BRENDA WACHEL & Script Supervision
For this week’s episode, we chat with Brenda Wachel, a veteran script supervisor. Brenda has worked closely as a script supervisor for directors and producers including Joe Johnston, Paul Haggis, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, John Dahl, Gary Sinise, on projects such as Jurassic Park 3, Hidalgo, October Sky, and The Next 3 Days. Additionally, Brenda recently wrote, produced, and directed a Get Out The Vote video called “America, Vote!” We chat with her about all things script supervision, and about her exploration into directing. Enjoy!
Click here to listen to our interview with Brenda Wachel on Apple Podcasts.
Episode transcription below.
BRENDA WACHEL & Script Supervision
Larkin: Well, Brenda, thank you so much for joining us today. We are so excited because we've never had a script supervisor talk to us on the podcast. So if you want to just start, could you introduce yourself a little bit and explain what you do?
Brenda: Okay. So I'm Brenda, and I have been a script supervisor for more years than I want to count.
I got into it right out of film school when I was on a set, working as a day two as a wardrobe assistant on a night shoot and realized that. I hadn't gone to a university and gotten a degree to carry sweaty clothes around in the middle of the night. And I thought, what do I want to do? And I noticed this job, this little huddle of people that was like the inner circle of the movie.
And there was this person called a script supervisor. And I started finding out about that and I thought this would be a great place for me, from what I know and where I want to go, and while I grow up and observe and learn more. And so I trained and became a script supervisor. And what I do is, you know, it's a million things actually I'll try and simplify it.
So I'm in charge of the continuity of the film in general. I'm like the last stop, and that spans from wardrobe, makeup, hair, art department costumes, props, and then most specifically actors' continuity of their movements and stuff. So I think of myself as a person who primarily works with everyone, but most specifically with the director to ensure that they get to the editing room and have choices and options to shape their story.
And so that, that goes along with how they cover a movie and how scenes flow from one to another too.
Jennifer: Whoa. Cool. Can you explain a little bit more or talk about the collaboration between the director and the script supervisor? I'm assuming it's different with each director, but how do you kind of approach starting a new project?
Brenda: And you took the words right out of my mouth. It does depend on who the director is and who the script supervisor is. So I have my own particular style and my own strengths and probably weaknesses too, but I approach it like, I think of myself as a director's whisper and I mean, I am literally whispering to the director.
I think of myself as someone as a second memory for the director, I try hopefully successfully to become like their second memory so I can remind them of the vision that they want of the story that they're telling if that ever is a need, and work with them as closely as possible. Sometimes it doesn't work sometimes you know, I can give you an example-- I worked with a younger male director of years ago, who- it was his first large movie. And so my suggestions came across to him as an insult to his ability as a director. When in reality, all I was doing was trying to make sure he hadn't forgot something that he wanted or, you know, trying to really give that person options to shape their story later, which is really important.
And when you come from small movies to large movies, you know, you don't have time to get all the options on a small movie sometimes. So you try and protect a director to get what they absolutely have and then something in case they need to lose lines or lose scenes, even, you know how they're going to go about that.
So, but when it works beautifully, It is. Dynamite. It is a great feeling to be part of that team. And to know that you are doing everything you can to ensure that what the director wants to say will work, that it will edit flawlessly and that he can shape he, or she can shape this in any way they want, you know, within reason.
And I think that when it is working beautifully, it's because there's this symbiotic relationship almost, words aren't even needed. So I approached the job kind of from a quiet place. So when I speak, the director generally knows that they want to hear this, what I'm going to say, cause I'm not talking most of the time.
Larkin: That's amazing. It just seems like such an integral part of the process. And I'm curious at what point in the process do you become involved and then also, what does your workflow look like on set or before? Like, do you have the script in front of you and the shot list? Like, do you have everything? What does that look like for you?
Brenda: I become involved in prep and that can depend on how much time they give me. It's usually a minimum on a movie of two weeks, but sometimes if there's, if it's an extensive, you know, larger movie or there's a lot of rehearsals, that might be three or four weeks of prep.
So the minute I walk into the director's office and we begin working in any way, I'm engaged and I tend to like to go on the tech scouts because I'm like this great observer who just absorbs this, this rich information that I wouldn't normally receive, and that informs everything I do later in a in a way when you're trying to get into somebody's brain and how they're thinking to be effective, every piece of information that you overhear or see becomes extremely valuable.
And so when I'm working on set, I will have my script on my computer, I will have my forms on my computer that I'm going to create this roadmap for the directors of the entire movie, with the script notes, and I will have sides, paper sides in my hand to make written notes on, and a shot list somewhere around, but I, I use a shot list in the sense that once I see the blocking, I can either read the shot list that's been done before by the director or we as a team kind of fill in places or sometimes, they created after we do a blocking.
And so once I look at that and I know the blocking, I know what those shots are. It's so like in my blood already, you know, to know what you need and what you don't need, that it's more of a reference in case there's a specialty shot. And then to Mark things off as you go so that, you know, you're always fighting this clock every day, this ticking clock, which is unfortunate part of filmmaking. You know, the clock that's ticking.
