I fought with a very close friend after a film shoot recently. He did a whole bunch of crazily unprofessional things on set that led me to be somewhat annoyed with him on the day – things that I would consider commonsense no-nos in any professional situation. I started off explaining, hit a brick wall, and wound up pretty pissed off, and momentarily distracted from my work. The atmosphere was briefly soured by his actions and my reaction to him. As he was someone who claimed to have film-school experience, I was counting on him more than most to be a useful crew member. Instead… well I won’t go into details.
Anyway, the whole stupid, depressing, miserable, heart-breaking thing got me thinking about the mistakes most people new to a film set (and this includes me) have made while learning the ropes. I wish I’d had this list when I started crewing on student things a couple of years back. I wish everybody who worked while I was A.D. or director had a list like this.
So my top # DON’Ts of an indie film set are DON’T…
SHOW UP LATE / NOT SHOW UP
Films are made at weird times of the day – when the light is diffused, or pretty, or when the story calls for it, or when the wind isn’t blowing. This may not suit your sleep cycle, but that’s why God invented alarm clocks. I had someone show up three hours after the shoot started and waste everybody’s time by being confused about what to do. Being late means missing the crew meeting (see below) and will be seen by the rest of the crew as an insult to everybody. They were there on time. What makes you special?
If you’re late… Play catch-up. Be very polite. Introduce yourself and offer to help. Fetch people water. Whatever… you owe them.
MISS THE CREW MEETING (aka safety meeting)
At the crew meeting (it kicks off the day), everybody gets to meet each other (duh) and, sometimes, roles are even clarified. It depends whether you’ve been able to meet before the first shoot day, or not. We hadn’t been able to. At the meeting, the Assistant Director will also give important legal, safety and other information. It’s where you find out what to do and where to do it, and who is in charge of what. If you’re not there for the meeting, you will piss people off all day long by fucking up continually.
If you miss it… be patient, and find things to do. Don’t expect people to know your name until after lunch. They’re busy working.
MAKE SNIDE COMMENTS
Everybody on an indie film set is indispensable. This of course doesn’t mean you’re busy all the time (more on that later) but it does mean that everybody deserves respect. Comments like “just a grip”, or “a grip is just basically a pack mule”, specially from some idiot who is trying to pretend s/he knows more than s/he does, when they probably don’t even know how to assemble a dolly properly, will not go down well.
If you slip just stop as soon as you can. Don’t explain. Just shut up for a bit.
Think of a film set like a 12-step meeting. People are doing something very hard – baring their souls (actors). To allow them to do that, there needs to be a focused, respectful atmosphere on set. Commenting on proceedings might get you a laugh, or pass those long hours spent standing around waiting to work, but it’s a sign of insecurity and a need to be the center of attention. It’s not only distracting for everybody on set, and unhelpful to the process of getting things done as quickly as they must be, it also means not one, but two people are out of the loop – gossips usually need someone to talk to, as well as about. I have been guilty of talking about other films / future projects on set (I was gripping, and thought I had nothing better to do at the time). This is one of the worst forms of gossip as it takes everybody out of the moment, and also makes them wonder what you’ll say about them once this is over. I was told off once – and not politely.
If you start, say “sorry” and stop immediately.
BREAK THE SET RULES
The A.D. will go through these in the meeting but sometimes, a few get forgotten. For instance, the A.D. may assume that nobody in their right mind would smoke while on duty, or leave the set without informing someone. But if you do find yourself being told something is against the rules, you should assume there’s a good reason for it. For instance, film sets are full of flammables, such as cloths in metal frames that you might need to pick up and hold. Or you’re shooting in a nature reserve / a non-smoker’s house and could lose your permit just like that. This isn’t high school. Being a rebel isn’t cool. It’s just annoying.
If you mess up just do as you’re told – don’t make people act like your mother.
