STEVE INSKEEP, host:
At the Oscars this Sunday people will claim awards like best actor or best director. Some movie industry employees who are not up for awards content themselves with curious job titles like best boy or key grip or gaffer. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has been searching for people behind mysterious screen credits. She learned that script supervisor is not a person who Xeroxes copies of the screenplay; it may be the hardest job on the set.
Unidentified Man: Cut.
Between takes on the set of "17", a film about a 30-something guy who gets to be a high school kid again, script supervisor Steven Gehrke chats with teen heartthrob Zac Efron.
Mr. ZAC EFRON (Actor): What's up, man?
Mr. STEVEN Mr. GEHRKE (Script Supervisor): On that last one you had your arms crossed like this...
Mr. EFRON: Yeah.
Mr. GEHRKE: ...but in all the others you had them down like this.
Mr. EFRON: Okay. Don't cross them this way. Fantastic. Thanks, buddy.
Unidentified Woman: And action, Zac.
STAMBERG: They'll do maybe 10 takes of this basketball scene. For the final cut the director will rely on notes from his script supervisor to be sure there's continuity between takes. So Steven Gehrke has riddled his copy of the screenplay with hieroglyphics.
Steve notes where an actor stand, whether she runs up or down the stairs, also the scene number, the take number.
Mr. GEHRKE: Seven up.
STAMBERG: He's like a court reporter solving the Da Vinci code. Steven Gehrke, obsessive watcher, Mr. Microspotter. He knows the devil's in the details.
Mr. GEHRKE: Let's say a table lamp is turned on and we do a couple other shots, and then later it's turned off, I have to know that that light was turned on, for continuity.
STAMBERG: So he checks with the lighting department and wardrobe and props. A script supervisor's biggest headache? Food scenes.
Mr. GEHRKE: A dinner table scenes, because people keep eating the food, and the continuity of the peas - are there 23 peas on the plate or are there 14 peas on the plate? What I do, I always have the directors film above the plate, and that solves the problem of the food continuity.
STAMBERG: See how creative the script supervisor can get? He can actually influence the making of the movie, not just jot down the details. But everyone on a movie is aware of those details and the pitfalls they represent.
Mr. GEHRKE: The one that comes to mind is "The Green Berets," where John Wayne is walking off to a sunset in the east.
STAMBERG: Burr Steers, the director of "17," relies on his script supervisor, Steven Gehrke, to keep the sun setting in the west.
(Soundbite of movie, "Friendly Persuasion")
STAMBERG: In 1956, for the film "Friendly Persuasion," legendary director William Wyler counted on a young script supervisor named Robert Gary.
Mr. ROBERT GARY (Script Supervisor): They had a scene where Gary Cooper had to go up and shoot at the rebels coming across the stream, and they were going to shot them off their horses.
(Soundbite from movie, "Friendly Persuasion")
Mr. GARY COOPER (Actor): (As character) Sam, what happened?
STAMBERG: A bullet grazes Cooper's scalp.
(Soundbite of a gunshot)
STAMBERG: And a bloody line appears on his forehead.
Mr. GARY: So I made a little picture of his face on the script.
STAMBERG: And he drew a horizontal bloodline over Gary Cooper's right eye. But when Cooper turned up the next day, the blood-mark was vertical. Young Robert Gary pointed out the mistake. Director William Wyler told the makeup man, who did not like being corrected.
Mr. GARY: Wyler chose the man with experience, and he wouldn't listen to me.
STAMBERG: A year later, the picture came out. Robert Gary was right. The scar jumped around. And William Wyler hired him as script supervisor on his next film.
Unidentified Man: Mark.
(Soundbite of clapboard)
STAMBERG: Today, Steven Gehrke says it's even tougher for script supervisors because now there are DVDs.
Mr. GEHRKE: People that take the DVDs and watch them frame by frame catch us on everything. We have to pay more attention. Back in the old days, nobody knew what we did. Now everyone thinks they can do our jobs.
