FEATURE ARTICLES

SCRIPT DIVA

An Interview with Stargate's Script Coordinator, Cath-Anne Ambrose


Cath-Anne Ambrose "Nobody knows what I do!" laughs Cath-Anne Ambrose. Perhaps that's because her job description ranges from executive assistant to production liaison. "My official title is Script Coordinator," she explains, then proudly indicates a plaque on the wall of her office and adds, "and then my unofficial title, which is on the crew list, is Script Diva."

Not to be confused with a script supervisor, who works from the set to assure visual continuity from scene to scene, or a story editor, who works from within the writing department to assure story continuity from episode to episode, a script coordinator, or story department coordinator, juggles a multitude of tasks related to the writing team. "A script coordinator basically only exists on a television series," she clarifies. "Basically, I keep track of where all the scripts are. I feed everything onto the computer in files for the whole process of doing production revisions and things like that. For example, this is a script that just came in," she says, indicating a new script that has arrived on her desk. "It's a writer's draft, so it's only gone within this department." Reaching for another script, twice the size of the first, she indicates with a smile, "And I have the Stargate feature film, which nobody has seen!"

At any given point in time, several different scripts are in a variety of stages of development. "We have so many scripts in different phases," she continues. "Right now I'm keeping track of the feature film, where it's going to, and who's got it, that kind of thing. If it ends up being a feature," she adds, although the prospects look hopeful. Meanwhile, on a daily basis, new scripts move through her office as they evolve from the concept phase to the production phase, going through countless revisions along the way. Any changes made by the writing department appear as color coded pages that are dispersed through Cath-Anne's office and added to the scripts. "There may be script changes that you've got to get out at the last minute for something on the day of the shooting. I coordinate all that. And then I send it to the studio, to MGM."

New scripts are assigned a production number as the contract is signed, although the shooting order or airing order may differ from the order in which the scripts were developed. "The production numbers are really so people can assign cost. It's really an accounting number. It just depends on where they put it in the schedule. An earlier script that they began working on might not get shot until later on in the schedule because it just worked with locations and sets and things. For example, Descent was the first script that was started in the sixth year, and then it went to Redemption and, so on, depending on just when the contract was done and when the script began."

Once scripts, and episodes, are completed, they become part of a reference library that fills the wall of Cath-Anne's office. "I keep a library of all the scripts there. It's like a reference library so these guys can reference old scripts for continuity things. I keep the bible. I was keeping the bible going, but it's hard to keep everything up to date when you're moving so quickly, so it's pretty outdated." Among the resources is a Goa'uld Dictionary, started by Peter DeLuise, and kept on file for reference. "I started at one time to do a character database, trying to track all the characters and things like that. I think that if I went onto another series, I would start at the beginning, and set up a very efficient system of tracking. It's just so mammoth, so each department basically has to be responsible for tracking their own continuity of things."

Despite what the job title implies, coordinating scripts is only a part of the job of the script coordinator. As an arm of the writing department, Cath-Anne arranges for legal clearances for names and products used in the episodes. Character names must be cleared to assure that the fictional character does not share a name with a real person who might object. Cath-Anne works with a company and a lawyer to determine if any character names must be changed before production. Similarly, products must be cleared with the manufacturer before a brand name can be used. An example arose during Smoke & Mirrors when the script called for a Remington rifle to be involved in an assassination. "I do all the clearances for the show, so I deal a lot with corporations and things as well," she explains. "We have a situation where we want to use a gun in an episode. So I have to go to the gun manufacturer and say, we're making reference to your gun, can we get permission? But they came back to us and said, 'Will the Remington model 700 be portrayed in a positive manner and for the purpose that it's intended?' Well, I can't really go back to them and say it's going to be used to assassinate somebody. So we may have to scrap the name. But because everything is fictitious, we don't run into a lot of those problems."

Clearances, or product placement, came into play in the episode Frozen as well, when clothing by North Face made a prominent appearance. "I was involved in the North Face thing. We contact North Face and say, we're about to do a show in Antarctica, what can you do for us? And you make deals with people. With that kind of stuff, sometimes the props department does it. It just depends on what it is, and how big a scale the product is, or whatever it is that we're going to be showing." It's not an issue that comes up as often for Stargate as for more typical earthbound series. "Compared to a show that's based on Earth, so much of it is made up. It's all fictitious planets, and we make so many of our own props, and design our own sets, that we don't have a lot of these issues."

