Road Diary from #DMTour: Directing & Friendship

 Here’s the first post in a potential series on the road, most of these will be related to what we’ve been discussing with attendees on the first 8 stops of the Directing Motion Tour:

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to come to terms with as a director is the fact that your roles is not necessarily to be anyone’s friend…   whether you want to accept it or not, your role is to lead your team first, to befriend them second. 

 I’ve been fascinated with leadership throughout my life as well as the responsibility and caveats that come with it:  one of which can be the loneliness that often comes with the role.    But as any young kid who volunteers to lead his peers will quickly tell you:  being the "boss"  ain’t always all that it’s cracked up to be. 

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One of the toughest things to balance within the formula is how to balance friendship within the equation – especially given the fact that we very often work with friends on both big and small productions.   This is a field where we want to work with talented people we respect and enjoy being around, while also helping them to push their creative boundaries to a new level.  And that can be tough to balance for anyone.

 Early on in your directing process,  you quickly learn that your job is not to be everyone’s friend…   In fact, you find out that trying to be a crewmember’s friend in the short term by cutting them a break or cutting a corner, will likely yield the opposite to what you are seeking long term…   For example if you let someone off the hook in terms of an important responsibility at the end of a long shoot day,  that act of friendship can come to bite the entire team the next day, when your shortcut causes problem the next day and turns into a longer day …  

 That act of good faith and friendship may ironically turn around to harm to the overall production, the person you meant to help,  and in the end they may in fact blame you for it long term and possibly resent you for it down the line…   

 So unless you are willing to roll up your sleeves and do what you are releasing them from doing yourself, sometimes you’ve got to make the hard choice an insist that it gets done (now) for everyone’s benefit long term.    The person may not thank you now, or ever.   But at least they won’t blame you along with a few dozen others long term.   And the reality is that you rolling your sleeves up, may cause a multitude of other problems down the line for many people… you might embarrass the person you’re releaving or worse: not do it properly.   Again: a tough balance.

 One of my favorite sayings is:  “Salute the rank, not the invidual.”

 Loosely translated, this means that when you work in a hierarchical system such as the military, or in effect the film business, you salute or respect an officer above you not necessarily for who THEY are as an individual, but instead out of respect for their position within the hierarchy, and in recognition of how the entire system works. 

 Ergo, even if you may hate the “superior” and even if they aren’t inherently stellar individuals, you still need to respect the chain of command or all hell will all too likely break loose and everyone will fall victim to the fallout which is usually failure or in the case of the military:  potential loss of life.   

Point is:  as soon as you start to mess with the system, it will mess with you, and you in the end will likely pay too.

 This is how the hierarchical system is built after all, it’s a top down hierarchy where everyone delegates responsibilities and redundancies downward.  Theoretically if you don’t stray from your responsibilities too much, you should get a good result even with a few failures at several levels.   The system isn’t built to be “clever” or necessarily “logical or efficient” per se:  it’s build to be robust and withstand the inherent chaos of war.  And while people at the bottom think it’s all rosy on top… they find out that with authority comes a lot of responsibility (and stress etc…) as they themselves move up the rank.  

Personally, I have as much respect for people who do NOT take on larger roles within a hierarchy just as much as I do for the leaders within the hierarchy.   I appreciate that some people just don’t want to deal with all that will inevitably with the "authority" and are comfortable where they are.

 Obviously most people reading this live in a much “looser” environment that for all intensive purposes couldn’t be further from the military.     You’re more likely to find a hipster on a set these days than you are a former Marine.  People working on a film crew are traditionally anti-conformists and anti-authority.    

 That being said, everyone on a crew inherently comes to respect the process,  as failure to do so quickly results in inefficiency, chaos and worse:  long, painful and unproductive days…  a zero sum game.  There are simply too many moving parts within the filmmaking process and in the end this top-down system works quite well in fact, and does a good job of mitigating chaos.

 Which brings me back to the role of a director.

 First, to put it plainly, most of the director or “leader’s” work should be done FAR BEFORE they set foot on set.   90-100% of their job is done in preparation, working out every possible angle and problem as much as possible so all department heads have had a chance to think of alternatives, and pivot before things get going.  

 In short: once on set, the director’s role is to make sure all is going according to plan, and to adapt to conflict with a set of pre-planned solutions as issues arise (or to help avoid them altogether as she sees them coming.)

 The director should work closely with every department head to clearly and concisely communicate their plan, how best to achieve it, and potential solutions to obvious problems that may come up – well before we start to shoot.

 Once principal photography starts, a director should ideally trust the department heads to work on individual aspects of production with their crew.  

Ideally a director can sit in front of a monitor and give clear feedback on the cinematography to the DP, and focus most of his attention on the actors and helping them along.   The idea is:  at that point the Director has done all s/he can to set everyone up for success, and they should be looking at the monitor as if they were a member of the audience themselves and make sure that they “buy” what they are seeing on screen and hopefully if they are somehow still able to fall under the spell of the collective “work.”   After all, everyone else is busy doing their important part of the process on set, the director should be the only one who is trying to judge if it is actually working, and how it will or will not work on the future audience…

 That being said, the director – just as any leader – sets the tone on set as well.    If people are tired on set after a few long days, the director’s role is to stay positive and to lift up her crew – even if the director likely puts in 2-3 hours prior to each shoot day and 2-4 hours after each shoot day on top of what the crew is doing, not to mention that the director is likely a few days, week, months or even years into a project when they set foot on set the very first day…

 The director also needs to know how to crack the whip – when the crew is moving slowly or unfocused.   Obviously doing so through the proper channels (following hierarchy) with your 1st AD and DP is preferable.   The director should NEVER yell or belittle anyone.   It can NEVER BECOME PERSONAL.   It’s all about performance:  either someone is doing their job effectively, or not.   Either someone is prepared or isn’t.  Belaboring things that took place in the past brings us nowhere – those can be addressed in private later.   Focusing on solutions now and going forward should be the focus.

 Perhaps the hardest lesson to come to terms with is that at times you may have to be slightly unpleasant with people when you feel they aren’t pulling their weight or that they aren’t prepared.     The idea is that:  even if they don’t like you that day, over the long term your and their performance should improve which will result in more efficient and shorter days over time – which benefits everyone.      Even if they never like you, the rest of your crew will likely appreciate you mitigating a problem that ultimately affects everyone.

 And if the end result of all this is that what you are shooting together improves… then everyone wins!

 This also applies to the director – actor relationship as well of course.   Obviously every director likes the idea of befriending an actor over a drink and developing a closer relationship that you can bring on set.   It turns out that more often than not, that can actually cripple the working relationship on set.

 If you’re friends with someone, it’s quite difficult to tell someone they are not doing a good job – because it quickly becomes personal.  

If you are simply a director they work with:  just give it to them straight when you find that that is the best approach.   Not being their friend keeps the exchange purely professional, and hopefully not personal.   And that can be a huge help to both parties.  

So even if you want to hire a friend, whether they are actors, DPs, crewmembers or even producers, make sure that they always understand the fine line:  away from set you are friends.   On set you are colleagues and must always observe decorum.    You can always go out for a drink after you wrap a shoot… or to celebrate that same actor’s award for best acting down the line…

 On set the goal should be to follow a professional relationship and keep if formal and never personal.   After all:  we’re all here to create magic on screen.

 Over time:  that magic can lead to long term friendship and respect.    The journey to a great film isn’t always easy, in fact it seldom is.   Your main goal as a director is to ensure that all of the effort that every single person puts in pays off.    And that is the best gift that you can give the entire team after all:  something to be collectively proud of long term.