Shut Up and Shoot. You're Not Making a Masterpiece.
"I'm here to make a masterpiece," said the director.
The room was stone still with awkward silence. I can't recall much of what the director said in that speech. I was in shock. I was one member of the team of producers trying to get the short film made. There had been issues in pre-production, but nothing prepared me for the fact that after a single night of shooting the director would force all of us into a corner and leave us with no options. For the lead producer who bought the script some time ago, this was a dream project she was finally getting to make. Her spirit crushed, this producer was confronted with no good choices.
On the first night of shooting, we'd only made it through forty percent of the shot list and the director blamed the crew. The director felt we'd been too sluggish, that lights hadn't gone up quickly enough, and that makeup and art department hadn't done their jobs well. Now, this director stood before the crew and told them essentially that they weren’t good enough to work with her. She was there to make a masterpiece, she told us. Apparently, we’d all gotten in her way.
I've been on a lot of film and commercial sets and worked with a variety of crews. I've been a PA, a boom op, a DP, an AD, and a Director. And that's just during shooting. On this particular project, I was a producer and filling the role of boom op/sound recordist on set. That first night, things did move quite slow. In fact, I hardly had anything to do since we shot so few takes. Having nothing to do for hours on end did allow me to carefully observe life on that set. I watched grips hustling up and down ladders and roofs to set up lights. I watched the DP agonize over every possible minutia of the frame because he knew this director had rather lofty goals and he wanted to make her happy, I watched the makeup department be told to add more blood to the actor's fake wounds and the art department be told to spray the alley with water (for that Michael Mann slick reflection look), then I watched the director flip out because the blood was getting too runny in the water the actor was made to lay in for far too long. I observed as makeup and art busted their asses to clean up the excess blood and water only to have to redo the work to please the director. I lost count of how many times we had to run the incredibly loud fog machine just prior to a take so we could get the smokey atmosphere just right for a few seconds before it all wasted away into the night.
This was a highly stylized production and the director supposedly had a very specific vision. I say "supposedly" because the director talked a pretty good game in pre-production and she had these charts with camera and lighting setups. I never did see those charts out that night. Maybe I just missed them?
I saw a lot of things that night, including a crew that remained professional even as the director grew increasingly frustrated that her slight voice couldn’t be heard over the blaring sound of the fog machine. I watched as our AD tried to move us along as best she could even though in pre-production our director had already usurped our AD’s power by ignoring the schedule the AD and I had put together and gone off to consult with her AD from previous projects she’d done. The director informed us of the new shooting plan she and her old AD had come up with a few days before production (surprise!). She also expanded what had been four nights of shooting into five nights (on a project that had started in pre-production as a three-night shoot with a shorter script). Yeah, there was a lot to see.
But what I ultimately saw that night was a leader failing.
Allow me to elaborate. This director claimed she had a vision for the project, which I don’t doubt for a second. Her past work is incredibly good, which means she did manage to traverse the world of filmmaking in the past … somehow. I say “somehow” because I wasn't there for her other films and after seeing how things went on this project, I’m honestly at a loss to understand how she’s ever completed a film in the past. At any rate, however this director worked in the past is ultimately irrelevant. What mattered that night and the following day was how she was working this time around. Every new project is an opportunity to sink or swim.
After only completing forty percent of our first night’s shot list, the production was in crisis mode. We were way behind schedule on an ambitious short film project with a busy cast and crew. Many of those involved already had other gigs lined up and could not extend shooting. In fact, given my own schedule, when suddenly the project went from being four days (more than the original plan already) to being five days, I told the director she’d need to procure someone else to record sound on the fifth day. I just couldn’t do it for a variety of reasons.
Instead of jumping right into shooting on the second night, the producers and the director’s fiancé gathered together to talk about what was going on and what to do next. Yes, that’s correct, our director never came to the meeting. She opted to have her fiancé be her representative. I vocally pressed the point that the only way forward at this point was to focus in on the essentials for the production and get innovative about how best to shoot the coverage we needed to complete production. For a project of this nature, it seemed to me that we’d gotten over-stylized. There were too many variables slowing us down. It was not the crew, it was the vision. Not everything needed to be a dolly shot. The fog machine was just a general failure, as I saw it. Wetting the alley down had ultimately created more problems than was worth dealing with. If the director was willing to adjust and go forward, we could still do this. The AD, who was also a fellow producer, passionately argued this point as well. The lead producer who owned the original script tried every angle she could to see this dream project go forward.
In the end, the director was unwilling to make any changes to her approach. We couldn’t keep shooting past five days because we’d lose the lead actor and several of the crew. So, the lead producer had no option but to pull the plug on the project. It was over.
