How to Work (and Survive) In the Film and Television Industry -
I have learned many things during my career in the film industry, but one of the most valuable lessons I have learned was to remain human at all costs. And by this I mean to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
During my 35 years in the film and television business, I have worked as a PA, grip, electrician, assistant cameraman, commercial production manager, first assistant director, TV series creative consultant, television producer and director.
I have also had the opportunity to work on all kinds of productions, from industrial films to documentaries; television commercials to music videos; TV series to Hollywood feature films.
Making a film is a stressful job and you have to remember that there are many careers and a lot of money on the line every time the camera rolls.
When you enter this business, you are stepping into the world of “entertainment.” TV and movies are just one part of this “make-believe” environment – dance, theatre and music are some other examples.
This is a business of artistic expression, massive egos and huge amounts of cash – a recipe for disaster if I ever saw one! It is also a business where you can lose your soul if you’re not careful.
Remember the often cited (and industry changeable) quote of Hunter S. Thompson: “The (television) business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
With that in mind, I created this list of “The Ten Commandments of Filmmaking” which is my way of showing you how to work and survive in this business – without getting OR giving ulcers! NOTE: This list was written primarily for First AD’s and Directors.
C1) It’s only a movie – no one gets hurt.
This one should be obvious. Making any kind of film or TV production can be risky because there are many natural hazards on a film set. Crew members can trip over cables, fall off platforms, have equipment tumble on them, burn and cut themselves, slip on stairs and slippery surfaces etc.
Then there are the added hazards that are specific to our industry: breathing atmosphere smoke for long periods, accidents involving insert cars or process trailers, accidents from stunts and special effects and noise hazards such as loud explosions and gunfire.
All crew members should be aware of the safety issues working on any set. If you have any concerns, you should talk to your shop steward, union rep or the 1st AD who is the set Safety Supervisor.
C2) Ask lots of questions – never assume anything.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Like the expression says, “The only dumb question is the one that was never asked.” If something doesn’t feel right, or it doesn’t ring true, or it doesn’t make sense, ask questions. Solve it now.
Assuming it will all work out “on the day” is wrong. If something in the script doesn’t make sense, or you feel something is not working, deal with it right away.
Fix it, change it, eliminate it, solve it, get rid of it. Whatever IT is, do something about it before you go to camera.
C3) There are no rules in filmmaking – only sins!
This is probably my best piece of advice. It’s not original – it’s a partial quote from the legendary director, Frank Capra:
“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins! And the cardinal sin is dullness.
I want you to always remember this quote, and as you get up each morning and walk onto that set, refer to it often!
C4) Listen to the people who know more than you do.
When was a Second AD on the TV Series “Hitchhiker” in 1985, I had to run the set for the First AD while he did some scheduling. Well, after a bit I got a little flustered, as this was my first time running the entire set.
Suddenly I heard my name. When I turned around, the dolly grip was waving me over to him. As I came closer, he smiled and said, “Peter, it’s block, light, rehearse, tweak, shoot!” Words I will always remember.
The crew work on the set – all the time! That’s what they do. They see directors and First AD’s come and go. They know more than you do. Always will. Listen to them and you will become a better AD.
C5) You have to EARN respect – not demand it.
The hierarchy of a movie is very much like the hierarchy of an Army: General’s at the top and Privates at the bottom. And just like the Army, there are certain people in the higher positions that you are unable to get along with.
Directors, 1st AD’s and DOP’s form the “Triumvirate” of any movie set. They are the people in charge. And many times you will be faced with the difficult task of working for months with one (or more) of these people who are egotistical, abusive, or sometimes not even very good at their job.
This will happen – and sometimes it happens a lot. How I deal with this, and suggest you do the same, is to remember this military expression, “You need to respect the Rank – but you don’t have to respect the person.”
C6) Don’t abuse your power – use “Power Through” not “Power Over.”
As a First AD, you have a very powerful position in the film industry. The Director hires you for your organizational skills and your command of the set; the Producers look to you to make sure the movie comes in on time and on budget; the crew look to you for leadership.
The “rank” of 1st AD means you get to carry “a big stick”. But a lot of AD’s will abuse this power and yell and scream and make everyone’s life miserable. In other words, they will take advantage of their position and use their power over people.
My philosophy is to take the other route. In other words, use “power through.” What this means is to work with your crew and bring them all together as a team and work it out together. The crew know you are in charge. You don’t have to flaunt it.
C7) Don’t be afraid to change your mind.
I read a self-help book once that also had a set of ten commandments and one of them was “It’s okay to change your mind.”
This makes a lot of sense. Especially when you are a Director or First AD because you are making decisions all the time and some of them may not be the right ones after you get more information or listen to other people. The problem happens if let your ego get in the way.
I did that once. I thought I had the right answer and I didn’t want to change the schedule even though the director and the PM thought we couldn’t make it.
Well, they were right and I cost the production money. Not just because I didn’t want to do the extra work, but also because I was afraid the crew would feel I didn’t know what I was doing (which turned out to be correct in this instance anyway.) Lesson learned!
C8) A healthy Ego is necessary – self importance is unnecessary.
There is an important distinction between Ego and Self-importance.
Ego can be defined as “your consciousness of your own identity.” You need an ego in this business because Ego is important for your survival. Ego helps you to believe in yourself, it helps you to get up in the morning knowing that you still have things to learn but you are good at your job and you will get through your day by being fair and respecting others.
On the other hand, self-importance (or what I call misplaced ego) is “an inflated feeling of pride in your superiority to others.” I believe it is this trait (more than anything else) that makes working and surviving in the entertainment industry harder than it has to be.
C9) Have a sense of humour – learn to laugh at yourself.
This rule should probably be #1 on this list.
In my experience, the best sets are the ones that have a relaxed and professional atmosphere presided over by a creative director with no insecurity issues; an experienced 1st AD with no attitude problems; and a DOP who loves the collaboration process and realizes that “making a film is not all about the lighting!”
Making a movie is hard work, and the occasional break from the stress and intensity of it by a film crew having a laugh pays for itself many times over.
I have found that my sense of humour (and my large repertoire of bad jokes) have gotten me through some very difficult times.
C10) Take 10 at lunch – and change your socks and shoes.
As a First AD you stand on your feet all day. Taking a moment after lunch to change you socks and shoes is a blissful moment – it actually re-energizes you. There is probably some psychological or chemical reason for this that I don’t understand, but whatever it is, try it because it does work!
I like to take about 10 – 15 minutes on my own somewhere off set during lunch to have a quiet time. This is where I can “recharge by batteries.”
All day you have to be on your game and make hundreds of decisions with the crew constantly asking you questions. Taking time some time for yourself is really, really important to keep your body relaxed and your mind sharp.