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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.

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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.” 

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