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

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

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. 

What follows is half of the book’s eighth chapter, “Defend Yourself: Physical and Mental Challenges Facing the Director, Writer, Actor, and Producer.”  View the book on Amazon by clicking here.

The following is an excerpt from The Little Blue Book for Filmmakers by Carl Gottlieb and Toni Attell, published by Limelight Editions, an imprint of Hal Leonard. Used here with permission of the publisher.

The source of most drama outside of the script is the actors, and anywhere they congregate may be a hotbed of intrigue, gossip, and disinformation. This is also true of anyone who talks to actors, so view the makeup, hairdressing, wardrobe, and transportation departments as minefields. Even on a low-/no-budget production, where all the departments are combined in the person(s) of your overworked colleagues, a few misplaced or ill-chosen words will resonate throughout the production, and anything said in confidence is public knowledge as soon as it can be repeated. A favor for one will be expected by all, and any violation of boundaries will result in the loss of those limits.

READ MORE: The Six Things You Must Know to Make It in the Film Industry

This is not to say a director cannot speak or be spoken to; if that were true, directors would be the loneliest people on the set. Feel free to chat about wind and weather, but remember that in all close-knit male groups, from nineteenth-century British colonial armies to the crews of nuclear submarines, there are three topics deliberately ignored: women, politics, and religion. In a less gender-specific world, include members of the opposite sex as subjects to be avoided. Add to those topics these sources of friction: the problems of the production, the character of the personnel, and the personal lives of everyone on or near the set. The director’s problems are uniquely off limits; like the captain of a ship or the leader of a combat patrol, his or her thoughts must remain private. We discussed the director’s isolation before; it goes with the job, it even has a name: “the loneliness of command.”  If you must share gossip and commentary, do it with someone far from the set or the production: a therapist, a life partner, a close family member, or an animal companion (these may all be the same individual). If you’re a writer, your closest confidante may be the director. If he or she is not sympathetic, the same limits apply to your options.

A strategy (or habit) that many executives (including directors) find useful is to acquire or maintain a group of friends or confidantes with whom you can share frankly and safely. The advantage of this is that the natural loneliness of command is softened by a close-knit circle of advisors, sounding boards, and lieutenants who can be trusted to keep people and things organized and functional (including yourself, on the bad days). But, beware—the inherent danger is that your group becomes a “posse,” a gang that gives the appearance of a support group but is, in fact, a barrier. These individuals are people whose principal interest is preserving their turf, influencing your decisions, and insulating you from all criticism and useful input. They become gatekeepers and relish the role. How can you tell the difference between a small circle of friends and a posse that’s a clique and a claque? A quick checklist is in order, again. They’re not your faithful friends and confidantes if:
    •    The only people close to you are on the payroll. If that’s the case, you’re buying loyalty, not earning it. Think about it: A person has the choice of telling you what you need to know and losing his or her job, or misinforming you and staying employed. Which do you think will be most useful to you? (Think Elvis, Michael Jackson, and the like.)
    •    You learn crucial information from outsiders who tried to get to you directly but were diverted.
    •    Other old friends complain about your inaccessibility.
    •    Items shared in your circle become public knowledge or gossip, or wind up in the tabloids (if you’re newsworthy).
And speaking of being newsworthy, if you’ve achieved a level of success that includes managers and agents, be aware that they have other clients and “relationships” with employers and studios, and unless you’re their only client, there are other people they have to “service” (an inelegant word for what they do). Agents and managers may certainly have professional and business goals that are not in your best interests, although they will never tell you, and they may actively dissemble (lie) to you about their reasons. They can also function as an effective firewall, an impenetrable barrier between you and everyone else. If you are fortunate enough to have this level of professional management, always be aware that firewalls can keep the good, as well as the bad, from reaching you. Which is why gossip is important.

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.)

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.”

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