Split screen image of a screenwriter typing at a desk on the left half and a busy movie set full of filming equipment like cameras and lights on the right half.

What Does a Screenwriter Do on Set? The Untold Truth

The life of a screenwriter mainly involves solitary days and nights writing scripts well before the cameras start rolling. So why would a screenwriter need to visit the production set once filming is underway?

While their primary responsibilities lie in pre-production, there are still a few good reasons for writers to be on set and several important roles they can play during the filming process.

Let’s take a look at the typical screenwriting process, why a writer may continue their job on set, what types of duties they take on around the production, and the boundaries screenwriters operate under on busy sets.

The Typical Production Process for Screenwriters

To understand a screenwriter’s potential on-set duties, you first need to know the standard workflow for a writer during the development and pre-production phases.

Pitching Stories and Developing Scripts

A screenwriter’s job begins not on set, but at a keyboard where they pitch stories, develop ideas into comprehensive scripts, and hone drafts through rigorous revisions.

Many writers work alone, pitching original concepts to studios, producers, or directors. Others partner in writing teams or are hired to adapt source material like novels, news articles, or historical events.

Screenwriter eagerly pitching an animated movie concept to a room of smiling producers.

No matter the writing approach, the first step is research to build authentic worlds, characters, and compelling narrative arcs around them. Writers may soak up inspiration from real-life observations, interviews, news stories, or other texts.

Once the basic story concept is formed, screenwriters get to work developing the full script. Format standards in the industry call for around one script page per minute of screen time. So a typical 90–120 minute feature film script runs 90-120 pages.

The script evolves through multiple phases, which we’ll break down chronologically:

Treatment or Outline

This 1-2 page summary outlines the core idea, major characters, plot points, and story structure without script formatting. It helps visualize the full narrative before diving into script pages.

First Draft

The initial full script establishes fundamental elements like characters, dialogue, settings and general scene sequence. It captures key ideas and story beats but likely needs polishing.

Second Draft

Reworking the first draft involves strengthening character development, refining dialogue, trimming scenes, and building narrative continuity and pacing.

Third Draft

Further revisions aim to tighten up the script, increase dramatic impact, add nuance, and ensure all plot, character and thematic elements integrate seamlessly.

Final Draft

The last round of intensive self-editing fine-tunes descriptive details, enhances flow, punches up the witty banter, and brings the whole story together before passing it off to the director.

Throughout the drafting process, writers may share progress and get notes from producers, but the heavy lifting of crafting the script falls squarely on the screenwriter’s shoulders.

Getting Feedback and Revisions

Once the script is in solid shape, the screenwriter’s work starts cycling between:

  1. Sharing drafts and discussing vision with the director, producer, and actors.
  2. Making extensive revisions based on the team’s feedback.
  3. Rinse and repeat until all stakeholders are fully aligned on the final shooting script.

This collaborative process ensures the script delivers on the creative promise and can be brought seamlessly to the screen. The producer looks at budget and logistics, the director focuses on style and character, while actors assess dialogue from their character’s perspective.

Ongoing revisions happen under the guidance of the director, who has the ultimate vision for translating the script to the screen. Writers need flexibility as some ideas that play well on the page may not fit the director’s approach or an actor’s interpretation.

With a tight shooting schedule, there comes a point where the script needs to be locked before filming commences. At this point, the screenwriter has completed their major responsibilities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean their job is done.

What Does a Screenwriter Do on Set?

Most aspiring writers dream of visiting bustling Hollywood sets as the actors bring their scripts to life. While onset duties are not mandatory for writers, there are some legitimate reasons they may continue working with the production cast and crew during the filming process.

Provide Notes During Filming

The director or actors may still have periodic questions, ideas, or needs for script tweaks during the often months-long filming schedule. Since the writer knows the script best, their input can help navigate those requests.

Major changes are pretty rare once shooting is underway, but on-the-fly adjustments can come up. For example, an everyday scene location might need to change at the last minute. The screenwriter can suggest quick dialogue or blocking shifts to work with the new environment while maintaining story integrity.

