Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Most screenwriting classes, lectures, seminars, and workshops don't talk about this.
So what does that tell me? The teacher is either out of touch or they don’t want to let you in on this secret.
The secret? Work on-set.
Are you just starting out and looking for a way to break in? Work on-set.
Do producers love your work, even option it, but you just can’t seem to get your work produced? Work on-set.
Have you hit a slump in your screenwriting career and just can't seem to connect with the right people? Work on-set.
If this strikes you as odd it's because you've been told screenwriters can't work on set.
Is that true? Yes and no.
First, before getting too deep into this series, let’s discuss the reasons a screenwriter may be “invited” on-set.
Micro to low budget movies.
Your script’s been produced. You’re invited on-set. Most likely it’s an “all hands on deck” thing. In layman's terms, it means they expect you to move a c-stand, hold up a boom pole, or go fetch lunch. In some cases, especially in today's film world, a screenwriter is also the producer on the movie, so they might just be there observing, or they are there with the checkbook cutting a stipend to the cast and crew.
Moderate to larger budget movies.
9 times out of 10 your invitation is merely an “invitation”. Meaning, you aren’t needed, they are just throwing you a bone. In layman's terms, look around, but don’t get in the way. Typically, you won’t be invited every day; most likely it will be a slow day. In some cases, which are rare, they may want you on standby for any last minute edits or suggestions because they “actually” value your opinion. But don't bet on it.
Having said that, the purpose of this article is to motivate you to work on-set (even if just once). Not as a screenwriter, but a crew member.
Yes, I said it. CREW MEMBER.
Below, I'm going to provide you with some key reasons why working on-set can propel your screenwriting career.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO MAKE A FILM.
If you think you know how films are made because you watched a behind-the-scenes video on YouTube of your favorite film or you took a film theory class at a local community college, let me be the first to tell you that you were mislead.
Personally, I have a lot of on-set experience. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to. While in film school I learned the basics of filmmaking: camera, lighting, sound, casting -- you name it. So when my screenplays weren’t selling, I reverted to crew work to pay the bills. I’ve done it all on-set. I've folded Gene Simmons' jeans. I drove the GLEE cast back to their hotel while I was hallucinating from a 103 degree fever. I had to find Jeremy London black and mild cigars at 3AM in the California desert. I even had to babysit the "cast" of Toddlers and Tiaras.
It’s not glamorous. In fact, I loath it. Why people commit their lives to crew work is beyond me; but people do love it -- a lot of people! And that’s the good news; we need them!
Working on-set taught me something that no amount of screenwriting classes or books would ever teach me. It taught me how a film was made from the inside. We aren’t talking about some movie panel where the director tells us how certain shots were done. No, we are talking about what it takes to make a film.... every person, every dollar, every shooting day. Everyone from the executive fronting the money, to the production assistant in charge of making the coffee.
When you see how much it costs to shoot a scene with two thousand people, you begin to reconsider how you write scenes. When you write a scene that takes place entirely outside on a busy street or a subway station, you begin to realize how hard it is for the sound mixer to capture crisp dialogue and how hard it is acquiring a permit. When your main character is a 6 year-old and the child requires a studio teacher, numerous breaks, and can only work a 6 hour day, you consider upping the kids age to maybe 10? When you see how long it takes to move from one location to the next, watching all the grips pile in lighting equipment into a truck in the frigid rain, packing it tightly and safely, then driving to a new location, just to take it all out again, you question the importance of many locations. You ask yourself, can any of these locations be combined?
Once you understand the process from the ground up, you learn how to write a producible screenplay.
Notice the word “produceable”. We aren’t in the business of writing novels. All you need with that is a good editor, a publisher, some solid marketing, and Amazon. Boom. You’re done. (Yes, I know, it's not always that easy.)
It takes a village to make a movie. Most movies don’t even see the light of day. So if you want to see your work produced, you need to write material that can be produced. Working on-set, even if it’s just on a couple projects, will give you a whole new appreciation of the filmmaking process, and ultimately shape the way you write movies.
YOU'RE A RECLUSE, ADMIT IT.
