Lost In Translation: or, Putting The Shoe On The Other Foot. 

Up to this point, most of what I have written (that has been made), was made by me. I have directed things that were written by other people and I've tried hard to maintain the sanctity of their words unless they were really bad (no names). I've seen other directors who had no reservations throwing the writer's intentions out of the window. I'd name names but the guy I'm referring to can't read anyway so what's the point? 

So this was exciting. Writing for a project that someone else was going to direct. When I say exciting I think that there are other words that might be just as appropriate but not get through the obscenity filter at my mom's office.

The low-down:
I had done some uncredited re-writes on some stuff for Time-Warner Cable. That stuff had gone over quite well and when the folks in marketing made noises about doing some more stuff 'in house' I was glad that TH and JW gave me a call and wanted to make the relationship official. I would be 'brought in' to do the scripts for some new marketing material. Being brought in meant that I would be official, legit and best of all paid.

Unnecessary Back Story:
Time-Warner is a giant media company. In addition to owning Warner Brothers, and Time Magazine (hence the name) they also own a piece of at least one company in any field that affects your life on a day-to-day basis. Don't take my word for it. Google them and you'll see they got fingers in every pot. They spend literally millions of dollars each year promoting themselves and their goods and their services. Most of that money goes to outside advertising agencies (and some in which they own small interests) but some of that promotional dollar they actually spend 'in-house'. In-house means within the company, and explains how I got to join in on the fun.

Necessary Back Story:
The last batch of promotional spots introduced us to Brad and Bridget, a tech savvy couple who have nothing else to do in life but enjoy Time-Warner Cable and the ancillary products of Time-Warner. B&B are always right on top of new innovations and technical gadgets meant to keep your butt firmly planted on the couch. The spots seemed to work, so B&B would be returning for these new spots.

The Cast:
These are not actors these are people that actually do something:

TONY HOPE, Director of the old spots, director of the new spots. Tony is Time-Warner employee and in addition to directing the spots he was also wearing a few more hats as producer, editor, co-ordinator and dabbling in shoe shining as much as time permitted.
JOHN WEBBER, Executive Producer, Tony's boss and an original champion of getting the marketing people to look in-house in the first place. John is spread pretty thin by Time-Warner and most of his work on the projects was in an advisory capacity.
ERIC G. PETERSEN, Director of Photography, and much much more. By the time we were done he had taken on a bit of everything and added Producer to his list of credits.
AARON RATNER, Line Producer, Assistant Director. The assistant director does a lot of the stuff that folks thing the director is supposed to do. Aaron had to schedule everything, every piece of equipment and every person on set to use it. He has to see how much budget there is and make it spend like about twice as much. This job involves lots of phone calls, lots of paperwork and is pretty unglamorous.
TOBY WALLWORK, Hero, savior of the day? Not exactly. I was the writer, which is a strangely vague word to describe someone who's entire job involves words. In a medium of images, the word guy usually intimidates everyone else because they don't know why he's there. And the secret is... neither does he. He might think he's there to protect the words, but at the end of the day he can get a bum's rush faster than anyone. Writers always know where the cookies are.

I got lost on the way to the set. For anyone else this would be a disaster. It would not be difficult to figure out how much money per minute is being lost when a particular crew member is absent. This is not true in my case. There is no hold up when the writer is driving in circles all over West Hollywood. No harm done.

When I first set eyes upon the soundstage there is an initial 'Wow'. A huge white seamless wall, bigger than any I'd ever seen before, and a small but focused group of folks all assembling prepping and tweaking stuff, just like the construction guys in Fraggle Rock.

And of course, me.

So the shoot begins. I'll spare you the details of production since they are as boring to type as they were to watch. Production is the execution of a plan, the better the plan, the less surprises you will have. They told us that in school, and it's one of the few things that they were right about.

I'd say we had a pretty good plan. We had a shot sheet (hurray!), we had storyboards (gasp), we had great scripts (????). But along the way I noticed some subtle differences in terminology that made what we shot considerably different that what I had imagined when I wrote these scripts. I should add that I also worked very closely with Tony and Eric to come-up with shot selections and anything that I thought would cement the overall tone into place. But here are some of the things that I learned.

