If you're a director gearing up to go into production on a film, you're probably fine-tuning the script, selecting your crew, and carefully drawing up a shot list. As a director, it's easy to let your mind become fully centered on your artistic vision for your project, but LA-based film consultant Seth Hymes reminds us not to forget the managerial side of your directorial responsibilities.
This is a guest post by Seth Hymes.
Being a director means managing groups of real people. This can come as a rude awakening to many new directors after spending months in the imaginary world of screenplays, fictional characters, and shot lists. Supervisors at Red Lobster get more management training than the average independent filmmaker.
Your crew is like a small family during production. A big part of your job as director is to make sure that everybody gets along. Like it or not, you are the Daddy or Mommy of the set, and you need to adapt a leadership mindset in order to have success. Many an indie production has been torpedoed not by a lack of money or a decent script, but by on-set drama between personalities and the director’s inability to effectively handle these conflicts or situations.
Basic Personality Awareness
It all starts when putting together the crew. You have to get very real about people’s personalities and how they interact with other people. A colleague of mine recently shot a short comedy project here in LA. He wanted to make sure his project looked good and therefore only interviewed DPs with their own RED packages and support equipment. I met his DP and instantly knew this guy was a bad fit.
The gentleman had a lot of impressive equipment and a couple of good credits, but he also had an arrogant attitude. Arrogance doesn’t show up on a resume or when watching a reel. It’s something you have to learn to detect and take seriously. I could feel it the moment I met the guy. He didn’t really make eye contact -- he was restrained. He just exuded the attitude of, “I’m better than you.”
Sure enough, the guy showed up 2 hours late for a production meeting only a couple of days before shooting with the entire crew waited on him. When my colleague finally fired him, this individual tried billing him $500 for “location scouting”, since he had stopped off at a couple of places to see if they would be a suitable fit for the shoot.
Thankfully, my friend hired a new DP whom I could instantly tell was a team player. He was open, smiled easily, and enthusiastically fired ideas back and forth with my colleague. Their shoot was incredibly tight, blazing through 28 pages in 4 days. I shudder to think of how it would have gone if he had stuck with that first DP. It’s not always possible to know how a person will respond under the stress of a shoot, but you can tell a lot about a member of your crew if you are sensitive to the attitude they convey when interacting with other people.
At the highest level in Hollywood, it’s known that certain directors or DPs are arrogant and even difficult to work with, but these are people who have successfully delivered million dollar projects to the market. No matter what “talent” an individual may bring to a project on the indie level, it’s never worth it if that person is difficult to work with. You are better off with a group of people who are enthusiastic and have a positive attitude, even if they have less experience.
Be Aware of The Demands You Will Be Placing on People
A friend of mine works as a gaffer on a popular CBS crime show, and for years he has enjoyed an ideal work schedule. It’s practically a 9 to 5 job shooting in controlled environments with a healthy paycheck. He likes his work and rarely has anything bad to say about it, even when he has a very challenging day.
That’s a marked contrast to many independent film productions. As director, you will more than likely be asking your cast and crew to go above and beyond in some capacity. That can mean working for deferred or lower pay or wearing multiple hats. Even if everyone is getting paid well, working a 12 to 14 hour day is physically and mentally exhausting no matter how “hardcore” a person may be.
To be an effective leader you need to be aware of the strains you will be placing on your team and how to soften that strain in their experience. You want people who are going to be driven and passionate about your project, but you don’t want to suck them dry. Quite often, simply maintaining an upbeat attitude and acknowledging your team for doing a great job is half the battle. Take each person aside and personally thank them for participating in your project. You want people leaving your production ready to work with you again, not relieved the shoot is over.
Preparation, Communication, and Confidence
An actor friend of mine has an all too common story of his experience on an indie film set. He was a lead in the movie, but he said it would take 6 hours from the time he arrived on set to get a shot off. When they did, the DP and director weren’t on the same page, and the crew began to say the director didn’t know what he was doing. They lost confidence in him, and the entire shoot went downhill.
You’ve probably crewed on productions where people were unhappy with how it was run. Use that to your advantage and learn from those situations. The pressure is on you to inspire confidence in your cast and crew. Do them the service of pre-producing the heck out of your project.
The good news is that you have all the time you need before a project is shot to make sure things will be running well. You need to have virtual telepathy with your DP and your AD and have a vision of how each day is going to go. Be direct and honest. Plan things down to the smallest detail. If you wait until the day of the shoot to figure out shots or set dressing, you will slow things down and waste people’s time. People will begin to talk. If you show up prepared and focused, and allow your crew to support you, then people will trust you and follow you.
The Power of Good Food
If your crew consists of recent film school grads or absolute beginners, then ordering out sandwiches and pizza every day should be fine. But if you are working with professionals at any level, you need to feed them better than that.
You know the deep hunger after working hard on set for those first few hours. If you feed your crew bad food, it’s literally a recipe for disaster. Even basic catering at $10 a head helps keep crew morale up and also shows that you care about them and appreciate the time and energy they are putting in to help realize your vision. One my friend’s shoot he served kabobs, rice, and grilled vegetables. I can only imagine how the 12 hour day would have gone if people were eating pizza 4 days in a row.
I once produced a project where I had 2 DPs working in tandem on deferred pay. They were doing me a great favor, shooting in the rain at a baseball stadium as the weather changed to Autumn. Even though I was low on money, I made sure to order food from a popular local pub that I knew served great burgers and sandwiches. There’s also something great about ordering from a restaurant and giving the crew a choice of what to eat. It would have been an insult to give these guys cheap food after they’d helped me out so much. It was an incredibly satisfying meal for everyone, even if the pay wasn’t fully up to par.
The underlying message here is to be thoughtful and aware of your cast and crew. Directing means being consumed with a vision of your story, your shots, and your actors' performances. Paying special attention to the people who are going to help you realize that vision will increase the quality of your production tenfold.
Seth Hymes is a Film Consultant living in Los Angeles. He is the founder of filmschoolsecrets.com and also runs a free biweekly hour-long webinar on Starting a Directing Career at filmschoolsolution.com.