STAMBERG: In fact, there's a Web site called MovieMistakes.com chock full of entertaining bloopers. From "Harry Potter," "Spiderman," back to some of the great classics.
(Soundbite of movie, "Pretty Woman")
Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actress): (As character) You must be really smart, huh? I only got through 11th grade.
STAMBERG: Pretty woman Julia Roberts munches on her breakfast croissant.
(Soundbite of movie, "Pretty Woman")
Ms. ROBERTS: How far did you go in school?
Mr. RICHARD GERE (Actor): (As character) I went all the way.
STAMBERG: Oops. Now the croissant's turned into a pancake. She's taking a bite out of it.
(Soundbite of movie, "Pretty Woman")
Ms. ROBERTS: (As character) Your folks must be really proud, huh?
STAMBERG: Oops. She takes the same bite again.
(Soundbite of song "Pretty Woman")
Mr. ROY ORBISON (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Mercy.
STAMBERG: What's going on here? Where was the script supervisor? Or in the old days, the script girl. Robert Gary, in addition to William Wyler he was script supervisor for John Ford and George Stevens. Gary gives a little history, from the time directors started using more than one camera and everything got complicated.
Mr. GARY: The editor says, you're sending me all this film. I don't - it takes me all day to just get through the film before I can start putting it together. So somebody said, well, get a girl down from secretarial and tell her to keep track of all this stuff.
STAMBERG: She was a stenographer or maybe the director's girlfriend. And to do this day most script supervisor's are women. One theory: male actors take corrections more easily from females.
Mr. GEHRKE: But I'd like to think the male species can, you know, do the job well.
STAMBERG: Steve Gehrke, again. He's 40-something and has been a script supervisor for more than 22 years. Although like everyone else in movies, he wants to be a director. And who couldn't blame him after hours of pacing on the set of "17," the gym at Santa Monica High School, by the way, where some of "Rebel Without a Cause" was shot. Yes. James Dean and Natalie Wood walked here. Now Steve Gehrke does and arrives at the most difficult headache-making part of his workday.
Mr. GEHRKE: So now we're going to go to lunch. And that's where must of the continuity errors happen, is lunch, because people will forget that the coach was wearing a whistle or they'll forget his collar is a certain direction. I guarantee you 90 percent of mistakes that are in movies - one famous one, "The Untouchables." Sean Connery is wearing a shirt, and in the medium shot his shirt is buttoned all the way up. And then they do a close-up and his shirt is unbuttoned. So in the movie it looks like his shirt is flapping when they cut back and forth from shot to shot. And I don't know who was in charge of that movie. But I guarantee you, lunch was a big factor.
STAMBERG: So after lunch, a young woman crosses the gym floor carrying a coach's whistle. She drapes it over an actor's neck.
Did you tell her or did she remember?
Mr. GEHRKE: She remembered. I'd love to say that I did it, but - eight is up.
STAMBERG: On a set, everyone is responsible for continuity. But ultimately it's Steven Gehrke and his script supervisor colleagues who are the final detail-driven safety nets, the oops-preventers of the movie world.
Unidentified Woman: Action.
STAMBERG: Because in the end, nobody wants his shirt collar flapping while Elliot Ness is going after Al Capone.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Untouchables")
Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor): (As Elliott Ness) I'm asking you for help.
Mr. SEAN CONNERY (Actor): (As Jimmy Malone) Mr. Ness, I wish I'd met you 10 years and 20 pounds ago.
STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
INSKEEP: More script supervisor bloopers over at nrp.org. And tomorrow we'll learn about Hollywood's animal wranglers on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Best boy, key grip: Hollywood's full of oddly named jobs. In an Oscar-season tradition, NPR's Susan Stamberg looks for the stories behind those strange credits. Hint: A script supervisor doesn't just copy the screenplay; it may be the hardest job on the set.
Next time you see The Wizard of Oz, notice how Dorothy falls into a muddy pigpen early in the film. Somehow, when she's rescued, her dress is spotless.