Jennifer: So are you the one that like, you know, when you're shooting and the director's like, "Oh, I really liked that take," does the director tell you and you mark that down? Is that part of that process?
Brenda: Yes, anything that director says that I think is valuable to the editor, I will make a note to the editor about, so I become like a liaison, also.
Jennifer: So are you involved in the editing process or at that point you've given your notes, you've done your job and then you say farewell.
Brenda: Basically. Yes, I say farewell. But, I'm invited most often to come and see things and I'm in contact with them, but I'm not part of post-production other than making sure they have everything they need and reorganizing things if they need it, you know?
Cause you get into these bad habits where you're just in a crazy amount of time and you want to redo stuff to make it more streamlined for them sometimes. So. Does it sound fascinating?
Larkin: Yeah. Yeah, it really does.
Jennifer: It's really fascinating to hear about this. Like it's just, it's so cool how observant you are and you're really taking so much in and just thinking about being on set, there's so much happening and, and how cool that there's like a job that just like takes it all in and, you know, records it, that sounds amazing.
Brenda: It is actually, you know, when I talk about it, it becomes more amazing than this person who's been doing it all these years. It's like, well, you know, sometimes. That's because of the schedules of movies and how they affect how they, how they impact your life, you know? But it is a really, it's been such a rich, fertile, amazing journey doing this.
And I think the part that I like the most is the focus on the story. Then that I represent protecting that story, you know, at my department does, even though I do all these other beings, that's the part that's fascinating to me. Because each story is different and that creates like, how do you tell that piece of the story?
And beginning to understand how a director sees it and plans it is really an enriching experience, you know, especially when they're really good at what they do, which is usually, you know and then also having these close relationships with directors makes you feel like you're in the mind of the greats, even though we're all just people, including them, you know, it's still really great to be part of the storytelling team.
That's where my love is. So, that's my passion.
Larkin: I love that.
Jennifer: Yeah. I love that you came to this conversation. You're like, I didn't prepare. And you're like just dropping like nuggets of wisdom left and right.
Larkin: Speaking of directing, kind of a digression here, you are also a director and you recently wrote, directed and produced a Get Out The Vote video. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience and also how being a script supervisor has maybe informed your own directing?
Brenda: Yes. So America Vote was, and is, such a joyful experience to me. I just, every time I watch it, I am filled with a natural warm smile, and I just love having made that project and loved making it, the process of making it. It was, it came from... I watched a lot of news in 2020, and I was extremely passionate and involved in the conversation that was going around in this country in terms of where we were headed, you know, and I was, I felt very compelled to make something.
And the reason why is because what I was seeing was the darkness, the hate, the division, this like really disparaging view of America in my face every day. And I was like, who wants to vote for that? You know? And yet I knew that voting was the only way to get us out of that. So it became really important to me to add something a little bit different.
And I don't know if it is that different. I'm sure there's other people who made something positive, but it started with something that inspires me. And I heard . The song America The Beautiful, but I heard it in a real ballad bluesy woman-voice simplistic way, you know Ray Charles had done a version of it that was, you know, very bluesy jazzy, but it gets very big at the end.
And for me, I wanted just this, you know, soulful, rich woman's voice, like that could have done it without any instruments, but, and carried it. But of course there was instruments. So a friend of mine got me in touch with this composer out of Nashville. And when I told him the idea and why I wanted to do it, he said, you don't have to tell me any more, I know the voice, I know the musicians, I know exactly what this is. And it was like, from that moment on, it was happening. There was no money, nobody was financing it, but me. And I basically told the story and I think everyone in this country, or the people I knew anyway, was feeling so compelled to want to do something.
And in a way where we felt so powerless, you know, and it was like synchronicity. Everybody just jumped on board. And one thing just fell in place after the other. And I really wrote it in post. I mean, I kind of semi wrote it before, you got the images that I knew that I could get that with during a pandemic when we're supposed to be socially distancing and the restrictions and wanting to keep everyone safe and also no money, you know, to pay for locations on a huge crew.
It was me and a cameraman. And that's it. And then I hired an editor, I found it editor who would do this, and it just like fell into place beautifully. And when I look back on it, besides wanting to put my initial, my initial motivation, which was to bring the conversation around to why we vote as Americans, is that we vote for us. Like, we are what we're voting for, not them we're voting for us, that there's a thread in it that I think is really who I am in general. And that is that it's these little moments in life that bring us joy, and all of those little moments in life are about love and connection. And that's what that little piece does.
And that's what I want our leaders who make policies and create our government, I want them to keep that in mind, that they're supposed to provide the ability for us to have those moments in our life. You know, that's a really simplistic way to say.
Jennifer: Wow, what a cool experience. are you thinking of like directing more in the future? Like, did that kind of, how was that experience? I mean, it sounds like it was very personal and just bringing to life, these feelings that you were, you were feeling involving everyone. Did that open doors for you to think in the future of, of directing?
Brenda: Yes, absolutely. I, I didn't answer the other part of your question, which you can ask me again in a minute.
