IT DEPENDS: Screenwriters’ Secret Friend, the Script Supervisor

Christopher Schiller examines the screenwriter's secret friend, often overlooked but immensely important to the success of a movie—the script supervisor, often referred to on set as the “scripty.”
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You may not realize it but as a screenwriter you have a secret friend. Someone is always looking out for the integrity of your work. They are a champion in your corner, fighting to maintain the integrity of your words against all the forces pulling against them when the pressures of filmmaking bear down on those making your movie. Your secret friend, often overlooked but immensely important to the success of a movie, is the script supervisor, often referred to on set as the “scripty.

To give you an insight into what this all important screenwriter’s advocate does on a daily basis on set, I sat down for a chat with a highly sought after professional practitioner of the craft whom I have had the pleasure to employ on several of my own projects (including the current documentary I'm producing), Chuck Girard.

What does the script supervisor’s job entail?

“As much as I never really thought about it, I am part of the camera crew because all of my notes go with all of the footage that we film for the day,” Chuck tells me.

I asked who the person is who actually hires him. “I’ve found it’s usually the line producer or the unit production manager. A lot of times I think that the interview between a director and a script supervisor is a formality.” As long as the professionalism is there.

“I’ve heard some producers say to me, ‘I like the fact that you're not trying to make dates with all of the crew. That you’re focused on what you’re supposed to do.’ And I said, ‘But that’s always what I’ve done.’ So I don’t know any different.”

When asked what his job entailed, Chuck reiterated a phrase he uses on his business cards. “I’m committed to continuity and verbal and visual integrity meaning that whatever’s written on the page, I have to make sure it comes out in the movie in addition to any changes being made. I have to make sure that it’s coherent with the story. I’ve got to make sure that whatever the director is directing follows the script as much as it can.”

“I think it’s an important job on a set, and I think a lot of times it’s looked at almost as somebody who keeps track of the takes and the cuts and that type of thing. I don’t think somebody looks at the big picture when they think of a script supervisor. So sometimes on smaller independent movies that job is overlooked or maybe not even filled.”

[Script Supervisor and Script Coordinator – Who is Keeping the Integrity of Your Script on Set?]

What’s the script supervisor’s pre-production process?

“When I get a script the first thing I do is sit down and read it. I want to get an idea of what’s happening in the story. I might make some mental notes in the story about what to look for when I go back in to do what’s called the breakdown. Then my second step is actually doing a breakdown.”

(For those who may be unfamiliar with it, a script breakdown is where a script is analyzed for all the constituent parts that each department will need to be aware of in order to have everything ready to film the picture. It includes lists of props, locations, which actors are needed for which days of the shoot, shoot conditions and a ton of other details that flow from what was written on the page.)

“A lot of times the script breakdown that is done way before I am in the picture. But it’s still something I look through and make sure it's coherent. What I’ll do is I’ll take, for instance, each scene. It’s either a day scene or a night scene, and I’ll make some kind of chronological order out of it. It’s not always written in chronological order. Sometimes you might have a flashback first that corresponds to something that happens in the movie and it’s important in a continuity standpoint and a logistics standpoint to make sure that my, what I call day/night breakdown matches hair and makeup or wardrobe because they’ll do their own. So after I do that I’ll send it to them to make sure that we all match.”

“I’ve caught on occasions where we’ve missed a scene that’s still in my breakdown of the film but not in production’s. Which is another thing with crosschecking to make sure that we have everything we’re going to do.”

“Not only do I break down if it's day or night or whatever they say, I also put what characters were involved, what props were involved. If there’s any things that I need to look at as far as continuity, like, maybe bruises or ripped clothing or things like that.”

What should a screenwriter be aware of that a script supervisor looks out for?

“I don’t know if script writers know that a movie is never filmed in chronological order. So that makes my job more important because I have to watch for things like wet clothing, bruises, anything that would be a main continuity error in a movie when we go to edit I have to keep my eyes on.”

“As a script supervisor you’ll get hit with a lot of things, with the director asking you to make sure to check stuff. Hair and makeup may not have a good picture of what the actor looked like in the scene that we did prior or afterwords so do I have something they can reference. Wardrobe may ask, was this on or that on, how was it. And we have to go back and look.”

“Eye line is a big thing because, if you’re not familiar with filming, it’s called the 180-degree rule. It means that if you start filming over one character’s shoulder, you’ve got to do the opposite shoulder on the other side so that when you do the single shots the eye lines match.”

“It’s important that when we finish a production, my script has all of the line changes in it that matches exactly what was filmed. So that’s one of my goals at the end of the film, is to make sure that if we do change dialog that I get as much as I can.”

“As much as I plead when I first take on a project and say, I know that there are going to be script changes because there always are. Can please you make sure that I get them before we go on the set to film the scene. You don’t want me to sit there and type all this as it’s happening. Then I’m not focused on what’s going on on the screen. There are too many times where quickly I’ve seen a boom shadow, or something happens, you quickly see a C-stand or something in a frame, and you lose it because you’re too busy trying to rewrite what an actor’s trying to say.”

Chuck Girard, Script Supervisor on Set

Chuck Girard, script supervisor on set of the bio-doc on the life of Lewis A. Swyer. Photo courtesy Add a Zero Productions

What makes a good script supervisor?

“One of the skills you need as a script supervisor is you need to be able to work with a lot personalities. Coming from a management background I think that’s helped me in the way I approach asking people for stuff or saying what we need to do to get a scene done. You have to work well with the people. You have to listen to other people.”

“If there are different ways to explain a continuity error I’ll certainly try for it. But if it's blatant and it's too hard to do and I don’t win the argument with the director and whatever, that’s when I just say, okay. I can understand what they’re going through.”

