Script supervisor and writer/storyteller Gillian Felix is producing a one-hour television drama titled Family Portrait. She talked to us about her experiences on set and in story creation.
A script supervisor has several key responsibilities, according to Felix. “Continuity! In addition to matching make-up, props and wardrobe, we are responsible for paying close attention to the way actors exit and leave a scene, whether there is dialogue in the scene, do they exit camera left or right and who is closest to the camera.”
She goes on to say, “Script supervisors’ notes are the editor’s bible. We are the ones on set who see how it all goes down, and our notes help the editor paste the film together.”
She says that breaking down the script is another of her responsibilities. “It is without a doubt that we have to know the script backwards and upside down to be effective at our job.”
The path to getting work as a script supervisor varies. “I got into script supervising purely by accident,” Felix says. “Back in New York a friend of mine was putting together a miniscule-budget film. The day before shooting, their script supervisor backed out, so he asked me if I could do it. I didn’t even know what a script supervisor did. He gave me the script and pointed out what scenes they were going to shoot and said he would guide me.”
She was only expected to substitute for one day. But by the end of the day the director wanted her to stay on till the end of the shoot. “He had no idea that was my first time,” she says. “I was so in love and passionate about being on set and learning everything that I absorbed a lot in a short space of time.”
Realizing her luck, she acknowledged, “That was the biggest heist my friend and I ever pulled off. I enjoyed myself and got a small stipend. After that my friend got me a book on script supervising (Script Supervising & Film Continuity, by Pat Miller) which I still have and call my scripty bible.”
Training and Tools
Professional training followed. “I then started studying with a professional script supervisor. I got the necessary gear and started booking no-pay productions for the experience. Through word of mouth I got other gigs, which led to paying ones.”
Anyone in the industry knows that a script supervisor has to be detail-oriented, capable of managing and balancing a number of tasks. We wanted to know what tools she uses to make her work effective.
“When I started off I used an Instant Polaroid camera for continuity. Nowadays it’s all digital; a good digital camera is one tool. An excellent stopwatch is another.” Felix says she still likes to take notes using a pencil and a thick notebook with different color tabs for all the departments that she reports to. “It’s a little more work because at the end of the day or on my break I have to re-type,” she admits. “I’d rather carry around a paper notebook with my gear than a laptop. Let’s face it, a paper notebook can go places a laptop can’t and it’s less expensive.”
On an indie film set, where Felix has done most of her work, the script can often be “fluid”, changing much more often than on a large-budget project. How does an emerging filmmaker effectively use a script supervisor? “Definitely for re-takes,” Felix says. “This is where paying attention to when and how an actor enters and leaves a scene or what props they are using, which hand they are carrying the prop in, becomes beneficial.”
Felix states that everyone on the set has a specific function, and usually people are focused on doing their job. “Little things that make a big difference get overlooked.”
“For example,” she says, “in a scene there may be a clock on the wall in the background saying three o’clock. Say you are doing a pick-up of that scene later on. No one is thinking of that clock or what time it showed in the previously shot scene, or that the lighting in that room may have changed. The script supervisor makes sure that all is in place. Also if there is a change in the scene we make notes to let the editor know.”
Writing and Producing
After working as a script supervisor for a number of years, Felix wanted to write a script about a story she had been carrying in her head for years. The result is Family Portrait.
When asked how she first conceived the idea, she said, “I’m almost embarrassed to say that I had the idea since I was a child. I used to hate doing dishes and since I was the oldest I had to do them. The concept for Family Portrait came up because I wanted company while I did the dishes, so I’d make up stories about kids who were more privileged than us and did cool stuff. I would tell the story to my six-year old sister and she was entertained. She would perch herself next to me every time I had to do the dishes.”
Felix says that “eventually I taught her how to do the dishes and I would sit next to her and tell the story. That really worked well for me. The story has evolved over the years; the cool privileged kids have grown up and now have kids of their own. So there’s a lot of history and back story.”
Keeping a story and characters fresh on a series is a challenge. From developing the original story, through creating and assembling the show bible, and on to the writing of individual episodes, the process needs to remain true to the original concept.
An onfolding storyline keeps it all fresh for her. “I’ve had the idea since I was a kid,” says Felix. “Now the story has evolved to another generation of kids, the offspring of the kids I mentioned earlier. There is tons of back history and secrets from the past that this generation is slowly discovering. Not all of them good.”
A show runner will eventually bring other writers into the process. How do you find good writers who can maintain and even grow the original concept? “I have been blessed, blessed, blessed,” Felix says, “to be working with an Emmy Award winning, wonderful show runner Susan B. Flanagan and the crew from Creative Entertainment and Media. She completely got the concept, got the characters, heard their voices. She is a dream to work with. It was very refreshing to find someone who is as excited and passionate about my work as I am.”
They clicked really well and understood each other, according to Felix. “That’s so important. I think listening to other ideas and suggestions is a big part of making things work, and also getting people who understand the show and the characters is important. Egos have to be checked at the door because at the end of the day it comes down to what is right for the show.”
You also need a sense of humor. When Felix first began trying to develop her project, she sent out the synopsis to agents and production companies. “A few of them thought it was a comedy,” she says. “I remember correcting an agent several times, telling her it was a one-hour family drama, and she insisted that it was a comedy. She read the script and got back to me. ‘You didn’t tell me it was a one-hour drama.’ I checked the email I sent to her and right there in the query letter and introductory email it said one-hour family drama.”
Her project is planned for TV. Would she consider putting it on the web as well? “Most definitely! I think web media will be around for a long time. It really puts the power of your project into your own hands. The audience base is unlimited! We have the ability for an indie project to reach a worldwide audience. You couldn’t get better exposure than that.”
Check out Gillian Felix on Facebook.