“Backwards Continuity is Not a Category, Is It?”: Script Supervisor Steve Gehrke on Tenet
In the world of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, people from the future have figured out how to reverse the entropy of people and objects, making them “time inverted.” Effect precedes cause for inverted objects and people. Inverted bullets return from bullet holes and swirl back into the barrel of the guns that fired them, a fight between an inverted soldier and a soldier operating on regular time looks like a freak-puppet show, and reverse speech sounds like the dream speak from the Red Room in Twin Peaks. All someone has to do to swap their inversion status is enter a turnstile that spits them out on the other side in the opposite mode. Things get even more complicated when the film’s protagonist — named Protagonist and played by John David Washington — starts to run back and forth through turnstiles during the same sequence, and, later, during a battle scene featuring soldiers of different inversion status. The plot anchoring all of this action is equally confounding, but when a character in the film tells Protagonist that it’s better not to try to make sense of the chaos, viewers have been cued to follow suit and surrender to the big, good time.
But unlike audiences, Nolan’s frequent script supervisor Steve Gehrke had to at all times make sense of the film — to know what exactly was happening and when, and who and what was inverted, or not. Gehrke talked to us before the film’s home video and VOD release about how it felt to be responsible for the continuity and logic of a film that upends both.
Tenet is now available for purchase and rental on all the usual VOD platforms.
Filmmaker: What did you think of the film?
Steve Gehrke: Interesting you ask that question. I don’t see every film that I work on. I know it’s odd, that I should see how a film turns out, but my job ends on set. I have no control over a project at that point. If I can, I will see a film I’ve supervised, but I have been on set seeing it be made, and that is my memory of a film. I approach my job like I am the first audience to view a project. I am responsible for ensuring the film makes sense, continuity should be seamless. So I make that my number one priority, then I make sure the story makes sense, and then the words. If something isn’t right, I have the privilege to question it, so in essence, I am the first audience. Getting to your question, due to the pandemic, I have not seen Tenet in the theaters yet. It’s a shame because this film deserved a big release. Yes, it comes out on DVD soon, but watching in a packed theater is what this film was made for. It saddens me that didn’t happen.
Filmmaker: What does your work consist of on set?
Gehrke: The role of a script supervisor changes from day to day, scene to scene. Watching the rehearsals is where many of the changes take place. It’s important to watch for any potential changes that affect other scenes or story structures. Usually a master is shot first — this is the blueprint of the scene. Then as coverage of a scene happens, I try to make sure that things don’t change too drastically to harm the integrity of the master. Dialogue always seems to change take by take, but I’m concerned with making sure the surroundings don’t.
A great relationship with a director is important because they always need to know someone is watching the details. My job was once described as a court reporter or historian. I document for the daily production sheet, when we start/finish. I notate the progress daily of which scenes and how much is shot, how much remains, etc. On set, I notate every take, good and bad, and provide a template to the editorial staff to be able to construct the director’s vision. I get to work with the director, actors, camera and lighting team, hair and make up, props, sound, wardrobe and art dept. I have the luxury of collaborating with every department. I’m like a safety net for every department, hopefully minimizing mistakes.
Filmmaker: Is there anything you’ve learned about script supervising over the years that you wish you had known going in?
Gehrke: Before going into this industry, everyone [in film school] is graded on being a director. You are graded on your project. What school doesn’t prepare you for or tell you is that there are many jobs in the film industry. I wish I would have known and learned different jobs. My first jobs were for craft service, providing food and supplies for the crew. Nothing I was doing was getting on camera — I made the crew happy. One day I had to Xerox the script supervisor’s notes back at the office. I made an extra set of notes to see what she did. I looked and said, “I can do that.” For 35 years now I’m doing that. I learned everything I know on set, reacting and improvising on set. No training. Just 35 years of learning. I have learned everything on the job, so I guess I wish I knew the job first before jumping in, but no regrets.
Filmmaker: When and how exactly did you transition to script supervising?
Gehrke: My first job was as a runner [PA] for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles for ABC. While I was there, I met Andy Sidaris, a director who is credited with filming cheerleaders on the sidelines of football games. He was instrumental in their Wide World of Sports telecasts. I always thought my career would be live sporting events, I worked over 110 live sporting events before starting my film career. Andy said, “How’d you like to work on a movie in Hawaii?”, How could I refuse?. First film job, director’s assistant…Hawaii. I continued full time with him, through the editing process, distribution, I received more of an education with him than in school. His next film, he said, “How’d you like to be my script supervisor?” I said “Sure, what do I have to do?” So my career started on a chance meeting. I had a lot to learn, I wasn’t very good. Soon I went back to being craft service.
