Mutiny! And How to Avoid It: Managing Delicate Temperaments on Set

If you want to avoid mutiny on your set, you probably shouldn’t be reading this. That’s because the best way to avoid mutiny is to believe rebellion is impossible.

You want to walk, first into production meetings, and later onto set, the way Cesar Millan walks into a dog park. You want to project, at a subconscious level, an air of confidence. “No matter what the crisis, I can handle it.”

When I made my first feature (On The Inside, starring Nick Stahl and Olivia Wilde), I expected my Pittsburgh crew to be a collegial group of moviemakers, eagerly hanging on every word of my directorial wisdom. Instead, virtually every time I approached my crewmembers I felt like a new stepfather in a swimsuit. Their gazes would harden, and whether I was making a suggestion about schedule, protocol, or technique, they’d counter with the same conversation stopper: “That’s not the way we do it.”

You can’t fake authority. A lot of amateurs think they can, but they can’t. If you’re trying to look powerful, most people will see through your guise. Accordingly, any calculated, false demonstration of strength could hurt your cause. For the most part, posturing reads as rudeness—which is the weak man’s imitation of strength. And being rude can ignite a tinderbox of resentment. We instinctively know that people who deserve our confidence go about their business and don’t draw attention to their authority. That’s why puffing out your chest and raising your voice (before you’ve even been challenged), doesn’t broadcast leadership: It invites distrust.

Experience Trumps Everything

When you’ve already ridden a bull, you’ll naturally carry yourself like someone who’s ridden a bull. Especially if people are familiar with your body of work, they innately trust and respect that you’ve actually climbed on the back of the beast and survived. In all likelihood, when you set out to direct your first feature, it won’t be your first time calling “action.” But if it’s your second time calling “action,” you might find yourself in over your head. This is a Catch 22, of course. You can’t have experience without first getting experience. But the tough truth is, a movie set can be a very unfriendly place to test your leadership skills. If you want respect from your cast and crew, there’s nothing like experience. So, figure out a way to get some—even if you have to shoot a natural-light, stolen-location, short on your iPhone.

Dealing with Know-It-Alls

On just about every set, there are going to be people wandering around who think they should be in control. You will know them by the cigars they smoke (or their hand-rolled cigarettes, if you’re on a microbudget set). The more money involved, the more mind games and factionalism you’ll encounter. The DP I was assigned for On the Inside, while fast and talented, was the sort of fellow who thought it would send the wrong kind of message to the crew if he so much as acknowledged my presence on set. Once, when I questioned his improvised revisions to one of my set-ups, he got so angry that the AD had to step between us to stop a fistfight. I wasn’t totally innocent, but to avoid an outright war I had to make a loud, public apology for the disrespect I’d shown him. We eventually shook hands and grudgingly continued work, but suffice it to say, we didn’t have the most fruitful working relationship.

That being said, an episode of open hostility isn’t the greatest threat to your autonomy. You’ll suffer less damage from a single, dramatic flare-up than from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts, low-grade mutiny that infects a set when the crew doesn’t respect the director. I’ll take one fistfight any day over a thousand little arguments. A short, passionate battle can actually be inspiring, whereas banal, small-scale sabotage—general lethargy, foot-dragging, arguments over inconsequential details—can be exhausting and depressing.

Remember, too, that a functional film set doesn’t have to be a place of sparkling contentment. On Chinatown, Roman Polanski famously smashed Jack Nicholson’s television while he was watching a Lakers playoff game (instead of showing up on set), and that picture remains one of the greatest films of the 20th century. Conversely, I’ve heard rumors that the production of Cannonball Run was a blast to work on.

Avoiding Catastrophe

Now that we’ve looked at some possible on-set relationship pitfalls, what can you do to avoid mutiny? First of all, you need to embrace the truth that, often, the person you have most to fear—drum roll, please—is you! Admit you’re prideful and praise-hungry, and given to defensiveness, shortsightedness, and insensitivity. Your temper will get you into trouble, but your ego will keep you there. You have to eradicate your fear of failure, because your insecurities will get super-heated under the magnifying glass of production. Go to therapy; get religion; keep a trusty jester nearby. Do whatever you have to do to control your baser instincts so you don’t trip over your own shortcomings.

But also remember, it’s not always your fault. Sometimes trouble comes from outside your skull. With that in mind, determine which individuals are most likely to spread discontent, and develop cool-headed strategies for how to deal with them. Some pot-stirrers can be tricky to identify because very often the worst offenders on your team will start out among the most affable. It’s been said, “The best way to knock a chip off someone’s shoulder is to pat him on the back.” And I’ll say from my own experience, positive reinforcement is a stellar technique for making people feel important. Offer even small gestures of camaraderie and appreciation and you’ll see dramatic results. You may think you’re dealing with professionals who, if complimented, might feel patronized. That’s ridiculous. Everyone wants to be appreciated. And it shouldn’t be difficult to appreciate your crew’s contributions. Even if it’s your tenth show, your novice dolly grip might know more about pushing the camera operator smoothly down the track than you ever will.

Be Authentic

As Polanski (and Kubrick and Bergman and Bresson) proved, you can be a megalomaniacal tyrant and also a successful director. But, as I said earlier, if you’re affecting megalomania your artifice will blow up in your face. That’s why you need to remember, success isn’t linked to dominance, per se. Physical (or emotional) aggressiveness is only one way of projecting assuredness. The waves of crew skepticism will part for naiveté, too. And, while you can’t fake authority, obliviousness can sometimes work to your advantage.

Your colleagues, outwardly supportive or not, should already know that undertaking the making of a movie is, at root, a patently insane endeavor. Use that idealism to build bonds. Remind people that making the film on the budget you’re trying to make it on is tantamount to madness, and you need their help to make it happen. Leadership, in the end, is little more than getting a group of people to agree they’re part of a worthy mission. Fidelity to a cause will keep the troops moving forward, regardless of personality conflicts. Sam Raimi wears a suit when he directs to convey how serious he considers the undertaking. Quentin Tarantino wears whatever costume is consistent with the scene he’s shooting. These approaches are worlds apart from each other (one is authoritative, one is populist), but they convey, in their unique languages, deep conviction in the moviemaking cause. Antoine de Saint-Expery said: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather trees, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Give people something to be enthusiastic about, treat them with respect, and they’ll never consider mutiny. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.