Monday, 2 February 2015

Don’t Writers Just Get in the Way on Set?

Yes, of course they do.

I'm sure many producers probably feel this way. Writers are just one extra voice in the mix which feels like it will just slow things down when time is pressing. Shooting TV is frantic.

But writers can also save the production vital hours if anyone actually has time to listen to what they have to say. The writers have thought about little else for the previous six months so they can be a very useful reference point for props or costume if they have questions, able to give instant answers. And the writers haven’t just written the dialogue. They’ve written the action and the story. In fact, they’ve The Show.

So all questions are relevant to the writer. For example:

How big should the ladle in Scene 7 be? What sort of liquid soap do we need in Scene 3? Does this picture on the wall seem about right? Is this scarf too much? What army rank is this unspecified character? Should they be running, marching or walking? You get the idea.

Writers can also suggest cuts on the fly. It sounds unlikely, but writers often know in their heart of hearts that a scene or a bit of action isn’t strictly necessary. If pressed, they can normally find cuts when faced with the reality of shooting half an hour of television in five and a half days.

Writers can also spot howlers or errors during filming that much cost money to reshoot or fix in the edit.

Moreover, writers can fix script problems quicker than anyone else because, well, it’s their only job. They’re good with words. And when a line doesn’t work, asking a member of the cast, the director or whoever happens to be on hand to fix is unreasonable. Coming up with the right line for the right character in situ is not easy. In the case of Bluestone 42, there was also military advice and technical knowledge to be weighed and considered. It’s a writer’s job to fix it, isn’t it? It seems odd that a director or producer wouldn’t insist the writer is on hand for that.

I’m also surprised when a writer doesn’t want to be on hand for all of the above. (Well, I’m not that surprised. Writers aren’t paid extra for turning up.) The shooting of the script is The Most Critical Stage, isn’t it? You can’t edit pictures and lines you haven’t got. You have to make sure you have everything and have it right. After all, the final broadcast version of the show is all anyone sees or cares about. You’re the writer – you’ve written the Show, not the Script, haven’t you?  Discuss.

Who's In Charge?
Here we dip our toe in the ‘Who’s In Charge?’ question. In America, the Show Runner, who is often the show creator, is in charge and has final say, although they may temper their vision based on the wishes of their paymaster and broadcaster. In UK, things are less clear cut. Is the producer in charge creatively? It seems that we muddled through in the hope that no-one’s going to cause an embarrassing scene. How very British.

A director I spoke to recently was surprised that either Richard Hurst or I were on set for every scene of Bluestone 42 being shot. He wondered why. I replied that we’d spent months of our lives writing these episodes. Why wouldn’t we want to see it through to the very end? It seems to me that if you don’t take the time and trouble to be there on the day and have your say on in the edit, you don’t really have any right to complain if Your Script and The Show are two very different things.

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If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.