Similarly, an actor’s take on a character may evolve in unexpected but exciting ways once they start playing the role. The writer can modify lines or behaviors to emphasize those new interpretations.

Consult With the Director

Film and TV directors handle a million micro-decisions throughout production. If they want a sounding board, the screenwriter offers a creative mind already familiar with the characters and story.

The director may run scene ideas or alternate lines past the writer to see if they jive with the overall narrative. The screenwriter’s intimate knowledge of the full work can ensure continuity and faithfulness to the core vision.

Screenwriter consulting with director and main actors on set as lighting crew works in background.

Some studio contracts even give writers certain consulting and approval rights over critical creative choices. Like making sure the tone or ending stays true to their intent.

Provide Consistent Backstory and Motivation

In a script’s 2-hour runtime, you can’t explore every detail of a character’s background and motivations. But those unspoken traits still color an actor’s scene choices.

By being on hand, the writer can answer granular questions about what shaped protagonists and antagonists prior to page one. This context empowers actors to imbue subtle depth between the lines.

Imagine a climactic moment hinges on the main character’s lingering grief over her father’s death. The actor can gauge exactly how to play those emotions if the writer shares key details like how old the character was, how her father died, what their relationship was like, and how she has coped since.

Troubleshoot Issues

Despite meticulous pre-production planning, unexpected challenges can arise mid-shoot like production delays, location problems, scenes that drag, or performances falling flat.

The screenwriter’s outside perspective may illuminate simple ways to get things back on track without major rewrites or shaken confidence. Their creativity and problem-solving strengthen the production.

Provide On-The-Spot Rewrites

Some films even bring their writers onset to improvise brand new dialogue or scenes if ideas aren’t landing as intended. Since the script should be thoroughly solidified before filming, this instant rewriting is relatively uncommon and usually handled by the director.

But writers can add value to touch-polishing exchanges or tweaking action on the fly if a sequence needs more punch. A skillful writer trusts their instincts and knows their characters enough to enhance moments in real-time.

What exactly does an onset writer do in these cases? Let’s look at some typical duties and interactions during production.

Screenwriter frantically handwriting new script pages in a director's chair on location.

Typical Screenwriter Duties and Interactions On Set

Screenwriters aren’t directors or actors, so their activities during filming are relatively limited. But by being around, they can better protect their original vision. Here are some ways a writer may engage once the cameras start rolling:

Attend Early Planning Meetings

Writers should be looped into pre-production discussions about how to adapt the script into actual sets, locations, props, costumes, casts, and shoots. This alignment pre-empts surprises or confusion down the road.

Advise on Shot Framing and Blocking

The director decides scene visuals, but the writer’s perspective can refine how scripts transition to the screen. For example, emphasizing certain emotions by adjusting how a character appears in the shot.

Answer Actors’ Questions

As actors prepare for scenes, they may have lingering questions about dialogue meanings or character motivations not spelled out in the script. The writer can provide deeper insight into how to most accurately portray their vision.

Suggest Alternate Lines or Actions

During rehearsals and shoots, the writer can recommend dialogue tweaks, added gestures, or new phrasing to better support the intended performance or more organically fit the chosen environment.

Take Notes for Post-Production

The writer observes what unfolds during filming and takes precise notes on stand-out moments to expand, scene flow, chemistry between actors, or other ways to refine the work during editing.

Collaborating with key players in these ways allows the writer to actively shepherd their vision through production. They troubleshoot hurdles, answer questions, and brainstorm ideas to bring their script seamlessly to life on screen.

What On-Set Boundaries Should Screenwriters Follow?

