Guest Post: Bethany Rooney & Mary Lou Belli

Questions Writers Frequently Ask Directors

By Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli

Q: I can “see” the movie in my head as I write it. Why can’t the director see it too?

A: You’ve heard of “the director’s vision”? The director CAN see the film before a single frame is shot, but since he or she is a unique individual, as are you, there is no way that your vision can be the same. We each come to a project with a personal history and a point of view about the world that defines our ethics, our judgments, and our actions…and therefore, our choices. So you have to hope that a wonderful director of vision is hired to direct your script. And if your blue is navy and the director’s is turquoise, you can choose to embrace that divergent choice or resist it. Since it’s a collaborative medium, we always vote for embracing. It makes for a happier set, more creative relationships and a better end product. If navy is crucially important to you, be specific in your script. If the director still picks turquoise, be open to considering whether in fact, that was a better choice. If you can’t embrace it, write a book the next time.

Q: I absolutely love the director of my episode, and I love how it came out. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out exactly what he did to make it good.

A: The job of a writer is fairly (pardon the pun) black and white: there’s a blank sheet of paper, and the writer must fill it with the words that originate the story. The director’s job is far more ephemeral, and unless you were with that director 24/7, it’s difficult to determine what all he did. It helps to remember, though, that the director originated, approved, or impacted every single element within the frame. Every object, every color, every movement, every performance. The director may do something as small as tilt an actress’s hat or as large as casting that actress in the first place. The director may ask for just a hint of a tear in an eye, or require a visual effects flood that destroys a town. He may elect to shoot the climax in one achingly simple close-up or employ a technocrane, a stunt coordinator, special effects, and a thousand extras. The job is one of vision and the leadership necessary to realize the script by sculpting the efforts of the entire cast and crew, while staying on time and budget. It’s extremely complex, but often accomplished in tiny decisions and moments, making it difficult to point to what “exactly” the director did. It’s really the accumulation of a myriad of right decisions that comes together to make a good finished product.

Q: Whenever I give a note on set, the director rolls his eyes when he thinks I’m not looking. I’m infuriated by this. But it’s hard to call him out on something so seemingly minor. What can I do?

A: We can think of a few reasons why this is happening.

  1. The director is insecure, made more so by your notes.
  2. The director is disrespectful of the script, and adjusting it to fit his vision.
  3. Your notes are about your ego, not the script.
  4. You’re overdoing it on set, being obsessive about the actors’ adherence to every comma.

In short, you two are not on the same page. You’re not creative partners. You don’t see eye to eye. (There’s probably more similar clichés here, but we’ll refrain.) You need to have a sit-down and try to work it out. Don’t be accusatory. Start with something like, “I don’t think we’re working together well on set. How can I help?” Remember, while the director knows that it all starts with a good script, he’s on the firing line now, trying to make the best picture he can. It doesn’t help him or the production to have ongoing tension. Try to get your hurt feelings out of the way and take the high road for the sake of your story. If it’s totally the director’s fault (see #1 or 2), you can either walk away or love him/her more. That’s really the only thing that will overcome insecurity and dissolve this passive/aggressive dance you’re both doing.

Q: I had a certain actor/person in mind when I wrote the part. Should I share this with the director?

A: You most certainly should! Whether or not an actor is available to play a part that was written with him in mind, there is a wealth of knowledge that comes to the director from knowing this information. It can also become a jumping off point for a collaborative conversation between you and the director or the person casting the show. The director might want to know if you are looking for the physical characteristics (tall, muscled, handsome) or the essence of the character (formidable, commanding, sexy). These details, and your choice to write the character this way, are the puzzle pieces the director fits together to define the story she’s going to tell. It also informs the director about the history of that character. Characters are like people; they come with baggage, needs, disappointments, accomplishments and dreams. It is the director’s job to find a dynamic, living breathing person for each and every part that appears on the screen.

Q: I wrote that a scene takes place in the kitchen, but the director moved it to the dining room. Why would she do this?

A: A director makes countless decisions that effect a production. She balances the weight of telling the story with the responsibility of bringing in the production on time and budget. If the director chooses to change something, you should know the decision is not arbitrary. She prioritizes where the “money scenes” are and might have to tweak another detail in order to squeeze money out of the budget where it will have the most value for telling the story well. This might not be just a location, it might be a costume or prop you had in mind when writing details into your script. Try to look at the director’s choices with a fresh eye and see if the change matters to the whole.

Q: I want to be on set while filming. Is this a problem?

A: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And it depends when. The director must first and foremost create a safe environment in which the actors dare to do their work. Actors come in all shapes and sizes, with different skill sets, fears, and ways of working. The director has an enormous job being the facilitator, molder, therapist to each actor individually and to all of them as a whole while at the same time being a storyteller and arbiter of good taste. There are certain people who must be present during a first blocking rehearsal in order to make production go smoothly. These are the AD, DP, prop person, and script supervisor. That’s already 5 people, including the director, who the actor feels judging him at his most vulnerable. The director must ultimately protect this vulnerability from which comes an actor’s unique and often subtle performance. Once the entire crew is present, it again becomes a judgment call. If your presence on set puts any undo pressure on the actors, it is the director’s call how to handle it. The upside is that often actors LOVE having a writer on set, knowing that if an idea comes up that might tweak the scene, the writer is there to make an immediate adjustment. They also love the warmth they feel from another supportive entity such as yourself who likes what they are doing.

 

 

This Q & A was created for the WRITERS STORE and is reprinted with permission from Mary Lou Belli and Bethany Rooney.

