooting begins. "It makes no sense not to have the writer at the table reads. If there are problems with the script, you'll see where they are and address them in advance of filming."
He also thinks it's a good idea for the writer to be present during rehearsals. "During improv the actors might say something better than I've written and I watch for that and take it down."
Carl Ellsworth (writer of Red Eye and co-writer of Disturbia) agreed. "Never underestimate what an actor might bring to the film. With Disturbia, Shia Leboeuf knew his character better than I did. He just started riffing and I listened."
Jack Epps, jr. (co-writer of Top Gun, Dick Tracy, The Secret of My Success) had a similar experience with Tom Hanks on Turner and Hooch. "What a bright man. Every time he whipped out a line I'd write it down."
Howard Rodman recalled watching two actors rehearse and then realizing from their performances that they didn't need all the lines he had written. "If I hadn't been there they would have filmed all that."
What about writers seeing the dailies? Epps says it's essential. "It's hard to see the finished film and discover that the emotional heart has been torn out of it. Maybe the problem was that I was brilliant on the page but not on the screen. If I'd seen dailies I could have rewritten it.
"I realize I have to earn the director's respect during the development and preproduction period. That's when it's usually just the two of us and we have a collaborative partnership. I need to understand what they want and make sure they understand what I'm doing because I've learned from experience that they will never shoot a scene they don't believe in. Once filming has started, that ship has sailed."
Should the screenwriter be on the set during filming? Rodman stressed the etiquette of being on set without making a display of yourself. "My mom was a script supervisor and so as a child I was often on sets. I became adept at disappearing into the background. I learned how not to trip over cables or get in the way of people working. It takes some humility and grace to occupy someone's set."
Ellsworth said if he was on set it was to answer questions and make suggestions when called upon. "The director is the captain of the film but the writer is the gatekeeper of the story."
Kazan concurred. "The writer is the only person prior to the production who has made the movie entirely in his mind. It's as if you created Nepal and someone else was about to travel there for the first time. Wouldn't he want to call you up and ask you how the sherpas work?
"During shooting the director has to answer ten to fifteen questions a minute significant , but peripheral questions. As the writer I'm focused just on the story. I may notice something that's off. If I can mention it to the director, he then has the choice to go on as is, or make an adjustment. The producer might have spotted the same thing, but the producer is often tied up working on the phone."
There was a general consensus that the confident director wants the writer on the set. The insecure director does not. Some said the quickest way to get kicked off the set is to talk directly to the actors.
Epps said, "You definitely never approach actors because you didn't like the way they said the line."
Kazan said, "I will never talk to an actor unless the director has explicitly given me permission. On Fallen, director Greg Hoblit told me to go talk to Denzel in his trailer. He didn't care if I talked to the actors, as long as they got their questions answered.
Miguel Arteta (writer/director of Star Maps, director of The Good Girl, Chuck and Buck) offered the director's point of view of how a writer can be helpful during the editing process. He sang the praises of Mike White, the writer of The Good Girl and Chuck and Buck. "We had lots of test screenings while editing. Mike found creative solutions to fix the problems we discovered. I thought we had to do days of reshoots, but Mike found ways to get it down to one day of re-shoots. I was able to fix both films really cheaply because of his ideas."
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