It might seem an odd question. ‘How important is the script?’ But more and more I’m seeing and hearing stories about times when changes are being made to the script on the fly, only for it to end up in the editing room and, suddenly, the story makes no sense.
The answer is: ‘It depends’. An appropriately odd answer to a strange question. But it does. Just like every script is different, so too is every production. I’ve worked on many of them now and there are elements that are the same, sometimes the same people crop up again, but at the end of it, it comes down to two things that define your production.
The way that these two people handle their respective roles in the production are key. I’ve worked on productions with producers who expected everyone to put in 200% every day – resulting in a very harried and stressed office with an intensely high workload – and I’ve worked on productions with producers who demanded a high quality of work, but not at the expense of everyone’s sanity. Both got incredible results on the screen, but I can guarantee you there’s only one of them that I’d be working for again.
There are many elements that a good producer and a good director have. And one of them, in particular, is respect for the script.
Producers are usually pretty good with scripts. I’m seeing more and more that the head writer of a show is also an executive producer. You also usually have a second exec who handles more of the running of the show itself. Sometimes you don’t. It depends on the set up of the show. But, at the end of the day, the producer liked the idea enough to develop it into a script. They like the scripts enough to find the money to make it into a show. The producers are often there with the writers every step of the way writing-wise, to get the scripts up to scratch.
Directors don’t necessarily work like that.
In my experience, directors (particularly television directors) come on board at a later stage, once the story is outlined and (often) there’s already a shooting script draft circulating the production office. They offer notes, amendments come out – but on every show I’ve worked on, the director’s opinion and vision has been incorporated into every script (or at the very least, been discussed and then decided against).
What I have noticed is, once out on set, some directors like to riff on what’s on the page.
Just for the record, I don’t have a problem with this. I think that ad-libs and additional dialogue often need to happen to help get more deeply into a scene or perhaps suddenly a line of dialogue doesn’t make sense because of the location or blocking – things have to be changed for whatever reason. But when things are changed without telling the script co-ordinator or passing it by the writer, that’s when things become a little messy.
I worked on a show where this happened quite a lot. Lines got changed everywhere, action lines (or big print) stage direction got chucked out and new stuff brought in. The director was only directing two episodes in a series of eight, but they didn’t have any regard for what had come before or what was coming after. They changed things without thinking about it.
It meant that, come editing time, that the scenes shot didn’t really resemble anything that was scripted. Dialogue that was supposed to continue over from one scene to another got cut, so there was no real link from one scene to the next. A character who has no technological know-how began to brag about their prowess of finding the right website – whereas in other episodes, they can barely figure out how to turn on a computer. Timing and tension of scenes got all scrambled because the rhythm was thrown out of whack with all the changes.
All these ‘small’ changes on set had big consequences for the story. It meant that plotlines that were supposed to start, didn’t. That incidental line of dialogue they changed? It was actually a seed for a storyline that pops up again in a later episode. That line of big print they ignored? It completely throws out the pace of the scene because there’s not enough movement. The poor editor was tearing his hair out.
So the answer to ‘How important is the script?’ is ‘It depends.’ It depends on how well you know the rest of the story, not just the stuff you’re shooting at that second. It depends how well you know the characters – their backstory as well as what comes next. It depends on whether you’ve checked changes with the script department or the writers and make sure they’re all okay.
It depends on how much homework you’ve done and how much respect you have for the other people in your team. Because if you make a change and it is the wrong change, it can have serious implications on many other people and their workloads.
Respect the script. Every word on the page has been written for a reason – so make sure you know what that reason is before you begin changing everything.
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