Watching the Baby
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We’ve got a new president. Of the United States, not the studio or network – although we’ll have a new one or two of those before long, I’m sure – and I thought I’d share some show business wisdom with him.
About halfway through any writing project, I always have the same thought: this isn’t going to work. Why do they go to the restaurant in the second act? Why does the dad tell the daughter about the life insurance? Who answers the phone when they’re all in the scene at the supermarket? And also: Who’s watching the baby?
You can almost always wave off some of the more arcane details that threaten to unravel the entire story – Look, if the audience is asking itself how the letter with the job offer got to the main character so quickly, then you’ve got bigger problems than a simple FedEx envelope in the frame can solve.
It’s the same with continuity – continuity is the industry term for stuff in the frame that stays continuous – if an actor is wearing a hat in one angle, he’d better be wearing it in all of the other angles in the scene, even though the scene is shot over two or three days and the hat itches and the actor keeps taking it off in between setups. Unless it’s supposed to be a magic hat, which brings up other problems. Like, maybe spend 5 more minutes on the magic hat idea.
Once, we were working with a studio executive with a real, um, passion for continuity. So in a dinner table scene, when we were recklessly mixing takes to achieve what we thought was the mission -- a fast, funny dinner table sequence – he only saw the knife and fork in the foreground, which mysteriously shifted to the left a few inches with each cut.
“What is this?” he asked. “A haunted house?”
We countered by using the excuse that everyone uses when they’ve sacrificed perfect continuity for an overall better scene: if they’re watching the knife and fork, we’re dead anyway.
But babies are different. Babies need to be watched, at home, which means that in any family scene with a baby, if all of the characters are suddenly called over to, I don’t know, the hospital or the pizza place or wherever the story calls them, you always need to be thinking about the baby – who’s watching the baby? Which character isn’t in the scene, and how do you convey that in dialogue – because someone will notice (people always notice how babies are supervised, or not, I’ve discovered) and they’ll write letters. Lots of letters.
Once, a long time ago, when I was a writer on the ancient and almost-forgotten comedy “Cheers,” we all came back to the writer’s room in a state of high satisfaction. We had spent the past few days doing heavy surgery on a troubled script, and we had just seen the runthrough – and it was perfect: funny, fast, unexpected, the whole cast utilized in a classic second-act block comedy scene set in an airport, I think – In other words, a triumph. After two late night rewrites, it was a pleasure to come back to the office, sink into the sofa, and take a deep, relieved breath.
Until someone asked this question: who’s watching the bar?
The whole cast was in the last scene at the airport. Which meant no one was watching the bar, which was the Cheers equivalent of the baby. Which meant letters, which meant we had to leave one of the characters back at the bar, which meant that the character lines and actions needed to be reassigned, which threw off the clockwork engineering of the final scene. A small thread pulled, a whole script unraveled, another late night. It’s the little stuff that pulls you down. It only takes one card to collapse the house. You come back from a runthrough and think you’re out of the woods, and then some idiotic detail ruins your dinner plans.
So here’s my advice: think big picture. Ignore the knife and fork when you can. But always know who’s watching the baby.
That’s it for this week. Next week, the DVD player will not be there. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.