Keeping Everybody Happy

The biggest challenge in making a movie is keeping everyone happy. The task is actually complex and difficult to achieve, no matter how hard the producer and his subordinates try. The same is true for the film commissioner. It is almost impossible to not hear a single complaint during production, but dealing with problems as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible will go a long way.

The first and most important people who need to feel confident and sure about a production’s forward movement are the financier/studio. As mentioned earlier, there are advantages and disadvantages to the single and multiple financier supervisory roles – suffice it to say that the dynamic can be complex, and if at all possible, should be defined by the producer. Not in a manipulative way, but in the confidence of knowing that a production is under control and is not in need of additional micro-management.

It is, of course, the financier’s money and ownership, so the line of demarcation between responsibilities and obligations needs to be flexible. The financier needs accurate and timely information, and the producer needs independence to make deals and spend the budget wisely. Unless the picture is over-budget or seriously (three days or more) over schedule, the producer should be allowed to proceed as he or she best sees fit, as long as the film is also progressing in fulfilling the director’s vision.

The financier must at times be reminded of the vision that he or she has literally bought into, and the complex reality of turning it into an effective feature film. The financier must also resist the temptation to play God or one of His angels, by refusing to allow the director to sidestep the producer and appeal directly to the studio executive or outside money source. Once the producer’s authority has been undercut over an important budget issue, the leverage that is essential for the producer to do the job properly has been removed.

Anything that tilts the producer-director dynamic out of its necessary equilibrium is probably bad for the production. The relationship requires a delicate balance from the outset, unless it is the increasingly common situation wherein the producer works for the director or the star as part of their production company. In that case, the producer is an employee, nothing more, and must cater to his or her boss.

But if the producer is truly independent, and essentially acts as the mediator between financier and director, a relationship built on honesty and trust must be established if the production is to go smoothly. The producer must actively cultivate this relationship, and make sure that the director feels fully supported in achieving the creative goals all have agreed upon, and that he/she is being given the resources necessary to meet those goals.

The director must take the responsibility of confining their vision to the parameters agreed upon within the budget, and not suddenly adding or changing scenes. At the same time, opportunities sometime present themselves during production that was not apparent previously, and incorporating them can significantly improve the effectiveness of the storytelling.

The flexibility required in these situations has to underlie the entire producer-director relationship. A director who feels the producer is running interference for him or her, has the best interests of the film at heart and not just the budget limits, and is willing to fight for more resources when they’re really needed will reward that producer with the kind of collaborative loyalty that helps make films better.

Lead and supporting actors will on occasion bring their insecurities with them to the production, off and on the set. Industry status is not always commensurate with professionalism. It is not unheard of for a major star to show up to the set drunk, extraordinarily late, or in a foul mood.

Actors should, like their directors, feel supported and encouraged to do their best work. Some actors prefer solitude; others need company. Some need quiet time before their scenes; others want a last-minute rehearsal or conversation with the director. It’s the producer’s job to know these idiosyncrasies, and to be attentive to their fulfillment. The smallest gesture, like fresh flowers in an actress’ trailer on the day of her big scene, can make a huge difference in the actor’s commitment to the production and even the role.

Dealing with entourage that accompanies the bigger stars presents challenges of a different nature, and in these cases, a line usually needs to be quickly and boldly drawn. Spouses who wreck cars, dogs who wander on set, children who want to play with the mechanical effects should not be tolerated, although most producers end up doing just about anything to keep their top talent happy.

Failure to do so can result in unforeseen delays and performers who show up late to set, or refuse to come out of their trailers when feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable. If these are the manifestations of problems with a cast member, then the producer has already failed at his/her job by allowing matters to get to this point. Remedying action must be taken, or the production can quickly get behind in its shooting schedule.

Likewise, maximum flexibility is required to keep cast members shuttling in and out of production, given the requirements of the shooting schedule. Actors need to work, and often day jobs or short commitments come up while a film is in production and sporadically using given actor. While the film cannot yield its primacy and must be the actor’s first priority, if a schedule can be adjusted to allow flexibility in shooting days, a small favor can pay big dividends.

Everyone on the production benefits from this kind of consideration. A bellwether signal to the crew of the production’s intentions comes from the quality of the catering on the production. A good chef is a sign that the producer cares; bland, industrial-style food or an inexperienced chef who underestimates portions or overuses certain ingredients is interpreted as the opposite.

The same is true of the craft service table, the free snack and drink area that often sustains the crew and actors through long shooting days. Organic snacks, juices and fruit and nuts, rather than just cookies, potato chips, and candy also send a signal that the production cares about the crew’s health. So does a recycling program in as many of the production’s activities as possible. A film office that has a green filmmaking program and/or access to recycling and reuse programs is well-served to mention this to the production from the get-go. It not only serves a global imperative, but garners respect and goodwill within the community where shooting is taking place.

The Bottom Line

These signals, while seemingly banal, become important indicators of perceived intention and behavior. The producer who is conscious of them will benefit both in personal reputation and in the efficiency of the production.

The importance of keeping all involved happy and collaborative cannot be overestimated. A director is often worried that everything he or she is doing is terrible and wrong and amateurish and will never come together. The obverse, the director who feels infallible and can never acknowledge any shortcomings whatsoever, may be even more dangerous.

In either case, directors and actors need constant reassurance that the film is good, their work is exemplary, and the production could not exist without them. Part of this is high school theatrics writ large, and the other part is multimillion-dollar amateur psychology. The tricky thing is to be heartfelt and sincere in what is being said – performers are particularly acute judges of sincerity, as they take on characters’ personae for a living.

This is not a problem if the director has the passion for the project that we started out identifying as the key attribute to getting a movie made. If the right choices have been made, and the producer is pleased with the dailies and any cut footage that’s been viewed, then the enthusiasm expressed to the key entire creative team will be genuine and effective. That which is not believed should not be expressed.