Let the PA Direct (Almost): Why Collaborating with Your Crew is Your Greatest Strength

As a confident moviemaker, don’t hesitate to ask your film crew for help. They aren’t your employees; they’re your collaborators.

One of my favorite stories from Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes concerns a television production from the late ’60s. It was early evening and Steven Spielberg, then only 20 years old, stood on a soundstage watching Cassavetes act. During a break, Cassavetes approached Spielberg and asked him what he thought of the scene. “When Spielberg told [Cassavetes] he himself wanted to be a director someday,” Carney explains, “Cassavetes proceeded to ask him how he would direct him in the scene he was playing, and then took that advice in the next take.”

Cassavetes might have been an emotional, improvisational director, but he wasn’t careless. If Spielberg had given Cassavetes a bad direction, Cassavetes wouldn’t have taken it. But, Carney posits, “No one was beneath [Cassavetes’] dignity to talk to and, just possibly learn from—not even the 20-year-old kid standing off to the side of a shoot.”

Too often, Cassavetes is misremembered for shooting without a script (an absolute myth), and too rarely celebrated for his unprecedented—and still unmatched—ability to balance cinematic rigor with artistic freedom. He found blocking the action of a scene restrictive, but routinely shot the same scene for days and days on end (while working on Faces, he once famously shot 52 two-camera takes of an 11-minute scene, then cut it from the film.)

To a studio, Cassavetes’ non-hierarchical, experimental directing process was untenable. So it’s no surprise that his two studio pictures—Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting—are the two least vital films in his oeuvre. Neither picture aches with the emotional realism we expect from a Cassavetes film. In the studios, “[there] are limitations,” Cassavetes once said. “There are limitations of ego, of facilities… They don’t like any young director coming in and doing something that they may have wanted to do for twenty years [but couldn’t].”

Cassavetes required a completely collaborative environment in order to thrive, where he could amalgamate professionals and amateurs, where the lowliest crewmember on set had a voice. “Creativity,” he once defined, “is being able to work with understanding and cooperation and enjoyment with your fellow workers, your director, your writers, your fellow actors—your technicians…” He believed that to make a film you needed to cultivate a team, with each member devoted to the same immutable ideal: that when they’ve finished working the film, they know they’ve “done the best work they can; and when they see the product come out…they know it’s a product that they can be proud of.”

That’s why, as a director, I find Carney’s Spielberg/Cassavetes anecdote particularly instructive. When Cassavetes approached Spielberg, he couldn’t have forecast who this bespectacled, curly-haired kid would turn out to be. Of course, your PAs don’t usually turn out to be unfledged auteurs, but until they prove otherwise, consider them creative, hard-working, film-loving collaborators. That doesn’t mean you defer to them for your directorial duties, but if you can foster an open dialogue on set, you’ll learn a huge amount from your compatriots.

Last January, I had an almost excessive opportunity to test Cassavetes’ hypothesis about collaboration. I was directing my first narrative feature, Eel, and though I’d been on set during the production of a feature I’d co-written, I’d never helmed anything more than a short. Accordingly, I made a point of keeping a copy of Cassavetes on Cassavetes on set. In fact, it often sat on the coffee table in the location’s living room, and on more than one occasion, I spent lunch reading it.

The production of Eel suffered the usual plagues—long hours, insufficient funding, windstorms—but we managed to shoot in 11 days an intellectually challenging film that we’re all incredibly proud of. And our success, I have no doubt, stems entirely from the way we collaborated. I could use any of a thousand stories to illustrate the efficacy of our open dialogue policy on set, but I want to highlight a minor collaboration that had a major impact on the film.

The script for the 15th scene of Eel—the first narrative feature I wrote and directed—reads: “Sara Morin breaks a wineglass in the sink, collects the pieces, and deposits them in the sandwich she’s making for Haytham.” When Bisherat discovers the glass, the stage directions command: “Haytham drags Sara across the living room by her hair.”

Out of a scheduling necessity, we broke the scene into two pieces, and photographed them on consecutive days. The first section, where Sara attempts to feed the broken glass to Haytham, we shot as the light failed us on a late Tuesday afternoon. The second section, where Haytham drags Sara across the house, we shot the following day. Accordingly, we were faced that Wednesday morning with the task of recreating the emotional velocity we’d achieved the evening before. You may have heard this before, but in case you haven’t: Valuate emotional continuity higher than any of its siblings. You can break the 180 degree rule, botch the lighting, and switch the hand your actress holds her cigarette in, but if the emotional pitch changes from one shot to the next, you evict your audience from the scene.

Haytham drags Sarah

Haytham (Ammar Ramzi) dragging Sarah (Nathalie Biermanns) in a still from Eel

For that exact reason, when the first two takes of the dragging scene fell flat, I began to doubt if I could make the two disparate halves match. But as the dolly grip—who also served heroically as our assistant editor, DMT and gaffer—maneuvered the rig to first position, he stopped, leaned over, and whispered in my ear, “What if the whole time Haytham’s dragging her, Sara’s shoe is falling off?” Nathalie Biermanns, who played Sara in the film, sat on the concrete floor in her red dress, waiting to get dragged. “Sara,” I said (she was almost dangerously in character that day), “Cooper has an idea. When Haytham drags you, have your right shoe hang from your toe. But don’t let it fall off your foot. If it falls off, Haytham wins.”

I called action, and as Haytham (played by Ammar Ramzi) dragged Sara, she dangled her high heel precariously from her bare foot. From the first moments of that third take, the danger felt immediately heightened (in a way the two previous hadn’t), as if Sara’s survival depended on keeping that shoe on. But then the shoe fell off. And when it did, she became hysterical. That take, with the dangling shoe, appears unbroken for nearly two minutes in the final cut of the film.

As DW Brown discusses in his article “Mutiny! and How to Avoid It,” running your set like an autocracy won’t promote order and efficiency; it’ll breed resentment and rebellion. But achieving creative harmony with your cast and crew demands more than courtesy. Here’s the way I look at it. I’ve directed a feature, but I’ve also worked as a PA on a commercial. In those vastly different rolls, you must act in accordance with the requirements of your position. If I’m PAing, I can’t walk up to the director and give him my thoughts uninvited. Conversely, as a director, I can’t blindly defer to my PA for advice directing a scene if I want to maintain my authority. But I would re-posit the following: If you’re confident in your abilities, when you get stuck, don’t hesitate to ask your crew. They aren’t your employees; they’re your collaborators. MM

Watch an exclusive clip from Eel:

EEL, clip 2: Brother and sister from Monster Meanman Films on Vimeo.

Eel has its West Coast premiere on September 2, 2015 at the Portland Film Festival. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies, 2013. Images courtesy of Monster Meanman Films.

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