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How to Keep Yourself Sane on Film Sets: Tips from 'The Little Blue Book for Filmmakers'

By Carl Gottlieb and Toni Attell | Indiewire April 9, 2013 at 10:58AM

In this excerpt from "The Little Blue Book for Filmmakers," Carl Gottlieb and Toni Attell explain how to stay sane on a fiction film shoot. The larger book is a series of chapters that provide a guide to navigating the day-to-day and the job ladder of the contemporary filmmaking world.
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When you hear (or overhear) gossip and criticism, never take it at face value. Confirm with secondary sources, check with colleagues, determine the truth as best you can, and immediately confront and resolve a negative situation before it undermines company discipline or hurts someone. For example, a director notices a cast or crew member is sometimes hard to find when needed. Someone observes that the missing person “must be taking a nap.” “Why do you say that?” says the director. The answer: “Because whenever he’s tired, he goes off the set, and when he comes back he’s alert and talkative, bouncing around, ready for anything!” It’s true that many people are energized by a short nap. It’s also true that many people are energized by cocaine, crystal meth, prescription drugs, alcohol, or clandestine sex. It’s best to resolve the situation with the minimum disruption to the company. (Which doesn’t mean find more drugs or alcohol for the tired person—nothing disrupts a company more than the arrest of a principal.)

Of course, all of this will be gossip on the set the next day, but that’s the way of the world. You have to get on with the day’s work.

The same is true of less dramatic situations; the director and writer will be privy to the simple backbiting and competition, gossip, lover’s spats, on-set location romances, and the sheer tedium and boredom of filmmaking. You will also be the subject of all of this chit-chat. Don’t worry about it; leave “I wonder what they think of me” in high school, where it belongs. Although it’s usually a matter of personal style, the director is best advised to remain enigmatic, above the fray, and focused on the work. Some directors, and others in the production, capitalize on fear and gossip, and employ them as tools in the manipulation and control of the company. We don’t encourage it—not just on moral grounds, but because arbitrary inclusion or exclusion based on gossip makes people insecure, and insecure people usually don’t function at their highest level, and that includes your valued posse.

It’s also useful to remember that temporary personnel who rotate through a production (day players, guests, etc.) should be included as soon as possible in the company’s routine and educated as to the expected standards of behavior. A cast and crew should be discouraged from harassing, hazing, or toying with a newcomer. Likewise, a powerful newcomer or the members of your inner circle should be discouraged from harassing or bullying any member of the production team for any reason. If someone needs to be counseled, disciplined, or fired, that’s your job; don’t delegate the hard decisions. (If it makes you feel bad or you want to remain forever “the good guy,” you can ask someone else to do it, but it’s not the strongest way to behave.)

Every situation will require its own carefully calibrated response. As a general rule, Suits are more helpful at your side than on your back.

Finally, a word about “The Suits.” These are the elements of the production that are actually higher than the director on the chain of command: studio and network executives, financiers, ad agencies, and the producer who hired you. There are three ways to deal with them:

1. Ignore them. They have no idea of what you’re actually doing.

2. Listen to them carefully. If they have some idea of what you’re doing, you may make note of what their concerns are, nod and smile, and then ignore them. Or . . .

3. Don’t ignore them. They may have genuine creative input that you will find useful. How is this possible? Many executives in genuine positions of authority (not just titles with the word creative in them) have long, hard-won experience that informs their opinions. Others may have come up through the ranks and shared similar issues as directors and producers; some may be artists-in-disguise, genuinely inspired by creative insight and inspiration; and some may be family members of the main money source.

 
Every situation will require its own carefully calibrated response. As a general rule, Suits are more helpful at your side than on your back. In the long run, no director benefits from having a reputation as being “difficult,” and even huge commercial success doesn’t insulate you from unemployment after a series of negative experiences and (God forbid) some commercial failures. For better or worse, continuing commercial success grants you license to indulge any and every creative impulse, makes you immune to all criticism, and excuses the worst excesses of personal and professional behavior. Despite all that, your principal motivation should remain your artistic vision, not vast wealth and immunity from prosecution.

All that said, every now and again, despite all your careful planning and the planning of your most skilled and trusted support team, things will turn sour, explode, collapse, or otherwise go from “all right”  to “all wrong.” The classic bumper sticker that describes this stressful situation is: “Sh*t Happens.”

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Production