I’ve worked on a few sets over the years and, as it tends to happen, you get some wonderfully inspiring as well as absolutely horrible, makes-you-rethink-your-career-choice type of experiences when you’re first starting out in the biz. Not that you’re immune to them as you gain experience and begin to work with more seasoned directors but, for the most part, the greater chunk of on set horror stories will come early on in your career. I thought I’d share a couple with you as well as what they taught me along the way.
My first memorably horrid experience on set was in university. A fellow film student was working on their senior project and had asked me to help with the script, casting, producing and as a liaison between the cast and director throughout the shoot. Naturally we were all doing this out of the goodness of our hearts and the goodness that would enter our stomachs so I made sure to order plenty of food and stock the crafty table with lots of goodies to keep folks happy. However, no matter how much we thought we had prepared, here’s what went wrong:
Our scheduling was way off. Not only did we make the mistake of miscalculating exactly how long it would take to set up lights and camera, the location we booked was late to let us in. So from the start we lost a good hour of set up time with people standing out in the cold. We naïvely scheduled 10 pm start time for shooting. Two hours to set up equipment and get the cast camera ready? What were we thinking? In the end, the first day of shooting wasn’t all that bad because the makeup artist got lost trying to find the location which gave us extra time to set up while she prepped the cast. Day two, however, was another story.
The lead showed up drunk for the shoot. Granted, this was simply due to bad judgment on the actor’s part (She claimed to have had a birthday party she could not miss). Yet, this set off a number of problems on our shoot. Her performance was off. She was unwilling to stay passed the scheduled cut off time, forcing us to scrap the shoot altogether and postponing its completion to a few months in the future (which, big surprise, never happened). And due to her inebriation and (again) our scheduling faux pas, everyone was on edge. We were nearing our cut-off time at the second location and still had four scenes to shoot. Then it got worse.
The director was dump-trucking out of desperation. It was a scramble to get things done regardless of our many setbacks. But the pressure had gotten to our director in the worst way. He was no longer able to think clearly. We were all tired and frustrated with the situation. That’s when it started. He began by repeating every shot “for coverage” in wide, medium, and close-up takes. For every line of dialogue and every movement of the actors he would move the camera back and forth between takes to get various angles of each, in hopes that something would work in the end. The problem with this was that it was eating away at our time even more. Before we knew it we had only gotten through one scene and we only had 30 minutes left at the location. So, with a sigh of relief and regret, we called it quits.
My second, and most memorable, nightmare production experience was a year later while working on a film noir short for an online competition. This time my role was script supervisor, with some of the same crew as the previous production, yet what I learned from this shoot has served me as a director to this day. Here’s what happened:
The director was indecisive and ill-prepared. He didn’t know what he wanted from the cast or the crew. About the only thing he was certain of was that he was ordering pizza for lunch (See next paragraph). Every shot took hours to set up and shoot because the director kept holding little meetings with the cast in a separate room trying to “figure out the characters”. He would ask the cast what they wanted to do with each scene and would ask the crew how he should set up the equipment. It was frustrating and painful to watch and made the day drag on for what seemed like forever.
We barely got fed. Two pies for a group of 10 extremely hungry individuals who had to purchase their own breakfast, got no dinner, and worked through the night does not a happy production make. We didn’t wrap till about 3 am and we each had only gotten one slice of pizza. I honestly don’t even remember if I got one at all. I just remember being hungry and low on energy the entire shoot.
Every suggestion got shot down. Towards the end of the night I simply gave up. And if it wasn’t that my ride home was an essential part of the crew I would have jumped ship by 10pm. Everyone on the cast and crew saw how lost the director was and tried to help by offering suggestions on how to get things moving in the right direction. But, though he would listen to us attentively, he never gave any of our ideas a chance and insisted on doing things his way. After it was all over, we each agreed we would think twice before working on this directors team again.
Now for the big question:
What did I learn from these seemingly disastrous shoots and how did they make me a better director?
I learned that no matter how much time you think you should give your crew to set up: Double it!
I learned that you should always call both cast and crew to set at the same time, especially if you only have one makeup artists because the chances of someone arriving late are higher than you may think and it takes just as much time to get the cast camera-ready as it does set up the camera and be ready for the cast.
I learned that when you start to feel the pressure as a director you shouldn’t hesitate to tell everyone to shut up for 5 minutes and let you think.
I learned that before you even think about hiring the first crew or cast member you must have the entire film completed in your head, having watched it at least 5 times before day 1 of shooting.
I learned that whether you are paying your crew with monetary compensation or not, a well-fed crew is a happy one. And if they each get to take home at least one item from the crafty station, everyone wins.
I learned that, as a director, you should always be open to suggestions from your crew and be humble enough to recognize when their ideas are better than your own. After all, a film is a collaborative effort and the final product belongs to everyone no matter what comes up in the end credits.
And lastly, I learned that no matter how professional you think your cast and crew are, you should always make it clear that anyone who shows up drunk to your shoot will be fired on the spot. They’ll laugh, but you’ll regret it if you don’t.