How to Handle Working for an Asshole

How to Handle Working for an Asshole

I wish I could tell you that everyone in the film industry is nice as cherry pie, but I know it's not true. At some point, you're going to encounter an asshole. How you deal with them will have a tremendous effect on the path your career takes -- for better or worse.

“Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.”
- George Carlin

Like any job, going to work in the film industry isn’t always fun. Stepping on set can become a chore when you’re stressed from a shoot, feeling pressure from your department, and working extremely long hours.

So the last thing you need in a situation like that is someone treating you poorly: berating you, yelling at you, and generally being a damn asshole.

But it happens.

I wish I could tell you that everyone in the film industry is nice as cherry pie, but statistically that’s impossible and, from personal experience, I know it’s not true. At some point, probably early in your career, you’re going to encounter an asshole. How you deal with them will have a tremendous effect on the path your career takes — for better or worse.

Recently a reader (who wished to remain anonymous) told me a story about her experience with a director of photography (DP) who was treating her terribly:

I’m just wondering, however, if you have any advice on what to do if the guy you’re working for – the DP – is the asshole!? I got along well with the rest of the cast and crew, but the DP was arrogant, sexist, and condescending. Each time he directed his assholery my way, I just worked and tried harder… but I was pretty conflicted the whole time as to whether the anguish was worth it, considering it was a “deferred payment” low-budget film. Should I just have called it quits and walked away from the production? Was sticking at it and working even harder the right thing to do, or did it just affirm this DP’s douchebaggery, so that he’ll continue to be bad to people in future?

Working with anybody with a toxic attitude like that is tough. But it’s especially tough if they’re your department head because it puts you in an awkward position.

There are three ways you can handle a situation like the one encountered above:

  1. Do nothing and work quietly
  2. Try and talk with the person
  3. Walk away from the job

None of the options are ideal, I’ll admit. With Option 1, you potentially lose money, experience, and further networking. Option 2 may backfire and cause you to get fired or intensify the problem. Option 3 has you putting up with abuse without any vengeance.

So which one do you go with? What’s the right path to tread forward on?

It’s hard to say.

The best approach would be a combination of all the options in the order they’re listed. You put up with it hoping it’s a bad day, then if it continues, you approach the person professionally and talk with them about it. Finally, if it still continues, you leave the set.

But that raises another question: how do you know when to escalate things? What if it doesn’t work?

5 Factors to Help You Handle an Asshole

I’ve certainly had to deal with my fair share of filmmaking assholes, but mostly from the production department (no offense producers!) and rarely within my own department. What I’ve noticed is there are several factors that contribute towards when you should and shouldn’t escalate the situation.

1. Length of the Production

How long is the shoot? If it’s less than a week, it might not be worth the potential backlash to move beyond the “do nothing” stage. The upside here isn’t really present. You may get a few more days of peaceful work, but you may also lose your gig for that week.

As an example, say you speak out against the director who’s been berating you. They, in all their directorial power, may leverage their position to get you fired. Even if it’s not your fault, you’ll lose a potential networking opportunity with other crew.

(Though they can probably tell it was the director’s fault and not yours, they now have to pick up whatever slack you left them by speaking out and being fired.)

Basically, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. They’d rather you just suck it up and make it through the shoot. Which, frankly, isn’t ideal — no job is perfect, after all — but sometimes necessary. If, however, the shoot is longer than a week, you should strongly consider escalating the situation.

There’s only so long somebody can stand being treated poorly and it’s probably having an effect on your ability to perform capably as a crew member — especially if you are in a creative position.

2. Level of Assholeness

How big of a jerk is the person being? Are they simply micromanaging your work? Or are they making broad statements about you as an individual?

Sometimes people just have undesriable personalities and you have to put up with them to get work done. I guarantee you will not like everyone you meet in the film industry.

The idea is that you’ll get along with them professionally, at least.

But people have ticks and quirks we don’t like. So make sure you consider that and whether or not what they’re doing is solvable. And, more importantly, where it’s coming from.

For instance, if you make a mistake and they yell at you for it — they may be an asshole for yelling at you, but they may also be justified. I don’t like getting yelled at either and I prefer better methods of communicating mistakes, but I also can’t blame somebody who’s justified in getting angry with me.

What you need to consider is if they’re being an asshole to you based on your merits or because they’re just an asshole. When things get personal, consider escalating the situation. Or if they call you out constantly in front of other crew.