So you know how films are made? Kudos, Spielberg. But unlike writing novels, where you can live as a recluse your entire life while pedaling out best sellers, film is a collaborative medium. You can have the best script in the world, but if you can’t find anyone to make it, what’s the point?
The way in which films are being made has changed. The saying, "it’s not what you know, but who you know", is truer now than ever before.
If you’ve ever worked on-set, you know that a majority of the crew members moonlight as directors, producers, agents, even actors at night.
The gaffer on-set that you’ve run into on several different sets, you know, the guy everyone seems to love, works hard, knows his equipment (probably even smarter than the DP), actually owns a petite production company in North Hollywood. Him and his buddy started one 2 years ago, mainly producing shorts and web series, but now looking for the right feature to champion. What does this guy really want to be? A producer. But gaffing pays the bills right now.
How about the second assistant camera girl? She’s efficient, shy, and knows how to handle a camera better than the male camera operator who brings her along on jobs. She had a course that taught her focus pulling in film school, so she uses it to pay the rent. But on Mondays and Wednesdays she interns at William Morris. She’s slowly working up as a jr. agent, and eventually an agent herself, who will be looking for a fresh roster of writers to represent.
Never underestimate the person in the room. Same goes with on-set. Unless you are the director, director of photography, or the main lead, most likely your aspirations are aimed higher. Remember, most production assistants are aiming to be producers or directors.
George Lucas got his start as a camera assistant on the movie Gimme Shelter.
Alfred Hitchcock was a title card designer and assistant director for Paramount.
Barry Jenkins worked as an assistant for Harpo Films.
Ava DuVernay was an intern for CBS.
Paul Thomas Anderson was a set pa on a variety of different movies, music videos, and commercials before making Boogie Nights
IT'S ALL ABOUT PACKAGING PROJECTS.
The day of the spec is over, at least for now. Screenwriters must wear multiple hats. Screenwriters also can’t just sell a script solely based on their story. If you’ve ever worked with some of the major Hollywood players, or even working-Hollywood folk, the first question anyone will ask you is ,"who’s in it”. In order to get funding or distribution, you must have some heavy hitters in your corner.
You can have a b-list script, but have a written and verbal commitment from THE ROCK, and your script will get a first-look deal at most major studios. It doesn't matter how bad his films are, it's just the nature of the business.
Here's the truth, and it's hard to swallow, I know..... but in a world driven by IP-content with a built-in following (which does not help screenwriters), the name on the top of the call sheet is what ultimately sells movies. Talent matters. And where's the best place to meet up-and-coming talent? Movie sets.
The same can be said about directors, too. Having an established or strong up-and-coming director attached to your project can open doors. That director also has connections with producers, sales agents, and distributors, as well as a good track record at film festivals. Often times producers who post on Screenwriting Staffing want actors or directors attached.
This is obvious, yet screenwriters forget this. 99.9% of producers who are searching for features are not the ones funding the features. They are finding scripts, adding it to their slate, then packaging them. Once packaged, they take it to investors.
So the producers on this small indie film you are “interning” on obviously have investors or else they wouldn’t be making this film. Isn't that someone worth knowing?
But, here’s the rub.
While on-set, you slowly begin to learn how to produce. You are also building a team, even if you don’t know it. So while the project you are working on is small, that day player actor who no one knows about blows up in 6 months, gets cast in Stranger Things. You two were chummy on-set, exchanged emails and numbers. He is now in your network and remembers who you are. That's how movies get made.
My site, Screenwriting Staffing, would not still be up and running if it weren’t for my time on set. That's the honest truth.
People often ask me, where do you find producers to post with you? The trick, as anyone knows, is to have producers find you, not the other way around. But in order to build a following, a solid reputation, the first producers, directors, and actors I reached out to were those I had worked with on-set. I reminded them who I was, congratulated them on their newest projects, and introduced (shortly) my new platform -- and if they were ever in need of a screenwriter or script, to please post with me.
