May 5, 2008

Living In Oblivion

Years ago while working on a small independent film, I met a veteran key grip that has the hugest soft spot for independent film. Low pay, no pay he’s all about helping the little guy. And truth be told, independents can be fun…lots more goofing off allowed, and no studio looking over your shoulder.

A few years after that movie Rick (the key grip) asked me to work on a low-pay independent. “Please,” he begged, “they really need you.” First-time director and first-time D.P. He begged and pleaded and did much kissing up. It was a little embarrassing. I couldn’t stand much more of it, so I said yes. Off in the distance, a clap of thunder and lightning…

The first-time director was so enamored with the actors that he let our leading actor have free reign, which is great if you’ve got miles of film to burn and lots of time to let the actor “explore his character.” Not so good if you’re the one trying to edit this crap together. I told him again and again that the actor can’t be loud and arms flailing in the wide, and then soft spoken and demure in the close up. Not to mention not repeating his actions. The arrogant newbie director ignored my pleas, but fortunately for me while watching the dailies the editor freaked out and sat Cecil B. down and said, “I can’t cut this crap together if you continue down this road.” Thankfully, Cecil saw the light.

On to frustration number two. The D.P. knew screen direction about as well as Lindsay Lohan understands ‘Just Say No.’ He had only done commercial work and during the first couple days of filming I overheard him complain about me to his assistant “If she’s gonna tell me from what direction I need the actor to enter the shot that’s just bullshit.” Great. This is gonna be sooo much fun.

So after a few days of banging my head against the proverbial brick wall trying to get the D.P. to understand where I was coming from, he to finally saw the light after meeting with our editor. Realizing his Lohan-esque grasp of screen direction he now relied on me for every shot. And I mean EVERY shot he would ask me where he should put the camera. After many days of mental night at around two in the morning, working on our 16th hour of hell covering a courtroom scene I was taking a break by the craft service table (no gum by the way). He came running over in a panic. “Where should I put the camera!” I’ll pause here while you ponder where I considered telling him where to put the damn camera. Instead I said "Bring the actors in camera left". And wanted to cry. I looked at my friend Rick and said “never again”

Time flies by and like childbirth you forget the pain and are eventually ready to do another.

The next movie Rick suggested I work on was yet another independent movie, not low pay, just low in experience. The director was wonderful and resulted in what was quite possibly the best director/scripty relationship I have ever had. The D.P. having only had documentary experience, quickly grasped onto the idea of screen direction and my job became a walk in the park

Rick and his independent buddies had been redeemed.

So, now this past week I again find myself with another offer for an independent film. Rick sent me the following e-mail: “the Gaffer and I were talking about how much they will need you on the film and I would be happy to suggest that they do what they can to get you.”

Now, I love to be needed as much as the next person, so I agree to meet with the producer and UPM (a newbie). We begin talking and the UPM says, “Well, we should tell you that the pay is NINE DOLLARS an hour.” I managed not to choke on my own tongue, smiled politely and said, “Really? Ah, I’ve never worked for that low.” The newbie UPM holds out my resume and says well, what did you get paid on …” she plucks out a couple independent movies, “this one or that one?” I answered, “Well, the first one you mentioned I got 25 dollars an hour and the other one I did as well.” Lucky for me she didn’t choose the one that paid only 12! “Well,” she counters, “we may end up re-working the budget so we’ll keep in touch.” And then she hands me the script. A script, incidentally, with a nice glossy cover binding. (Maybe explains why they can only afford 9/hr for keys.)

So, a few days later they e-mail me an offer for 12 dollars an hour.

I call the production office to claim I have another job, that’s paying my day rate. This is the freelancer’s equivalent of the “It’s not you, it’s me, let’s just be friends” speech. But before I can begin to let her down easy, she begins talking before I do and says, “Just so you know, we have found a script supervisor that’s willing to do it for 10/hour, so if you decide to take the film I’ll need you to go down to that rate.” Oh really? Now you’ve pissed me off. I say politely, “I’m sorry but I have a job that overlaps your shooting dates, thanks for thinking of me good luck on your show.”

