Before we begin, let me be clear: I’m NOT here to make excuses for abusive and irresponsible behavior. I’ve been on sets where the director’s obsession or anger or whatever the hell was going through his/her mind caused harm to someone. Sometimes it was just a stinging insult, other times it was abuse or an unjust firing. Most often the people who bore the brunt of it had very little to do with what was going on. Often they were PAs.
I figured that I could offer some insight into what sometimes seems like insensitive or dumb behavior, based on seeing it up close as a line producer and 1st AD, and committing some of it myself as a director. I also thought I could offer some advice to both directors and the crew for when this kind of thing happens.
SOMETHING HAS CHANGED ON SET
The director is stumbling around and trying to work out the shots and coverage on the set, instead of just sticking to the shot list. He looks like a lost puppy. The crew waits, on the clock. The producer is furious because this downtime is costing her money.
Something changed between the scout and the shoot day. It could be something obvious – now there’s a building going up in what used to be an empty lot. It could be more subtle – the foliage is in full bloom now, but when you scouted a month ago there wasn’t even a bud popping out. Or the chemistry between the actors is different than what you saw in rehearsal.
If you had a game plan originally – a shot list or diagram of some kind, storyboards, anything – then I’m sympathetic. You’re in a bind. If you stick with your plan, the results aren’t going to be as satisfactory. Perhaps no one else on the crew sees it, but you know you’re going to be tearing your hair out (more likely, your editor is going to be tearing your hair out) because you couldn’t get the shot you needed, or it will be barely passable. BUT you stay on schedule. Honestly, if the scene isn’t that important, shoot it and move on (yes, I know, every scene is important, but some are more important than others).
Or you try to come up with something on the spot, which means the crew has to wait a little longer, but if you think fast enough, everyone will forget about this later on when the film screens at a top festival.
Some directors aren’t bothered by this kind of thing at all. They figure if they leave some things to chance, and not try to overprepare, then they’ll be okay. The directors who do this well, though, have typically spent a great deal of time either rehearsing their actors, or have a few films under their belt and some tricks up their sleeve. Can you say the same thing? The truth is that even if your plan sucks now in the cold light of day, at least you went through the scene analysis process once and know what you’re trying to achieve. You can build on that.
There’s another possibility, though. Could the change actually for the better? Does the new/changed set element make for a better scene? Sometimes it’s good to let go of your vision. Think carefully about the scene immediately before and immediately after the one you’re shooting. How will it affect the emotional continuity?
If you haven’t prepared at all, then you’re just screwed and your crew is right to be mad at you.
PEOPLE KEEP FUCKING TALKING
Some people like a loud set. I’m a chatty guy so I don’t necessarily mind a little buzz behind me – it actually helps me filter out the stupid voices in my head. But sometimes, I need a little quiet. Other directors are more strict – they need pin-drop silence on set.
When I’m on set, I have to open all my senses up, so I don’t miss anything. That means that a lot of the background talk I would normally not even pay attention to slips in. Even putting on a pair of Comteks doesn’t really help (it may even make it worse if the boom op is talking).
Sometimes, the director can sense that the chatter is hurting the actors’ ability to concentrate, and so part of why she’s yelling for silence is to protect them (which is part of her job). This is why directors will sometimes shoot dirty looks or outright turn around and tell everyone to shut up. Or pick on the nearest PA (who may not even have been speaking) and tell him/her to go away.
If you’re the director, communicate your preference to the crew BEFORE you start. Unfortunately, you may not really know what you need. If you’re a crew person, the best bet is to assume that there’s a cone of silence behind the director’s head, extending back about ten feet. Talking in a whisper doesn’t help – it can make it worse, because if I’m in the above-described state, then I can hear some of what you’re saying but not other words, and my brain will try to piece together the rest instead of paying attention to the scene.
PEOPLE KEEP STANDING AROUND THE MONITOR
The director starts pushing people away from the monitor, or getting generally crabby when there are too many people standing around video village.