Occasionally companies will approach the studio and suggest their products for placement in the series. Or, as was the case with Window of Opportunity, a company might suggest an alternative. "The funniest one I had was when we were doing Froot Loops in Window of Opportunity. I had to get Froot Loops cleared, and so the guy calls me back and says, 'Well how do you feel about Eggo Waffles? Would you consider using Eggo Waffles instead of Froot Loops?' So I go to these guys [the writing department] and ask, 'How do you feel about waffles?' And they're like, 'No! It's Froot Loops! It's a time loop! No!!' Waffle sales were down," she explains through her laughter. But fortunately the necessary clearances were obtained, freeing O'Neill from eating countless waffle breakfasts.

Another aspect of the job is handling script submissions. "I also deal with agents who are trying to submit writers for our show, as well as just anyone out in the general public. I'm the person who sends the rejection letters," she adds apologetically, indicating a stack of scripts in the corner of the office. "That's my pile of scripts from fans down there, from people who submit scripts for Stargate. At one point they were a little more open to it, but there are some legal issues and things that come into play with that, so we've had to just set a rule, no unsolicited scripts." She sympathizes with those who hope to share their creative visions for the show. "It's really difficult because people phone me up all the time and say how do I become a writer, and I love the show and I've got this great idea and I'd really like to get it to somebody who can read it. And you want to help people! But there are just so many people that want to submit scripts, and MGM has a policy now that we can't accept scripts. So I just try to talk to people and say, if you're really serious about becoming a writer, what you need to do is get an agent, and I kind of give them the steps as to how you would actually go about trying to become a professional screenwriter and get onto a show like this as opposed to approaching it from a fan perspective.

"But also part of my job has been to deal with literary agents in Los Angeles and local Canadian agents as well, who submit writers who they want to get on staff. And I talk to them and kind of do a pre-screening. I'll read the script, sometimes some of the other writers will read scripts as well. At times we've been looking for people to fill the writing positions on the writing staff or for freelancers who could potentially write for the show on a freelance basis. So I would read scripts and bring them to Brad [Wright] and say this could be a possibility of somebody he might be interested in, or bring him their resumes, or talk to him about people.

"Paul [Mullie] and Joe [Mallozzi] had sent in a feature film, and Robert [Cooper] had read that script. The process of what happens is their agent would send in a script, and it would get to somebody, depending on where it comes from. Joe and Paul happened to be represented in the same agency as Robert, so Robert read it. And then they get invited to pitch. We send them some information, the bible. Actually now I'm using the Lexicon [at rdanderson.com] as a reference material for people who potentially want to pitch for the show, and sample scripts, videotapes. I put together a little package, and then they review the material, and at this point it's quite this task to go through, just to get up to speed, with all the mythologies of the characters, it's a lot. So then Joe and Paul pitched, and they had a couple of great pitches. And then they got the okay to get their first script, and they handed in their outline, and that was great. It's a step by step process with writers. You have to get the pitch, you have to then get moved on to an outline phase, after that you have to get moved on to a script phase. Each phase is kind of like a hurdle. Then once you get past that, if there's a position available, that's when you could get the offer to be invited to be on the staff. It's a hard thing to get in the door as a writer, and it's a lot of work to get to be a staff writer on a show of this caliber with these kinds of writers.

"I also deal with the Writers' Guild, the union that represents the writers. I'm the show representative as far as liaising with the Writers' Guild of Canada, and the Writers' Guild of America on different issues and contracts and credits. I also do all the writers' contracts. Anything that has to do with our lawyers, or has some kind of legal or contractual thing for them goes through this office as well."

