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By Staff · September 5, 2017
By Travis Maiuro
Every week, writing teacher and story analyst Pilar Alessandra talks with industry guests about screenwriting, craft, and story, on her On The Page Podcast.
Recently, Alessandra sat down with Sylvia Parker, an experienced script supervisor who has worked on such films as Edge of Tomorrow, T2: Trainspotting, Jane Eyre, and the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express, among others. The two discussed the duties of a script supervisor and more. This is a recap of Episode 515, “The Script Supervisor.”
As the screenwriter is typically not on set, Parker details how it’s the script supervisor’s responsibility to stand in for the writer and take care of the words on the page during the many changes and tweaks the shooting process will ultimately bring about.
“It’s one of the many things script supervisors do,” Parker says. “It’s our job to make sure that the script is kept up to date… because the director may change a few lines, an actor may change a few lines… it’s really important for the whole crew that they have an up-to-date script.”
“What may happen is, an actor will change something, and then there will be a scene that follows on with another actor in it and the dialogue change may affect that actor without them knowing… it’s just a case of [the changes] being registered and noted.”
A script supervisor has what Parker refers to as “prep time” before shooting actually begins. During this time, the script takes center stage and the story is dissected and broken down into something digestible for everyone involved on set — from the costume department to the actors.
Parker explains, “The story time may last a year, maybe a week… we break that down into ‘story days’… There’s a day one, there’s a day two, there may be three years between day one and day four. So it’s very important that I understand how long the script is [in story time].”
Parker talks about the script supervisor examining the time length of the story of the script but also the time length of the script itself, i.e. the projected runtime of the movie:
“I time the script, basically, I act it out alone… and then I will time every single scene and then give that over to the producers and they will decide whether anything needs cutting. They may say, ‘Oh, it’s too long’ and go back to the writer and say we need to cut here and there and things will get changed.”
Alessandra brings up Parker’s work on Edge of Tomorrow, an action-heavy movie, and asks about how she determines length for a passage of action. Parker reveals that “sometimes you will get a page that’s a one liner and it will say something like ‘battle commences’… It may only take you five seconds to read that, it’s not going to take five seconds in action time so what I tend to do there is go back to the director and ask, ‘How long do you think you’re going to want this to last for?’”
“The actors always want to know where they are at a particular time, so I keep a tag on that… I will have that in my breakdown: you’ve just come doing such and such, you’ve just had this conversation with so and so… because we just shoot so much out of continuity.”
“They also need to know the action that they did in the last take… we do another take, a different shot… [the actor] can repeat the same action [as in the previous take].”
Sylvia also details that the script supervisor keeps track of continuity for makeup and costume. “Say somebody gets injured, and they have a scar, how long that’s going to last for, when it’s going to disappear. Things like that are very important so that you don’t have this awful situation where someone’s got a scar and suddenly it just goes… hopefully you see it disappear gradually over the timespan.”
“I do have an attention to detail because that’s what I do in my job. Having read so many scripts, that has been an education. I’ve learned a lot about structure. As a writer, I still don’t really know a lot of things about structure. I’ve learned that just from reading scripts every day for the last twenty years or so… Even the bad scripts that I’ve read have taught me something.”
Parker talks about times when she’s had to perform her job even with a script that may need a lot of work:
“When I first started out, I did a lot of really low budget films… a lot of them were of the horror genre because people think they can write horror. I think it’s an actually very difficult thing to write and to write well…”
These low budget films that she worked on “were just so badly written. The characters were just like paper cutouts, they weren’t flesh and blood… they would just say things that were just ridiculous… and I’d point things out… and I’d be told, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’… I just think you shouldn’t underestimate your audience and [you should have] things make sense.”
Parker points out that writing is a very lonesome job and they need to take into consideration that the script isn’t just for one person but ultimately for many people. Even if you, as the writer, read your script and think, that works for me, bear in mind that “when you take [the script] out onto the set and it’s looked at in a different way, it may not sound as brilliant as you thought it did… a table read is just the best thing, it helps everybody.”
“One of the things that always strikes me is the pace of the script. If I’m reading the script, and I’ve got through about fifty pages and I suddenly realize I’ve got another fifty pages to go, then I know something must be wrong… It’s with pace, that’s something that I watch out for.”
“I watch out for things that clash, things that don’t make sense… I know this sounds very petty, but is something that’s actually important: You may have a script that says interior, bar, day. And then in the dialogue, people are referring to night, and you’re thinking hold on, it’s supposed to be day… I always watch out for things like that.”