The Emotional Bell Curve of a Film Set
A new film project is exciting, stressful, and bittersweet. Here are some of my thoughts coming off of my latest webisode project as a director called “The Public Displays of Insanity (Ep 1 & 2).”
When you first arrive on a film set, you’ll see the “usuals,” the familiar faces you work with on a fairly regular basis. It feels like a mini family reunion. You reminisce on the last projects you worked on together, gossip about good and bad experiences and gear up for what you know will be a long or several long days.
It is exciting because anytime you get to do what you love, you pour a lot of energy and time into preparing for these production days and it is incredible to see something come to life. As a producer, you see months or even years of hard work come together in the form of people, locations, money, and resources. As a director, you see your vision, the look and feel of a story come to life. The possibilities and direction of creativity are endless. For non-filmmakers, the feeling can be best equated to how you feel at the beginning of a New Year. It is hard to predict just exactly how the New Year will go, but the possibilities are endless.
For the Public Displays of Insanity, it was several days of mulling over a shot list, rehearsals, meetings, and looking at location photos. Getting on set and seeing the possibilities during blocking rehearsals, seeing all the equipment being loaded in, and finally watching everything on the monitor for your first shot up, is exhilarating. Since it is still the fairly early stages of my directing career, I have not had the luxury of focusing only on directing. Usually, I am in charge of 3 or 4 different roles, so while I am trying to direct, my mind is constantly distracted by producing responsibilities, logistics, and scheduling. It was a breath of fresh air to show up on set and only worry about the performances and look of the film.
Now, on the film set you will often meet a new group of people. The proportion of familiar to new crew and talent members significantly increases your initial stress and anxiety levels. Though it is always fun to meet and work with new people, you just never know what you are going to get and how well you will all work together. It is a lot like a party. You are excited for the familiar faces, and to meet all the new people, yet you know it could potentially be a great party or an awkward one. The right mix could mean a great time on set and the wrong mix could mean a disastrous experience.
On Public Displays of Insanity, I knew about 20% of the team. The rest were new people I had never worked with before. Though I trusted my producers to bring in quality people the first few days are always stressful as you try to navigate and figure each other out. This is the gel phase. You learn quickly about everyone's individual strengths and weaknesses and how as a team you can all support each other. Some people require more “pushing,” by the 1st assistant director, other people are a bit more proactive, some people get cranky if they do not eat, and the list of human nuisances goes on.
Film set days are long and arduous but rewarding – filled with memories and collective experiences. Good and bad. The funny blooper takes, the not so fun moments when a background actor flakes out or when you aren’t sure if you will make the schedule you have planned out. All these moments test your preparation and ability to think out of the box in a flexible manner. You have to be so flexible on set. It is pretty rare when things work out exactly the way you have planned it. People are people. People make mistakes. People can be unreliable. Film sets test your patience because stress tends to bring out the worst behaviors and reactions. As a director, I try to minimize surprises by storyboarding extensively and doing rehearsals to answer any lingering character questions. These little steps really help to prepare a director for the day of battle. But even when you do all that, things still go wrong. It is one of those things you know will happen, so you prepare your emotional energy as well as possible so when the storm hits, you can calmly work through any issue that goes your way.
After several days with a film set crew, you become a dysfunctional family. You will have spent every 15-20 hours together for many days and these people become very special to you. You understand each other, and you learn to respect and accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses and you’ve seen first-hand some pretty great art being created. You have laughed together, gotten sick together, chatted about other non-set related things and supported each other. You are now a movie making machine.
When the last martini shot comes to an end, it is a sense of relief, excitement, happiness, and sadness all at once. As we wrap equipment, return rooms and locations to their original states, and pick up trash, it is hard to think that we may not be seeing some of these people for a while or ever. Yes, if you happen to find each other becoming BFFs then it is always easy to meet up later, but in reality a lot of these people are still strangers. Some people (luckily in my case, very rarely) you may not want to ever see again, but sometimes whether by locational circumstances or just by fate you are not on a project together again, you just never know when you’ll see each other.
Even on a reoccurring TV set like Public Displays of Insanity, where I know most of the crew will be back for the next episode shoots, it is still bittersweet. It will be weeks or months later you will see these now familiar faces. For non-reoccurring characters who have already had screen time, you may not see for years. It is sad to create all this magic and to go our separate ways.
But that is the life of a film set. A group of strangers and former colleague and friends who come together for a few days, weeks, or sometimes years to create movie magic and to lend all of our passions for our craft into creating the best story we can.