Being a Newbie on Set

I’ve been going to the cinema since the age of three. (The re-release of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.) Also I was an extra on a terrible thriller when I was about fourteen, but all that taught me was that a film set can be a very boring place. So basically film-making is a new and alien world to me.

As I approached the studio in Toronto for the first day of production of ROOM, last autumn, I felt deeply excited– at last, a film being made of my script, based on my book, and in a city near enough that I could visit often! – but also painfully ignorant of the protocols. I knew enough to know that blunders could cause (a) irritation in many of the skilled professionals going about their business on set, and (b) delay, in a world where every lost minute costs an amount of money it would make you nauseous to consider. So I stared at the door of the sound stage, fearing that if I barged in while the cameras were rolling I might wreck the best take of the most important scene… I stood frozen there in paranoia for several minutes until a kindly person-with-walkie-talkie- and-ipad-in-a-hip-holster happened by, pointed up at the large light over the door and said, not ‘Duh!’, but ‘If it’s green, it’s OK to go in.’

Once past that door, in the gigantic, dark hangar, the atmosphere struck me as oddly monastic, rather than the hectic ego-battle I was expecting. So many people (well, let’s be honest, still mostly men these days) working away in almost silent fervor on their specialist tasks, whether distressing a third back-up version of a mug or moving a camera on a huge crane.

Even all these months later I would fail a quiz on film job titles. I talked to everybody from the Production Publicist to our young lead’s Tutor, but often what I absorbed were memorable details – the fresh gerbera in a bud vase on one Driver’s dashboard, to calm him in bad traffic – rather than the official description of their roles. I can tell you that Grips will probably have several colours of tape hanging from their belts, and I believe Gaffers see to matters electrical, but I’ve already forgotten what a Best Boy does.

Film-making is fattening. There’s Craft Services (the food always available for grabbing, off tables or the truck), and there’s Catering (massive sit-down meals several times a day), and then oh lord here comes the Cook with a platter of pomegranate seeds in dark chocolate (seriously!) and who could resist? The crew worked it all off by being in constant motion as well as doing runs or work-out sessions at lunch, but I sat and stuffed my face in nervous excitement.

My chair was one of a number of director-style chairs and it had my name on it, which was another newbie thrill. (Most of my time on set was spent perched there watching a screen that showed what was going on inside the Room where only Ma and Jack and a cameraman could fit, and listening on headphones.) My surname was misspelled on the back as Donochue, because a bit of the Letraset G had fallen off so it looked like a C. It made me laugh a little inside whenever I saw it. It reminded me that in one sense I mattered (Screenwriter, author of the Book, even – that meaningless title – an Executive Producer) but in another sense I was nobody at all.

The last day I visited the shoot at an outdoors location, a person-with-walkie-talkie stopped me a block away, and she told me ‘We’re making a movie, you can’t come any further.’ I said in a squeaky voice ‘Actually I wrote it’, but deep down I knew she was right: it was time for me to let go, and enjoy watching them work their magic.’

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  1. I love this blog and I’m super hyped up for Room. I talk about the film all the time on my own blog – I would be honored if you checked it out!

  2. I love this blog! I love you Emma.

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