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Notes from Overboard: Life on Set

Notes from Overboard: Life on Set

Blog - Notes from Overboard

I wrote earlier the director is the captain of the ship. I did not mean Captain Bligh. But you’d be amazed how many people say the main reason they want to be a director is so they “can tell people what to do.” Certainly valid. Although it might help to keep in mind that most 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 member of the crew 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.

Some directors refuse to even talk to the crew. They think it weakens their power to be seen interacting with the “workers.” To me the crew is the backbone of the entire film. Making a film is hard work. The hours are long, the food is terrible and the pay (if any) is crap. Add to this a director who is condescending and, worse, unconcerned about how his actions are affecting the crew and the mutiny knives quickly begin to sharpen.

Directing requires you to be firm, clear and honest. It requires you to be in control. But that doesn’t mean disrespecting the people you’ve hired to help you. Each of them has something they can contribute to the film. You weaken nothing when you encourage them and treat them as equals. In fact, when everyone is working this way—working for the film—nothing can stop you.

The set is actually a direct reflection of who you are. It shows exactly how you deal with people; how you deal with 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 at these moments is stop and acknowledge you’re confused about something. If you can’t untangle it by yourself see if someone on your team can help you. The worst thing you can do is lock yourself behind a wall of rigidity. This is a false security. It actually weakens you, no matter how loud the tantrum you throw. It shows everyone that you’re not honest, that you can’t see yourself. It immediately makes people wonder what else you are not seeing. It makes them question if a drunk, or a blind man is steering the ship.

The director’s vision goes far beyond the artistic. You not only have to see yourself but everything that is going on around you. One day on Delirious it seemed to be taking an unusual amount of time to get a shot of Steve Buscemi. No one seemed to know what the delay was. Then I noticed the boom operator muttering to the sound man through her microphone. She tried to find another position with her boom but gave up and walked away in exasperation.

I went over and asked the sound man what was going on. “It’s Camera,” he said. “There are so many lights we can’t get a position for the mike without throwing a shadow on Buscemi’s face.”

I drew the DP aside and mentioned this to him. He said, “Oh, OK. No problem.” He killed one light, the boom operator found a good spot and we rolled a minute later.

This also reveals how crucial communication is on a film set. Everyone needs to know what’s going on. And again, it all starts with the director. That’s why you have to be as clear as possible with 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 “I don’t know” and walk away. I mean, you can but you might end up with a screwdriver flung into your back.

No power can be run and no lights can be set up until the generator is parked. If you really don’t know if it’s in the shot, I’d suggest explaining that. Just say, “Listen, I’m not exactly sure what the actors are going to do here. We may end up seeing that side of the street. To be safe you should park the genny around the corner.” I guarantee the genny operator will be much happier to hear this than a frenzied scream to move hours after everything is set up.

People want to be able to do their jobs. It makes them happy. It doesn’t make them happy if they have no idea what’s going on and they’re convinced no one else does either. Creating this kind of clarity is another part of the director’s vision. 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 needs to be built and sustained, from the entire film to the smallest shot. 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 calm, clear determination get the camera rolling again.

Of course a good Assistant Director and Line Producer will help. But it is the director’s vision that is the truly lasting glue. People need to know and understand what it is. They need to believe in it and commit themselves as a group to achieving it. 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. The Production Designer’s desire to get a swanky, high-tech set on his reel may be conflicting with the real needs of the film. Unfortunately, this self-interest happens a lot. Some of it is innocent; some isn’t.

One night, on Johnny Suede, we were setting up one of the final shots of the film. The scene required an intense emotional commitment from Brad Pitt. As I watched him prepare in a corner of the set, I could see him building the personal investment he knew he needed to bring to the scene. I told the DP I was ready to shoot. He said, “10 minutes.”

20 minutes later he was still tweaking. I glanced over at Brad still sitting quietly in the corner, his eyes closed in concentration. The DP again said he needed 10 minutes. 15 minutes later he was still tweaking. I finally asked the gaffer what was going on. He informed me the DP was running cable 20 blocks down the street to light the side of a building that was barely visible through the window Brad was to be seated at. I stopped the cable run immediately. I called Brad over and we started shooting. Although we only had half the time I’d wanted, 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 crowbar. What was best for the film at that point? A useless fragment of ornamental lighting or an actor’s performance with the potential to illuminate a crucial emotional moment?

This is why it is truly a miracle that any film gets made. Thankfully, the moments of real collaboration and creative interaction are so powerful they keep you alive. And they keep you coming back for more.

Tom DiCillo made his debut as a writer-director with 1991’s Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious followed. When You’re Strange, his documentary on The Doors, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For more information on DiCillo and his work, visit

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