Thursday 5 December 2013

Stop! This Isn't What I Meant! - Part 1

I’ve been asked about how much say a writer gets in casting, what happens if the scene isn’t being played as you’d hoped, or what you do if a line is being delivered incorrectly.

You, as the writer, are crucial. It’s pretty much your show – and the show is your vision. But, once the show is in production, you are not in charge. That’s the producer. The producer is in charge of delivering as good a programme as possible on time and on budget. They are spending over a million quid filming your TV series. They probably want to do this in partnership with you. Naturally there are many ways in which this can wrong and anecdotes along these lines are often magnified in the stories that float around the industry or in showbiz fiction.

Blowing the Whistle on Extras
In series 2 of Extras, we see, on screen, a break down in trust between the writer/performer and the producer of When the Whistle Blows, the sitcom that Andy Milman has written. My recollection of that first episode is that seemingly at the last minute, the producer thinks some comedy glasses and a wig will make all the difference. Millman is disillusioned and now seems to depise the show that they’re making.

I always found this hard to relate to. What sort of show did Millman think they were making? Milman’s written a big, broad audience comedy with catchphrases that’s being filmed in front of an audience. And surely these discussions have already been had? It didn't ring true for me.

Of course, things can go wrong between a producer and writer. But assuming they will is a mistake. And the key to a good relationship (in any sphere of life) is communication. Have you articulated your vision for the show in the script? And in person? There is naturally uncertainty at the beginning, and it continues right up until shooting and beyond. In the development process on Bluestone 42, it felt like were all roughly on the same page – especially as we spent a lot of time together with a pilot script and casting the show which is crucial to establishing the tone – but it was only when we saw some scenes that we’d shot roughly cut together that we could all breathe a sigh of relief that we were all trying to make exactly the same show in terms of style, tone and look.

This is not what I had in Mind
So how do things look when they feel like they are going wrong? And what can you do? Sometimes, when you’re actually shooting a scene on location – or watching a technical rehearsal in a studio, a scene ends up looking different from how you’d imagined. The director has made a choice or even changed the scene slightly in order to make it work. It doesn’t happen all that often in my experience. A decent producer will head that off by having the director talk through the script with the writer a few days or weeks in advance to make sure that nothing crucial is changed, or if changes are made, the writer is alerted to make sure this doesn’t impact on anything else in the script.

So the scene isn't how you imagined it. It's all wrong. Before you go off on one, stop and think. The director has staged the scene in a certain way for a reason. It may be so that it looks awesome – which is perfectly good reason to stage a scene a certain way. But it may look so awesome, or staged, that it makes it less funny. It’s odd that things looking cool, or like a TV commercial, can sometimes fight the comedy in a scene. The scene may look awkward and clunky – maybe because the logistics of the script dictate it happen this way and you’d not realised this in the way you wrote it.

Maybe the director has slavishly followed what you have written and your script is at fault. Occasionally, the director has a previous draft of the script in his head and hasn’t noticed the changes that you’ve made have profoundly altered the blocking of the scene. In which case that's unfortunate, but not the end of the world and probably fixable.

If there’s a problem, best not bowl up to the director and tell them they’ve got it all wrong. Talk to the producer – who might say that they tried it a different way at first, but the cast felt it was very unnatural, or it proved not to be practical because, say, a character had to walk across the set saying one line, but the line itself isn’t long enough to cover walk, so they changed the walk rather than the line. Complicated, isn’t it?

This is no Wrong Place

Sometimes, on the day, things just don’t quite work out as you’d expect for reasons beyond the director’s or producer’s control. In the Christmas episode of Bluestone 42, there is a brief bit of nativity play which takes place on a temporary stage erected in the base. When it came to shooting it, the stage was built in a slightly different place to where we’d imagined it would go, which meant that one part of the scene wouldn’t quite work as planned. We wanted Rocket in standing in one of the watchtowers behind the stage, but that wasn’t going to work now as he’d be too far away and it would seem odd. Moving the stage would take too long, and the reasons Rocket needed to be in the watchtower had largely been cut from the script. So we put a military vehicle behind the stage and had Rocket stand on that and it looked great. Perhaps better. There's usually more than one way to stage a scene and find the funny. So keep an open mind. It may turn out the producer and director know what they're doing.

That's Part 1. Part 2 is here.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

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