I really hate video village for this reason. When I’m directing, I’d rather be right next to the DP, so I can watch the performance unfolding in front of me, take in the larger world outside the frame (in case something interesting is happening back there), and give the actors an audience. But sometimes, I have to be by the monitor – if it’s a tricky shot, or if there’s just no space on set. Everyone else, however, also wants to be in front of the monitor. I’ve seen directors muscle past noob crew to stand in front of the monitor. When my senses are open, I feel the tension and expectations (or boredom) of the rest of the crew as we’re all trying to watch the monitor. It’s hard to ask people to stand back – it’s part of the movie-making magic, after all, and most of the crew really do need to look at what’s going on.
As a director, it’s okay to gently ask people to give you some space. Better still, if you think it’s going to be an issue, ask for a separate monitor (if you can get the producer to cough up a few bucks for it). Explain it in terms of time saved on set not having to play back footage. If you’re a crew member, ask yourself if you really need to be by the monitor. And please don’t stand right in front of it, thereby blocking the director’s view.
THOSE PA’S ARE JUST STANDING AROUND
One of the biggest complaints I get from directors is they don’t want a crew where people are just “standing around.” We like the idea that everyone is working, no one is idle, and as much of the budget is going on the screen. Nothing says the opposite like looking around and seeing two or more PAs (or other crewmembers) bullshitting over by the crafty table. That’s when the director turns to me and asks me if we can fire those PAs.
Directors get myopia because they’re on set all day. They may not see what’s happening off set – the runs, the crises that the production team is taking care of, the mess that the location department just had to clean, the truck that broke down, etc. The moment before I turned around and saw those PAs by crafty? They may have both just gotten back from a really demanding run, and anyway their day started an hour before mine, when they went to pick up the pass vans. They may be grabbing a bite for the first time that day, or are just about to go do something (like run another errand, or collate some paperwork).
If you’re the director and you see a PA “just standing around,” don’t assume the worst. If you’re a PA, don’t linger by the crafty table – don’t linger at all, in fact. Volunteer for work. Seriously, it will make an impression, and you won’t get the stinkeye from the director and producers. It doesn’t matter that you’re already underpaid and overworked. For better or worse, perception can become reality very quickly in this field.
EVERYBODY GET OUT
The director yells for everyone to get off the set. Everyone’s feelings get hurt, or they clamor for why they should be there. Often they’re right. But so is the director.
The truth is that sometimes the set really is too small for everyone to be clumped together on it. Just as in the “too loud” scenario, when I’m focusing on the actors, I find peripheral movement very distracting. Sometimes I can see it affecting the actors’ ability to concentrate as well. When the noise/crowd level gets past a certain point, I really need some physical space. Sometimes I’m just saying this on behalf of the cast or the DP, who are being too nice to say anything.
The good and bad thing is that this is becoming less of an issue as crews keep shrinking. If you’re a director, it’s best to get used to working in a chaotic environment. If you radiate calm, people will take their cue from you. It’s pretty amazing, actually – if you start showing irritation, you’ll see everyone else doing it too. Then you’ll find the number of people on set to be less of an issue. Then when you really do need everyone off set, the crew will honestly ‘get’ why you’re asking for it.
If you’re a crew person, just try not to linger on set any more than you have to.
STUBBORNNESS OVER WHAT SEEM TO BE SMALL DETAILS
The director wants things framed one way. The DP sees it differently. Or the director wants a different prop/furniture item, and the art department is either arguing back or scrambling to make it work. The AD sees the resulting argument as a time leakage. What should have been a quiet discussion gets heated.
What no one else except the director knows is that she’s already made 500 compromises on the film at this point, and she’s not going to make the 501st. Or that she has a plan that the DP doesn’t quite see for how this shot is going to cut together with the rest of the script. Or the prop has some symbolic significance to the story.
Often the situation is the result of an honest miscommunication between the director and the crew. A ‘Stonehenge’ moment, if you will.
As the director, consider that you may be obsessing over the wrong thing. It may not make any difference whether the shot is framed one way or another, as long as you have the pieces you need to cut together. I can vouch for obsessing over props and set dressing placement that made zero difference whatsoever. Even blatant continuity mistakes will be completely washed out in the audiences’ minds, as long as the emotional beats of the scene are there.
