Cheryl St.John: Behind the Scenes

Some of my favorite shows are the programs on how movies are made. Movie Magic is one, and there’s another on Bravo. And there are all those HBO specials. Those looks into the development of a movie always leave a big impression on me.

Sometimes after learning how over budget a production is, or the how the blue screen effects were done, I go see the movie just to find out how the finished product came out. Even if I don’t have the slightest interest in a movie in the first place, after I watch one of those programs, I have to see how all the special effects and the computer imaging and fake rain and snow and all that stuff came together into 90 minutes of near-perfect cinematography and sound and lighting. The process absolutely intrigues me.

Did you know that in Gone With the Wind, during the scene where Scarlet walks among the wounded soldiers on the battlefield, if one slows the film enough and knows where to look, Judy Garland, dressed as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, can be scene peeking around the backdrop? They were filming side by side on the same sound lot.

I’m an Avatar geek, and the CGI technology is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen done in film—that anyone has seen done to date. I had to force myself not to buy the second release with extra footage, because I already owned the first version. When there are no behind the scenes extras on a DVD I’ve purchased, I feel cheated.

Even seeing a movie first and then watching the how-to program fascinates me, but I’d rather know the behind the scenes first, for some reason. Then I can sit and pick out all the places where I know they did a particularly wonderful job—or had an especially difficult time.

When we’ve finished watching a new movie, my husband cringes, because he knows I’m going to go into the menu and watch the behind the scenes trailers and clips. I’ve learned a lot by seeing how scenes are created and changed and how actors get into the roles of their characters.

I think one reason why that intrigues me so, is because everything that looks so polished and perfect in the finished product, was actually grueling, laborious, often times FRUSTRATING work behind the scenes.

I remember for example, in the making of Jurassic Park, every time that huge tyrannosaurus—the one that broke through the fence and came after the kids in the car—every time it got wet in the rain scenes, the mechanical parts stopped working. The crew would have to stop, dry it down, wait, and start over. Hours and hours and hours, and in some cases DAYS of painstaking work just getting a few perfect shots.

It’s not so unlike what we writers do. Other writers and all the readers see us with our good clothes on, our hair fixed, attending meetings and conferences, and book signings, with stacks of the glossy finished product in front of us. But how many hours of unglamorous work went into the finished product? I hate to even think how much I’ve made an hour on some of my projects, because when I think about it too hard, the more difficult it is, the more time it takes. And the more time it takes, the less I’m making per hour.

And I must tell you: I don’t get up in the morning and slip into my pink ostrich-feather trimmed negligee or dictate to my personal secretary. Some days (and nights) I do my best writing in my jammies! Now there’s a picture for ya, eh?

Finished books can represent years. They also often represent other projects that fell by the wayside in between. Not every book that a writer proposes sells. I know a lot of authors who claim they sell about one out of every three stories they come up with.

A book takes anywhere from a few months to several months to complete. Some writers take a year or more. And those words don’t flow out of our brains in perfect order. Great scenes don’t just happen without plotting and planning and playing with dialogue. I usually write a story from beginning to end. I’m a very linear writer. But sometimes I have to go back and add things I belatedly realize are needed. Many authors write in layers, with dialogue first and then go back to add body language and setting. Others write scenes out of order and then connect them like a puzzle. It always amazes me how the process differs with each person—and with each book. I don’t write every book the same way. And then there’s the middle muddle, and all kinds of things that can get a writer off track.

I’ve never asked other writers about this, but most often my books leave an impression on me—an imprint of what was happening in my life at the time it was written, be it good or bad. I remember which book I was writing when something significant happened in my life. While we’re bringing characters to life, we’re simultaneously living life.

I think I can imagine what it’s like when the director, producer and crew of a movie watch their finished product for the first time. They remember how that scene came off beautifully after the boom was repaired or how amazing it is that a shot was edited to remove a dog that shouldn’t have been there. And then I imagine they look at the film with fresh eyes and marvel at how all the parts and players came together in a satisfying and rewarding piece of work.

That’s how a book feels, too. Satisfying and rewarding, even though I know all the things that happened behind the scenes. It’s still a delight to see a new book cover for the first time. When my author copies arrive, I open the box and touch them, open them, read the first few pages. Spotting my release among all the others at Wal-Mart or the grocery store never gets boring. And I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in the world to be doing what I love and getting paid for it. Seriously, how many people can work in their jammies?

There’s something amazing about recognition from your peers, as well, and that is what RWA’s RITA contest is all about. It’s judged by other writers just like myself, who love books and understand the process of writing one. I’ve been honored (for the fourth time) with a RITA nomination—this time for a novella,  MONTANA ROSE in the TO BE A MOTHER anthology from Love Inspired Historicals. Being a finalist is a big deal, accompanied by flowers, champagne and congratulations from friends, agents, editors and fellow writers. I am clearing a spot for that bad boy statue above my desk! Root for me in July.