Sometimes people have fiery personalities that manifest themselves professionally — that’s not my style nor do I like it, but I can put up with it. It’s when that same anger spills into personal vendettas you should consider talking with them, a producer, or walking away from the gig.

3. Yours/Their Experience and Established Network

What kind of network do they have? What kind of network do you have? Who has more leverage in your respective film communities?

Because here’s the thing: if Spielberg yells at you and you talk back to him and quit the set, you stand way more to lose than he does. Yeah maybe he goes home and thinks about how he mistreated you, but you still won’t have a job and he’ll still be Steven Spielberg.

Further, consider how powerful their influence on their network is. Do you want them to say to all their buddies: “I had this 1st AC work for me, [Your Name], and I didn’t like them at all. They ended up quitting mid-shoot.”

Think of the effect it could have on your career. Maybe it has no effect because their network is small, but it could have a profound effect if they are a heavy-hitter. No it’s not fun to take abuse from powerful people, but you might have to put your long-term career ahead of your short term anger.

On the flip-side, if you’re the one with leverage (say working for a first-time director while you’ve DP’ed several features), your choices are much more open. Your network, your crew, and your community will trust your opinion. If you were to walk away from the set, it would not have as major an effect on your career and maybe even strengthen it for standing up for your principles.

In the case where there is no leverage on either party, it’s best to err on the side of caution. The old saying about production assistants is “PA one day, producer the next.” You don’t want that to happen with the person you’re tango-ing with, especially if it turns out they’re spiteful.

4. Importance of the Job to You

What is the gig worth to you? How will it help you pay your bills, get the next job, or start your career?

Sometimes it’s best to lay low when you’re in a desperate situation. If you have bills to pay to keep your water running, I’d tread lightly on any actions that may cause you to lose your job.

Yes, you can stand up for moral principle and pride yourself on not being run over, but you can wait to do that after you get paid. Put in the work, get the money, then make your voice heard.

The same goes if you need the job to jump start your career. Maybe you’ve just moved to a new city and need the networking.

Push forward.

You have more to benefit from putting up with them than you do trying to break them down.

And if the job itself — the credit, who it’s for, etc. — is paramount, keep your eye on the prize. Don’t get distracted from finishing your first feature film (which you’ve always dreamed about) because you want to show up some asshole. Stay focused on what’s really important — the end game.

5. The Effect that It Has

Finally, is being an asshole working?

Famously Steve Jobs was a bit of a jerk, but he pushed people to excel in ways they didn’t think were possible. Almost everyone agreed he could be nasty, mean, and downright cruel, but they also acknowledged that that attitude pushed them in a positive direction.

So, are you performing better than you normally would because of how they’re treating you?

(I mean this, of course, on a professional level. Like mentioned above, if things get personal, than there is no excuse for being an asshole.)

If so, then do you want them to stop? What if it means you put something on screen that is less than ideal? Or not fully realized? Or lacking detail? It’s not everyone’s preferred managerial style, but it can work for certain people. And perhaps your boss is one of those people: he gets the best out of his team by pushing them hard and becoming an enemy.

After all, the reader who left the comment said she worked harder and better after the DP was an asshole. I’m not saying every instance of somebody treating you poorly is a tactic to propel you to new heights, but it’s a possibility you should consider before you rally against it.

Fight the Power, But Keep Your Reputation

What all of this comes down to is determining how much leverage you have against the asshole and how much of an effect their assholeness is having on you. Depending on where you fall along those lines, you may find standing up to them to be a worthy cause or a fruitless one.

Either way, there is no “right” approach to always take. It always depends.

But above all, do everything you can to keep your reputation while standing against theirs. After all, a reputation is one of the most valuable things in the film industry.

  • Glenn Dicus

    Hey! Great article. I was thinking of phoning a job in tonight because of this. Although you did not cover this particular case, in detail anyways, I decided to go ahead and show up anyways.

    I do a lot of no/lo’s and say yes to every project I can. It’s the experience I am after and no experience is not worth having, in my opinion. As a result, I am often the most experienced on set.

    On this particular project, the guy “can be”, but isn’t always an asshole. He often blames others for things he can avoid by being better prepared or a better communicator. Although he has a long way to go, he does show promise.

    In this case, I decided to go ahead because I said I would do it and when I said I’d be there I’m gonna be there. It’s a matter of endurance for me in this case. If I can get through it, if I can ‘survive’ it, then that is a skill to be had that is quite valuable too.

