My number one rule during production is “never fight on set,” a rule I unfortunately learned the hard way. However, through trial and error and lots of terse text exchanges, I’ve picked up a few things that might help you the next time you’re staring down the barrel of an inconveniently-timed on-set meltdown.
The only time it’s acceptable to fight on set: when zombies crash it
Follow the leader
As early as humanly possible, you need to decide who’s in charge; if the command structure is weak or fragmented, you will fight more because everyone is vying for control. Even if the same person isn’t in charge on and off set, make sure everyone is aware of the food chain no matter where they are. For example, in my projects so far I’ve been a writer/actor/producer and am in charge of most things off set, but as soon as I put my costume on, my director is the point person. If I disagree with the director on set, the solution is either for me to back down or for them to try both because the director is in charge and I have to respect that.
Sometimes, if you’re dealing with an unreasonable person (and you’ll likely deal with several while you’re making student films or projects with mostly volunteers and amateurs), you will have to pull the rank card, and that’s ok. If you are the one in charge, it’s ultimately your responsibility that the project gets completed, and if they can’t respect that, they can leave, because honestly, it’s not worth it to have someone on set constantly questioning your authority and slowing down progress.
Oftentimes, conflicts on set arise because one or more parties feel blindsided by a decision on the project. This can manifest as an actor who dislikes the scene’s blocking or a DP who doesn’t dig the director’s vision for a shot. If you have several strong, outspoken personalities on your team who tend to disagree, it might be best to plan ahead.
For cast members, the solution is easy: rehearse! Even if the shooting location isn’t available, just get together in someone’s apartment or a public park and run through the scene. Not only will this encourage actors to learn their lines earlier (for more amateur performers this can be an issue), but it also lets everyone know where the director’s headspace is before go-time. If cast members take issue with direction or blocking, you can work it out in a safe space without the time crunch of filming to add additional stress.
For crew members, I started doing what I call “pre-games.” Essentially, it’s a short meeting where the top level teammates- director, DP, producer, and AD usually- get together to chat about the day ahead, particularly about the more creative/ambitious shots and decisions. I’ve found that when crew issues come up, it’s because one teammate doesn’t think another is prepared or because two teammates had very different visions and didn’t realize it. A pre-game solves both of those issues- it proves that everyone has prepared for the day and it allows differences of opinions to surface and be resolved well before the cameras roll.
If you can’t schedule time for a separate day rehearsal or pregame, briefly go over things with key crew before actors arrive, and have actors rehearse their scenes while you set up the shot.
Five by fives
Inspired by a Buffy’s character’s catchphrase (points to people who get the reference), a “five by five” is a way to diffuse tension on set between two high-level crewmembers if it’s too late for a pregame. Essentially, you take a five minute break from filming to brainstorm solutions to a disagreement, meet privately for another five-minutes while everyone else is still on break, and get on with your day.
The idea here is to give a solution-based structure to your disagreements that focuses on moving forward rather than rash name-calling. Taking five minutes apart gives you some perspective and makes your response less emotional, and having a time limit to the discussion forces you to focus on actionable solutions instead of your interpersonal squabble.
In fact, it’s best if you leave emotion out of it entirely until you get to….
By far this is the strategy that has brought me the most harmony and success on my sets. I’ve actually written about these before, in my how to run your web series set article, so I’ll just restate and expand:
A post-mortem is a meeting with principal crew members once the day is done to discuss how it went. The best way to structure this meeting is to have everyone involved talk about what went well, what went poorly, and things to change for the next day of filming. Save up all your fights for this meeting and then duke it out away from talent and other teammates so that if you must yell and scream, it’s not taking time away from shooting.
Again, the purpose of a post-mortem is to keep everyone on the same page, emphasizing structure and professionalism, and make everyone feel like progress is being made. The first item on all of my post-mortem agendas is always “we made our day!” which just means we filmed all the pages we planned to, and that’s absolutely something to celebrate. Often, the fights from earlier don’t seem so dire in the face of everything that went well.
Don’t Be Petty
If you are in charge of your production, the best way to avoid conflict on set is to not be petty when arguments arise. Sometimes I have to go to the restroom and chant it to myself- don’t be petty, don’t be petty, don’t be petty. Being petty is fun. Taking someone to task for being foolish is such an addicting feeling it probably releases endorphins. For real, though. Do not. Be petty.
You are the boss. No matter how frustrated you are or how close of personal friends you are with one of your cast or crew, it is your job to maintain professionalism on set. Being petty feels good in the moment but ultimately ruins your on set reputation and your ability to claim higher ground. Things going wrong might not be your fault, but they are your responsibility, something incredibly useful I learned from this video by producer Stephen Follows.
Fights almost always escalate because both parties are emotionally invested and get upset when they don’t feel listened to. You have to take your emotions off the table when your cast and crew argue with you, no matter how unreasonable everyone else is being. Remain cool-headed and listen to the concerns, but ultimately, rely on your chain of command. Make a decision and move on. Trust me, the long-term rewards of restraint far outweigh the immediate rush (and subsequent loss of respect) from pettiness.