Posts Tagged ‘film sets’

Settiquette disasters: The worst things you can do on a film set

January 30, 2012

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.

"I'm fucking working on my own!!" Set builders don't dig it either. Filmmaking is not for soloists, egotists, or assholes. Although you'll find all of these in the industry - and plenty of them - they're the well-publicized exceptions, not the rule.

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…

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

First A.D. Babylon – the pitfalls and the rare pleasures of a role less rewarding

July 23, 2011

Mexican food is my comfort food. I have eaten a lot of Mexican food lately. I’ve needed a lot of comforting. I’ve been working recently as a first Assistant Director, or “First Bitch” as I like to call the role. It’s rough – one of the steepest and least rewarding learning curves I’ve ever had to negotiate.

I think I eat Mexican mostly for the Horchata, which is a rice milk drink, flavored with cinnamon, served on ice. It's soothing after you've loaded up your burrito “con todos” then dipped it in the green sauce and crunched a few radishes on the way. Many taquerias make their own Horchata – if they do, there's usually a bit of grain at the bottom. That's how you can tell it's real. T-Shirt

(Get the T-Shirt)

Your job is to support and assist the director, and coordinate the different departments, to ensure that all the shots you need get done, and the director is free to focus on the actors. You need to allow for artistic license, while making sure that no time is wasted. A mediocre shot is better than no coverage at all. But this is a hard truth. This makes the job torture for creative people, and hard to do in a creative environment.

No first A.D. expects to be liked, and luckily thanks to having realistic expectations, I don’t really expect to be liked in my general life – so I’m probably ideally suited to the work. But every first A.D. Expects to be allowed to do their job – and that expectation isn’t always fulfilled. In fact, since the organization and time-keeping on set falls to the A.D., it’s very hard to delimit the job. On a good day, it’s like herding cats. On a bad day, it’s like herding retarded cats.

Here’s my quick guide to surviving the job of First A.D. On an independent or student film set.

Do as much as you can of this. If you can get this right, you’re golden. It’s magic. You’re sorted.

Meet with the Director in advance
This is the best way to figure out if they’re a sociopath or a flake. Most directors are one or the other and it’s important that you are prepared to deal with the consequences of either tendency. In the rare case that the director is neither, congratulations: your life, briefly, doesn’t suck.

Meet with the Director of Photography (ideally with Director present) ideally at the location(s)
The best reason to do this is so that you can get The Shotlist – or at the very least, an overhead diagram showing camera / lighting setups for the shoot. That way you have a hope in hell of being able to put together a viable schedule for the shoot. Of course, it’s often impossible to meet with the D.P., and if you do, and if they have seen the location and are able to put together a shot list or better still, schedule, you’re a lucky, lucky A.D.

Figure out what the producer thinks their job entails
Many student producers I’ve run into (I know of about 5 exceptions, all of whom I respect immensely) seem to think the work of a producer involves going to the most obvious location they can think of, asking to book it, filling out a couple of forms, and then charging the director for the costs without bothering to negotiate them much. If you’re lucky, they’ll also handle food and craft services on set. The producer should be doing a lot more than that… although I’m not too sure what at this point, since I’ve never actually had a producer. It’s one of those roles that people interpret as they please. Just make sure you know what is being taken care of and what you’ll have to take care of. If the director is the producer, great. At least they give a shit. However, try to make sure they’ve taken care of everything before the shoot starts and ensure there’s a set producer to pick up any loose ends on the day of the shoot.

Small things make people happy. If someone's having a birthday on set, get whoever fetches lunch to get them cake. If someone's nice to you, smile. It matters. I couldn't have survived my most recent job without the friendliness of some crew members - particularly the D.P.

Put the essential info about the shoot not only in the call sheet, but also in the body of your email to cast and crew members.
This will make them less likely to read the call sheet. That’s the down side. The upside is that they probably wouldn’t have read it anyhow (exception here: actors, cause they want to see what order they’re billed in and whether their name is correctly spelled). The even bigger upside is that when they get lost/confused etc they’ll be able to use their smartphone to look up the basic info: location address, and your phone number so they can call to ask you for directions instead of googling them before leaving home.


Introduce everybody, learn their names, and use their names
I made the mistake of referring to the production designer on a set as P.D. As in “Can we get P.D. In here?” While valid and natural, it’s also rude and made me sound like a dick. So it’s “Can [P.A. Name] get [P.D. Person Name] in here.” In the safety meeting at the beginning of the day, make everyone give their names, what they’re doing there, and something about themselves. It’s just nice to know who you’re dealing with, and a great way to put faces to the names in the call sheet. Also make sure the director gets a chance to say hi to everyone. You rely on them taking charge, so help them do so. The worst thing you can do (and I’ve made this mistake) is forget that this is their set, not yours. This applies even if they’re useless.

Figure out how to make people shut up without shouting at them.
This is the thing I need to work on. If it were legal, I’d just Tazer noisy people. (There’s a reason I don’t have kids. One kid can ruin an entire beach for 400 people by crying all day. Why are there no kid-free beaches?) There’s nothing more exhausting, and counterproductive in a creative environment, than shouting at people to shut the hell up. At the same time, there’s nothing more time-consuming and distracting for those that are actually WORKING than idle set chatter. The odd joke is nice. Lots of jokes during wrap are almost essential – you’re so tired that everything is funny. But noise is stressful, annoying and just creates more noise.

