It was while visiting the set of Chariots of Fire
that I saw my future. Getting there was not easy, nor was it fast.
While watching the production, the one person on the set whose job
I felt closest to was the lady with the script on her hip, Kay Rawlings.
She was always a few steps behind or next to the director, Hugh
Hudson. I learned later that this was the script supervisor, and
she was the director’s constant companion. Whenever there was a
huddle of key people, she was in the middle of it all. The actors,
the director, the DP, the operator, the sound recordist and the
script supervisor were all talking together. Then I noticed the
producer, David Putnam, walk onto the set and join them. That day
changed the direction of my life. I was 16. Little did I know that
nine years later I would be following Stanley Kubrick around the
made-up battlefields and bombed-out buildings on the set of Full
Metal Jacket. What began as a three-month engagement working
with Kubrick turned into a full 12-month project that raised my
career possibilities. I was then the youngest script supervisor
working in England.
When I first started in the business, I would have
given my eyeteeth for some kind of training. The only option was
to get a job assisting a script supervisor on a film or commercial.
After knocking on doors, writing letters and making many phone calls,
I finally got my break from a producer who took pity on me (so I
thought) and offered me the script supervisor’s position on a film
he was about to make. Little did I know that I would be working
with kids and animals-or that the salary was non-existent. It didn’t
matter to me as I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I reread
(for the thousandth time) the only book on the market at that time,
written by Avril Rowlands, called Script Continuity and the Production
Secretary in Film and TV and thought I knew everything that
would take me through the next four weeks.
The first week was sheer hell. The second week wasn’t
much better. The third week seemed to ease up a little and by the
fourth week I was just starting to enjoy it as I began to understand
my role in the moviemaking process. Perseverance was the only thing
that got me through the hardest four weeks of my career, but I learned
a lot in a very short time.
Within three weeks of wrapping that project, I was
packing my bags and leaving for France . Soon afterward I landed
Full Metal Jacket, then Willow with Ron Howard directing
and George Lucas producing, Memphis Belle, Jude and Four
Weddings and a Funeral.
After five years I thought I knew everything there
was to know about script supervising. When I reached my tenth year,
I realized that only then did I know what makes a good script supervisor.
Working for Kubrick I learned what a perfectionist
really is. During the scenes in the barracks I had to make sure
the beds were a certain distance apart from each other and from
the walls so that they were in exactly the same spot each time we
walked onto the set, down to the last tenth of an inch! I learned
that photographic evidence (an SX-70 Polaroid) was invaluable, for
it helped everyone on the set achieve continuity, which is one of
the jobs a script supervisor does. During the many takes in the
barracks scenes on Full Metal Jacket, it was my responsibility
to ensure the costumes on the soldiers were the same for each shot,
and that the length of an actor’s hair was the same. I found that
Polaroids put a stop to arguments between the various departments
on set, costume, props, make-up and hair. After all, how else could
you tell how long somebody’s hair was at the back unless you had
a photograph to look at?
Julie Ann Robinson sits alongside director James Dearden
Despite the ‘art of script supervising,’ actual photographs
do help us remember the positioning of props and wardrobe, make-up
and hair. I found the use of Polaroids was an invaluable tool on
one film I worked on when we had three weeks of shooting in New
York. When we returned to England one of the close-up shots of the
leading lady had an emulsion scratch through the entire take. We
weren’t able to return the whole crew to the location, but we were
able to re-stage the scene in England with the aid of my Polaroids.
During the shooting of a film, I pay closest attention
to the details in each shot. I note the smallest action, when it
happened and where and how the actors were standing, sitting and
moving, as well as the positioning of the props. As much of what
the camera saw and heard would be written down for immediate and
later reference in order to keep continuity from shot to shot and
scene to scene. Part of this can be learned; some of it needs to
be acquired through experience. But the better script supervisors
take to the role naturally; they have a gene for observation, detail
and organization. We’re just born that way.
A script supervisor is more than the director’s secretary.
