Is there any movieland job more thankless than that of the script supervisor? But directors can’t do without her. Yes, it’s generally a her – for generations she was known in movie credits as the “script girl.” And in the parlance of movie folk, her duties were that of the perfect secretary or the perfect wife: to stand at the (usually male) director’s side and keep him from running off the rails.
I thought about this while listening to a tribute to Tracey Scott, who just died of cancer at the sadly young age of 46. In the course of her career, Scott moved from television into movies, working closely with some of the industry’s most promising directors. Starting in 2013, she plied her craft on Her (for Spike Jones), American Hustle (for David O. Russell, with whom she also worked on Joy), Whiplash (for Damien Chazelle), Foxcatcher (for Bennett Miller), and Black Mass (for Scott Cooper).
But what does a script supervisor do, exactly? It’s not what you’d call a creative job, but rather one that requires precision, a great eye, a talent for record-keeping, and a willingness to go without personal glory. I tried it myself once, while shooting – with a team from Women in Film -- a 60-second PSA for a charity called My Friend’s Place. Standing at the director’s elbow, I was required to document, by way of carefully codified notes, every single take, noting the camera position in each. My notes would eventually be turned over to the film editor, who used them to assemble a rough-cut that made logical and dramatic sense.
My task on the PSA was relatively simple, compared to that of the script supervisor who oversees a 90-minute feature film shot (probably in many different locations) over a period of weeks and months. Experienced script supervisors, like Tracey Scott, keep tabs on every detail of the film-in-progress. They are always on the watch for continuity errors (like a necklace that changes positions in relationship to the collarbone from shot to shot, or a Band-Aid that sometimes appears on the wrong arm). And they know precisely what time of day it needs to be at various points in the story, so that the gaffer can appropriately light the set. Above all, as David O. Russell made clear in an interview following Scott’s death, they serve to keep the director focused on the minutiae of the task at hand.
Script supervisors are usually unsung heroes. One, though, had her own small bit of celebrity. Meta Carpenter, who was then secretary and script girl to the director Howard Hawks, had a serious fling with the novelist William Faulkner, who in the 1940s was trying to earn money as a Hollywood screenwriter. Carpenter’s 1976 memoir, A Loving Gentleman, details their trysts at what was then a romantic out-of-town destination, a cozy bungalow at Santa Monica’s seaside Miramar Hotel. Carpenter’s first script supervisor jobs (on films like Hawks’ To Have and Have Not) were uncredited. Later, as first Meta Rebner and then Meta Wilde, she worked on such award-winning productions as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). She also was a fixture on Mike Nichols’ first films. On the set of The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman recalls her as a stickler for accuracy, who never allowed him to deviate one iota from what was written in the script. He still remembers her objecting, in her soft but firm Tennessee drawl, to the way he read one particular line, saying, “That wasn’t a period, that was three dots.”