Filmmaker: When you first met Christopher Nolan, which I believe was on Memento, what was that like? Was it different from the work you had done at that point?
Gehrke: Yes, Memento was the first film I interviewed with Chris. A friend was the UPM, she sent me the script, it was a $10 million 24-day shoot, new director. When I read the script, it was the best script I every read, and to this day, it still is. We sat for 20 minutes outside a costume house on a picnic table and had a great talk. He understood that I understood the story, not something that others could say. I heard they interviewed many people for my role. I’m glad they did. Twenty-one years later, I’m still working with him. I had already worked with Sam Raimi on Army of Darkness, which was over 100 filming days, and I’d be lying if I said I thought Memento and Chris Nolan would be a big hit. I saw it as another job. That changed after working on Memento. It made me who I am today. Easily, that moment working with Chris has changed my life. He turned my job into a career.
Filmmaker: How has your working relationship evolved, and have you noticed his process evolve in significant ways since?
Gehrke: I did not work on Insomnia [because it was filmed in Canada] or Batman Begins [filmed in the UK]. I restarted with him on The Prestige, and then everything else. Nothing drastically has changed or evolved. He always expects you to be your best, and that is what I give him. Shouldn’t we all expect that? We don’t talk in between projects; it feels like one big project, just the scripts change. I think it comforts him to not have to get used to someone else. I am the constant in his films, not by design, but it has worked out that way. Yes the films have gotten larger, but the expectations of excellence never change.
Filmmaker: When you spot an issue, who is the first person you tell, and how do you then communicate that?
Gehrke: This depends on the situation, if it’s major, I go right to the director, or the First AD. If it’s simple, I’ll go to the department and explain my concerns.
Filmmaker: Has Nolan kept a lot of the same crew since his early work?
Gehrke: Chris likes the same people around him, otherwise we wouldn’t be there. I have the distinction of the longest tenure, unless you count his wife and producing partner Emma Thomas. Chris has a long relationship with many crew members in many departments. I guess we are like a comfortable pair of slippers. There is always turnover in a crew due to availability, but everyone relishes the opportunity to return. In 21 years I have never assumed I’m working on his next one. Each film I consider a one-off, and I am happy the phone rings each time. If the phone didn’t ring and he chose to go in a different direction, I would respect that too. I like to think the phone call means you did a good job.
Filmmaker: How early do you become involved in a Nolan script?
Gehrke: I start working on the script two weeks before production starts. I don’t have any input before that. Would I like more time? Absolutely, but Chris brings me in two weeks prior. The process is normal as with other shows. I break it down, confer with him to make sure my days correspond to his thinking, and we start filming. I confer with wardrobe, hair and make up, and we make sure to have the same information. For example, Chris and I talked about the timeline in Dunkirk from 3 different perspectives, and the feasibility of the weather concerns. Things were out of our control, but we talked about it.
Filmmaker: How much of Tenet’s rules on time inversion did you have to fully understand? And how did that complicate your job?
Gehrke: Let me start out by giving you my feelings at the end of the filming process, Tenet-like. This was the hardest film I ever worked on. Usually when we wrap a film, everyone gets sentimental, and it’s off to the next project. I rarely say goodbye to people, because I just want to get out of there and finish my work. I’ll see people again on other projects. But on Tenet, I actually cried—and I’m losing man points now— because I could finally release the weight and enormity of all the information I had to store in my brain across seven countries and five months. It was by far the greatest release of info I’ve had and I was actually able to reflect upon the impact the film had over me. Imagine eating and sleeping the same story for five months, forwards and backwards, and traveling to seven countries. That’s a lot of information to retain — 96 filming days! That’s a big relief to complete and then just hit the delete button. When a show ends it takes a day to decompress. On Tenet, the decompression happened instantly. It was a good cry, and my hard drive was pretty full.
We needed to understand entropy, annihilation, and time inversion daily. These were constant talks on set, and everyone collaborated in these areas, coming up with different takes and ideas. It was a true collaboration with many departments. People will question and watch and rewatch — isn’t that what a filmmaker wants? It’s our job to do that first, to create an airtight vacuum. Many films are made for interpretation, but this one I feel is correct in saying, “Don’t try to understand it.” My guess is that Chris is saying, “Go on this journey with me, believe what is before you, I’ll take you on a wild ride. Forget the world you know, enter my world.” People will watch a million times to learn something they didn’t register before or to try to find mistakes in the story. I take pride in trying to prevent those mistakes.
