Remember Harvey Keitel as Winston Wolfe? Of course you do. His appearance in “Pulp Fiction” as the fixer, the cleaner who knew how to take care of Jules’ and Vincent’s boneheaded mistakes, was a model of efficiency under pressure — a no-nonsense performer who got the job done with style.
And, as producer Justin Szlasa presents in this terrific essay, if every movie set were run by Winston Wolfe, the world would be a better place.
Szlasa recently produced the digital filmmaking doc “Side By Side” that premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. Back in 1997, however, he founded legal marketing startup Hubbard One, which became the biggest provider of websites and web applications for large law firms.
It looks like the time he spent in that considerably wonkier arena will serve him well as an independent filmmaker. As he points out in “Being Winston Wolfe,” all film sets need at least one Winston Wolfe — someone who’s a top-notch manager, able to respond to any crisis with focus and grace.
However, there’s a dearth of Winston Wolfes in the world, and certainly on indie film sets. As Szlasa writes, “There’s something indie filmmakers almost never discuss: how to be a better manager. In our business, bad managers abound. Collectively we’d all have more fun, create better work and make more money if we could get our act together.”
So here’s Justin Szlasa’s take on how to do just that. — Dana Harris
BEING WINSTON WOLFE
I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems.
We read the trades and attend panel discussions. We learn things about the features of 5D Mark III, the economics of VOD distribution and how to win with Kickstarter. But there’s something indie filmmakers almost never discuss: how to be a better manager.
We have excuses. Teams come together, work intensively, then scatter. Training? No time. Budget? Always tight. We got into this to avoid “the man.” It is him (not us) who reads books from the “management” aisle. The only career advice we need is what we got: “Work your ass off.”
But nothing is worse than working for a bad manager. And in our business, bad managers abound. Collectively we’d all have more fun, create better work and make more money if we could get our act together. Independent filmmakers need to be better managers and better employees.
Fortunately, we need only to look to Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel and “Pulp Fiction” for a role model: Winston Wolf.
Here are a few management lessons from a guy who knows how to get it done.
It’s about thirty minutes away. I’ll be there in ten.
The Wolf, of course, pulls to the curb nine minutes and thirty seven seconds after he hangs up the phone. That gives him time to walk up the driveway and ring the doorbell. You need to manage expectations properly. The Wolf made a promise and delivered.
If you are off by only 1%, that means we can’t depend on you. Someone’s will have to check all of your work. So be on time for the shoot; make sure to check that the rental house is open on Saturday afternoon. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Be 100% reliable. Otherwise, what’s the point?
…now when it comes to upholstery, it don’t need to be spic and span, you don’t need to eat off it. Give it a good once over…
But the windows are a different story. Them you really clean. Get the Windex, do a good job.
This seems obvious. So why don’t we do it? As Stephen Covey illustrates with his “matrix for importance and urgency” (Google it to learn more), we do what urgently demands our attention and put off the important, slow-burning things that will actually make a real difference. It takes constant vigilance to cut through the clutter and keep the things that will really matter on top of your to-do list. Don’t fall into the trap.
Bad news first
About the car, is there anything I need to know?
People hate to tell you bad news. It’s easier to bury it. Of course, it always comes back to bite. The best employees (including the ones who work for Mr. Corleone) break bad news immediately. They speak up as soon as they recognize a mistake (we forgot to get a release from that guy we shot yesterday) or spot a problem (I am picking up a cracking sound on one of the lavs). Effective managers make this easy for the people around them. They don’t point fingers or get upset. They want the bad news so they can deal with it right away.
Take things off your manager’s plate—then own it.
You sendin’ The Wolf?
Shit Negro, that’s all you had to say.
Both Marsellus (the manager) and Jules (the employee) know the Wolf will own the job. Nobody’s going to have to follow up or check his work. He’s got it.
Take on tasks (writing the press kit, arranging a location, adding time code to a script) and own every detail from start to finish. Do this and your value skyrockets.
Write things down
Give me the principals’ names again?
Nobody has a perfect memory. Every production is dealing with hundreds of moving parts. Listen carefully, get it clear the first time and write it down. Going back to re-ask the same questions is annoying and wastes time. Don’t even think of showing up at a meeting without a way to take notes. And once it’s written down, work from a to-do list. The Wolf uses a pencil and paper. You, of course, can use your iPad.
Strategy is for amateurs, tactics are for professionals.
You must be Jules, which would make you Vincent. Let’s get down to brass tacks, gentlemen.
Effective managers and employees know strategy is the easy part. Amateurs jump on to conference calls for five minutes to talk up grand plans. Then they disappear. Professionals do the real work: They check the aspect ratio, they make sure the screeners are delivered, they write the first draft, they jump neck-deep into the details to execute the tactics. Filmmaking is hard work and a game of inches. Track every brass tack.
You can’t manage what you don’t understand.
Now Jimmie, we need to raid your linen closet. I need blankets, I need comforters, I need quilts, I need bedspreads. The thicker the better, the darker the better. No whites, can’t use ’em.
It is clear The Wolf understands how to camouflage the car. The best managers understand every step in the filmmaking process—from pre-production to distribution. On larger films with bigger budgets, you can lean on experts. But you can’t really make a low-budget, run-and-gun production if you can’t properly dump flash cards in the field, explain the technical difference between DVCProHD and H.264 or properly place a lav. To be clear: You don’t have to shoot better than your shooter or edit better than your editor—but you do have to understand their jobs. So keep your skills sharp.
Start tough, then soften up.
He turns around.
It was a pleasure watchin’ you work.
The Wolf smiles.
Call me Winston.
It is Mr. Wolf at the start, but Winston by the end. Bad managers set it up backwards. Initially, they want to be liked—so things start familiar and casual. This may put people at ease, but it also signals it’s cool to slack off. Things begin to slide. Midway through production your manager (who was your buddy) now has to get tough. Do it the other way. Start tough and get your people performing; after everyone is squarely kicking ass, let them know they can call you Winston.
If it’s not working, end it.
The Wolf didn’t say this, but if he stuck around longer no doubt he would have. If you work for a producer who is abusive, unreliable — or God forbid, doesn’t pay you when he said he would — find another gig. It won’t to get better. It will get worse. And bad habits are contagious.
On the flip side, if your intern doesn’t deliver, slot them into another role or cut them loose. A bad intern, even unpaid, can cost you more than they’re worth. It is not easy to keep a team performing. Get rid of bad apples quickly to make your team better. Everyone will benefit.
Some words of caution
Cleaning up a bloody car is easier than making a movie. Making art is hard. Working in a team is hard. Some of the most talented people in our industry are emotional, instinctive and don’t respond well to assholes. The best managers are respected and loved. You’ve got to be both to get the best from your team.
So here’s your swing thought: Be The Wolf, but not the big bad one.
Before he made films, Justin Szlasa founded and managed Hubbard One, a self-financed software company that Deloitte named one of the fastest growing businesses in the country for three years in a row. After selling his company to Thomson Reuters, he went back to school to NYU to learn digital filmmaking. He most recently produced the documentary SIDE BY SIDE with Keanu Reeves, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.