The history, the job, and a behind the scenes interview with script supervisor Caroline Berthonneau
The movies that move us are the ones that allow us to enter the story without even noticing. A great story can grab you by the hand and pull you in, and once the lights come back on, you might not know where you are or where you have gone. Creating this feeling of transportation is vital to our experience as an audience and can largely be attributed to continuity- a concept that if is done right, we have no idea it is done at all. There is one single role in filmmaking that is so important, only one person can do it. This role is the script supervisor.
While considered a one person department, the script supervisor is actually the only person to work directly with every other department in the filmmaking process. Once called a “script girl” (until the late 1940s) the script supervisor works with writers during pre- production, cameras, costume, lighting, and props during production, and the editor during post- production.
The main mission of the script supervisor as mentioned before, is CONTINUITY. Because movies are not shot in the order in which they appear, this one job of monitoring the continuity of a film involves a keen eye for detail, extreme organization, and a deep understanding of the script and story. For example, keeping track of continuity between shots and takes, even on a single day of shooting can involve:
MAINTAINING AN AXIS or keeping a consistent eyeline between characters during a conversation scene so that the audience can keep a sense of space and understanding of where the actors are in relation to one another
MATCHING MOVEMENT which can be seen in shots where a character is walking or driving, or where the camera itself is moving. Like maintaining an axis, keeping moving shots continuous allows the audience to know what direction the character is going and not think that the character is walking forward and backward in some kind of maze.
NOTING SOUND which actually means working with the sound mixer and the clapper loader to ensure that a crisp and clear sound sync is captured at the beginning of each shot, and that the shot is labeled correctly on the clapper. This task also involves taking production notes that show for each shot the corresponding sound file. This not only helps during production, but assists the editor as well.
SCRIBBLING ON THE SCRIPT is mostly done in pre production, but is used, updated, and edited throughout production. This is the script supervisors secret map to all the fine details of each shoot. In some ways, you might think of the script supervisor as having the gift to see the future, and the script is their crystal ball.
MAKING PRODUCTION NOTES means archiving all that happens on set as the script is captured on camera. Even though the script is there to follow, new innovations might arise while shooting. Depending on the director, actors might be allowed to contribute input and insights into their character that might change a position or line, all of which can have a ripple effect on the rest of the shoot. Therefore, taking production notes acts as documentation of the shoot itself, which is then used to coordinate for following scenes between lighting designers, cinematographers, wardrobe, props, and everyone in between.
MAKING EDITOR NOTES is like taking production notes, but now is curated to fit the editor’s needs during post production. The script supervisor in this way acts as a liaison between the director and the editor, who is often not on set, but still needs to know details about the mountain of footage they receive at the end of the day.
Continuity errors in movies can be spotted all the time if you are looking closely. Sometimes the error is so small that our minds correct the mistake in our brains and we never notice. If you do spot a a continuity error, you can’t always blame the script supervisor for missing a cue. In some cases, the editor will decide to sacrifice continuity for the sake of a better performance by the actor. Maybe that can explain what happened in the editing of this scene from Pretty Woman.
As you can see, script supervisors have one of the most involved, mind bending, and exhausting jobs you can have in the film world. Lucky for us, we have the chance to talk to a real life New York based script supervisor Caroline Berthonneau, who can pull back the curtain and give us an even more behind the scenes look at the world of the script supervisor!
Hi Caroline! Thanks for talking with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself before we get started with some film questions?
I was born in France, I grew up in the countryside between Paris and middle of France. I went to college to study English and performing arts before going to Film School in Paris. I have always worked as a script supervisor, mainly on short films in France, now here in New York. I work mainly on short films and features. Some of my main shorts include some award winning projects like Desde el Principio, Longing, Staff Pick, Sweetie. Same for some feature like Wanderland or The Light of the Moon, of which I'm very proud, because it got the "Audience Award" at the SXSW film festival of Houston and talks about the sensitive subject of rape.
