Just over two weeks ago, the film industry lost a woman who was an instrumental part of the creative teams behind loads of movies you’ve probably heard of (American Hustle, Concussion, Her, Foxcatcher, Joy, Whiplash, Veronica Mars, The Gambler, Black Mass, Garden State, The Proposal, Up in the Air) as well as several TV shows (Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, Wilfred, Happy Endings). Her name was Tracy Scott. She was 46, and she lost her one-year fight against breast cancer. Uber-producer Megan Ellison mourned her passing on Twitter, calling her “a stunning soul and talent.” However, if she was so “stunning” and key to so many major movies, 5 of which were nominated for Best Picture, how come we’d never of her before?
That’s because no one ever talks about script supervisors just the same way no one ever raves about foley artists, gaffers, camera operators or any other number of below the line film and TV jobs. In fact, when The Hollywood Reporter put together its big exposé two years ago breaking down Hollywood salaries they couldn’t be bothered to explain what a script supervisor does and how the salaries might range from project to project, which is a level of detail they were more than happy to offer their sections on animal actors, extras, porn stars, private chefs and reality stars. Instead, we simply learned that a script supervisor pulls down an average salary of $62K, placing them on the lower end of paying jobs on a film or TV show.
Luckily, in the wake of Tracy Scott’s passing SCRP’s The Frame decided it was about time we explored the following questions: What exactly does a script supervisor do? And why are they almost always women? And they went straight to the directors who actually worked with Scott to get the answers.
Concussion‘s Peter Landesman
What does a script supervisor do?:
A script supervisor’s job is to keep you honest and to remind you of you, essentially. When you’re directing and shooting — last night I was shooting from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., and at 4 a.m., you start to lose track of things, you forget and get exhausted — they’re there to remind you of all the things you already want to be.
So, um, they offer a guiding hand and moral support? Got it, but wait…let him finish. There’s far more to it than that:
A script supervisor delivers a — basically a novel — of notes to the editor, about matches of shots and screen directions, the technicalities that an audience might never metabolize when they’re watching a movie, because the movie’s cut together smoothly and with continuity.
A lot of that is due to the script supervisor, who sends notations and ideas about how scenes can cut together, how looks are matched, how performances are matched. But script supervisors also applies times of the day to every moment in the screenplay, even when it’s not relevant to the story.
I remember looking at one of Tracy’s pages once, and from scene to scene I saw “6:34 a.m.” and “7:52 a.m.” and “9:26 p.m..” I wrote the screenplay, but believe you me, I’m not thinking about times of the day when I’m writing, and certainly not when I’m directing, but she is. She applies a certain level of organization to a movie that not even the writer or the director has in mind.
She imagines characters as real people stepping out of their shower and into their clothes, into their car, at work, and makes sure that everything makes sense. It doesn’t need to be in the movie that way, but she’s the last line of defense between you and creative anarchy.
And do directors ever thank their script supervisors when accepting their Oscar? Maybe. Those awards show speeches are always such a parade of names you’ve never heard of before. Maybe some of them have and you just didn’t notice because you had no idea what that movie’s script supervisor was named. Maybe the acknowledgement is simply covered in the standard “And thanks to my amazing crew” part of the acceptance speech.
According to Landesman, though, script supervisors don’t do the work in the hopes of having their contribution recognized by the general public.
It’s one of the few jobs in the industry that someone does because they absolutely love the craft. They love the work, the sweat, the long hours, and they love rolling up their sleeves to make something better, even if no one outside of that movie set will know who they are. It’s one link in the very long chain of making a movie, but without a script supervisor, that chain would break over and over again.
David O. Russell (Joy) & Scott Cooper (Black Mass)
Russell doesn’t know how he’s going to make his next movie without Scott. The creative rapport they’d built up will be impossible to replace.
On top of that, a good script supervisor can feel like a good spouse, which Scott Cooper explained in more detail:
They’re more than just a script supervisor — Tracy was part-therapist, she was a psychoanalyst, a filmmaker and a friend. You work so closely with your script supervisors and you have intimate relationships with them, because they’re right at your elbow, even closer than your cinematographer.
Russell pointed out the importance of the script supervisor to maintaining a film’s continuity:
A script supervisor is, in many ways, a very intimate co-filmmaker to the director and to every department, whether it’s camera, wardrobe, production design, or even asking the actors how they wore their necklace after a scene wraps.
Sometimes you’re in an editing room and it doesn’t matter, you can get away with it, but if you cut you might lose continuity — the necklace might jump from the left to the right side of somebody’s collarbone. It’s walking that fine line of when it matters, but they always give us the choice.
But why are they always women, going back to when they used the job used to be called “script girl”? Cooper was at a bit of a loss on that one.
You know, I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m certain that there are many men who would be capable at this job, but perhaps because that position gained an importance in the ’40s and ’50s, I don’t know if the directors or the studio-heads at the time were misogynistic? I never even questioned it, really, it just so happens that the majority of them are women […] Under fire and under pressure, women seem to be calmer and be less ego-driven, and typically directors are megalomaniacal, and they help that.
Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
Tracy was by my side at every moment, and that movie, even more so than your average movie, was so dependent on her. There’s not even one specific moment where she saved us — it was more like she saved us every single scene, every single day.
We knew the shooting style wanted to be pretty quick and we wanted a lot of material to edit, so that meant a lot of different setups, a lot of different coverage, and then at the same time we’re trying to blast through pages and pages of the script because we only had 20 days to shoot the whole thing.
As far as he’s concerned, script supervising is its own art form:
I love being on set, but I also really love and maybe feel most at home in the editing room, and I think the thinking is similar to that of a script supervisor. The people who make great script supervisors, like Tracy, are some of the same people who make great editors — people who like standing behind the camera and watching for the things that no one else would notice, and thinking of creative solutions to stitch things together in a way that, ideally, would be completely invisible to the people that watch the finished movie.
At its highest ideal, it’s an invisible art form, but it’s absolutely an art form and it requires a certain kind of mind that’s so detail-oriented, but is also constantly aware of the big picture in a way that only few people can really do.
Source: The Frame