Ask, don’t tell.
This is a good rule for life in general. The other rule is to do it offline. Whenever expressing a strong opinion or getting someone to do something differently, try to get them alone. If you suggest a change in role or strategy to someone in front of the whole crew, they may find it undignified. If they know about it because you took them aside and said “Hey, I see you’re not too busy and we’re short of hands. Would you mind very much if I asked you to sprinkle water on this / assist the production designer until you’re needed as grip again” then it’ll almost certainly be fine. Human beings (that includes me and you) are confused by sudden change. Give them warning and they are capable of evolution and multitasking.

Deal with the set Know It All the first time they start with their crap
It’s easy to spot the set “know it all” on an indy set. They’re usually the aging male lead, slightly past their prime, very experienced but ultimately a ZZZ-lister. And it’s not hard to see why: They’re annoying. They will reveal themselves early by doing one of the following: a. Bringing script revisions to set rather than suggesting them beforehand. b. directing other actors on behalf of the director and c. badmouthing the A.D. or director to the crew – usually by implying that any attempt to keep the clock is a sign that they don’t care about the quality of the film. No matter how hard you are working, they’ll find something to point out that you could be doing better, because they’ve seen how wrong things can go, and they’re just waiting for it to happen to them again. Because they’re very experienced. Best way to deal with them? Odd answer! Listen to them. If you don’t have time, find someone who will. They usually just want a sounding board for endless stories about “the time they worked with so-and-so” and how, as an extra, they helped re-write American Beauty, or something. If they’re not total assholes, the director might be able to work it out – this behavior is sometimes an indication of nerves about the role (a director I trust told me this). If the actor is in fact your most annoying uncle come back to haunt your set, try giving them to the 2ndA.D. (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or the make-up and hair person (for perpetual “last looks”). Anything that keeps them away from the D.P. And makes them feel important is good.

Don’t freak out
This is very hard sometimes. Things you should expect to deal with are a. missing permits, location agreements, crew and so on – most of this should be the producer’s problem, but by the time you’re on set, it’s yours too. b. D.P.s and lighting guys taking twice as long on setups as planned (I usually remind them that the trade-off may mean cutting a favorite tricky shot later, which is mean, but also the truth). c. Locations that are unsanitary (flake-type directors) – I’ve twice had to clean someone’s apartment, and once got shouted at for breaking a glass while washing their dishes d. Locations that are dangerous (psycho directors) or illegal shots (flake or psycho). e. Lack of shotlist, schedule, overheads, lined script. Most of these will be missing on most student sets, or so badly done that you would rather they were missing. I am pretty good in the Don’t Freak Out category. But at a certain point, everybody will crack, so if you’re a director of producer or D.P. reading this, take pity on your A.D. – being the asshole is hard enough without you competing.

Don't ask. JUST DON'T OKAY.

Find a safe place to go.

This relates to not freaking out. Whatever works for you is good. The safe place should not involve other people – the danger that they will tell you something that makes it worse or that you will say something you later regret is too great. I once ran away after a director burst into tears and stormed off set when I pointed out that her location agreement didn’t cover the street outside her location as well. In the rather filthy green room, I found crew member, who was avoiding the actor. He told me that the lead actor was whining about me to everyone. His intention was to say that he disagreed, but it spun me out worse. I wish I’d never known what the actor thought. L.A. Insincerity is vapid, but functional. To my face, he said I was a great A.D. and he was deeply grateful. He was annoying and not particularly talented, so the danger I’d ever work with him again or as a director was not high. Anyway. Whatever it takes to keep your cool, do it… A call to a friend off set. A shrink. Horchatas. A song on your ipod. The serenity prayer. ‘ludes. Find that thing.

Half the lights went out. This is where you don't want to be for lunch as an A.D. Why? Because the producer (myself, in this case, as I was director/producer) didn't check if it had a toilet.


And finally… Don’t expect to be perfect.
The actor who was whining about me was right. The people who told me I was great and meant it were right too. The inner adult in me that was saying I sucked was right, too. The truth is somewhere in between… your ability to be a good A.D. isn’t all up to you. It depends how many problems you have to deal with. Being the timekeeper on a set is like being the accountant at a newspaper. Everybody hates you when times are tough and you have to do bad things, but they wouldn’t get it done without you. Everybody loves you when things are easy. But they need you. On one set I worked, nobody would have gotten paid if it weren’t for me, either. When you’ve had a rough day, resist the urge to accidentally invite criticism by trying to deal with personal or other problems when you get home. People like to kick you when you’re down. Go home. Stay off facebook and chat. Read a book while the caffeine wears off. Cry into your pillow. Get some sleep. You’ll need all your energy to save the next day.

A random place. Side of the road. Just one of millions.

I have made every mistake in the book. Learn from mine, not your own. Good luck. And oh… here’s a recipe for horchata