It made sense. I didn’t need to vet these people online. I already knew them personally! I didn’t need to worry if they could produce or direct -- I saw it first hand. I didn't have to ask to see references, I already knew all their colleagues.
So, you’re semi-convinced, at least enough to keep reading. I already know what your next question is. What do I do on-set?
FOR STARTERS, BE LIKABLE.
Hollywood is a small town (and I don’t just mean Hollywood itself, but the industry as a whole), so don’t be a jerk. You want to be the person everyone wants to work with. If you aren’t easy to work with on-set, why would they think you were easy to work with during the re-writing process? In fact, more and more features are creating writers' rooms. Don't believe me? Read my interview with Dennis Heaton. (Producer/Writer of THE ORDER, GHOST WARS, & OLYMPUS.)
MAKE THE CONNECTION.
Pass out your business card. No, do not do this while they are shooting. In fact, don’t even do it at the start of the day -- there’s too much to get done and everyone is anxious. Do this at lunch or the end of the day. Don’t go around just handing it out, though. Meet people. Ask them what they are working on. Everyone has something lined up after this. Ask them if they do anything else in film. Heck, ask them what their favorite film is; it doesn’t matter, just make a connection, a real one. They will eventually return the question. That’s when you let them know you are a screenwriter, then tell them about some of the scripts you are working on. Keep it quick and short. Remember, you aren't the only screenwriter on the face of the planet.
Give them your business card, ask for theirs, add them on social media, send them a “nice to meet you” email, then keep writing. Don’t expect anything to happen over night.
Things take time. But from here on out, whether that person stays stagnant or moves up the chains, he/she knows who you are and what you do as a profession -- that’s a powerful thing, trust me.
DON’T STEAL THE SPOTLIGHT.
Blend in, okay. You can still blend in and make solid connections. The best connections on-set are the ones around the coffee pot, the ones sitting inside a grip truck eating out of a pizza box, or the ones pounding a quick beer backstage to take off the edge. Your job is not to be the one with jokes, the one offering up criticism, or even asking a bunch of questions. Your job is to blend in, do what you’re told, scout out who you want to make a connection with, and then finding the right (and appropriate) time to do that. Remember, this isn’t your movie. Don’t steal the show.
So where do you find these types of jobs?
Well, everywhere. Everybody and their mother are making films…. from edgy short films, to cheesy comedy sketches on YouTube, all the way to low budget features that take place entirely in a car. Rest assured, they are always looking for crew. If you think writers don’t get paid, you should see how below-the-line workers are treated.
Even if you have no set experience at all, they will bring you on. Be prepared to work for free, or $50 for a 12 hour day. But remember, this isn’t about making a living working on-set, it’s about the experience and connections that come with it, no matter how small.
Think about this: would you rather spend upwards of 100k (I know from where I speak) on film school, where they teach you how movies are made, or work for free for a couple days on-set and learn everything you need to know?
But I have no technical experience? What could I possibly do on set?
Try working as a SCRIPT SUPERVISOR.
While in film school we spent a month shooting an already-produced, outdated Fawlty Towers episode. The purpose was to give everyone a chance to participate in every aspect of the filmmaking process while learning how to shoot sitcom television. While all the other students chose technical jobs, jobs that required much more skill than I’d ever master, I chose script supervising -- mainly because at the time I didn’t know what it was, and the title had "script" in it.
I’m not going to use this time to describe everything a script supervisor has to do (google it), but it’s the best job a screenwriter can have on-set. Having this skill set paid a lot of bills while I launched my screenwriting career.
Script supervising puts you front and center of the filmmaking process. It’s the only job on-set where you work directly with the actors, director, DP/camera operator, sound department, set decorator, and at times, the producers, all while having the script right in front of you. In some cases, you even work with the post production team. You see firsthand what gets cut from a film, where actors adlib and/or stumble on certain “dialogue, how difficult it is to shoot certain scenes, how talent and crew react to certain scenes, and ultimately what the editor and director decide to leave in while in post.
I learned a lot about writing dialogue on-set as a script supervisor, especially for females. I’d have the script in front of me while on standby in case someone forgot their line, and when she would read it, she’d stop, laugh, and say, “Okay, I can’t say this, this doesn’t sound authentic at all.” That's because it was usually written by a male writer.
