Why working on-set may improve your screenwriting career and chances (Part 3).
Updated: Apr 16
Article 3 of our 10-part Screenwriting Staffing Industry Series will focus on why set experience can help launch your screenwriting career. To stay current, join our mailing list. Reach the decision-makers & buyers with our one-of-a-kind E-blast! Submit up to 2 pitches.
The majority of screenwriting classes, lectures, seminars, and workshops neglect to cover this topic.
This raises questions about the instructor's credibility; they may be unaware of this information or choose not to disclose it as a 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 you find this unusual, it may be because you've been informed that screenwriters cannot work on sets. However, the truth is a bit more complicated.
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.
In most cases, when you receive an invitation to a film set, it's simply a formality, and you might not necessarily be required. It's more like a courtesy invite, which means you should observe without getting in the way. Usually, you won't receive an invitation every day, and it's usually during the slower days. In rare situations, you may be asked to stay on standby for any last-minute changes or suggestions because the crew values your input. However, you should not rely on this happening.
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.
From a personal perspective, I possess a significant amount of on-set experience, not because I wanted to, but out of necessity. During my time in film school, I learned the fundamental aspects of filmmaking, such as camera, lighting, sound, and casting. However, when my screenplays were not selling, I resorted to working on the crew to make ends meet. 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. On one film, I remember, I was responsible for holding Malcom Jamal Warner's philosophy book during takes. I even had to babysit the "cast" of Toddlers and Tiaras in a hotel lobby.
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 provided me with insights that no screenwriting classes or books could ever teach. It gave me an insider's view of the filmmaking process, not just how certain shots were executed, as explained by a director during a movie panel. Rather, it exposed me to what it takes to make a film, including every person involved, every dollar spent, and every shooting day. From the executive financing the project to the production assistant in charge of making coffee, every individual played a crucial role.
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 six-year-old and the child requires a studio teacher, numerous breaks, and can only work a one hour day, you consider upping the kids age to maybe 10? After witnessing the process of moving from one location to another, observing grips loading lighting equipment into a truck in the pouring rain, packing it with care and precision, and driving to a new location only to unload and set up everything again, you begin to question the necessity of numerous filming 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 “producible”. 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 a 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. However, on Mondays and Wednesdays, she works as an intern at William Morris. Her ultimate goal is to become a junior agent and eventually an agent who will seek out a new group 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 Jonah Hill or Kevin Hart, and your script will get a first-look deal at most major studios. 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. 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.
Since the producers of the indie film you're "interning" on have investors, it is essential to acknowledge their significance. Building a connection with them could prove beneficial.
But, here’s the rub.
Working on a film set enables you to learn the intricacies of production, as well as build a team, even if it's unintentional. Although the project you are currently working on may seem small, a day player actor who was unknown at the time might become famous six months later, getting cast in a significant project such as 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.
You might be somewhat convinced by now, enough to keep reading. However, I anticipate your next question: What exactly will I be doing on set? What should I know ahead of time?
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 are 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 Netflix's THE ORDER, GHOST WARS, & OLYMPUS.)
Dennis: “More venues means more writing rooms which translates into more opportunities for work -- and that’s always good for the writers.”
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. However, refrain from simply handing it out; instead, take the time to network with people. Strike up conversations and inquire about what projects they're currently involved in. 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 zero experience on set, they will still consider bringing you on. However, be prepared to work for free or earn a meager compensation of $50 for a 12-hour workday. 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.
Consider this: Would you prefer to spend over $100,000 (and I speak from experience) on film school to learn about the movie-making process or work on set for a few days without pay and acquire all the necessary knowledge?
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 won't delve into the specifics of a script supervisor's role (you can easily search it up), but as a screenwriter, it is the best job to have on set. Possessing this skill set was invaluable to me as I established my career in screenwriting and paid off many bills.
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 lines/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.
Given that, I would suggest that every screenwriter, regardless of their technical proficiency, work as a script supervisor on at least one film.
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 résumé. Most of them are starting out. Once we’ve exhausted everything we can list on their résumé, I always end with asking them if they’ve ever worked on-set. If they have, and their resume is a bit skimpy, I'll add it in.
Working on set does not guarantee that you can write a script, but it does demonstrate that you have experience in the film industry and comprehend the craft. This alone is invaluable
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 résumé 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.
Admittedly, this may not be the best analogy you've heard, but bear with me. Would you feel confident allowing a doctor to perform surgery on you if they had never worked in a hospital? Would you rely on a tax professional who lacked proficiency in QuickBooks, MS Word and Excel?
It is crucial to have a firm grasp of your craft. If your passion is storytelling, consider writing a novel. However, if you aspire to write films, it is vital to learn the process of how they are made.
To conclude, and this cannot be emphasized enough, avoid becoming stuck working exclusively 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. I did it with my 2017 award-winning feature An Addicting Picture (on Amazon Prime). I found an investor/producer for my script and then directed it. 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.
For the majority of us, creating a film is not a solo endeavor. It is about recognizing the art form and ensuring that we have a diverse group of people in our network. Nothing compares to the connections one can make while working on a set, and no amount of industry mixers, film festivals, or workshops can match that level of diversity of artists and filmmakers.
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.
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