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On-Set Etiquette for Screenwriters

April 30, 2024
6 min read time

It all starts with the script. But once the script is finished and ready to be turned into a movie, writers can often feel completely cut off from the process. I've heard tales of screenwriters walking down a closed-off street and realizing a film they wrote was being shot, and they had no idea. 

Not every writer wants to be on set. Film sets can feel tedious for those who are unaware of the process involved. It's easy to inadvertently step on toes and create a negative experience.

Here are a few tips to make the most out of the experience.

Read More: What Does the Life of a Screenwriter Look Like?

Being on Set Is a Privilege

Unfortunately, writers aren’t always invited to sit on feature films. Television writers are often on set, but in the feature world, unless you have another title, like producer or director, you might be left out of the filming process altogether. 

I have been fortunate enough to be on set for almost all of the projects I’ve written. It requires talking to the director and producer and making sure you have the OK to be there and all the details you need.

A film set; What Do Screenwriters Do on Film Sets?

Watch and Learn 

Nothing helps a writer more than watching how each line of a script is translated on set. Understanding what decisions the director makes and why will help you understand the language of cinema and what adjustments to make next time you are alone with your computer creating magic. Tough choices often arise on set regarding dialogue, performance, and blocking. Each choice will shape a scene in different ways. 

I found the experience of watching different directors bring my words to life enlightening. From the different approaches to dealing with the actors and getting their performances to handling crew, delays, and other issues.

Stay Out of the Way

Film sets are busy, everyone has something they need to do even if it doesn’t look like it. If you are anything like me, you probably want to learn as much as possible, but make sure to do that without interfering with everyone doing their jobs.

This includes being quiet whenever you hear: “Quiet on set!” and during takes and rehearsals. You don’t want to distract anyone.

 Sam Hunter and Ari Handel on the set of 'The Whale;' Write on set

Be Alert

A film set is not a playground. There’s heavy equipment everywhere and people rushing to move large objects. It's often a race against the clock to capture all the shots in the can before the end of the day. Caution is important. Make sure to move out of the way when you hear someone yelling "Points.This indicates that something with sharp points is being moved, and everyone should clear a path.

Ask for Permission Before Taking Photos or Posting Anything Online

Clear it with producers and talent before taking photos or posting them online. There might be a strategy in place regarding which images to release or not release. Actors may want to approve the images before they go online. 

The studio or production company might also have requirements when it comes to revealing images. Always ask first.

You might hear the still photographer or the director of photography saying, “Striking” when turning on a light. Make sure the flash on your smartphone camera is off.

Daniel Kaluuya and Jordan Peele on the set of 'Get Out'

Respect the Hierarchy 

You might be tempted to give actors your notes regarding the scene, performance, and character. However, once you are on set, all such decisions belong to the director. Therefore, ensure that you have those conversations with the director or producer first before addressing the talent or crew with your notes and suggestions.

Enjoy the Ride 

Some actors love to meet the writers and ask them questions about their characters. The only chance you may have to meet some of the cast might be on set. One of the biggest lessons I've learned was about character bios. It was one of the first things an actor asked me on set, and it made me realize the benefit to the performers of the detailed work writers do.

I also enjoyed learning about how each actor prepares for their work, and it made me realize the work actors do to understand the dynamics of a scene and character motivations is similar to the work writers do when creating the scene and the motivations for the actions. 

It’s an amazing feeling to watch the words come to life and see the people envisioned in the mind become real. Don't take the moment for granted, and enjoy it. Screenwriting is never the intended final product. Scripts are meant to become movies.

Read More: Jennifer Kassabian Takes You Inside the Writers' Room for a Day

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