×

How Writer-Crew Collaborations Are Changing the Script for the Creative Process

In traditional filmmaking, once a script is written, the director and department heads break it down and figure out the costs and logistics of production. But if the screenwriter collaborates during the creative process with key crew members, the entire production can benefit. 

Such collaboration offers the prospect of help on many fronts. For example, rather than pore over details of period dress, a writer can talk to a costume designer, who can aid in the research. Or, if the script calls for a spaceship to land on an alien planet, the writer can confab with a production designer who’s well versed in extraterrestrial visuals.

One director who’s a big proponent of such teamwork is Steven Spielberg. Mark Scruton, who served as supervising art director on Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” credits the director with communicating exactly what he wanted and instructing his key crew to thrash it out. The result: close collaboration among screenwriter Zak Penn and Scruton, production designer Adam Stockhausen, DP Janusz Kaminski and first AD Adam Somner as they worked through story ideas on the film, which mingles sci-fi and VR. 

In another example, on Ron Howard’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” co-writer Jonathan Kasdan had no prior experience with big effects movies, so he was glad to work with Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Rob Bredow from the very start of the project. “Rob was a great guy to help you understand what’s possible and where you can push further,” he says.

The results can even be addictive. Jared Bush, screenwriter on “Moana,” says he worked with a creative group throughout the entire process as he wrote through the design and animation phases. It was so rewarding that he vowed to “never again” write a script alone.

Production designer Alex McDowell (“Upside Down,” “Man of Steel”) calls this kind of writer-artisan cooperation “collaborating democratically.” He’s been fighting for the production method for years — “Everyone’s opinion on the team is important and vital to the story,” he says — but the practice still isn’t as common as he’d like it to be.

Penn recommends always talking with crew department heads before writing, because they consistently have good ideas. For instance, he says, “it’s crazy not to have the writer there with the VFX artist, because you’re constructing the story [together].”

To McDowell, being involved early in the process means everyone can envision the film’s world, and the writer can slip right in. “It becomes embedded and instinctive,” he adds. “Everybody just knows it, and the visual language is universal and coherent.” 

The advantages of early engagement might be as simple as when Penn worked with the props team on “Ready Player One” to figure out the correct way to hold the game’s joystick. Or they can be more overarching. McDowell says writers benefit from going into a production’s “wall” room — the area where designs and concepts are on display and available to the whole team, evolving progressively as ideas movie forward. “If a writer comes into that environment, they’re getting color and form and costume — everything,” he says.

McDowell cites the example of the vertical car chase in another Spielberg picture, 2002’s “Minority Report,” which came directly out of the think-tank environment the director put together to figure out the infrastructure of that world and to aid McDowell with concepts.

On “Solo,” Kasdan says he was writing while ILM artists were previsualizing sequences, so the two processes evolved in response to each other. “Rob and I were together an extraordinary amount,” Kasdan says. In fact, it was his idea to hide the giant octopus-like monster until the end of the Kessel Run sequence. That way of working resulted in other unique opportunities: Instead of looking out at greenscreens, the actors in the Millennium Falcon cockpit were actually watching a previz starfield. Kasdan says the strongest scenes to him are still those in the cockpit, because the previz made the actors feel like they were really there. “The cast came completely alive,” he says.

Even stunt performers can climb aboard the writing process. Longtime stuntman and coordinator Wade Eastwood, who recently worked on Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” likes nothing more than being involved with writers, and even creates theme music and dialogue for stunt sequences in order to understand the characters in the context of the scene. “It allows you to adapt the story organically as the characters evolve,” he says.

Adds Penn: “When writers talk to DPs, costume designers and stunt people, there’s no downside.” 

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous Gemstones Adam Devine, Danny

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

  • A Wrikle in Time

    New Zealand Offers Breathtaking Locations, Trained Crews, 20% Cash Grant

    With its heart-quickening vistas and magnificent views, New Zealand is a prime location for savvy investors seeking to maximize the incentive on their next project. Consider the production value of filming amid the daunting heights of the Southern Alps, or along the stunning shores of Lake Gunn. There’s also Auckland, with its magnificent Sky Tower [...]

  • DESCENDANTS 3 - DESCENDANTS 3 -

    'Descendants 3' Choreographer Mixed Dancing, Acting and Sword Fighting

    For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and [...]

  • Avatar

    Manhattan Beach Studios, Home to 'Avatar' Sequels, Sold for $650 Million

    Hackman Capital Partners has acquired the Manhattan Beach Studios, home to James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, as part of a $650 million deal. Hackman announced Wednesday that it had bought the MBS Group from global investment firm the Carlyle Group. The MBS Group operates the MBS Media Campus — a 22-acre, 587,000 square foot production facility [...]

  • The Kitchen Movie

    How 'The Kitchen' Production Team Cooked Up 1970s-Era Clothes, Cash and Guns

    Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss play women who take over their husbands’ criminal business in Warner Bros.’ “The Kitchen,” adapted from the DC/Vertigo comic book series by Andrea Berloff, who also directed. Costume designer Sarah Edwards and prop master David Schanker used their skills to create a supporting parallel story for the characters that evoked the look and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content