Winter 2020

The Snowball Effect of Late Scripts

Late scripts affect everything from casting, editing and performances to overall cost and safety, and can make the difference between mere competence and genuine artistry

By Robert Abele

Illustrated by Brian Stauffer

Paris Barclay remembers the experience like it was yesterday. For many episodic directors, it was yesterday.

"On one show, an established hit, we received the script the day before shooting was to begin," says Barclay, who describes wrestling with having to prep an episode while shooting it at the same time. "We started [with] our standing sets, but had pages of dialogue the actors valiantly tried to master overnight. One was brought to tears during shooting, struggling to give a solid performance but barely remembering the speeches she was given. I spent a good amount of time just getting her through it, and it ended up being only a shadow of what it could have been."

The snowball only got larger. Barclay, co-chair of the DGA Television Creative Rights Committee, continues: "Locations we were told would be in the script were not—but we had already paid for them. Guest cast we had booked—but in the end had no lines—were replaced by extras and paid off. Our AD staff worked until midnight trying to make a schedule that would make sense, but we ended up shooting a day longer because we didn't have time to consolidate scenes, or even discuss with the showrunner what could be trimmed or eliminated to make the schedule work better. Nearly every lunch was filled with a meeting to catch up on preparing for complex sequences we were just hearing about for the first time. It was costly, wasteful and emotionally draining. And not nearly the episode it could have been had we been given the time to do it right."

The show got made, because that's what directors do. But what might have been with more time? What was needlessly risked? What was carelessly spent? The responsibilities in an episodic director's job are legion—from developing and executing a creative vision for the episode to operating within the financial constraints of the show's budget, which set hard parameters in terms of days to prep, shoot and complete an episode. Directors must be problem solvers in any number of ways in this current Platinum Age of Television, but if there's a surefire way to make the director's role exponentially and unnecessarily harder, they'll tell you it's late scripts.

Director Roxann Dawson says that the epic scramble following a last-minute script—when the possibility of greatness is replaced by a mad dash just to get the job done—not only compromises every department, but "crushes the spirit" of anyone trying to bring their artistic best. "Everybody suffers, and the stress levels are just terrible," she says. "I'm most concerned about safety, and late scripts mean longer working hours. I've driven home after working and been stopped by cops—thankfully—because I was weaving and falling asleep at the wheel. Late scripts force longer hours. They go hand in hand, and it's not safe."

The problem isn't a recent development. In the summer of 2003, the DGA and eight of its directors met with top studio and network executives—including DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg and CBS' Leslie Moonves—to follow up on a mandate made the previous year to tackle and solve the issue. At the time, the DGA's Creative Rights Committee, then led by Steven Soderbergh, had been collecting data and meeting with executive producers to discuss timely script delivery. Based on survey responses from members, the results of the DGA's findings over the last quarter of 2002 revealed that nearly half of the scripts in one-hour television were delivered late, and that 20% of those were excessively overdue.

"There is a need for real improvement in the culture and practices that permit what's happening to directors in television," Soderbergh said at the time, adding that the lack of preparedness "generates perpetual anxiety, budgetary overruns and occupational peril in equal measure."

The clarion call yielded almost immediate results by December of that year, with Fox and CBS showing the greatest improvement, with a 53% and 32% boost, respectively, in delivering scripts on time compared to the previous season. By the following season, there was modest additional improvement—61% of scripts for the 2003-04 season were delivered on time.

But since then, the problem has only gotten worse. In 2018, 67% of shows reported late scripts (77% of one-hour shows) and 24% were plagued by chronically late scripts (27% of one-hour shows). DGA Television Creative Rights Committee co-chair Matthew Penn recalls the revelation he and other committee members experienced when they recently got together to hash out what the most pertinent issues were facing directors. "And we looked at that group and [realized], you know what affects everything? Late scripts."

"No one keeps track of whether a late script may have led to an on-set accident, but do we have to wait until someone dies to say, 'Man, I wish we would have had more time to prep,'" says Paris Barclay, co-chair of the DGA Television Creative Rights Committee, directing an episode of Station 19 above. (Photo: Byron Cohen/ABC)

The Cascade Effect From a Late Script

A late script results in truncated prep time, which on the front end can impact the director's ability to elevate the material and really bring it to life. Among innumerable things, it impacts the ability to cast the best actor for the role, to find the best location, to iron out script or story problems with the writers, and to solve schedule, budget and logistical problems. On the back end, editing time is squeezed due to a pressurized shoot with little time to trim the fat—and these factors constitute the tip of the iceberg. "It really is important to emphasize that timely delivery of scripts helps everybody," adds Penn.