If, after asking yourself – “could this less optimal solution work” – you find yourself saying no, then you have to make your case. The problem is that by this point, you may be really pissed off that no one else is getting it, and the production machine just wants to move on (you can see the crew roling their eyeballs in the background). Try to explain things as calmly as you can. Perhaps there’s a middle ground that hasn’t been discovered yet.
If you’re a crew member, don’t let the “let’s just shoot and make our day” attitude rule your decision-making. Yes, it’s important to make the day, but doing it wrong means having to do it over later or cut around the issue in post. Perhaps the director is obsessing over the wrong thing. But mentally review the past evidence – is the director quick to make decisions; do you feel like you’re on a shoot with a plan; in other words, do you trust the director? If yes, then give her some leeway. She may see the bigger picture that you don’t.
IMPATIENCE OVER SLOWNESS
Once I had an actor who was fading on set. She asked for some coffee. I asked the 1st AD to make some coffee was brought to set. Ten minutes later, there was no coffee and the actor was just about to drop. I started getting really upset. Everyone seemed to move at about half the speed they should have.
I found out that the 1st AD had relayed the order to the UPM, who thought that a large coffee run was needed (since our pot was cold by then), so she was organizing it. This was absolutely the wrong answer – all I needed was one coffee. However, this was partially my fault as well; I didn’t specify one coffee. So while everyone was acting with the best intentions, the main priority – getting the lead actor back in the game – took a back seat.
Slowness is the symptom, rarely the problem. Usually the problem is a miscommunication over the priority. The producer and UPM are running behind the scenes and may have allocated all the manpower they really have at their disposal. When the director makes one more request, they have to reshuffle everyone and everything to accommodate.
At other times, it’s the result of the budget being so tight that there really isn’t another PA or body that can be thrown at a problem. Or that the production team is too caught up in doing things according to a standard practice/procedure (which works great when you have a large crew, but doesn’t make sense on a small one).
If you’re the director, be specific. Is what you needed on set difficult to find or not even in the original props list? If you’re dealing with a green crew, more specificity is always better. And sometimes it’s actually better to do it yourself.
If you’re the crew member, make sure you understand what’s being asked, and can accurately estimate how much time it will take. Most of the time the crew wants to make everyone else happy, but trying to be too optimistic – nothing ever takes just five minutes, I promise you – does no one any good. And pretending to know what’s being asked when you don’t is also terrible.
I see this happening with makeup and hair all the time. Directors often don’t appreciate how much time it really takes to make up and style the actors, and today’s cameras are horribly unforgiving of makeup flaws. Sometimes the director, DP and 1st AD need to slow things down on set just a little bit to make sure HMU can finish their work. On the flip side, I’ve met a lot of HMU artists who can’t or won’t give the director or 1st AD an accurate time estimate. This is similarly bad. Precalling the HMU department and the cast so they can start earlier sounds great in theory. But in my experience it doesn’t really do anything unless you’ve got a large enough HMU team to really process at least one or two cast members before the rest of the crew shows up. And then you have to worry about meal penalties (for the cast and crew), which can become very expensive.
IF YOU LOSE IT…
As a director, I had a lot of moments where I’ve just wanted to lose my shit. Most of the time I was able to get it under control or lose it where no one else could hear or see me yelling at the air. There will come at least one time where you get into an argument that really boils over. The only thing you can do is get it over with as quickly as possible, apologize, and move on. Try to learn from the experience – about what it was that the other person did, whether your reaciton was justified or not, whether further action is required (if you find you’re in constant friction with the other person it may be necessary to sit down with them or, worst-case, fire them). Try to make sure you’re serving the film and not your own ego.
If you’re on the crew and are hearing/bearing the brunt of a shitstorm, just remember – it probably doesn’t have that much to do with you (unless you just did something monumentally stupid or dangerous, or are being genuinely insubordinate). In other words, it’s not personal. It’ll probably be forgotten by the end of the day. That’s no excuse, but hopefully some consolation.