I’d also watch where chunky dialogue would get replaced with action. It truly shaped the way I look at dialogue today.
So, with that said, I’d recommend that every screenwriter, whether you are technical or not, work on one film as a script supervisor.
Can working on-set do anything else for your screenwriting career?
Yes. On my site we offer resume assistance. I probably help at least one screenwriter a week with their resume. Most of them are starting out. Once we’ve exhausted everything we can list of their resume, I always end with asking them if they’ve ever worked on-set. If they have, and their resume is a bit skimpy, I add it in.
No, it doesn’t mean you can write a script just because you worked on-set. But it does show you have worked in film and understand the trade. That alone is priceless.
Now that you’ve worked on-set, then what?
By now you have hopefully added everyone you met on social media, emailed some of the more intimate and important connections you made on-set, added a credit on your resume and IMDb, and learned a thing or two on how a film is made.
When it comes time to packaging your script and coming up with an action plan, you now have a list of people who are actively working in the industry that know who you are.
This idea will still remain foreign to some. The ones who don’t embrace this theory are usually 1) a part of an “older” Hollywood, 2) are bitter about their screenwriting career or 3) unhappy with the state of the film industry.
This is not probably the best analogy you’ve ever heard, but bare with me. Would you trust a doctor to operate on you if they’ve never worked in a hospital? Would you trust a tax professional who was not proficient in MS Word and Excel?
It’s imperative you understand your profession. If storytelling is all you want to do, write a novel, seriously. But if you want to write movies, you better learn how they are made.
In closing, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t get locked into working on-set.
Yes, I believe all screenwriters should experience set-life. But just once, maybe twice. Then get back to writing.
Actors aren’t the only ones typecast. People who work as crew members are too. Rarely will you see a sound mixer switch over to being a camera operator, even if she’s good at it. You’re only as good as your last job. Working on-set is all about word-of-mouth. So if someone says you were good at booming, they will recommend you for this other job they are working on who needs sound. Before you know it, you have been working as a boom operator for 20+ years. It happens all the time.
This happened to me as a script supervisor, which is why I stopped taking those gigs (even though I still get emails asking if I’d be interested). But a day doesn't go by that I don't cherish what I learned during my time on-set and the people I now call my colleagues and friends.
Stay focused. Understand your reason for being on-set. At the end of the day you are a writer, and you need to be writing. Your long-term goal is not working on-set. It’s to facilitate new opportunities, network, and improve your writing.
If you find set-life fulfilling, even find you are good at it, then great! Seriously. Most screenwriters direct, even produce their own work. Maybe set-life is for you.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of. If anything, it’s a lucrative bonus. If you can attain those skills while working on-set, it only helps. Before you know it, you will be packaging your own scripts that you are directing and producing.
But for most of us, it’s not about being a one-person show, it’s about appreciating the art form, and making sure we have as many people in our circle as possible -- and no amount of industry mixers, film festivals, or workshops will connect you with a more diverse amount of artists and movie-makers than working on-set.
This article won't convince every screenwriter. But even if it convinces just one, it was totally worth it!
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Article was written by Jacob N. Stuart.
Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenwriters and screenplays with film and television entertainment professionals. Since 2013, Jacob has helped facilitate over 250 success stories (sales, options, hires, and representation), most notably a Christmas movie produced by Hallmark in 2017. Here is a small list: www.imdb.com/search/title/?companies=co0524287
Jacob is also an award-winning and produced screenwriter, with over a decade of film experience. His films have been screened at theaters across the globe, as well as distributed traditionally through dvd/blu-ray. He currently has 3 films (2 features, 1 short) on VOD, including the award-winning film AN ADDICTING PICTURE. He holds a Bachelors in both Film and Entertainment Business from The Los Angeles Film School. He has also written for other top industry publications, including Final Draft, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and MovieMaker Magazine.
His most current movie, FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE, is currently in the festival circuit.
For more on Jacob:
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