“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:
- Do nothing and work quietly
- Try and talk with the person
- 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.
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.