Writer On the Set!

I spent Easter weekend this year helping a short film shoot for a script called “Late Late,” that I had written. What a range of reactions I got as I told friends what I was doing. Many offered congratulations, naturally, but just as many skipped the congrats and went straight for the furrowed eyebrows full of concern.

The writer on the set? To writers it sounds like a punishing experience: Your beautiful, dancing child traumatized, forced to walk a straight line by sadistic kindergarten teachers. To anyone who has directed or worked in film production, it sounds worse: Just being there I had to own up to some culpability for the power struggles that would erupt.

If a film set is the last bastion of fascism in an increasingly democratic world, as Francis Coppola once said, then a writer hanging around the donut table will naturally attract all the ideas that challenge the director’s authority. As if a script is the only higher authority one can appeal to when trying to trim the director’s egotistical overreach. That’s not how it has to be.

I had gotten a phone call asking to help with the script two months before, and wrote and rewrote it around five or six times. I’d attended one production meeting and read-through, so that I could be sure that we all saw eye-to-eye about the meaning of each moment; it being comedy, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s funny from just words on a page. I declined to attend a night of rehearsals, because I was overdue to go see a movie with my wife.

Now that shooting day had come, and I was busy with other projects anyway, it wasn’t clear how much help I could be. I’d taken on casting one of the parts and figured I’d “drop by” the set to make that introduction. I even brought my laptop with me, figuring I might spend half the day working on something else. The story is about a guy who’s chronically late and absolutely has to be on time for a lunch date.

Thirty hours later, with about three hours sleep in between, I’d busted ass all weekend for the short, and I still gave less than the rest of the crew.

There is always some ridiculous problem on shooting day, and ours came because the script calls for a taxi to get stuck in traffic. Finding a traffic jam is never very hard in New York…except for Saturday mornings of holiday weekends! Just a few weeks before, I was in a car on the Lower East Side on a Sunday morning, and we sat for a half hour due to bridge construction, so I figured I’d go find it again. You never feel like quite as big a loser as you do when you’re looking for a traffic jam and can’t find one. Not only was the L.E.S. around the bridges unclogged, and Canal Street moving nicely, but the Holland Tunnel around Broome and Varick, which is always a shitshow, was moving too. I asked a cop. She referred me to 1010 Wins. Finally a taxi driver told me to relax: as the afternoon set in, the tunnel traffic would start to clog up Tribeca, and it did. I guess I was a nervous parent.

I admit I was a little surprised by the broad, cheap laughs in some of the scenes, but it is comedy, and I had been invited to rehearsals and said No. I made sure not to give any unsolicited coaching, and if anything in the performances didn’t seem right, I brought it up to the director out of earshot of any actors. There’s a time for imagination, and there’s a time to make yourself useful.


  1. Todd & I saw an evening of Minnesota-made short films at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Int’l. Film Fest, and one could tell that a solid script was low on the list of priorities. But everything sure looked good.

    • That’s how I got into screenwriting! “I could write something better than that!” It was a pleasure working with a director and crew who take a script seriously. I’ll let you know when it’s done.

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