On a film set, there is a clear hierarchy of power, at least until you get to the top. At the top there’s a bunch of people who all think they have power, but only a few really do. Those that really do are the director and the producers. And though they should be largely concerned with creative decisions made in regards to the production, there are times where they need to leverage that power to treat their crew right. So, first time directors listen up — and producers, some of this stuff goes for you too — here are 5 things that are important to do to keep a crew happy from someone sitting happily below the line.
1. Be Punctual
This one sounds simple, but it’s often the simple and polite practices that get the most overlooked. I can’t count the amount of times that I have been on a set before the director, sometimes hours before they show up. It is simply unprofessional. Everybody gets the same call time and everybody should be expected to adhere to it. Now there are some exceptions, i.e. if you’re James Cameron. But for the most part, a director, especially of a small crew, should be in the same boat as the rest of the crew.
I’m not saying this as some sort of ego thing, it’s more about the professional attitude. It’s also a practical issue. A lot of times a day can’t start if the director isn’t there to block a scene, talk to the DP or start giving approvals on set dressing. So now, I’m on time, but can’t work, and it means we’ll have to rush through the rest of the day. As a director, it’s OK to show up to set late as long as crew has instructions or work to do already when they get there. This one isn’t hard, being on time is easy, which brings me to my next point…
2. Let us eat on time
By far this can be the biggest frustration for me on a set. Shooting days are long and sometimes grueling work. As a camera assistant, I spend a lot of time on my feet, lugging equipment cases, and sometimes dealing with a great deal of pressure. It’s standard practice to take a lunch break after 6 hours in a 12 hour work day or 5 hours in a 10 hour work day and boy do I look forward to it. It’s a chance for me to take a breather, relax a bit, and sit (or lay) down.
Unfortunately, I am not always treated to this luxury, at least not on time. I’ve gone 8 hours through a day without eating and I’ve even gone as long as 10 hours. It’s not fun. Even worse, don’t serve food to ANYBODY ELSE unless it’s going to be served to everybody. I once had to work through a scene while I witnessed a crowd of people eating plates of pasta near video village. How’s that fair? I know it seems that there isn’t much time in the day, but 30 minutes is not much compared to the hours of work being put in. A well-fed crew will be happier, more alert and more efficient. Invest in that and let them eat at a reasonable time.
3. Keep call times and turnarounds reasonable
Now I know this is technically not the director’s job, but they do have the power to sway these decisions. A director can exert force on behalf of themselves and their crew to push call times further or make a turnaround more reasonable. I feel because the crew is almost never involved in these decisions, it’s the director’s responsibility to look out for them in the meetings that determine the schedule. And while some directors might not be so altruistic, I still believe it is in their best interest to keep a crew well rested to get the best possible work out of them.
When I say keep call times and turnarounds reasonable, they go hand in hand. I don’t think any time is out of question for a call time, but it has to be taken contextually. That is, don’t make call time 4 AM for tomorrow when you just wrapped at 8 PM today. Crew, believe it or not, are human beings and they have a life outside of productions. They like to go home and see their families, watch a bit of TV and then sleep. That is why a 12 hour turnaround is important. It sucks having to go home, sleep, wake up, work, go home, sleep, etc. It happens, but it should be avoided when possible. If you MUST make a turnaround shorter than 12 hours, I would advise going no less than 10 hours. A tired crew is going to be slower, more irritated and less likely to be happy about showing up for the day.
4. Learn their jobs and/or know your stuff
There are plenty of directors who shoot straight to the top or who don’t ever work as a part of a crew. I have no qualms against this and while I’m sure many go through that route unqualified, I’m also sure there are plenty that have justifiable reasons for this. The unfortunate part about this route is the potential for the director to misunderstand job titles and responsibilities. I know the first time I showed up on a set, I was so green and so confused about grips, electrics, best boys, etc. There are jobs I’ve been on where I’ve wondered if the director even knew what a camera assistant was or for that matter, a C-47.
As a director, you’re the captain of the ship. A captain wouldn’t set sail without knowing who did what, so why should you? Learning what each job on a set does (or better yet, already knowing it) will garner respect with the crew. It will make them nervous if you ask a grip for a light, or a camera assistant which lens they think is best for the scene — it will also embarrass you once you realize the gaff.
5. Know what you want
On set, all the decisions begin and end with, to quote the former President, “the Decider-in-Chief,” or the director. As the head of the crew, almost all of the tough choices get routed to the director and their single vision, their creative aspirations for the film, are there to illuminate them with the right answer. “Red sweater, lose the coffee cup, fly in some more background,” are all examples of serious and confident moves being made by a director.
This point is crucial. Without someone to guide the production, it will get lost, behind schedule and chaos will ensue. It will also piss off the crew to no end. A crew works for their director and part of the deal of them putting in so much hard work is that they trust that those high-up know what they’re doing. It’s very frustrating when a scene has to be re-shot, or a location revisited, because there was a simple slip-up of foresight. Preparation will get rid of many of these problems, but so will a confidence to choose and stick to the guns. If, as a director, you ever find yourself in a position where you are unsure, it’s almost always better to take some time to really think about what you want or need than to rush a decision and force the production to compensate for the ill-fated move.
A good crew is hard to come by and even harder to keep together. Following simple rules like these will only help strengthen the working relationship between a director and their crew. And a crew that loves their director will go to the end of the world for them at anytime they’re needed, trust me.