When a script arrives on time, the director can fully absorb the episode's potential, effectively marshal all the creative departments, spearhead any necessary adjustments for the sake of cost or storytelling, and ready any complicated scenes that might involve stunts—ensuring that when "action" is declared on day one of shooting, everything is in place for the best episode possible. Per director Rod Holcomb—a veteran of The Good Wife, ER and China Beach who formerly co-chaired the Creative Rights Committee and was present at that meeting with the studios in 2003—that ideal scenario for a "best episode possible" is empowering directors to be the artists they aspire to be. "Directors are creative, they're visualists and they're great storytellers," says Holcomb. "The director is ultimately responsible for the show, how it looks and how many hours it takes to get the work done. But you can't do that if you haven't been able to plan correctly."

Penn stresses that just because getting a script on time is something directors care about, that doesn't mean it affects only them. "It makes studios happy," he explains, "[when] we're shooting scripts on time and as efficiently as possible. It makes writers happy because the intent of their script is as it should be. And it makes actors happy because we're able to work with them. So in some wonderful way, we make everybody else better when we're allowed to do our jobs well." In addition, to those above the line—Penn notes that the quality of life for crews is particularly affected by late scripts. "We have to be responsible not just to deliver a great show, but also make sure we aren't working our crews into the ground."

Training a spotlight on fixing the problem is a tricky one, acknowledges producer-director Mark Tinker, because it's understood how much writers are under pressure themselves. Tinker has been an advocate against late scripts since the issue initially rose to worrying levels during the era of reliably lauded but famously under-the-gun network series such as The West Wing and NYPD Blue. "With the rise of premium services making shows that were quite a bit more complicated than they had been in the past, that forced the networks to follow suit," says Tinker. "That led to more difficult shows, (and) writer/showrunners who really weren't aware of what the appropriate number of pages was, or how much production value you could get into a script and still make the schedule. The truth is we didn't have enough time to do these shows, and no one was stepping up for the directors to say, 'You're asking us to do the impossible.' And yet very often, we did do the impossible, which perpetuated the behavior." Tinker notes that the pressure on the director has an intensity beyond the episode itself: "The director who shows up and says 'I can't make this schedule, I'll be 2-3 days behind'—doesn't work again." For Tinker, the solution requires systemic change at the studio level: "There's no excuse for a late script. It's just a matter of how it's organized and how the operation is run."

When Dawson thinks of all the ways directors and crews have been on the job but waiting around for that script, then had to shift into overdrive to fit weeks of work into mere days, she wishes that dedication could be more infectious. "The work ethic in this business is actually extraordinary, but just because we can make it work like that doesn't mean that's the way it should be," she says.

Penn says the issue shouldn't be an adversarial one. "There's not a writer worth their salt who won't tell you that valuable insights and contributions are made by not just the director but the actors, designers and editors when that script arrives on time," says Penn. "This is an issue where we should all be pulling in the same direction."

Worst-Case Scenario

Now, says Barclay, lateness has become such a chronic issue on certain shows that it has imposed even more strenuous working conditions across the board. "Everything has to be done faster, and much more expen-sively than it would be done had the crew had proper time," he says. "In certain cases, jeopardy can ensue."

The worst-case scenario in this regard would be a late script that turns into a safety issue, whether the fallout is overworked crew members clocking in longer days in a row, or a dangerous stunt that doesn't get the proper planning. "That kind of rushing, and people who are tired making the wrong decisions, will at some point lead to somebody getting hurt," says Dawson.

Adds Barclay: "I'm really concerned about not having enough time. The directors and the ADs and the UPMs really want time to prepare a show properly, and when you're given the script late and it includes some elaborate stunts and effects that have to be built, I wish I had three more days to put it together. I wish I had three more days to find the stunt person who may be in Alberta, Canada, to come and do this particular [stunt]. I wish I had three more days to rehearse and practice the stunt safely, because I don't want to be responsible for someone losing their life because I didn't have time to prepare."

Barclay doesn't understand how studios can allow late scripts involving action and stunts to be any kind of ongoing reality. "No one keeps track of whether a late script may have led to an on-set accident, but do we have to wait until someone dies to say, 'Man, I wish we would have had more time to prep that stunt'?"

