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Home » Archives » May 2008 » Set Patterns
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05/16/2008: Set Patterns

All right. I'm back home in Los Angeles, and my hope is that blogging will now resume its normal schedule. Sorry 'bout the interruption. Life in Vancouver had a certain work-sleep-work pattern that was very hard on the blogging.

Because I have all sorts of on-set experience fresh in my head today, I think I'll diverge a bit from the normal function of this blog. In general, I like to limit the discussion to practical advice to those of you writing spec scripts that are not likely to (are not even intended to) ever be filmed. These specs are the audition pieces that get you jobs, or get you into fellowship programs. They have special properties because they are ultimately intended for a reader, not a viewer. That's why I spend so much time talking about the poetry of a good stage direction.

But I know that some of you are doing something different. You're actually writing material that will be filmed, either because you're already working on a show, or because you're producing something yourself, perhaps for the internet. So here's some advice for those of you who need to worry much more about the viewer than the reader:

1. Write Short. When the cameras roll, the material seems to expand like a big yeasty ball of unwieldy dough. Three pages will feel like an eternity. Make sure in advance that every line is working for you. Is that particular line absolutely needed? Are you sure?

2. Let the Actors Work. If an actor can do it with their face, you don't need to write it. In a spec script that will never be filmed, you may find yourself over-explaining emotions with good cause, but if you've got good actors, let them do their stuff. If your material is going to be produced, you may want to take a pass (well ahead of time) that eliminates any of the over-writing you may have found necessary at earlier stages.

3. Be Flexible. I know you imagined a specific staging when you wrote it, but now that you're shooting it, it may feel awkward to bring this character all the way into the room, or it might look weird or simply be unshootable to have that character reacting from the other side of the window. Coming up with natural staging may even require you to change some lines around while it's being filmed, but that doesn't mean you failed. Take these kinds of adjustments as part of the process, not as a sign that you didn't stage it correctly in your head.

And, in apparent contradiction:

4. Don't Be Too Flexible. Everyone around you may get all excited about some cool shot or unexpected costume choice or really innovative staging of a scene. But you've got a job they don't have. You are the Keeper of the Story. You have to keep in mind whether or not that really interesting choice supports the scene or undercuts it. When you watch them shoot a scene, remind yourself of the purpose that the scene serves in the story as a whole, and make sure that that purpose is realized.

And, finally,

5. Stay Out Of The Way. Give any notes you have to the director, not directly to the actors unless there are circumstances that make it acceptable. Let the director do their thing. Don't panic and feel like you need to rewrite something on the spot because it isn't playing -- usually it isn't playing because it isn't cut together yet. Watch, learn, relax, and enjoy the food.

Lunch: An avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich with a big bowl of noodles on the side.


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UC Berkeley
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