They are there to aid the director in the making of the film, to
ensure the finished film flows in continuous action as if it had
been shot in real time, in shot and scene order, without any mistakes
normally caused through ‘out of sequence’ shooting. The script supervisor
makes notes for the editors, gives actors their lines, times each
shot and watches to make sure the director and camera do not “cross
the line.” He or she keeps the director honest to the script, reminds
everyone of what shot is next, ensures that all the shots written
are in the can and then watches to be sure there is continuity between
The script supervisor’s job begins well before production
starts. A week before a major feature begins shooting, I will read
and digest the script. I have to know the script as if I’d seen
it as a finished film a dozen times. While reading the script I
also time it-each scene is timed with a stopwatch as I see it play
out in my head. Then, once filming is underway, I time each scene
with my stopwatch, checking to see that each one does not go over
the desired running length.
During pre-production, I also prepare a continuity
script breakdown. I will use this breakdown during production as
a reference. This is a great help when the director asks: “Do the
doors open before the music starts or after?” or “Does the actress
have her hair short or long in the three scenes we’re shooting today?”
My breakdown will give me the answer in seconds.
On Four Weddings and a Funeral, we filmed so
many church scenes it was even difficult for me to keep all the
shots in order. One day the director asked me if the congregation
had been standing or sitting at a certain point in the scene as
he was preparing to set up the next shot. I blurted out in haste
that they were standing. Then I checked my notes and saw they were
in fact sitting so I said “No sorry, they’re sitting.” The next
thing I heard was him shouting at the top of his voice: “Were they
standing or sitting??” This, of course, made me doubt myself and
I just had to double-check my notes before finally shouting out
again “Yes, they were sitting.” It had been a long day and the director
had had enough. He was under a huge amount of pressure trying to
fit everything he had to shoot into each day, but he managed and
we made an amazing film.
It’s a good feeling to be able to sit next to a director,
and when you both see something that doesn’t feel right, look at
each other and realize the same thing. It may be an actor’s look
is off, or he misses a piece of dialogue, or he sits down in a matching
shot much later than in previous shots and you both realize there
will be a problem in editing. “Cut!” The director brings the mistake
to the actor’s attention, “Back to number one,” shouts the AD. “Sound.
Camera. Action.” And we are off again.
My job is to catch mistakes in continuity, dialogue,
even performance and camera placement-and point out these errors
to the director. It is the director’s responsibility to make the
correction. The really experienced director will be able to tell
if the mistake is going to be a problem for the editor. Good directors
welcome this input, expect and demand it. The less experienced directors,
of which there are many, may ignore the crew’s suggestions and the
film suffers for it in editing.
I have worked with directors who did not understand
the craft of moviemaking, but knew how to direct actors. I have
worked with directors who knew what they were doing technically,
but didn’t have a clue about working with actors. And I have worked
with directors who knew the craft of moviemaking entirely. These
directors were a dream to work with.
A good script supervisor needs to be knowledgeable
but a diplomat. You not only need to know how films are made, you
need to understand the dynamics of each scene. You need to know
that each scene is made up of shots which, when edited together,
will form a seamless flow of action that tells a story. This is
the magic of film.
more than 20 feature films, a few TV series and hundreds
of TV commercials later, I have hung up my stopwatch, turned in
my stool and become a full-time mother to a daughter and son. But
as I look back on my 17 years as a script supervisor I realize it
was a fantastic period of my life. There were weeks spent filming
in the desert; dodging elephants in the jungle; filming at Raffles
in Singapore; visiting Monument Valley and the Arches; shooting
in Paris, Kenya, Malaysia, New Zealand and all over Europe. I have
worked with directors and producers such as Ron Howard, Stanley
Kubrick, James Dearden, Mike Figgis, George Lucas, David Putnam
and actors like Matthew Modine, Sean Young, Rod Steiger, Hugh Grant,
Sir John Gielgud, Stephanie Powers and Andie MacDowell. I have been
ferried by helicopter to snow-covered mountains to shoot a film,
living under canvas in the desert, seen all the wild animals come
down to the watering hole, listened to the monkeys during a night
in the jungle and flown in a B-52 bomber. Although my time is now
devoted to my family, my gift back to the industry is in teaching
the course I wished was in existence when I first started as a script
Julie Ann Robinson now teaches a one-week workshop
for script supervisors at the International Film & Television
Workshops in Rockport, Maine each summer.