Life on Set

March 12, 2024
I’ve heard many people say the reason they want to be a director is so they “can tell people what to do.” Certainly valid. Though sometimes it’s useful to bear in mind that many people who operate under this principle have been assassinated.
Directing is not telling people what to do. It is setting up an environment where everyone feels valued and inspired to give you their best work, from each crew member to all the actors, including extras and stand-ins. The director’s vision is not a license to treat people like shit. Tyranny only makes people miserable. They start to hate their jobs and contribute less and less until they’re doing only the barest minimum to keep from getting fired.
Fellini once said that “willingness” was the most crucial element to getting a film made. He explained that if everyone on the film is willing, any problem can be solved. But, if even one person is unwilling, it can cause disaster. Unwilling, meaning, “I am right, I will always be right, and I will never do as you are asking—even if it means sabotaging myself.”
For some reason, this business attracts the most neurotic people on the planet. How you deal with them on set is a direct reflection of how you deal with your own fear, disappointment, and conflict—all in a very public arena. Fear is the most universal emotion for any director. It is also the most universally denied. Everyone has felt it, but no one wants to admit it. This is because we live in a culture that instantly equates any kind of confusion or self-doubt with weakness.
The fear is usually an inner voice screaming, “I have no idea what I’m doing, and everyone can see it!” Sometimes this is true. The best thing you can do is stop and acknowledge you’re confused about something. The worst thing you can do is lock yourself behind a wall of rigidity. This is a false security. It actually does weaken you, no matter how loud the tantrum you throw. It shows everyone that you’re dishonest and you can’t see yourself. It immediately makes people wonder what else you are not seeing, making them feel like a blind man or a drunken baby is steering the ship.
The director’s vision goes far beyond the artistic. You also have to see everything that is going on around you. And in turn, you have to be as clear as possible about what you want. From the moment you walk on the set, you’re bombarded with thousands of questions. You have to answer them. The generator driver wants to know if his truck is in the shot. You can’t just say, “Don’t ask me,” and walk away. I mean, you can, but you might end up with a crowbar bouncing off your head.
No power can be run, and no lights can be set up until the generator is parked. So just say, “I don’t know, but just to be safe, why don’t you park the genny around the corner.” I guarantee he’ll be much happier to hear this than a frenzied scream to move his truck hours after everything is set up.
People want to be able to do their jobs. It makes them happy. Every department is waiting for the green light that sets them moving in a real direction. This momentum is what drives the film forward. It must be sustained throughout the entire shoot. Everything falls apart the moment the camera stops. Everybody starts tweaking, talking, eating Oreos. Part of your job as director is to gather everyone together again. Re-form. Re-focus. And with clarity and determination, get the camera rolling again.
But everyone has to be on the same page. And it is the director’s job to provide that crucial cohesion. You want to allow people to take pride in their work, but you also need to make sure they’re not on a solo mission. Unfortunately, this self-interest happens a lot. Some of it is innocent; some isn’t.
One night, on Johnny Suede, we set up one of the film’s final shots. It required an intense emotional commitment from Brad Pitt. As I watched him prepare in a corner of the set, I saw him digging into the deep, personal investment he needed to bring to the scene. I told the DP I was ready to shoot. He said, “Ten minutes.”
Twenty minutes later, he was still tweaking. I glanced over at Brad, his eyes closed in concentration. The DP said he needed ten minutes. Fifteen minutes later, I asked the gaffer what was going on. He nodded to the street where guys were running cable to light a building ten blocks away.
I stopped the cable run. I called Brad over, and we started shooting. Although we now only had half the time, Brad’s preparation held and he blossomed in the scene.
The DP got a little sulky, but the way I see it, he’s lucky I didn’t hit him with a sandbag. What was best for the film at that point? A fragment of decorative lighting or an actor’s performance that had the potential to bring real emotional life to the film?
This chaotic grappling with humanity is why it is truly a miracle that any film ever gets made. Thankfully, the moments of genuine collaboration and creative joy are so powerful that they keep you alive and keep you coming back for more.

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Independent Filmmaker & Musician