  • DennyKukahiko

    Hi Evan,

    You always give great advice and it’s nice that people have you to help guide them through stuff that most of us have to learn by messing up first.

    I just wanted to point out that in my opinion I would never walk away from a set (unless there is a risk to life and limb). In most cases that I have worked with an asshole, that person happens to be a hired hand and walking off the set screws over someone more important. I believe that in the end all you have is your reputation and if you are able to handle working with an ass it exponentially improves your rep.

    If the abuse gets to the point that it threatens your own self respect then you have an obligation to yourself to speak up, but do it professionally, calmly and not when you are mad. In the end you may suffer for a while, but you will maintain your self respect and your rep. I have often found that when done tactfully the person takes your words to heart and everyone on the set remembers you as the guy who solved the asshole problem.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for all the good info. I have pointed many newcomers to your site and the results have shown on set.

  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    I agree with your advice to gauge the situation and escalate your methods based on the situation. This may be one case where the confidence you have in the quality of work that you do — regardless of the perception of another party — and your confidence in yourself as a person may help you triumph over the situation.

  • samazon

    There’s a part of this particular situation that you didn’t respond to and that is that the abuse in this case was sexist in nature. This can be a big problem in our industry, where boys’ club mentality is regretfully common. It sounds like the DP was making your reader’s life hard *especially* because she’s a woman on his set.
    Despite the fact that this is particularly difficult to deal with constructively, I also feel strongly that it must be called out. Silence is consent, and sexist behavior needs to be called out for the good of the industry as a whole. If the DP had been making racist comments, would his behavior have been tolerated by the set as a whole? Much less likely.
    Humor is often a way to call attention to the inappropriateness of the comments and behavior without putting the offending party on the defensive. Cracking jokes about the sexism of the industry, or even just saying “Dude, that’s pretty sexist” with a smile on your face and not a trace of anger in your demeanor can be enough to draw a subtle but effective line in the sand.
    I would also ask if the DP belonged to any kind of Union, or was trying to get into one. If so, a call to the Union reporting on this man’s behavior is an excellent idea. This type of behavior is discriminatory, it’s creating a hostile workplace, and it should not and cannot be allowed to continue without consequences.

  • johnny burgerman

    if he was being sexist adn saying derogatory things you should have sued his ass

  • Johnny

    I remember when I was working on a job, and we had 6 months of pre production on and off for a 5 minute short film. I was co producer, co writer and co director. As I had been helping with the areas which entitled to being credited for such roles.

    We had 2 days of filming (at least that’s what was planned) and the guy who was running the studio who was also co producer, co writer and co director ended up cracking it on set and yelling at all the crew and cast. As we were all not being paid. I should of walked off the job and taken all my equipment with me.

    However I stuck with it, and it got worse and worse. He ended up cutting another day of filming so the short film was shot in a day. Then he decided camera angles aren’t important so we decided to do one shot per scene. Which is fine if we were shooting paranormal activity but it was a drama with a lot of emotion that couldn’t be express through just one camera angle. What made it even worse was the one shot per scene was the main actor talking to the camera as if it was the other character.

    So the 6 months worth of pre production that I had helped with was basically for nothing.
    After I said I wanted nothing to do with the post production process due to there not being much that could be done, the guy in charge tried to convince me that it got into Sundance and after a quite google search that was a load of lies.

    What I learnt from that experience is to be willing to walk away whenever you start to doubt the project. But also don’t listen to all the crap some people say to get you interested in the project, I was interested in the script sure, but all the crap about how well he is connected is usually a pack of lies.

  • DB Cely

    There are tons of ways people can be a sphincter, and some can be interpreted that way just because of a personality clash. However, I think the good sense seen here on The Black and Blue is a good general rule… in essence, always be polite.

    In over 40 years in the biz, I certainly ran across a number of people I would classify as assholes. Matter of fact, my ex-wife used to know the list and would answer the phone with, “Oh, I’m sorry! He’s booked that day (week, whatever).”

    I only walked of a set once, and I made sure to seem in control of the situation. After an impromptu off-set “meeting” I told an asshole I didn’t want to finish the shoot. We walked back to the rest of the crew and I announced that “A.H.” and I had talked and agreed that I wasn’t the best choice to finish shooting the project. I encouraged the rest of the crew to support “A.H.” and help get the rest of the day shot, shook hands with all, including “A.H.” and walked away.

    Damn that felt good. Especially when I found out “A.H.” – the in-house producer – was fired the next day! Always walk away looking like the good guy.