A good two hours after call time, we met with the crew to explain the situation. A decision had been made to shoot a little more material yet that second night so we could make a concept trailer for later use in getting to make the whole short film. But the director, who had no interest in talking to the producers, suddenly had a lot to say to the crew. It culminated in that statement that she was there to make a masterpiece.
I think that’s going to stick with me for a while because of what it meant in that context. We’d gotten in her way. We, apparently, were not there to make a masterpiece. We were to blame for all of the problems. The director was blameless.
This is one of the most vivid examples I have ever experienced of truly lousy leadership. The staggering lack of self-awareness the director displayed still makes my head spin. She was unwilling to acknowledge in any way what part she may have played in the derailing of the project. She was completely inflexible in her approach to making the film so that it was either going to be done the exact way she had envisioned it in her head or she was going to throw the whole thing away. Honestly, I still can’t help but picture the director as if she’s just a little child playing ball with friends who then gets mad at her friends and grabs her ball so no one can play anymore and huffs off the moment things don’t go her way.
But more importantly, this experience reminds me that when all the artsy bullshit and idealized notions of what a director is are stripped away, a director is really just a leader. And this, in turn, reminds me of several important things about what good leaders look like:
Good leaders communicate well. From the very beginning of a project, good leaders will communicate with everyone involved. This means not just decimating one’s vision as if they were edicts from on high. Communication goes both ways, and carefully listening to your team, taking into account their experiences and knowledge, trusting their insights because they are the experts in their specific areas, and collectively making plans is important.
Good leaders are not so quick to quit. The best leaders show a great amount of flexibility and innovation when faced with problems. They embrace limitations as the very fuel on which their creativity runs.
Good leaders seek to inspire those they work with. They value each team member as a person and want to see them succeed as much as the project.
Good leaders understand that the means are just as important as the ends. They know that just arriving at a good end result is never good enough. The journey, the process, the collaborative act, is just as valuable.
Good leaders are collaborators at heart because they know that anything they create with a team of passionate and inspired people will always be better than anything they do alone.
Good leaders understand the scope of the work before them and work within that scope to the best of their ability.
Good leaders take responsibility for their failures and learn from them.
Sadly, as I look back on (and even observe the fallout from) this derailed project I see that our director lacks significantly in all seven of these areas. How much could have changed that first night if she had been willing to adjust her expectations and vision on the fly, thinking creatively about how to shoot with a more effective approach? How might she have better communicated that night with her crew instead of growing frustrated and then blaming the crew for letting her down?
Certainly, an argument can be made that maybe it’s better to pull the plug on such a project than to push forward and end up making a mediocre short film that doesn’t live up to its potential. But this assumes that in the act of pushing forward there aren't any inspired moments of creative breakthrough. I have faced many problems on films that I have directed and been forced by necessity to adjust my approach, change my vision, come up with creative solutions on the spot, and even rewrite scenes on the fly to make things work when the unexpected happens or my plans fall through. It can be easy to think that if things had gone differently the film might have been better. But it might not have been. It might not even have been completed if not for my willingness to adapt in the moment.
Now, I’m not saying I’m a great leader. But I aspire to be one. I fail a lot, but I try to learn from my failures. All I’m saying here is that … a completed short film is worth a lot more than an abandoned one.
I share this story with you in hopes that other producers, directors, film crews, fellow aspiring good leaders, will all take a moment for self-reflection before going off to make our next projects. Are we ready to lead well?
This is something I care deeply about. In fact, I dedicated a whole chapter of my recent book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age, to helping new filmmakers think like seasoned producers so they can avoid these exact kinds of problems, among others. In that chapter, I detail other horror stories (some I know about, some that happened to me like this one) of leadership gone bad on film sets. I also try to lay out specific ways in which valuing one’s team really helps a production become a sum that is greater than its parts. This particular experience I'm writing about now happened to me just as the book was being published, so it didn't make it in there.
This director’s biggest failure, to my mind, comes down to number six above. This director set out to make a masterpiece. Now, I love filmmaking and I believe in the profound value of stories. But I also try to have some perspective about what I’m doing. At the end of the day, we were making a short film, not curing cancer.
I only realized that night that the project had been doomed long before it ever started shooting. It had been doomed because the director was there to make a masterpiece. And as long as you have it in your mind that what you are doing is going to be a masterpiece, no one is allowed to question your approach, your methods, or your goals. You don’t have to answer to anyone. You’re above that. You’re the one making the masterpiece. When that happens, communication breaks down. No conflicting information is allowed in while you blindly charge forward with gusto, convinced that you’re making a masterpiece.
I hate to break it to any of you out there dead set on making a masterpiece, but we don’t get to determine if we’re making a masterpiece. We only get to show up and do our best work, value the process, love the people we work with, and humbly work our asses off to see things through to completion. If it turns out we made a masterpiece, it will be because others see it as such. And it will be because we did it as a team, not because some pseudo-dictator had an inflexible vision.