Wow, great work! So I was wondering first, what is your process before going on set to be ready to do this job?
I am studying the script and doing a breakdown of the whole script. I make sure I understand everything and I have all the information to highlight what is essential and summarize the whole script in this breakdown. (That also includes breaking down props, wardrobe, make up...) I am usually meeting with the director at least once to talk about the script and the way he prefers to work with his script supervisor. If I can, I go to the table read of the script with the actor or the rehearsal, to have a better understanding of what the director wants, and take notes for myself and of the possible script changes.
As a script supervisor, how do you work with a director who makes room for improvisation with their actors?
I try to keep note of all the different suggestion the actors are doing and of course keep track of what is the director’s favorite. I am also here to make sure that even if they are improvising that the essential information that is needed to be in that scene/dialogue/action are there, and that I am not missing something that matters for the scene or film itself and I would remind the director if he forgot.
What type of shoots do you typically do script supervising for? (film/ tv) and can you explain how this role may vary between film, tv, and documentary?
I work more on fictional films, shorts or features. There is no script supervisor in documentary but there is in commercials, and they pay more attention to timing. In TV, it's taking care of the continuity inside an episode but also inside the whole show, but the workflow is the same for all fictional works.
What potentially can go wrong if the script supervisor wasn't there? Do you have any horror stories from your own experience?
The comprehension of the film or the scene can go wrong. The 180° line can be crossed and you can get the viewer confused of who is talking to who and where they are in a room, and the editor can't really save that in the editing room. It happen to me several time to remind the crew that they were planning on shooting on the wrong side of the line and they change it because I was there.
The continuity can be mess up, with props, costumes, and actions. Once they were about to shoot a scene in the wrong wardrobe- 3 people were getting out of an house and we have already shot what was directly before in the house, so I told them and they changed into the right wardrobe. If I wasn't there, the character would have just magically changed outfits.
I usually have the shot list when there is one, so I am also here to make sure that they haven't forgotten a shot or coverage. It’s happened to me several times to alert that a specific sentence hasn't been shot yet. Or for example I remember at the end of a day, everybody called wrap, but I stopped everyone because a shot I know the director wanted hasn't been shot (it was the last day in that location), and the director thanked me because she forgot and this shot is now in the final cut of the movie, and it feels really good :)
Do you feel like you have an understanding of the film you are working on that is unique from other crew members?
Yes, because I know the entire script. I always have it on me, and I know what happened before and what's happening next when we are shooting (script wise). Only a few members of the crew have read the whole script. I have realized that sometimes I even know the script better than the director himself.
If you have worked as a script supervisor in France, does this role differ between France and US?
It's mainly the same things, but it's tiny details that are different on set, so you don't interact with the same people for example. One of the main differences is that in France, script supervisor takes care of the camera report, but in the US it's the 2nd assistant camera. Here we also complete progress in 1/8 of pages, divided the script in 1/8 of pages. For example yesterday we shot 3 pages 5/8, today 2 7/8 and tomorrow we are scheduled for 4 1/8, and the script is 94 2/8. We don't do that in France, we talk more just in scene. The reports are also different, in formatting and also in the info you put on it, even if in the end the most important information stay the same.
What about this job satisfies you personally? What personality traits do you have that makes you good at this job?
You have to be discreet, and know to talk when you have to and at the right moment. I like to be part of a crew and with this job I have to interact with almost everybody on set. I have to be at the heart of everything while shooting but still be quiet but not too quiet.
So I think I'm discreet but like to socialize (even if it's hard sometimes) and I like paying attention to all the details and be close to the center of the action, and I have a good memory.
Thanks for talking with us Caroline! We are going to start paying more attention to the end credits- I know we are going to start seeing your name on a lot of great films!
Think you could be a good script supervisor? Test yourself! Next time you are watching a movie, pick a scene and count how many shots there are. How many are wide shots? How many are close ups? Are any tracking/ moving? Find any continuity errors? Call MGM!