By Bruce Shutan
How fitting that a group of script supervisors has attempted to redraw the line separating the crew from Hollywood’s elite.
About 83 members of Local 871 Script Supervisors/Continuity & Allied Production Specialists are trying to jump the line as card-carrying members of a four-year-old group called, well, Jump the Line. While career aspirations vary, the common theme is to use the organization as a springboard for writing, producing and directing jobs.
Jump the Line is the brainchild of Harri James, an actress turned script supervisor who has written and directed a feature-length film and four award-winning shorts. When James directed her feature Out of These Rooms, which recently screened at the New York Independent Film Festival, she was told a return to script supervising would be impossible because the industry has trouble accepting dual roles.
“I felt that was very unfair to have to give up your day job, pension and hours to take a chance on doing something creative,” she says, “because not everyone has someone who can support them for a year or two while they make that jump. Why can’t I have both?” One popular scenario is to be a weekday script supervisor and weekend line jumper.
What does Local 871 think about the extra-curricular activity? “We love it when somebody jumps the line,” explains Lainie Miller, business representative for Local 871, which has more than 1,350 members. “We applaud people who become writers and producers, and if they leave and go on to these positions, it makes us feel like we’ve done our work.”
Indeed, former script supervisors who’ve enjoyed tremendous success include director-producers Mimi Leder and Randa Haines, as well as Jamie Babitt, who has directed, produced and written for TV. Miller says the most common line jumping for Local 871 involves script supervisors, production officer coordinator and accountants becoming producers or script supervisors becoming directors.
When Jump the Line was established, James says the guild initially didn’t know what to make of the group. “It took a little while for them to understand we weren’t saying script supervisors were bad,” she explains. “We’re not saying we don’t want to be script supervisors. We’re saying we want the opportunity to explore other things as we’re working as script supervisors.”
The group now meets twice a year on Sunday afternoons. Membership has grown at a rate of one new recruit each month. Only about half a dozen members are men. One explanation so few men are script supervisors: the old-style studio system equated the job with secretarial work, a tradition that endured long enough to cement this demographic trend.
Jump the Line isn’t for everyone, nor is James suggesting her peers should inherently aspire to jump the line. Some script supervisors would rather not jeopardize their life’s work, and they’re content being script supervisors, she observes.
But there is a far more compelling point to consider: a career in script supervision can be an awfully interesting line of work. “You’re on a set working with a director, producer, writer, DP and actors,” James says. “You’re right in the action.”
Still, the burnout factor is inescapable. “It’s a lot of hours and can be a thankless job,” James adds. “It’s one of the lowest paid on the crew.”
The differences between directing and script supervision are significant enough that Catherine Jelski’s goal is to have both feet planted squarely above the line. Jelski, whose status with Local 871 is inactive while she pursues her dream of becoming a full-time television director, is one of three people chosen for the year-long 2003 DGA-ABC Directing Fellowship Program.
“Once you’ve gotten past all the enormous political, financing and writing issues as a director and have your weeks of shooting lined up, you’re responsible for the camera and actors,” she observes. “But when you’re the script supervisor you have to do all this paperwork, logging camera and sound rolls, and you’re responsible for wardrobe and makeup as well as hair and editorial continuity. It’s just a big pain in the ass.”
During the first five of her nearly 15 years as a script supervisor, Jelski worked on low-budget indie films culminating in the sleeper hit Dazed and Confused. She later dabbled in commercials before setting her sights on the big screen. In recent years, she did script supervision for Across the River, Committed and The End of Violence. Her first feature film, The Young Unknowns, was selected for the Toronto Film Festival. Although money was tight, she describes the project as deeply satisfying.
Despite the propensity for burnout, full-time script supervisor Karen Kirkpatrick Eachus loves plying her craft. “For episodic TV, you’re basically doing a mini-feature every week or so,” she says, “and I like that aspect of television, which is why I keep doing it.”
Eachus, a script supervisor for about 14 years who is in her fourth season on the Lifetime cable network show The Division, recently directed a 15-minute film short that had been in the planning stages for about two years. Her goal is to generate interest, sign an agent and land another directing gig. Eachus also is hoping to secure financing for two feature film scripts written by her husband Ted, who is a grip. “We’re both out there and have a lot of contacts,” she says.
Working alongside so many creative forces, James considers the pursuit of a career in writing, directing and producing a natural progression for script supervisors, especially after five or 10 years on the job when people may be eager to take their work to a more creative level. Another motivation for some: a substantial increase in earning power.
“The group empowers you to network, meet people and look at other careers if you’re unhappy or figured you’ve learned everything you can learn,” she says. “We bring in educational speakers to expand your mind and horizons by listening to different aspects of the business.” For example, the most recent meeting in May was on distribution, while other topics have included casting, producing, documentaries and use of new technology.
Former script supervisors who have permanently jumped the line also have been invited to inspire the group. In addition, heads of development from various production companies around Hollywood show up to help people navigate un-chartered waters.
“Most of our members have projects they’d like to pitch, but they don’t have agents and it’s hard to get an agent who will represent you when you’re working full time as a script supervisor,” James explains. “You need to have a calling-card film to try and get an agent.”
James, a script supervisor for seven years, has worked on more than 40 feature films and TV shows, including ER and Alias. She’s currently seeking distribution for her first feature.
Jumping the line is never easy. “I know that from being in the DGA and women’s steering committee within the guild, there are a lot of directors who may do one film and never direct again or can’t get an agent,” according to James. “It’s hard for women who are in the guild. The guild isn’t a hiring house and they’re the first ones to say that. So you can imagine how hard it is for women who aren’t in the guild.”
Success stories are few and far between. Perhaps no one epitomizes the path to good fortune of a recent line jumper better than Marita Grabiak, a former script supervisor who’s now a full-time freelance television director working on about eight shows a year. “Jump the Line is an incredibly supportive group,” she enthuses. “You feel strength in numbers and that somehow powers your psyche.”
Grabiak agrees with James that making a permanent transition above the line is a long road to hoe. Producers usually clam up when crew members ask for a shot at directing, since they’re bombarded by such requests, she notes. “There’s a long line and a lot of appeasing going on,” she explains, recalling her squeaky-wheel strategy of persevering to prove her storytelling ability and overall value above the line.
Since script supervisors tend to be quiet on the set because they’re so busy taking notes and juggling multiple tasks, Grabiak laments that there’s “an inherent preconception that they somehow can’t control the crew because they’re the quiet type, but that’s the greatest fallacy and prejudice.”
She’s proven the skeptics wrong. Grabiak’s stint as a television director dates back to 1994 when she took the reins of two ER episodes. Since then, she has directed several episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as Smallville, Strong Medicine, Firefly and Miracles. She’s gearing up to direct two new shows, Cold Case and Wonderfall, and will then helm episodes of Gilmore Girls, Angel and Everwood.
“I love what I do so much and spent many years in the trenches doing a very honorable job but one that wasn’t challenging enough for me,” Grabiak explains. “I relish it. I love it. I feel blessed.”
James describes the making of her feature as “an amazing learning experience,” not to mention a lesson in resourcefulness. Rather than risk going into debt, she leveraged her involvement on other people’s sets to make connections and shoot the project when she wasn’t toiling away as a script supervisor. For example, a gig in Budapest, Hungary enabled her to shoot in Europe.
“They were so blown away that I was going to shoot on my one day off,” James mentions. “If you’re there and have access to sets, cameras and actors and are going to make a film, then make it.” She calls her film a labor of love vs. commercial vehicle, and after focusing on distribution her next step is to shop for an agent.