1. Your idea of a medium close-up and my idea of a medium close-up may be quite different.
2. 'Minimal' is a very subjective term.
3. Sometimes people say "Yes" when what they mean is "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening but please don't shout at me".
4. Everything takes longer, period.
5. Actors are like snowflakes, unique, original and they melt under hot lights.
6. Everything takes longer, period.

Now none of this blog is intended to be a hatchet job. I found the entire experience very educational. Sure things went differently than I had expected, but in return we created something bigger than any one person could have hoped.

The actors have a difficult job. There isn't a column on a script where I could write "Do this like you're Barney Fife, or Elaine from Seinfeld" and there shouldn't be either. You have to let actors find the character, and if they aren't finding the character you hoped, then you have to try and guide them to that character by way of the character they already have. In short, when you are cracking your friends up doing a funny voice, you aren't acting. Even in these little commercials Brad and Bridget had to be real for Brad and Bridget. They weren't just reading the lines, they weren't just being themselves. As a writer I wish I had given them more guidance to the characters I wanted them to be, but at the same time it was an odd experience hearing the scene go a totally different way because of the way their characters ran it. It's a little disappointing because I think they played the humor a little meaner than I intended, but its someone else's baby and that interpretation is what made it real.

Brad was the first to really approach me. He asked if he was doing it 'right' and while I thought he could've been a little more subtle I told him that his energy was really making the character pop (which it was). After all, while it wasn't exactly what I had expected, it was a pretty fun take on the character.

Bridget never actually spoke to me about how she was doing. This is ok, I didn't know how much input she would be good with, and besides on the set its the director's job to direct the actors, so I didn't mind.

Brad and Bridget in action.

The director has a difficult job too. With the writer on the set he must be aware that there is someone there who thinks he knows more about how this should all be going that he does. Tony did really well. I took lengths not to muscle in (it was tempting) because I knew I probably could have, Tony has always been open to input, but this was his baby and I enjoyed watching him put it together. He knew when the boards were wrong, he knew when something wasn't working. He has to make battlefield decisions when the plan isn't working out on the set as well as it did in the conference room a week before. And since he was going to be editing the spots too, he knew he didn't want to do anything to screw himself over, down the line. We finished ahead of schedule, so you'd have to say he took care of all that just fine.

The writer and the cinematographer have an interesting relationship. Commercial scripts are written in two columns using a format called AV. One column is all camera direction, description, action, a stripped down transcript of what the viewer should see. This is the important half for the cinematographer. The other half of the sheet is the dialogue, sharp, witty, a zinger sandwich or two, this is the bit that the writer shows off to his friends. This part is not the concern of the cinematographer. As a writer I learned that you have to use your clever words on both columns of the paper. You can't be vague about a shot or a scene because it's all the cinematographer has to go on. I should have done more with these scripts, as a result it fell on Eric's shoulders to do a lot, fill in a lot of gaps, spend precious (and expensive) time trying to figure out what I meant, instead of simply referring to what I had written. I think Eric did a lot with what he had been given, I wish I'd been clearer about what I had given him.

Production went very well. Tony really worked well with the actors. He gave them a lot of freedom and they didn't take him anywhere he didn't want to be, lucky. Aaron kept everything moving (he was the assistant director on the set). It's his responsibility to keep the director free from hassle and clutter, I'm sure that Tony would agree that he did. I got to watch (this was kinda boring) I got to hear my lines made real (if not always the way I had planned) and got to watch the storyboards get replaced by screen grabs. I felt a bit superfluous to requirements, but I had agreed to be there, and there I was. Once in a while something came up that I was able to help with, that was nice. Eventually the crew thought it would ok to speak to me (nice too), and by the time we were all finished, I was right at home. Then it was time to go. 

Posted: Thu - September 9, 2004 at 02:56 PM       @ toby