 

BETHANY ROONEY began her directing career on the 1980’s iconic television show, St. Elsewhere, where she had served as Associate Producer.  She has directed over one hundred and fifty episodes of prime-time network shows, including Criminal Minds Parenthood, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Brothers & Sisters, Castle,and Private Practice.  For cable television, she has directed In Plain Sight, Weeds, and  Drop Dead Diva.
MARY LOU BELLI, an Emmy award winner, has directed television for over 20 years including Wizards of Waverly Place, Sister, Sister, Charles in Charge, Girlfriends, and The Game as well as Monk and Hart of Dixie as well as award-winning web series. She is the co-author of three books: “The NEW Sitcom Career Book,” “Acting for Young Actors,” and  “Directors Tell the Story.” She teaches at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

The Micro Mind vs. The Macro Mind

I’m in the middle of production on a short film. It’s been a strenuous and intense preparation and pre-production. The script has gone through significant rewrites always bringing us closer to our truth, to the story we want to tell. We’ve lost actors and some have come back. We’ve had our share of crew challenges but the creative team has always stayed focused. And our guiding light, our lighthouse in every storm has been the story. Always the story. If I’ve learned anything in the past 40 years of directing theater and film it is that you can never go wrong if you consider the story first, last and foremost. What matters most is the story. And I have to keep reminding myself that every story is a compilation of many mini-stories (scenes, events, moments).

Several months ago I was asked to direct a feature film. I heard the pitch over the phone from the producer said, “If the script lives up to the pitch, the answer is ‘yes’.” When I read the script I immediately said ‘yes’ again even though I knew the script needed a lot of work. The story was there and it was strong and compelling.

It’s always been difficult for me to focus deeply on two or more projects at the same time. I know this is part of the business, multi-tasking, but in order for me to do the deep and specific work required on any one project I pretty much have to ignore all the other projects, especially when I am in pre-production or production. And that’s what happened during the past month. I was so focused on my short film, that the compelling feature film drifted to the back burner, getting only lip service. Until now.

As we wrapped production on the short film I could feel the feature script begging for attention, undivided attention. And even though I still needed to focus on the post-production for the short I felt safe letting my mind shift to the feature. In fact, I was looking forward to the opportunity to immerse myself into a new project – a new story.

But what happened next was totally unexpected.

Now I am reading the script, a script I have read several times and by the end of the second page I can feel something is wrong – dreadfully wrong. The script isn’t working. Now it seems to be just a mere suggestion of the story and it is in no way revealing the truth of the story. I keep reading. Scene by scene and event by event I keep seeing massive holes, significant problems, weak choices, poorly defined characters, forced actions and unearned emotions – the gamut. And yet, lurking behind this faltering script, somewhere hiding with great trepidation deep in the shadows is the same powerful story I had first heard many months ago. It hasn’t left. It just doesn’t know how or where to come out.

Now I’m on page 30 and I stop reading. I can’t go one. I go for a walk with my dog, Tanner (the best place for me to have conversations with myself), and I ask myself, “What happened? What has changed? I know it’s the same script. Why did it enthrall me before and why do I now think it is so unworkable?” And I keep walking and asking. And Tanner keeps listening and sniffing.

By the time I got back home I had come up with three possible explanations. Tanner thinks they’re good. His favorite is explanation #3.

One: The Sequence of events.

This project was first introduced to me through a powerful and persuasive pitch. (I’m now learning to be a bit suspicious of a great pitch!) And that powerful and persuasive pitch dominated my thinking for a long time. It even allowed me to dismiss the slight flaws and problems I saw in the script at the first reading. But, I don’t think that’s the main problem. So let’s look at #2.

Two: My pitching.

During the process of attracting talent and investors for this project I had to find the best way for me to pitch it. It’s a difficult story to pitch because of the violence and unwarranted brutality, but eventually I found a way that worked really well for me and for the listeners. In fact just the other day I pitched it to my driver, Nash, who was bringing me to the airport. I knew he had this fascination with ‘the bad guys’ so I tested my story and my pitch out on him. It worked like a charm. But here’s the question: have I become so enamored of my pitch, my way of telling the story that I have lost sight of the real story and the strengths and weaknesses of the script? It is possible. And I do think that’s part of the problem. But then there is reason #3, Tanner’s favorite.

Three: Me.

That’s right. I’m the problem. I’m what has changed and altered the balance of the process. For the past few months not only have I been concentrating on another story, but I’ve been deep into production where my focus has been on every story detail and nuance to the point of obsession. Every day I’ve been focusing on the smallest details and possibilities of every moment insuring that they are rendered to the best of my ability so that the story will work. And then, when I am still in that mindset, I sit down and read another script with which I am familiar and suddenly I’m seeing below the surface, I’m seeing details and nuances, possibilities and problems that I hadn’t seen before. And now I can’t see the overall picture the way I used to.

And now I have a new experience, my view of the details (and the devils that are residing therein) is laser, sharp and focused. It’s a gift. Doors and windows have been opened for me. I am allowed to see the magic and mystery that lurks beneath. And I like that.

Talking with the producer and writer of this script and sharing my new insights with them has not been easy. They have not taken well to my laser vision, my myopic pov of every detail. Their minds are still riding on global scan, orbiting, remaining objective. They are far from my internal inquisitive probing, but that’s okay. That’s the creative balance that we need.

As I am writing this, I am involved in a third production (yes, one of those on the multi-tasking list) in Italy. My mind seems to have remained in its happy laser mode (luckily, because that’s what I need) and now I am looking forward to when I will have an opportunity to revisit to the feature script (I’m still stalled at page 30) and continue this new amazing experience. All I need is a day off. It’s coming.