Do any of you enjoy seeing behind the scenes as much as I do?

+ posts

16 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: Behind the Scenes”

  1. Hi Cher, first off, congrats on the RITA nomination. Well-deserved, and here are my wishes for good luck!

    I also love behind-the-scenes. I just watched GWTW and as always, that street scene takes my breath away. Next time I’ll slow down and look for Dorothy.

    I remember thinking, first time I saw Forrest Gump, that Lt. Dan had to honestly be a man with no legs. Watching the Behind the Scenes show showed me how it was done with blue screens. Amazing.

    The new movie coming out, Soul Surfer, about the young surfer who lost her arm to a shark, had the actress playing her wear green sleeves so they could digitally remove the arm later. Again, amazing.

    Thanks for all the behind the scenes here! oxoxox

  2. Uh, tyrannosaurus. The stegosaurus is a veggie-saur. 🙂

    I enjoy behind the scenes too. Love the technical stuff, and like to hear how the actors approach their parts and the movie. Insights into the actors’ interactions on a personal level are fun, too. Sometimes those great lovers on screen really disliked each other off screen.

    I like outtakes, too–both the funny mess-ups and deleted scenes.

  3. Cheryl,
    First of all, congratulations on your RITA finals. Good luck to you! Second, I feel the same way. A good story that has gone through the whole process stands on its own. Since I’ve directed its story, characters, etc., I feel it’s a part of me going out into the world.

  4. Congratulations on your RITA nomination. Best of luck in July. No matter what, a nomination is still a win in its own way.
    I, too, enjoy the behind the scenes features. Most people don’t realize how much time, work, and just standing around is involved in movie making, not to mention all the “magic” that happens afterward. We have happened upon movies being shot and have given up after hours of waiting for the big stars to come out and film the scene. There are set up and adjustments, run throughs with stand-ins, and take after take when the actors finally do come out.
    I remember in a program on the making of Jurassic Park, the final scene with the T-Rex and raptors in the building, it was filmed with people running around with poles with a circle on top to represent the dinosaurs so the actors would know where to look so when the CGI effect were put in things would mesh.

    I’ll have to watch Gone With The Wind again and watch for Dorothy. I remember after Star Wars came out, they said to look for sneakers and other things that were thrown around during the big fight scene between Darth Vader and Luke.

    It is amazing what they can do in films today. In a way, it makes the old films with their “primitive” technology even more impressive.

  5. Cher, I love looking at behind the scenes tape from the movies I like. The last one I remember being so awed by was the Ray Charles movie. Jamie Foxx was so awesome and convincing in that role. And it had lots of interviews with Ray. I love that man’s music and I hated it when he died.

    Congratulations on the RITA nomination! I’m so happy for you. Montana Rose was a great story. It’s very deserving of the recognition. I’ll be rooting for you.

  6. Patricia, it’s amazing thing is that while people are running around with raptor heads on sticks and similar situations, the actors’ expressions are so believable! They might be running from a blue dot, but we believe there’s an alien on their heels.

    And I completely agree with your perspective on how impressive those films of yesteryear are, with the limited resources available.

    Thank you, Quilt Lady! I would love to have that statue on my shelf.

  7. Truly hoping you get that Rita to fill the spot on your shelf, Cheryl. And thanks for a delightful and thoughtful blog. (Gee, I dictate in my pink ostrich feathered negligee all the time, what’s up with the jammies thing?)
    Strange confession here, I watch movies for the stories and the magic and don’t really want to know how the effects were done – I want to believe those beautiful blue people were really flying around on dragons.

  8. I’ve never seen the Ray Charles movie, Linda, but am adding it to my Netflix que.

    Elizabeth, you have always been far more glamorous than I, so I can picture you in your pink negligee. That’s probably why the heroine of my June book is Elizabeth, spelled just like you–she’s bigger than life, too. 🙂

    I do get what you mean, but even though I watch all those things I still believe in the magic of the movie. They inspire me.

  9. Hi Cheryl,

    Congrats again on your Rita nom! I’m like you in that I love to watch the “Making of” and “Behind the scenes” stuff. Right now, I’m a little captivated by the sneak peeks on HBO for King of Thrones. I hope the actual show is as good as the previews. lol

  10. Major congrats on the RITA nomination!
    I love the tidbit about Gone With The Wind… I will have to check that out, my sister is a GWTW nut! I always enjoy background info whether for books or movies… always interesting to see what one learns!

  11. Cheryl,we could watch movies together and then your dh wouldn’t have to cringe. lol I love the behind the scenes stuff–and you know I’m going to watch that scene in Gone With the Wind just to look for Dorothy. 🙂

    Congrats again on the RITA nod! Here’s hoping.

  12. Hi Cheryl!

    GREAT POST! I loved this! GWTW is one of my faves, so I will now have to see if I can find “Dorothy” peeking out of the backdrop.

    Congrats from me, too!

    Cheryl (the other one)LOL

Comments are closed.