How to be Useful On Set When You're the "Annoying" Screenwriter
Updated: Jul 25, 2021
This post was created in updating my online writing Portfolio.
As I put together my online portfolio, I'm looking back on writing lessons I've learned from some of my favorite projects. This entry is about the short film, "Mr. and Mrs. Kim," a family comedy that won the grand prize at Amazon Prime's All Voices Film Festival (2019).
Watch Mr. and Mrs. Kim on Amazon Prime.
For me, "Mr. and Mrs. Kim" helped me realize the kind of stories that I want to tell as a writer. I love its balance of imagination, humor, and heart -- as well as its underlying message:
No matter your background, at some point you found your parents embarrassing. Once you got past how embarrassing they were, maybe you also came to appreciate your parents on a new level. That's what "Mr. and Mrs. Kim" is all about. It's about a boy coming of age in his realization that his parents are people, too.
"Mr. and Mrs. Kim" was my first collaboration with Jaehuen Chung. Jaehuen directed the film, and we collaborated closely on the story.
Every collaboration is unique. As with any relationship, you learn how the other person works. If the relationship has a solid foundation, together you overcome challenges. The image below depicts how Jaehuen and I collaborate. We alternate between discussion, thoughtful silences, and lots of laughter.
Jaehuen and I have now worked together on projects for close to five years. We sometimes write together, but on "Mr. and Mrs. Kim" I was the sole writer. As a screenwriter, your role on set depends largely on your collaboration with the director. Often, a writer's input is not wanted after the script is completed as writers are sometimes considered to be annoying (I wonder why ;). But that's never the case with Jaehuen. He values the writer's input every step of the way.
Even with the most thoughtful directors, a writer's role on set can be complicated. The writer knows the script better than anyone, the director sometimes being the exception. When you enter production, you as the writer hand off the project to a filmmaking team that's now responsible for translating the story from script to screen. If you're on set as the writer, you have to accept that you're no longer the only author. The director, cast, and crew are now writing a new version of your story. At best, you can continue to aid the storytelling process. At worst, if you become too protective of your script and don't embrace the fluidity of filmmaking, you become an annoyance that nobody wants there.
Even when you're working with the most thoughtful of directors, you might find no longer being the sole author of the film to be frustrating. I remember feeling a little frustrated on our first day. Setting up a shot takes time. When you fall behind schedule, you can't get all the footage you want, and the writer has less time to conference with the director. Whenever we were behind, I felt like I had to disappear. If I stayed on set, I'd care too much about what was going on, and I'd feel like I couldn't speak up or else my input would only add to the time crunch. I didn't want to be deemed the annoying screenwriter.
The thought of walking away wasn't rational. It was fueled by a fear that the movie wouldn't turn out the way that I pictured when I wrote it. It should be noted that the point of any script isn't to be read. It's to be made into a film. As soon as you begin casting and bringing the script to life by entering production, no matter what end product you end up creating, it's inherently better than the script. Because it's real whereas your script is just words.
This entry is titled "How to be Useful On Set When You're the Annoying Screenwriter." For clarity's sake, taking long walks like I did that day is not how! Eventually, I worked past my initial fears and accepted that the best way to be useful was to stay nearby where I could be consulted when needed. When the appropriate time arrives, then you as the writer can step in and voice your opinion, one-on-one, with the director.
Sitting still can be difficult. So, I found ways to be useful outside of my role as "the writer." I helped the production assistants whenever possible. If your film is union, regulations will keep you from helping certain departments from setting up, but if you're working on a non-union project, everyone will just appreciate the gesture. Your willingness to help also makes it easier to move more quickly as a team. You'll have more time to get footage, which will allow you to function more in the role of writer, and that's the goal.
When I wasn't needed, I learned to just enjoy myself. It's not every day that your film gets made, so it's nice to slow down and appreciate the experience as well as the people making it happen. Get to know everyone! Schmooze! Enjoy the snacks! If you're having fun as the writer, hopefully that mood will be infectious. If positivity spreads, again, ideally, you'll move more quickly as a team. That will allow you and the director to conference more, so you can get the footage you want.
My favorite highlight from the production of "Mr. and Mrs. Kim" was getting to step in as the kids' quote-unquote babysitter. I loved working with the kids. Often, we had five restless ten-year-olds on set. To keep them (and me) entertained, I led adventures. We went on safaris to the neighboring soccer field where we made up names for the astroturf as if it were an exotic species of plant. One day, we played soccer during lunch. That led to production delays because everyone was so sweaty and needed fresh make-up.
On one adventure, Jess Nurse constructed a pyramid made up of her fellow cast members (seen in the photo above).
The benefit of me being on set was that I got to consult with Jaehuen from time to time. Mainly, I believe a writer should be on set to chime in when a story element may be missing or to course correct when a certain aspect of the script isn't working.
For the "Mr. and Mrs. Kim" script, I originally wrote a climax that included a massive chase scene, including a toy helicopter following the kids as they ran down the hall and burst into the schoolyard. Due to production limitations, we were never going to be able to film the scene as initially scripted.
Jaehuen and I consulted the day before we were scheduled to shoot. Knowing that we would be crunched for time, we devised a solution. We cut a page and simplified the script's logistics -- all for the better.
A writer should be on set specifically for moments like that. Most of the time, a writer could be eating snacks at the craft services table (aka crafty) and the film would be mostly unaffected. Every now and then, there is a larger story issue. Without the writer there, the director and crew might find a solution. But a writer can only make that problem-solving easier and better thanks to how long they've lived with the script.
I'm so thankful that "Mr. and Mrs. Kim" was one of those special projects where the great writer-director collaboration continued from development into production. Thanks, Jaehuen! This entry's written partially to embarrass you :)