Okay. Which is the, how has being a script supervisor part, but I'll answer your, this part first. So it's always been in my plan to direct, I went to film school to do that, and yet when I got out of film school, I realized, you know, I'm just, you know, 21, 22 years old, I have nothing to say, no life experience.
And I found what interested me and that I could contribute to, in being a script supervisor and always thought, Oh, I will, I will. I will. And I, I never, before the digital age, believed that I could come up with the money to make a short film, that anyone would hear me, that anyone would see, see, read something I wrote or want to see something, but mainly it was like a financial, problem to be able to make a short film before we had digital cameras.
This was a really expensive procedure, you know, and I'll call it a procedure, not a process. Then when the digital age hit that became like much easier to do, you know, you can shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot now, and you don't have to worry about the cost of processing film or how much a mega film costs.
So that kind of opened it up for me. And when I started doing a few little branding projects and just simple thing, I think I the first time I ever did anything on my own, since I was a film student, was a friend of mine is a tango dancer, asked me, Hey, will you go to the Chinese theater and film me and my partner tonight, we're going to do this big dance on the Piazza there.
And I was like, Okay, sure. It was just me and this camera. And like, it sounds so silly, but I fell in love all over again in that hour of filming them and it was born again, this desire to make stories and to be in control of them as opposed to just a silent contributor. Not that that isn't important, but I do feel that now I'm ready.
And so I started making other things and this was what I wanted to do. And 2020, given the situation and I, I plan on making a narrative dramatic, short film in the next few months, and then we'll see what happens.
Larkin: so? Cool. Keep us posted on your film. And just to circle back a little bit, how if at all, has your work as a script supervisor informed and influenced your directing?
Brenda: It has 100% influenced me and made me who I am in terms of film and work. Filmmaking is messy. It is complicated. It is stressful. And every day it is a new set of problems. And I have been more fortunate and lucky than I think many people have, because I have not only worked intimately with, but also observed these great people, who as directors I have learned so much from, I seen how they solve their problems. I've seen how they think, how they pivot, how they manage actors, how they manage all these questions all day long, coming at them. And it's really a remarkable ballet when they do it well, it's like a, it's like poetry. It's an it's, it's amazing to watch.
And then to absorb how what I've seen in their efficiency in filmmaking. I can't separate it from myself anymore. It is sort of like in my blood now from doing it for so long. And I think that they have been the most amazing teachers, every single one of them. And I am probably clinging on and crawling my way up there back to stand on their shoulders, hopefully one day.
But it is, it has been a journey that is. You know, I, I can't put a value on because it's better than any school or any one person that I could have had because I've had such a diverse thing. And the other part of that is that to be a script supervisor, you'd have to conquer or sort of master the technical aspects of the components of filmmaking and how things cut together and why.
So that's not my nature. And I had to fight that and become-- understand it from a technical standpoint, you know, now it doesn't seem so hard to me, but more importantly, I don't even think about that anymore. I don't have to struggle through a lot of things that people who don't have this experience might have to really think hard about which has probably freed me a little bit more to be more present with on-screen talent or, and have the conversations and dialogue that you have with a cinematographer. So there's a shorthand for me that I gained by watching all these wonderful relationships from these directors I've worked for and with.
Larkin: That was beautiful. Like very inspiring.
Jennifer: Well, we end every interview with our lightning round named three, two, one action. So you can just answer in a word or phrase. So we'll start with three, your favorite or most influential film?
Brenda: That depends on my mood. current mood I'm blank, but I can tell you that there's like a handful of movies that always come up. And the first one that always comes to my mind is The Godfather, but then I can go on and I can say It's A Wonderful Life and Casa Blanca and American Beauty. And oh, a really influential film was this little tiny sleeper that was maybe even before you two were born. I'm not sure it was called Local Hero. And that movie is what actually got me on this path of wanting to make movies, this little tiny, charming film, just stirred my soul so much. And you know, I don't even know what that film director went on to do, but it was really a pivotal movie, but otherwise I love the classic greats.
Larkin: Two: dream person you want to work with?
Brenda: Any director who wants to make an authentic story that is nuanced and real and is passionate about telling that honestly. If I were to give a name, my I, you know, right off my mind, I want to be, do a shout out to Jane Campion. I think it would be great to work with her and just see how she works.
Jennifer: One: best advice you've received?
Brenda: So the one that comes to mind is "just do it" and the cliche of "beg for forgiveness later," cliche, but it's, it's really true because I think being a shadow person as a script supervisor for so long, made it a little difficult for me to ever own my own stuff. And believe me, film is collaborative. So I don't think anything is mine. I think it's a group of people who make a film, but just to take those risks and believe in yourself, just a tiny bit, that just do it. So you'll fix it in the editing room. You'll fix it in post.
That was the famous one from every ..."I'll fix it in post!".
Larkin: And action where can people follow you on social media?
Brenda: So I'm the worst at social media, which I've promised myself I'm going to really start doing now. But so they can follow me and not see any posting on Brenda Wachel, on Twitter and Brenda and Meecha on Instagram.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Brenda, this was awesome. We really appreciate it.
Brenda: Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure.