The production tone of a film set comes from the top. Regardless of your actual roles- creator, director, writer, actor, etc- if you are a leader on a project, you have to take responsibility for your actions in a whole different way. It doesn’t feel fair, and it doesn’t always feel great, but the burden of a leader is to accept the drawbacks of the job and press on regardless.
The surest sign of a weak and/or ineffective leader is someone who doesn’t give their team structure and clear expectations from the very beginning. “Be organized. Have a spreadsheet for everything. If you have a spreadsheet for everything, you probably have an answer to every question that will get asked. Being prepared will make your crew respect you and it will just make everyone’s jobs easier,” says Elena Weinberg, creator of #ATown. Other examples of structure include:
Consistent use of a calendar system to schedule meetings/shoots/rehearsals. Whether you have a dedicated, shared Google calendar or a spreadsheet you email at the beginning of every week/month, your scheduling system needs to be clear and maintainable. Otherwise, how will anything get done?
Setting deadlines. It may seem arbitrary or silly, but if you ask someone to make some calls and don’t give them a timeline, trust me, they’re never making those calls.
Write up contracts (learn how here, here, and here) and hand them out at the beginning of the process, so everyone is clear on their duties and what’s expected of them. Then, actually uphold the expectations in those contracts. If you aren’t willing to enforce the expectations, why would your team (especially one that’s unpaid or underpaid) bother to carry them out?
Every meeting should have an agenda, as well as a clear cut end. After a certain point, no matter how invested everyone is and how much more you could talk about, you have to call it a day. Otherwise you’ll burn everyone out and nothing will actually get done.
Basically, if you set an explicit expectation (“your job is X”) or an implicit one (setting a pattern of scheduling meetings in Google Calendar) at the beginning of your project, you need to see it through consistently until the end. Letting your structure drop will only serve to frustrate your collaborators, make you appear disorganized, and throw a rusty wrench into your ability to effectively communicate. Speaking of communication…
“People want to be heard and you can better lead by taking in their thoughts and ideas before making a decision because you’ve shown your team you are willing to do what’s best for your project.” advises Kate Hackett, creator of Classic Alice and Not a Plan. She’s absolutely right- communication isn’t just about being able to enunciate words, it’s about actually listening to your team and taking the time to consider their input before trudging ahead.
Zack Morrison of We Have A Show agrees, saying “I can’t tell you how many sets I’ve been on where the director doesn’t even take the input of their department heads or AD and Producer. Why are we doing this then, you know?”
Communication is also about being concise, particularly on sets where every moment of indecision can cost you hundreds of dollars. Be deliberate and specific- don’t add extra fluff to soften a request, don’t second guess yourself to appear more relatable, and don’t apologize for asking people to do their jobs. Just calmly state what you need done and, if necessary, quickly explain why. If you’re level-headed, concise, obviously listening to those around you, and consistent, people will listen to you.
Patience and humility
Leaders don’t lose their temper in public. No matter how frustrated you might be, or how tired, or how [insert emotion relating to being in charge here], keep calm. While it may be tempting to use your position to aggressively enforce your will, especially if someone’s being a jerk to you first, leading through fear on a collaborative initiative isn’t actually the best method of completing a project. Leading through fear just makes people less likely to come forward with issues they’re having, with cool suggestions, or with solutions to the myriad of unplanned problems you’ll face on set.
Are there circumstances where you’re right to be angry? Of course! But is being right more important than moving forward with a non toxic environment? I doubt it. Keep your cool, don’t snap when things are going slower than you’d like, and communicate your needs so your team can support you.
Sometimes being a leader can feel like being everyone’s therapist. If you’re having an issue with a teammate, talk to them as soon as you realize there’s a problem. Don’t go into it with blame or accusations- start by asking them what’s wrong and what you can do to help fix it. Come up with action items to avoid the issue in the future and then get back to work. You can be firm without being furious, especially if it’s the first conversation you’re having with them about it.
However, if the issue continues to get in the way, it’s on you to fix it, either by talking with the person again, punishing them through some contract-stipulated means, or by firing them. After a certain point, if you have to keep having the same conversation with someone about, say, being late to set, or being disruptive, or failing to meet expectations, what are you actually gaining from keeping them around? “Not having to find and hire someone new” isn’t a good enough answer. By keeping someone like that around you’re doing everyone else on the team a disservice, and you’re also implicitly telling them that bad behavior and a failure to live up to expectations isn’t a fireable offense. That isn’t the culture you want on your project, I promise.
When you’re in charge, no matter how many people are working with you, you are accountable for every decision as well as the project getting completed. You can blame the DP for not showing up or the production designer for doing an ugly job or the actors for not learning their lines, but you were in charge of vetting, hiring, and communicating with all those people and this is your project, so those failings are yours. You can choose to hire new people, or intercede and explain your expectations earlier, or a myriad of other things. Are there explanations for a failure that were beyond your immediate control? Of course! Does that matter in the scheme of things if something doesn’t get done? Nope!
Being a leader has a lot of great perks- the ability to delegate, to make high level decisions, to have creative control, to order people around, to have your name be one of the first listed on a project. But saying you’re the leader and actually being the leader are two different things, so take the responsibility seriously. Your project’s success depends on it.