EQUATE “PROFESSIONAL” WITH “PAID”
Of course we all want to be paid to do what we love. But the chances are the director of an indie film is paying for everything themselves – and they can’t pay you too because the food for the tiny little crew and the equipment they had to hire is costing at least $400 a day. So you’re easily replaced if you just say no in advance, because there are plenty of people who want to make films and want the free training they’ll get on set. Yes you are there as a favour to the person making the film. And of course they’re grateful. But you’re also presumably there because you want to be, and to learn something, and to make contacts, and to have fun working. If you think that doing a favour means you can show up late, do sloppy work, refuse to take orders, or expect people to remember your name on the first day, you should never have said yes to the gig in the first place. Film sets are hard work.
If you realise you hate making films… work your sentence. And say no next time.
GET INJURED / KILLED
A grip on one of my shoots saved a poly by hanging on to it as he flew 3 metres through the air… he could have died trying to save a piece of equipment that’s only worth a few hundred dollars. Of course, he had all the best intentions. But had he been seriously hurt, I would never have forgiven myself. The shoot would have been shut down. A few of us could never have worked again. And oh, he could have been dead. Not worth it. Tied to this is the logic behind everybody being focussed at all time, not chatting, or messing around. It’s not cause the A.D. is a bitch. It’s so nobody gets hurt. Without blaming anybody, there’s no way he should have been holding that poly alone in the first place.
If you’re hurt… admit it. It’s only a movie. Nobody should die for it.
BREAK STUFF AND NOT TELL
Stuff gets broken sometimes. It’s not great, it costs money, but it happens. The funders will pay the cost, not you. What’s important is that you own up, so that the crew can make a contingency plan to replace the equipment or do things a new way, and the director can replace anything that might belong to, for example, the person who lives at the location you’re using. I’ve never had this happen to me – I’ve been so lucky that way. But I know of many sets on which someone messes up and is too scared to talk.
If you see something’s broken… tell someone asap. You don’t have to tell on anyone. Just get the info out there.
BE SCARED TO ASK FOR HELP
Particularly when you’re new on a set and working for free, you have a right to learn. That is your payment, really. So if someone tells you to “go and fetch a half apple” and you don’t know what that is, ASK. Someone on a set once literally went and fetched an apple, cut it in half, and rushed it over to the shoot. We’re all glad they did, cause it was hilarious. But what they were really looking for is a six sided wooden box that comes in a “family” of apples, and, if a “full” apple, can be used New York, Chicago, or LA.
If you don’t know… right. Also there’s always google.
TAKE IT PERSONALLY WHEN YOU’RE TOLD OFF
This is the hardest thing of all. BY FAR. Film sets are stressful environments. There’s a lot at stake! Money, time, your reputations… This is what’s fun and exciting about them. It’s also what makes you feel so bonded as a crew when the film is finished. It’s also what makes the place a hotbed of emotion. If someone messes up my shoot because they can’t let their ego go, I will probably not work with them again, ever. So it’s tempting to explain why you’re right when you’re told off, or to lose your temper when someone makes an honest mistake. I know how hard this is. When I second A.C.d on a shoot once, I clashed with the first A.C. A lot. Not for any real reason. I wound up in tears. There is footage of me slating while bawling. So embarrassing. But I stayed on that set. And I’m stronger for it now. I’ve learned that losing your temper is not worth it in the end. Your ego, and dignity, are not the same thing. Even if the person who pissed you off is wrong / to big for their boots, the film is what’s important.
We all screw up – be forgiving and remember what matters.
AND THE WORST THING YOU CAN DO… THE VERY WORST?
Jump ship. You do that, you’ll never get back on set, ever. Maybe that’s what you want! But don’t think anyone will ever be okay with it. The day of the shoot (or the day before) is way too late to find new crew. Once you say you’re in, you’re there for the whole thing. And if you do jump ship, there’s no reason that justifies it. For safety reasons, you should also always tell the A.D. if you leave the set – they are responsible for marshaling people as well as making sure nobody gets lost or injured on set.
Done it already? An honest apology free of accusations might save your relationship with the key creatives.
A lot of this is commonsense. As in, don’t make people wonder why your mother didn’t teach you any manners. I’m sure I forgot a bunch of things. There are so many ways to embarrass yourself on set, without even becoming an actor. But as with most situations in life and work, you can make mistakes and nobody will hate you for it, so long as you learn from them and move on. Caring about the important stuff counts more than being perfect – at least in my book.