Beyond the worst-case scenario is the cumulative negative effect of late scripts on everyone involved. In addition to the on-set stress and pressure from long hours shooting—there are significant quality-of-life issues for DGA teams. Barclay cites how ADs and UPMs frequently give up their weekends with their families—often just to wait for scripts that never arrive. The bottom line, for Barclay, is that late scripts "just make the experience of doing a one-hour show more expensive, less productive and more emotionally dissatisfying for all the crew that work on it."

"The editor can't say, 'You know what? I'll cut the show when I get it done.' The production designer can't say, 'I'll get the set ready as fast as I can, but it might not be ready for shooting.' Nobody in the industry has that kind of flexibility," says Television Creative Rights Committee co-chair Matthew Penn, pictured on the set of Law & Order. (Photo: Getty Images)

Benefits of Timely Script Delivery

On the flip side, a punctual script is the gift that keeps on giving. Creative Rights Committee member Millicent Shelton recalls the thrill of getting a script so early for an episode of Insecure that took place at the desert concert spectacle known as Coachella that she was able to scout the real Coachella with a few key crew heads and figure out how best to recreate it. "People who were at Coachella thought we actually shot there," says Shelton. "And yet we didn't. But because we had the script ahead of time, we were able to properly prepare, and as crazy as that episode was, it went very smoothly, and it came out really excellent."

The benefit of full collaboration, says Michael Pressman, is what timely scripts facilitate. As producer-director on Chicago Med, which delivers scripts on time, he keeps a channel of communication open between the actors and writers, and in a recent instance, the full prep time allowed enough gestation for an actor to reach an epiphany about his story arc. Two days before shooting began, a key restructuring made for a richer dramatic payoff. "It made a difference of night and day in terms of telling the story," says Pressman. "We took a half page of exposition out of the second scene, and put it in the last act." A late script, however, might have necessitated a quick leap into filming, with no time to consider all the options. "If we'd shot that second scene first, we would have been cooked."

Directors naturally develop plenty of muscle when late scripts become the norm, but opportunities can be compromised in the process. "I mentor a lot of directors," says Shelton, "and they call me panicked (when the script is late), and I feel for them because I've done this for a really long time, so I have confidence in my ability to figure out how to get through it. But as a new director who wants to get asked back, you have that pressure you're not used to. Late scripts are really hurting new directors because they can easily fail, or the crew has to cover for them because they're used to it. So the director doesn't get proper respect. It's a recipe for disaster."

Barclay, who cut his teeth as a producing director on the notoriously late—as in, scripts-turned-in-on-shooting-day late—NYPD Blue, rememberswhat the hiring vibe was when it came to directing assignments. "Mark Tinker, Michael Robin and I did most of the episodes because we knew the cast could pull it off," he says. "But we were veryreluctant to try new voices, because they wouldn't have the shorthand and they wouldn't get the script in time to prepare. It can become a closed shop in some cases, where you can only rely on people who've accomplished the magic before."

Changing the Culture

One-off instances of lateness on a typically smooth-running show aren't the concern, say directors. "This is about changing the industry and the culture overall," says Penn.

What directors understand as well as anybody in television is that deadlines run everything. But the continued acceptance of late scripts indicates that there are different standards the studios hold for some members of the production team, but not others. As Penn explains: "The editor can't say, 'You know what? I'll cut the show when I get it done.' The production designer can't say, 'I'll get the set ready as fast as I can, but it might not be ready for shooting.' Nobody in the industry has that kind of flexibility, and writer/producers shouldn't be allowed to either. If they adhere to the same timeline we all do, it's literally a win-win-win."

But the key to that change, says Barclay, is recognizing another part of the problem—that there aren't significant consequences on the studio side, the way there is if a director doesn't show up. "I think studios also don't understand or accept the responsibility they have to all these people who are breaking their backs," explains Barclay. "We understand the pressure is great, but they don't fully get that a late script turns a process that could be fruitful, and a positive collaboration, into a hellish race just to get something shot, cost be damned. It takes discipline. It takes putting systems in place."

If the studios take their responsibility seriously and implement appropriate systemic changes, Barclay sees a much more positive future for everyone. "Ideally, they'll understand they have a responsibility to the entire crew—100-200 people that want to do a good job for them—and empower them with the opportunity to collaborate and contribute to create the best show possible."

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