A similar "Huh?" moment occurs in The Untouchables. As Kevin Costner tries to persuade Sean Connery to help him fight the mob, Connery's shirt collar mysteriously flaps open and shut throughout the conversation.
And in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts munches on a breakfast croissant that, abracadabra, turns into a pancake.
Movie goofs like these are the ultimate responsibility of the script supervisor — the guru of continuity on a movie set.
Steve Gehrke, a script supervisor for more than 22 years, says food scenes are the worst challenges. Because between takes, everything changes.
"People keep eating the food," he says, lamenting what he calls "the continuity of the peas."
"Are there 23 peas on the plate, or are there 14 peas on the plate? So what I do, I always have the director film above the plate, and that solves the problem of food continuity."
There can be more than a hundred continuity errors in any given film, from very minor to major. A glass on the table might be full while the director films from one angle, then empty in a take shot later. That's something a script supervisor needs to watch. It's described as one of the hardest jobs on a movie set.
Earlier this year, Gehrke was script supervisor on the set of 17 Again, a comedy about a 30-something guy who gets to be a high-school student again. It's due in late summer, starring Matthew Perry and teen heartthrob Zac Efron. We watched Gehrke watching as Efron filmed a scene on a basketball court. Sure enough: On one take, Efron crossed his arms — but he'd had them down by his sides in all the other takes. Efron thanked Gehrke for the catch.
A script supervisor is always taking notes: the number of the scene, the number of a take, whether an actor changes a line slightly. Gehrke documents everything, "similar to a court reporter," he says. "And then my notes go to the editor each night."
He also takes digital photos to remind himself what's going on in the background of a scene. That's one technological advance that's made life easier: In the old days, Gehrke says, script supervisors relied on little drawings they made, like courtroom sketch artists.
From 'Script Girl' to Script Supervisor
Robert Gary's first picture was 1956's The Searchers, starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. It was a classic western, filmed in the harsh desert environment of Monument Valley. In those days, script supervisors were almost always women, but Ford was concerned about bringing a female to Monument Valley for such a stressful and demanding shoot. Robert Gary was ready and willing.
Gary was an actor, but he decided it was time to be less visible. It was during the days of Hollywood blacklisting, and Gary considered himself a left-winger. And he'd watched his best friend, a rising actor, being pushed out of the industry. So Gary went after a less-public line of work.
As a male script supervisor, he was teased a lot on the set. They called him "script girl," a common term in those days. In addition to Ford, he worked for directors William Wyler and George Stevens. His films include The Diary of Anne Frank, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
Gary described how the job of script supervisor evolved. In the early days of silent films, only one camera was used on a tripod. Then director D.W. Griffith said "let's move in and get a little closer on this," and multiple cameras began being used — and everything got a lot more complicated.
"So somebody said, 'Well, get a girl down from secretarial and tell her to keep track of all this stuff,'" Gary explains.
Sometimes she was the secretary, sometimes the director's girlfriend. But to this day, the job of script supervisor is done primarily by women.
Eating Disorder: Lunch Is the Script Supervisor's Bane
Script supervisor Steve Gehrke says he'd like to think that the male species is also capable of doing the job well. Back on the set of 17 Again, shooting has stopped for the most difficult, headache-making part of Gehrke's workday: lunch.
"That's where most of the continuity errors happen," Gehrke says. People forget that a character was wearing something before lunch. A collar that was pointed in one direction ends up aimed in another. Gehrke says 90 percent of continuity mistakes happen when shooting resumes after lunch.
(And the lunches are nice enough on this set — fresh grilled tuna, tri-tip steak, roasted potatoes, stuffed portobello mushroom and green Jello — that it's easy to get distracted.)
But work calls, and back on the set, a young woman crosses the floor of the high-school gym where 17 Again is being shot, carrying a whistle. She places it around an actor's neck.
Did Gehrke remember that detail? Or did the props master remember?
"She remembered," Gehrke says. "I'd like to say I did, but ..."
And he gives a small, grateful smile.