She also helps to coordinate submissions for award nominations. "I enter Stargate for all the awards, for the Emmys, the Leos, the Gemini Awards. I coordinate all the submissions for that, and organize getting all the tickets and getting everyone there. Usually I'll go into Brad's and Robert's office and say, 'What do you want to submit this year for the Geminis or the Emmys?' MGM is very involved with the Emmys as far as having a say in what they would like to submit as well. And we kind of sit around as a group and say, what do you think for writing, and we'll submit that episode for Brad, or we'll submit that one for Robert, and production design, and so on. Over the years of being on the show, what I've come to do is just go directly to the production designer and say, 'What do you want to submit for this, what do you want to submit for the cinematographer?' So that way people are comfortable, they've agreed to what you've submitted. So it's great, they've made the decision more than if the producers had said, 'Oh you should submit that.' So everybody kind of talks about it back and forth, what they feel their best work was last year."

Occasionally she's called upon as a researcher as well, collecting information or checking facts called for in a script, although, as with many tasks on the show, this responsibility is often shared by various departments. "It's such a mish-mash of things. Sometimes there's research or something, for example Robert says I need to know some medical thing. So I phone up various people that I know, medical professionals, translators, academics, and people like that. Now our Props department is finally getting more in taking on that kind of stuff. Before David [Sinclair] came I was doing more. Everyone has a hand in a lot of different things. Sometimes they'll come to me and say, can you do this, sometimes the art department will do it. It just depends. Katharine Powers was someone as well we used to use. We don't really use her too much anymore because we seem to be able to do a lot more of it in-house as far as that kind of stuff."

One key resource for a show like SG-1 is the US Air Force. "I am also the show liaison between our technical advisors at the US Air Force and the Pentagon. They send me their notes which I in turn pass on. I frequently have to contact them for research purposes." For many years, MSgt. Tom Giannazzo filled the role of Air Force entertainment liaison for public affairs, but as he prepares to look ahead to retirement, a new contact, Kristin L'Esperance, has taken over. "We have a new tech advisor, a young woman who is just wonderful to deal with and very thorough on details," she adds.

She has even been involved in matters of publicity. "I deal a lot with Bill in publicity. Last year, the woman who was our publicist couldn't make it when they were doing a gallery shoot in Los Angeles, so MGM flew me down to be the liaison between the studio and the cast and the show because I knew them. Basically, because I'm an extension of Brad and Robert, my hands, my tentacles, are in so many different areas."

No wonder the job is so hard to pigeonhole. Cath-Anne has been doing it on Stargate since the second season, and her role has grown and changed in that time. "I came here in second season, and there were actually two girls that did this job when I came into it. So, they saved money," she laughs. But her background prepared her for the eclectic nature of the position. "I've worked in various areas in the film industry before this job, and I found that enabled me to incorporate a lot of different things into this job. I have that kind of a background, so it's worked out well. I'll tell you, my husband does the same job on the Chris Isaak Show. We're both script coordinators. But it's the kind of job that is really what you make of it. My husband's much more involved on his show, as far as researching. He goes to the library all the time. Part of his job is a lot more research than I do, but he doesn't deal with the contracts and the union. So it just really varies with who you're working for. Sometimes the writers are in LA. We have a whole writing staff up here which is quite rare that a situation like this exists. Usually the writing staff is in LA and they'll have a couple of producers up here."

Technically she functions as the assistant to the executive producers. "I'm part of the story department, although I feel like I'm a little satellite in that. Writers write, and my job has a lot of administrative stuff to deal with, so I'm kind of based in here. But another part of my job is I'm actually Brad's and Robert's assistant as well. But they're very low maintenance, though. They're incredible, amazing guys to work for. They really are. So I deal a lot with MGM, I deal a lot with business affairs, with the production department at MGM, and with the studio. I'm kind of the person that you call, instead of bugging the producers, so a lot of times I can answer the questions without them having to bug these guys. It's so important that their interruptions are as minimal as possible. All day long, because they're producers as well, they have to answer questions, run over to editing, sit in meetings, and so I have to try to weed out things that they don't need to do. Prioritize.

"And these guys are so great," she goes on. "They're just really fun, and happy, and nice people, really good people. And it's rare that you find that. So that's why everyone stays, you know? I mean, part of my job is I'm the gatekeeper of these guys. I always say I'm the Gatekeeper on Stargate."

That sums it up nicely. Although, on a résumé, you can't beat the ring of "Script Diva."

____________________
Ritter, Kate. "Script Diva." July 16, 2002.


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