Writers and producers bring scripts to my colleagues and me so we can write bids for costume design, production design and line production. We do this for a fee because we ask that our clients be serious, plus our time and expertise is valuable. You’re probably familiar by now with Josh Olson’s famous I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script, and we, too, usually say no to doing too much work for free. If you’re paying us and treating us as serious associates, though, we are very interested in helping clients develop their scripts, and we take this job very seriously.
However, we may not be able to do our best pre-emptive work by the time someone finally arranges to come in and talk to us about costumes, locations, sets, props, miniatures and practical effects. Our shop is sometimes a script’s final destination, instead of its first. And this is not always a good thing for two reasons: If made with the script as-is, the final film product may really suffer from low production values. You should have seen us sooner. Plus, our responses to scripts are sometimes not what writers and producers want to hear. In a sense, the buck may stop with us.
This is neither funny nor punny because our work is sometimes negatively categorized as “below the line” of the usual “executive” production team. But we are your necessary eyes, scholars, hands and co-creators. As artists and art directors, we are materialists, bringing your script to life. The things we create for the world of your film need to be as beautiful and as credible as your script is. We are super-nerdy like that and are passionate about splitting hairs over historical facts, arcane subjects and technical terms. Because like you, we are consumers who love and appreciate good film, we will always play the devil’s advocate about your script’s content. We’re artists, and we owe it to the medium we love, so we won’t mince words.
Here’s how the script development process usually rolls inside our production design studio:
I am interviewing you! I have to believe in you and your product.
I’ll first ask you where your script is in its development.
Have other eyes seen it, how many, and whose? What were some responses those readers had? How many rewrites has this script been through? How many issues or problems with your script do you already think you’ve resolved and how did you do it? Who else is already attached- meaning other producers, director, crew and talent? Who is your distributor and what are the specifics of how this film will be released and viewed? Where are you at with your budget?
If you think it sounds like I’m interviewing you for a job, you are exactly right!
If I agree to sign my shop on to your production and design items for your film, it means I’m investing in your film. I’m attaching my name as a producer or costume designer to your project. The stakes are high for me, my colleagues and my staff. So your script needs to have a good story and must actually be produce-able.
But since everything’s negotiable, too, we might be willing to produce the physical assets your film needs at a lower price-point if you already have a marketable director or actor attached. I might also agree to take some of our payment on deferment.
Sometimes we work as mercenaries in the production design business.
If you already have a decent budget, our shop might agree to create your film’s physical assets just for the work, regardless what we think of your script. We’ll do this sometimes during slow months or in-between big projects. We may stipulate through an agreement that you will show us a rough, then a final cut, and we reserve the right to omit our association in the credits if the end product’s a real dud.
Those things being said, as production designers and art directors, we want to create a quality product, so we’re never going falsely praise a script that has issues!
Before I’ll even write you a bid or consider breaking down your script into my spreadsheet that includes head-counts for character and extras, their costume changes and costume multiples for continuity, I may confront you about some of the following common issues and I will ask if you’ll consider rewriting before you go into pre-production
The “common issues” include some of these:
Your script is too wordy.
Your story’s not being told with enough visuals. Film is a visual medium and your story should be told that way. As designers, we are film consumers, too, and we know overwriting when we see it or read it. I’ll go see theater if I’m craving a story told predominantly through dialogue. There’s always a Shakespeare or Sam Shepard production playing somewhere. I want to see that you know how your shots and cinematography are going to tell your story.
Your script contains awkward anachronisms.
Your script has anachronistic technology references, dialogue, attitudes or enculturated behaviors that don’t fit. A Harvard-educated scientist with redneck speech leaves me scratching my head unless your character is behaving ironically. And cell phones don’t belong in films about the 1980’s any more than feminism and political correctness belong in the 1880’s. Unless your story involves time-travel, these are distracting and your product may suffer from the old Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman problem. Revise your script. Don’t be a historical revisionist just because you want to further a personal agenda. We see this a lot in scripts from Utah, actually. Please. We want to be moved by your story, not preached to.
Your script is too populated with supernumeraries.
Your script has superfluous characters whom you drop in as bit players but don’t include later. As is said in so many creative or expository writing workshops, “don’t drop the thread.” If it’s a speaking role, make a decision about that small town store owner who exchanges philosophical barbs with your main character. Or that frat-boy bully who runs interference in your protagonist’s goal to get the girl. Their interactions are dropping hints for your audience, so don’t abandon the inclusion of these character in your story’s resolution. If you can’t do it, cut them. Wrap up all your loose ends.
Your main characters’ motivations aren’t clear and aren’t resolved.
After reading your script, I might code switch into my old theater director’s persona and flatly ask you, “What does character X need?” And how does your script further resolve (or not resolve) that character’s needs and desires? If you’re not sure and can’t verbally sum this up succinctly, and if your script is also unclear about these motivators, how will I know how to design the right costumes for this character as he or she proceeds through his/her journey? How will our production designer know if the props or set pieces are correctly designed and chosen?
My design and producing colleagues and I love great film and collaborating with great artists and writers.
In a part II of this thread, I’ll talk more about the process of designing for film projects once I have a firm handle on (as well as belief in) your script.