“Another mantra of mine is if they’re not telling a good story and somebody’s focusing on that (continuity error) then maybe we shouldn’t be making this movie either.”

“I always tell every director when I interview with them, “My job is to make sure that you get the best performance out of an actor. So if they’re not holding a cup right or they’re not putting something down the same way I can’t yell and scream and holler, saying ‘You’ve got to do it this way,’ because that would detract from their performance. I want the director to be able to get the best performance they can out of the actor.”

“You need to have some kind of a decorum when you work on set because there’s the director you have to work with, there’s the assistant director that’s got to do stuff, there’s the actors themselves. I’ll be the first one to tell them I’m not going to shout out a line if you don’t know it until I hear you tell me I do need a line. Because sometimes they take these hyper-long pauses and I’m thinking, okay they’re trying to think of the next line and then all of a sudden BOOM it comes out.”

And when Chuck finds a mistake is about to be made? “I won’t ask a question unless I already have a solution already in mind because otherwise it becomes, oh you’re just being a pain in the ass. You’re just trying to find something that has nothing to do with the story that somebody’s going to look for. Then let’s do this and get rid of it and we don’t have to worry about it. A lot of times because I have an instructive way of getting around something that I’m typically listened to 95% of the time.”

“A thing I would tell every script supervisor to do is, one director made me do it every day, before we do a scene tell me what happens before and what happens after this scene so that I can keep track of what’s going on.”

“On some sets the director likes to watch the monitor by himself. I have to be next to the director to watch what his reactions are because sometimes they don’t tell me, ‘Oh, that was a good take. I like that take.’ Sometimes I have to see the body language and kind of tell the good takes from the bad takes from that because they’re so focused on what’s going on and I’ll put that in my notes. Hey, the director laughed on that take. It’s a good one. Cause you don’t always get to know.”

“And then overall, to have a good rapport with my editor. Because I feel that the better that my notes correspond with what we’ve filmed the better chance and the quicker we have to edit the film.”

[From the Lens: Breaking Down A Script As Director Of Photography]

How did you get started as a script supervisor?

Chuck didn’t intend to become a script supervisor. He was on a film set where the current scripty wasn’t going to be able to be there on one of the days. “And I said, why don’t you show me what you do and I’ll fill in for you. And I really liked it. So I was like, maybe this is something that I want to do.”

“It’s been a thing to me to this day—we were filming in a kitchen and there was a clock in the kitchen and I kept saying, ‘What are we going to do with the clock because every time we show the clock it’s a different time?’ And to this day that’s my mantra. Every time we go to a set the first thing I look for is a clock. I don’t know if anybody else who watches a movie notices it but that’s a big thing to me. A clock or a watch.”

“More and more I kept watching and seeing continuity errors and saying, I wonder how come—you’re paying somebody. Why isn’t that person catching these. And then finding out sometimes it’s budgetary reasons, it’s we need to hurry up and get it edited so we just throw stuff together to get it out. It could be a myriad of reasons.”

“I wrote a script once. I broke it down. And then I thought, well, let’s go try to shoot it. It gave me more of an appreciation for how the script needed to be written in order to shoot it which not all the time is something that a script writer would look for. They are story motivated and character motivated, which is important. But when you start to get into production then it starts to get to be what’s possible with the amount of money that we have and how can we keep the integrity of what is written with the amount of budget that we have. And I get it. I understand that push and pull.”

“It was more my research in doing it that got me more and more interested in doing the job. And I knew that in Albany, NY, productions were coming into the area more and more and into the Hudson Valley and that there weren’t any local script supervisors. And so I weighed that with what I thought was being good at it and thought, well, this is something I want to do. So I really went out and learned how to do it.”

If someone is interested in becoming a script supervisor what should they do?

“I really think that if somebody’s really interested find a script supervisor or find somebody who has the ability to let you onto a set so that you can see what happens. Because there’s a lot of people who can’t focus on what’s going on because there’s a lot of other distractions. There’s a lot of people that say I want to do it. I want to get all this equipment. Don’t get any equipment. Get Mary Cybulski’s book, Beyond Continuity: Script Supervision for the Modern Filmmaker. Read it. Learn what the job is because a lot of people have the wrong impression. I can see why script supervisors all over say that’s what you want to read because she really, seriously takes you through her process. Reading a script. Doing the breakdown. How she does her notes. Notates different things.”

“I’m constantly on set going back and looking at my breakdown. What notes did I put aside that I didn’t get answered. Or what things did I put that I have to watch out for when we film. It’s when you learn eye lines and what will edit and what won’t edit. Those were important things that I had to learn as I went along. It’s not a glamorous job. You’re outside in the cold, in the rain, in the snow.”

That’s a wrap

Chuck has lots of experience on film sets, having been a SAG-AFTRA member since 2009 and has been script supervising since 2012. He’s a member of IATSE Local 161 as a union script supervisor (a union that realistically allows a scripty to take a smattering of non-union jobs among the union fare to fill the gaps.) His script supervisor reputation is stellar and his work load reflects that.

“This year I did two films that were non-union and five, well this will be the fifth coming up that’ll be union. So seven films. And that’s the most that I’ve ever done in a year. So, I’m hoping that the name’s getting out there. The work’s been predominately in New York. The Hudson Valley and the Syracuse area have been the main two. And Albany once in a while.”

“I really like my job because I get to see what the words look like when it’s filmed. That’s the most creative part.”

If you’d like to reach out to Chuck, you can find him at scriptychuck@gmail.com or on his website at www.scripty-chuck.com.

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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