Even after 15 years of experience I’m not above helping the little guy…just so long as the little guys are nice to me. And this newbie UPM clearly was not.


Michael Taylor said...


I admire your willingness to get involved with these indy projects. I did a few very low budget features at around the same point in my so-called career (15 years in), for similar wages. We didn't calcultate the money in terms of dollars per hour back then, but rather in dollars per day -- and it wasn't nearly enough.

Still, I had fun amid the long torturous hours and near-terminal frustrations involved in getting those shows in the can.

I'm not sure anything/anyone could talk me into doing one of those now, though, especially if it meant working with one of those arrogant, ignorant, snotty young PM's you describe -- people who are too dumb to have a clue just how much they don't know. The sad thing is, that PM will probably go far in a business that so often goes out of its way to reward the most unpleasant and toxic human behavior.

Great post.

Robert H. said...


How true, how true...

What kills me the most on these jobs, is that, you're treated mainly as an appendage who HAS to be there, and not as someone who has something to offer, to actually HELP make the film better. For people who have no idea what a script supervisor does, they usually treat you like crap during actual production -- it's not until they get to post-prod that they start to have an appreciation

One project, where I had worked with the people involved twice before, started out as a nightmare because one person kept haranguing me about my notes - which was confusing to me, since he had my notes from two previous projects, and I hadn't changed format; and he seemed to have little idea why I had certain information.

When, after several attempts to find out what exactly the problem was, I just asked him point blank, what was the difficulty, he finally admitted that he didn't refer to my notes at all during the previous two projects.



I love working on the indies... I just wish that people would get a clue that it does help the film to maybe put a just a LITTLE bit of thought and craft into it - the films would look a lot better. And it helps to hire actors who have SOME experience acting, as well...

Scripty said...

Yes, Michael, I'm sure you are correct in that the PM will go far, she's already sneaky with $$,

Robert: Thanks for the comment, yes, it's true, some people really don't get the true value we provide on a set. Early in my career as I was turning in my notes on a commercial the d.p. said "there goes the notes to the filing cabinet, you know nobody reads them." Way to make me feel valued. I must have shot him somewhat of a hurt puppy dog look because after a moment, he said, well, ah, really, ah, you're like insurance, yeah insurance if we need the notes we have them. To this day the "insurance" line has come in handy to comments like a camera asst asking "why are you here on a food shoot" I can reply "Insurance"

maria, script from barcelona said...

What a funny coincidence!

Next week I´m starting an independent movie!!
It´s the third film of the director (who´s being work as a screenplay writer) and most of the crew are usually doing commercial work.

A friend of mine who´s working as script supervisor as well, had to to it because she knows the director. But eventually she couldn´t do it and she begged me to replace her in this project...

... I said "yes, sure!"...

I just hope DP will know about screen direction... otherwise a bloody war is about to be declared!!!!


So... any advice??????

maria said...

by the way, I sit with direction at lunch...

Scripty said...

Hello Scripty from Barcelona! Nice to hear from you! Good luck on your independent movie, hopefully the D.P. knows screen direction! Send me an update! A Barcelona set picture would be fun to see too! Good luck!

Richard Ragon said...

Scipty, Believe me, its not just scipt thats has this happen to them.. This happens all the time in Sound too.. I'm bringing 50K in sound gear to the set, and someone offers me 100 bucks per day??? Who the heck out there is telling UPMs that they dont need any money to make a film??

I too use the phase, "I got a gig at my normal rate, so sorry I cant do yours.. " I think that a couple of times of that happening, they might start thinking about pay to retain people if nothing else.


Devon Ellington said...

Yeah, draw a line through that name.

I love working on some indie films -- as long as they are creative, intelligent, and the people are nice.

When there's arrogance and attitude involved, it's not for me.

Scripty said...

Thanks for the comments Richard and Devon! Nice to hear I'm not alone in my assessment!