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Tracy Scott and the invisible art of script supervision

Script supervisor Tracy Scott (left) passed away this weekend, but she left behind a stellar body of work with directors including David O. Russell (right), Damien Chazelle, Peter Landesman, Scott Cooper and Spike Jonze.
Script supervisor Tracy Scott (left) passed away this weekend, but she left behind a stellar body of work with directors including David O. Russell (right), Damien Chazelle, Peter Landesman, Scott Cooper and Spike Jonze.
Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

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There are so many people behind the movies we love, and often they don't get the widespread recognition they deserve.

For example, Tracy Scott had some amazing credits. They included five movies that were nominated for the best picture Academy Award. She worked on David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” and Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” among many others.

Scott was considered one of the very best at her craft, but she worked in a job that not a lot of people recognize or even really understand.

She was a script supervisor.

It’s one of those credits that goes by in a blur at the end of the movie, somewhere around best boy, grip and Foley artist. But like so many of these below-the-line positions, script supervisor is a critical job, working alongside a director — often right by his or her side — virtually every minute of a film shoot.

Scott died last Saturday in Florida from breast cancer. She was 46 years old. Some of the filmmakers with whom she worked joined us on the show to talk about the skills that make for a good script supervisor, plus all the qualities that made Tracy Scott a great one.

Interview Highlights:

Peter Landesman, "Concussion":

When you work on your first feature and you think you might know what a script supervisor does or doesn't do, how are you educated into what the job really entails? What surprised you about the responsibility that a script supervisor has?

A script supervisor's job is to keep you honest and to remind you of you, essentially. When you're directing and shooting — last night I was shooting from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., and at 4 a.m., you start to lose track of things, you forget and get exhausted — they're there to remind you of all the things you already want to be.

If somebody were to look at a screenplay as marked up by a script supervisor, it would appear to be written in a non-English language, but those notations are incredibly important. What does the script supervisor notate, and why is it so important to what happens after a day of shooting is finished?

A script supervisor delivers a — basically a novel — of notes to the editor, about matches of shots and screen directions, the technicalities that an audience might never metabolize when they're watching a movie, because the movie's cut together smoothly and with continuity.

A lot of that is due to the script supervisor, who sends notations and ideas about how scenes can cut together, how looks are matched, how performances are matched. But script supervisors also applies times of the day to every moment in the screenplay, even when it's not relevant to the story.

I remember looking at one of Tracy's pages once, and from scene to scene I saw "6:34 a.m." and "7:52 a.m." and "9:26 p.m.." I wrote the screenplay, but believe you me, I'm not thinking about times of the day when I'm writing, and certainly not when I'm directing, but she is. She applies a certain level of organization to a movie that not even the writer or the director has in mind.

She imagines characters as real people stepping out of their shower and into their clothes, into their car, at work, and makes sure that everything makes sense. It doesn't need to be in the movie that way, but she's the last line of defense between you and creative anarchy.

This isn't a job that gets a lot of credit, and people like Tracy aren't well-known outside of Hollywood. What are the satisfactions for script supervisors? Why do people go into this field?

It's one of the few jobs in the industry that someone does because they absolutely love the craft. They love the work, the sweat, the long hours, and they love rolling up their sleeves to make something better, even if no one outside of that movie set will know who they are. It's one link in the very long chain of making a movie, but without a script supervisor, that chain would break over and over again.

David O. Russell, "Joy" + "American Hustle":

What does a script supervisor do?

A script supervisor is, in many ways, a very intimate co-filmmaker to the director and to every department, whether it's camera, wardrobe, production design, or even asking the actors how they wore their necklace after a scene wraps.

Sometimes you're in an editing room and it doesn't matter, you can get away with it, but if you cut you might lose continuity — the necklace might jump from the left to the right side of somebody's collarbone. It's walking that fine line of when it matters, but they always give us the choice.

Why was Tracy so good at her job?

Tracy was meticulous about her work, and if you wanted to chat about something creatively or constructively, she was there to do that. You could count on her for her good spirit, which was essential to have, since what you're doing is so  — creatively and practically.

Even now I don't know who's going to replace her, like, Who's going to sit next to me all day? You need to find someone who you can have a happy, creative rapport with, who's great at their work, and that's not easy.

Scott Cooper, "Black Mass":

In the 1940s and '50s, this job was called "script girl" and most script supervisors are women. Why do you think that's the case?

You know, I don't have a good answer for that. I'm certain that there are many men who would be capable at this job, but perhaps because that position gained an importance in the '40s and '50s, I don't know if the directors or the studio-heads at the time were misogynistic? I never even questioned it, really, it just so happens that the majority of them are women.

I love having as many women on my sets as possible — my films tend to be somewhat male-centric, although I don't design them that way, and the crew's largely made up of men, so I like to have as many women as possible. My first assistant director is female, and she's worked with Tracy on many David O. Russell films. There's just something about that presence that's calming. [laughs] Under fire and under pressure, women seem to be calmer and be less ego-driven, and typically directors are megalomaniacal, and they help that.

I guess what you're saying is that a great script supervisor, in many ways, is like a great spouse.

Indeed, but they're more than just a script supervisor — Tracy was part-therapist, she was a psychoanalyst, a filmmaker and a friend. You work so closely with your script supervisors and you have intimate relationships with them, because they're right at your elbow, even closer than your cinematographer.

But yes, it's almost like having a supportive and great spouse who will tell you when you should do something differently or give you suggestions for other things to do. I just can't speak highly enough of Tracy, and [her death] was just so sudden.

Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash":

What was it like to shoot "Whiplash" with Tracy?

Tracy was by my side at every moment, and that movie, even more so than your average movie, was so dependent on her. There's not even one specific moment where she saved us — it was more like she saved us every single scene, every single day.

We knew the shooting style wanted to be pretty quick and we wanted a lot of material to edit, so that meant a lot of different setups, a lot of different coverage, and then at the same time we're trying to blast through pages and pages of the script because we only had 20 days to shoot the whole thing.

A great script supervisor is as integral to the making of a movie as almost anyone else on-set, and yet you don't hear people saying, When I grow up, I want to be a script supervisor. Why do you think that is? What kind of people are drawn to this field?

I think it's like editing in that it's an invisible art form — it's hard to watch a movie and say, Wow, that was clearly well script-supervised. [laughs] The only thing that people really notice in a finished movie that can reflect on a script supervisor is continuity, which is why I think that's often what we think is the only thing script supervisors do. But it's so much more than that.

I love being on set, but I also really love and maybe feel most at home in the editing room, and I think the thinking is similar to that of a script supervisor. The people who make great script supervisors, like Tracy, are some of the same people who make great editors — people who like standing behind the camera and watching for the things that no one else would notice, and thinking of creative solutions to stitch things together in a way that, ideally, would be completely invisible to the people that watch the finished movie.

At its highest ideal, it's an invisible art form, but it's absolutely an art form and it requires a certain kind of mind that's so detail-oriented, but is also constantly aware of the big picture in a way that only few people can really do.

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