The Benefits of Being A Ghost: A Writer On Set At FiLMLaB

Being the screenwriter on set is fun as long as you know what you’re in for.

If this was a Mozart symphony production, the screenwriter would be the composer and the director would be the conductor.

It’s up to the conductor to translate Mozart’s scribbles on paper into music for the ears, music created by numerous musicians who not only need to be on the same page, but at the exact same place on that page and playing at the correct volume.

Consequently, if you find yourself being the screenwriter on a film set, prepare to have as much interaction and input into the proceedings as Mozart’s ghost does on one of his modern day concerts, and that is a good thing. Can you imagine the cacophony coming out of the orchestra if Mozart was constantly interrupting or whispering suggestions in the conductor’s ears?

Crew on the set of Unwelcome Guests

DP Phil Anderson and crew on the set of Unwelcome Guests

The shooting schedule was expected to take ten to twelve hours for my five minute short with a half dozen scenes. This is a clue as to how much time was spent getting each scene from every appropriate angle in order to generate enough raw material for Martin Vavra, the director, to edit into a beautiful and entertaining five minute film.

I found being a ghost without responsibilities liberating and it provided me with the freedom to come and go as I pleased. Here are a few of the things I saw:

Everybody arrived on time, six-thirty to seven o’clock on a Sunday morning, and whether they were a morning person or not, they seemed excited to be there. I didn’t get an exact headcount, but my impression is that for this wee production there were four actors, a makeup artist, a set designer, a couple of people working with the lighting, another on the sound, someone marking the scenes, two people working the camera, an assistant director and a director.

Each had to pay attention to their task for every scene, even the makeup artist and set designer, to make sure everything looked and sounded just so. They all had to be alert and because nobody wanted to be the one holding things up by being slack.

And there were also three personal assistants and the two interns ready to fill in the gaps.

Those not directly involved in the action at that moment, whether the camera was rolling or not, were quiet, even when closed off downstairs in the “man cave”, because one never knew for sure if the camera was rolling, and the sound equipment picks up everything.

Yes, they really do yell “Quiet on the set” and “rolling” and all that stuff you’ve seen in the movies.

It’s a long day. All these people need to be fed and coffee must always be plentiful and fresh in supply.

You know when you first heard that bippity-boppity pop song and really liked it? How about after the fiftieth time you’d heard it…in the last four hours? Even I started to dislike some of my lines and feared the actors would begin to hate me for writing them, but nope, these people really like what they do and they’ll do it and do it until it’s exactly the way they want it. That goes for the whole crew.

Being a ghost had its benefits. When I needed to get away from the repetition, I could escape downstairs and watch the end of the World Cup final.

The shooting day was bookended by several hot, cloudless days, but on this day the weather gods decided to give us thunderstorms and sun breaks. The film called for some exterior scenes and interior scenes relying on ambient lighting. Bear in mind that film is all about capturing light, and if you get a scene from one angle in bright sunshine and get another take from another angle in cloud cover, the lack of continuity is going to ruin the movie. It took a lot of effort to try to time, predict and control the light.

Until you see it, you don’t realize the level of teamwork it takes to pull off a truly professional production. It reminds me of my football days, where everybody had to do their jobs just to gain a few yards of real estate. Likewise with a film crew to gain a few lines of script.

Actress Paige McKenzie ready for the next scene

Actress Paige McKenzie (Haunting of Sunshine Girl) ready for the next scene

In stage productions the actors get to hear the applause. In film everybody breaks into applause when the actors are done with their part of the process, and everybody celebrates at the end of the production, something you don’t see at most “day jobs”.

In all, it was a day I enjoyed and the sort of day all screenwriters should experience.