Scriptwriters play a specialized role on set, meaning they must follow certain creative and professional boundaries:

  • Defer to the director’s authority. The director has the final say in translating the script to the screen. The writer should humbly advise but avoid pushing unsolicited ideas once scenes are underway. Directors guide all actors and crew – including writers.
  • Avoid interfering with performers. Some amateur writers try coaching actors directly, fussing over line delivery or dictating emotion. This undermines the director and often distracts more than helps. Sharing insights big-picture is fine, but micromanaging is not the writer’s job.
  • Stay in their lane. No matter how passionate writers are about their work, they shouldn’t overstep their scope by monitoring sets or equipment, scouting locations, or making outright demands without consensus. Writers provide creative input, not logistical oversight.
  • Follow set etiquette. On busy shoots, writers should not distract or interrupt production flow. Film sets are serious work environments, so writers must stay professional – not star-struck fans. They are there to quietly assist, not party with the on-camera talent.
  • Let the story speak for itself. The script should not need constant explanation. Over-analyzing lines or spoon-feeding motivation shows a lack of faith in the director and actors. Before filming, the writer’s role is huge. On set, it’s nuanced – support the overall process while trusting others to properly execute their vision.

In short, screenwriters on set operate as specialized consultants – not directors or producers. They provide creative guidance only when needed and with professional tact.

Conclusion: A Screenwriter’s Limited But Important On-Set Role

A screenwriter’s primary work happens long before cameras roll. Through months of pitching, writing, revising and perfecting, they craft the script that will ultimately guide production.

Once filming is underway, their direct responsibilities significantly decrease. But seasoned writers can still positively impact the filming process if called upon. They may advise the director, troubleshoot issues, answer actor questions, or provide on-the-spot rewrites that build on the strengths already captured on film.

While keeping a respectful distance, the writer gets to witness their vision transform from words on paper to living, breathing characters realized by talented performers. Providing guarded creative guidance on set ensures the script adapts smoothly and discovers its full potential once the director yells “Action!”

So while most writers crave the limelight of sets, their measured participation once production is underway shows professional trust. They know their story is in qualified hands. And their presence behind the scenes can strengthen collaboration and continuity from first draft to final cut.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are screenwriters usually on set?

Screenwriters are not usually on set during active filming. Their primary work happens in pre-production. Occasionally they may visit set to consult if needed, but most of the time screenwriters complete their duties once the final script is delivered before shooting starts.

What is an on set writer?

An on set writer is a screenwriter who continues working with the production during filming. They provide creative input and on-the-spot rewrites if the director or actors need script adjustments. Their presence helps advise and troubleshoot issues to match the original script vision.

What is the difference between a screenwriter and a scriptwriter?

The terms are often used interchangeably in film and TV. But technically, a screenwriter specializes in crafting scripts for the screen (movies and TV), while a scriptwriter is a broader term referring to any writer creating scripts for any visual media.

What does a screenwriter do on a daily basis?

A screenwriter’s daily tasks involve pitching stories, researching, outlining narratives, writing and revising script drafts based on producer/director feedback, taking notes in meetings, and conducting rewrites during active production if needed.

Do screenwriters meet the actors?

Yes, once actors are cast the screenwriter will often meet with them to discuss character backgrounds, motivations, and answer any specific questions on how to best embody and interpret their roles. This helps actors fully realize the characters.

Do screenwriters sell their scripts?

Screenwriters typically sell their script pitches or finished scripts to production companies, studios or producers through representation by talent agents or entertainment lawyers. Original spec scripts can sell for anywhere from a few thousand to a few million dollars.

What skills does a screenwriter need?

Important skills for screenwriters include creative storytelling ability, excellent writing skills, character development expertise, deep research capabilities, collaboration with directors/producers, handling feedback and critiques, commitment through long revision processes, and a passion for film/TV.

How do you become a TV screenwriter?

To become a TV screenwriter, build your skills through classes, workshops, and practice. Study film/TV story structure. Write solid spec scripts to use as writing samples. Live in or regularly visit Los Angeles or New York City. Attend industry events to network and find representation. Expect entry-level jobs like writing assistants before selling your own shows.

Do screenwriters have to be directors?

Most screenwriters focus solely on writing scripts and do not direct. While some screenwriters aspire to eventually direct their own stories, the roles are separate. Many famous directors do not write their scripts. And lots of accomplished screenwriters prefer staying behind the scenes. Screenwriting and directing require different, specialized skill sets.

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