Filmmaker: But you both went on the journey and had to understand every detail of it along the way.
Gehrke: Every film is a journey, every story requires immersing yourself into it, Inception for example. I don’t understand dreams, not even my own. But you enter the world and apply rules, Dunkirk was historical so that was “normal” in a Chris Nolan world. If the characters walked five miles on the beach with a stretcher, the crew walked five miles on the beach, Day 5 of filming —I still remember it. We had to walk give miles back for the next shot.
Filmmaker: Did Tenet require you to do outside research? And did it take time/discussion with Nolan for it all to finally click?
Gehrke: I wouldn’t say I did any outside research. Once Chris has a script, the research has been done. What was needed was understanding the principles involved.
After finishing the script for the first time I thought, “Why did I say yes to the project?” I had so many questions. I got up and walked around the Warner Brothers lot just to clear my head. Maybe I was hoping for inspiration on the hallowed grounds of the studio. I went and read it a second time, and seeked guidance from the VFX team and one of our longtime editors, John Lee. I learned the more I read, the more confused I was. By the time filming started we were ready, which is not to say conversations stopped — they continued throughout.
Filmmaker: Can we specifically talk about the continuity in Tenet and any continuity challenges worth noting on Nolan’s other films?
Gehrke: Day one we were filming some of the most complex scenes in Tenet. We jumped right into the forward/backward entropy. Couldn’t we have filmed some easy scenes to get started? Nope. Immediately we immersed ourselves into the frying pan. Wardrobe continuity was probably the biggest continuity to deal with on this project.
Filmmaker: How much did the other departments have to understand about what was happening scene to scene to operate smoothly, and did that confusion ever lead to new problems that had to be solved?
Gehrke: Every department worked in tandem. Transportation needed multiple vehicles in various stages of drivability, wardrobe, props, art department, lighting, and most importantly the AD staff to coordinate. It’s a mammoth production traveling around the world, and since Chris likes to do most VFX practically, you’d think the VFX dept was limited. They were the heroes of the show. While Chris used limited VFX, our VFX team led by Andrew Jackson were the brains of the story. Their leadership and knowledge of the script are underrated.
Filmmaker: Can you think of specific instances when those time inversion and entropy elements made your job harder?
Gehrke: It’s all hard, anytime you have characters moving in opposite directions it’s difficult, especially in the same frame, backwards continuity is not a category is it?
Filmmaker: There have been some rumors that Christopher Nolan bans chairs, water bottles, and phones on set. True?
Gehrke: This question comes up all the time. Yes, no phones on set, it interrupts the flow of filmmaking. I admire this rule. I hate looking around and seeing everyone on their phones. We are at work, it’s not our private time to order things or play games. I wish more people had this rule. Water bottles? never heard of not being able to have water. That sounds like an urban legend. No chairs on set has gotten a lot of publicity over the years. We do not have a video village on set — [there is] no need for chairs getting in the way. We do have chairs, but they are not visible. The belief is if you’re sitting you’re not involved in the shot. I have a chair, but I don’t sit in it. It’s a station for my equipment/supplies. Imagine an operating room with doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists sitting in chairs waiting to work. No, a film set is not for sitting, it’s for paying attention and being ready to work. If your eyes and ears aren’t on the set, you’re not working. The set deserves everyone’s attention. It’s respect.
Filmmaker: Any particularly memorable or funny anecdotes from your work on Nolan’s sets?
Gehrke: Funny moment? I’ll give you one. Dunkirk. Chris is standing in the English Channel with some soldiers about to film a scene. I notice a soldier needs to wear a blanket around his neck to match, I’m wearing hip waders like a fly fisherman. I walk to Chris and tell him. The water is maybe a foot deep. I turn to step away and I slip on the rocks and fall into the English Channel. Instantly, I realized my phone was in my pocket, so I scrambled to try to save it. Chris comes over to help because he thinks I’m injured. I did hurt my knee, but pride took over. I stood up and grabbed my wet phone out of the waders. Chris, thinking he was helping me, saw me and said, “No phones on set.” I said, “It’s in my pocket,” then he said, “You’re on my set.” His dry humor is the best.