Pride is one of the most dangerous traits an indie filmmaker can have, because having too much can be legitimately harmful to both your project and your own health. Being willing and able to ask for help is not a weakness or a concession of failure, and is just as much a skill as color correcting or marketing. Even knowing that, and knowing that pride is often paired with fear of rejection, most of us (myself included) are atrocious at asking for help. What follows is a list of six easy steps to make it as painless as possible, because filmmaking is inherently collaborative and deep down we all need as much help as we can get.
Step 1: Realize you need help
Not that I’m comparing pridefulness in filmmaking to AA, but accepting the reality of your circumstances is vital to changing them. If you can’t admit you need help with something, how can you ask for it? Really look at your production- what elements aren’t getting the focus they need? What parts of the process are the most draining on you, the most boring to you, the most frustrating for you? Remind yourself that being ineffective in a particular film role isn’t a reflection on your worth as a person or an artist, and be honest about your own limits.
Step 2: Take stock of what kind of help you need most
When you’re not able to pay your cast and crew, or you’re paying pennies compared to industry minimums, the risk I’m sure you’ve considered is asking too much and having people quit. I completely understand this concern, and have had collaborators leave projects due to the workload. It sucks, but that doesn’t mean I was wrong to ask for their help and input.
One way to manage the risk of overworking your underpaid collaborators is to take stock of your own weaknesses. For instance, I know that I’m not as technically proficient as many of my collaborators, so making a shot list and shooting schedule by myself, while possible, won’t be the best version of either. This is another important facet to asking for help- just because you can do it yourself doesn’t mean you should. Again, be honest about your own limits. A great shot list you collaborated on will always, always be better than an ok shot list you did by yourself. And what’s more important- your pride and auteur status, or seeing the best version of your project realized?
Break down what you need help with into three lists: things only you can (or want to) do, things you could use help on, and things you NEED help on. Then prioritize within each of these lists based on how urgent the task is. This will give you an idea not only of what all needs to get done, but also how to most concretely frame the actual ask when asking for help.
Step 3: Identify who to ask
Sometimes more important than the ask itself is deciding who will be on the receiving end. You might have a friend who would be great at publicity but who isn’t reliable with deadlines, or a crew member who would lend a much-needed perspective on your shot list but who just started a new job and can’t commit to more than they’ve already committed. Alternatively, you might have a friend who really wants to help but would be terrible at all the things you actually need the help with (referring to your lists from Step 2). When identifying who to ask for help, consider the following:
Would this person…
- …be good at the tasks I need help with?
- …have time to do the tasks properly?
- …meet deadlines consistently?
- …follow instructions from me?
- …be someone I’d want to spend more time with?
- …want to help in the first place?
You’ll be surprised how many people meet these criteria if you’d only ask.
Step 4: Decide what you can offer in return
In mainstream industry settings, “asking for help” means “hiring.” Therefore, in return for “help” (or “doing the job duties they are hired for”), people get paid. Obviously, that’s not always an option.
Stareable has other articles about what you can offer cast and crew instead of money (x), and the best and most effective offering is bartering- “you help me with my project, I’ll help with yours.” Sometimes that system works better than others, but if you kept in mind “would this person be someone I’d want to spend more time with” before identifying who to ask for help, you should be fine. Most indie film work is done with bartering system, so why reinvent the wheel?
Keep in mind that the barter system isn’t just about film stuff- sometimes people you’re asking for help don’t have projects of their own, but they do need help moving next month, or they need an early ride to the airport, or they need a new resume put together, or they want help designing a website. You don’t have to offer anything up front, but already having an idea of “payment” in mind will make the ask and any ensuing negotiation much less stressful. It’ll also put into perspective that everyone needs help sometimes and that asking for that help is totally normal.
Step 5: Set boundaries, deadlines, and rules
Just because someone agrees to help you doesn’t mean they are equally invested in the task or project as you are. For the most part, they won’t be, even if you’re paying them, and by bringing them on board, you are responsible for the work they do. It might seem icky, but them doing you a favor on your project makes you their boss. Accept it and read on.
I made the mistake when I was starting out of not ever making expected deadlines clear, because I assumed the natural instinct would be “before the next meeting.” It wasn’t. How could it be? I’d never communicated that! This led to my becoming frustrated at our collective lack of progress and at specific people, which slowed down the project and did some significant damage to a lot of friendships.
You can’t just ask for help and then wait- you have to explain what that ideal help looks like. Asking for help with social media and handing over some account passwords isn’t enough- what does that mean? How often do you expect them to post? Are there preferred hashtags or is there a preferred tone? Do you want them to do research to maximize the reach of said social media, or do you just need someone on call who will tweet and Facebook on demand for you? If you think giving instructions is gonna be awkward, imagine how awkward it will be to do after they’ve already gotten started and done it their own way.
Step 6: Prepare for them saying no
Sometimes, even with careful planning, rejection occurs. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a reflection on you or the project, and to have a contingency in place for if things don’t work out. Never outsource something without plan B, because even in the best of cases, plan B might be necessary anyway, and you don’t want to be caught without a lifeboat when your show starts springing leaks.
When you’re a producer, your job is to finish the project. Plan for the worst, hope for the best, an adage which takes on a totally new meaning in indie filmmaking. While every project benefits from a big, diverse team, the reality is that sometimes a team is only four people and that’ll have to do.
Admitting you need help is the sign of a strong leader, not a weak one. Asking for help makes you stronger still, and being an auteur is overrated.