Think you can get by without a script supervisor? Think again.
This post was written by Caryn Ruby.
Savvy directors and smart producers get it—so why do so many productions think they can save money by not hiring a script supervisor? Or when they do, why are we one of the last department heads hired?
You may think you are saving money by not hiring a script supervisor, but you are likely setting yourself up for a much longer and more expensive post-production process.
What Makes Script Supervisors the Unsung Heroes of Film & TV?
In Jon Fusco’s 2017 No Film School article “Here's Why Script Supervisors Are the 'Secret Ninjas' of Film Production,” script supervisor Eve Butterly had it right:
"I am your cheapest department because I am a department of one and I have the opportunity to save you the most money."
While many script supervisors believe we should actually be more than a “department of one,” a large part of our job is to find and help correct issues before we roll. If we are only brought on right before filming (if at all) we can’t possibly do our best work.
What makes us “secret ninjas” starts in prep. If we’re brought in early enough, we can catch things that necessitate a script revision instead of costly reshoots or extensive finagling in editing.
We comb through the script for any logical inconsistencies, internalize the script, prepare story day/night breakdowns—and depending on the needs of the script—various other breakdowns such as locations, Time of Day, injuries, costumes, props, and any other script-specific details to share with all departments.
We are not only a second pair of eyes for every department’s continuity, we are often the only one thinking about details that fall between departments such as character arc, emotional continuity, etc.
If given sufficient prep time, you help us help you!
Lessons from a Script Supervisor
When I first started script supervising, I was so happy to get the gig that I didn’t ask—or even think to ask—for any paid prep or wrap days. I just did all my prep (and wrap) work for free. This craft has a really steep learning curve and since it takes a while to get proficient, it’s customary to take low-paying gigs when first starting out.
I learned early on that prep and wrap days should be paid, but it’s a constant strain during interviews because I am often the only one to bring it up. Producers and directors often act surprised and “haven’t budgeted” for prep days, so I need to justify and explain what I would be doing and why it’s necessary for me to do a good job. Perhaps part of the problem is that nobody ever sees this part of the work because we’re studying and breaking down the script at home. Alone.
Additionally, it’s always a great idea to include me in production meetings, tech scouts, and rehearsals. If I’ve had time to prepare my breakdowns, I can point out potential issues with blocking or shooting plans or remind everyone about an important moment or insert shot described in the script.
Learn from Experience
Early in my career, I chalked it up to inexperience. I was new, and many of them were too. But it kept happening, some films calling for a script supervisor to start on set the next morning—no time for prep even if it were paid!
At script supervisor meetups I learned that this was not a new—or uncommon problem. Even at union level, script supervisors still fight for enough prep days, camera fees, box rentals, etc.
In fact, Sylvia Parker (No Time To Die, The Favourite) told me that a medium-budget film she scripted years ago sent the second unit to shoot pick-ups of a large battle scene without a script supervisor. She had recommended her trainee script the scene, but the UPM decided they weren’t necessary. So, the scene (involving lots of extras) was shot with the stunt doubles’ weapons all in the wrong hands and it didn’t match main unit.
In the end, they had to reshoot it entirely—this time with the trainee! This is an extreme but not uncommon example. Productions often try to save money by not paying modest script supervisor’s wages, and then have to pay many times more in the end to correct mistakes that could easily have been avoided with a fully prepared script supervisor.
One director I worked with told me, “I really don’t need a script supervisor, the producer made me hire one.”
And after being the first script supervisor experienced directors had ever worked with time and time again, it started to become clear. How could producers and directors understand/appreciate what script supervisors do if they’ve never worked with a skilled professional before?
This lack of understanding of even the basics of our job leads many to believe they can just give a software program to a PA and call them a script supervisor. When they get bad results, it isn’t just that film that suffers—it’s all of us, because it negates our value and denigrates the necessity of the position itself!
We Need a Podcast About This!
It’s frankly infuriating that so many think we are simply “note-takers” and/or frivolous members of the crew that can be easily eliminated. Something had to be done!
So I created the podcast, “Script Supervisors: Unsung Heroes of Film & TV,” a backstage pass to the process of filmmaking from one of the most difficult and little-known department head positions on a film crew.
All 10 episodes clock in under 30 minutes and include advice from over a dozen opinionated script supervisors from across the U.S. with experience in everything from low-budget indie films and commercials all the way to multiple Oscar and Emmy award-winning and nominated films & TV shows including Black Panther, Star Wars Episode IX, Mr. Robot, Boardwalk Empire, Fear the Walking Dead, Harriet, Life of Pi, Pen15… and the list goes on!
Each episode includes a short interview with one of our esteemed guests and a compilation of the best and most pertinent information on a single theme distilled into a fast-paced, funny, and extremely educational topic such as, “What the heck is a script supervisor?” or, “Why you should stop calling us scripty.”
I hope you will listen and help spread the word. Together we can help educate our colleagues and dispel some of the myths about our amazing and misunderstood craft!