Middle Tennessee is a hub for feature filmmaking. At any given time there’s at least one faith-based film in production with films ranging from no-budget to big-budget and everything in between.
I enjoy following all the local films on facebook as well as listening to my actor friends share their experiences on the different film sets, and I’ve discovered that some filmmakers know how to treat their cast and crew, but many don’t. Which is a shame because it’s really just a matter of following the golden rule.
You can’t make a film without cast and crew. Remember that. They are doing you a favor by participating in your project, so give them something to make it worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be a big paycheck (although that would certainly be appreciated) but oftentimes, it’s the little niceties that you can offer, that make it a pleasure instead of a punishment to work on your film project.
1) Treat every single person on your set with respect. Whether it’s the star actor or an extra or a high school kid who’s interning, they should all be treated exactly as you would wish to be treated if you were in their place. This can be as simple as learning people’s names, not yelling at them when they mess up, and treating everyone equally.
I recently saw parking signs for a filming project. The signs said, “talent” and “crew”. I know that’s acceptable terminology, but it bothered me. It was like saying crew members aren’t talented, which we all know is far from the truth. And yet, on many sets, crew members are treated like second-class citizens. They’re ignored or insulted, often blamed for factors outside of their control. Crew determines the look and sound of the finished product. It’s not to your advantage to insult these valuable members of your film team.
Another term I hate is “extras”. Whenever anyone says, “I’m just an extra,” it makes me cringe. Like extras aren’t really actors. Of course, they are. They give your finished product a fullness and richness that wouldn’t be there if you just had the main actors. You need those “background actors”.
2) However small the part, make it special. Give your actors something to work with. If a character has just one line, make sure it’s a really good line. An example of this, we had an actor driving from a nearby town to do a nonspeaking part. I hated that he was driving so far and not even getting to say something, so I gave his character a line, a funny line. And it added an extra touch to the whole scene. Another time we had a waiting room scene and we had one woman who coughed and kept coughing, much to the dismay of the other patients. We also added a girl with a rash, sharing her rash with the women next to her. The boring waiting room scene became a favorite scene for many. And the actors loved having something to do besides just sitting and waiting. For the ones who didn’t have lines, they each had a specific ailment and something specific to do while waiting.
3) Whenever possible, try to make sure that everyone has their moment on camera. I hear so often of background actors who have done multiple projects and never made the final cut. Take note of each person in the scene and make an effort to include them at least in the background so that they can show their friends and family. It doesn’t have to be long, and you don’t have to focus on them, but at least include them. It’s a sad thing to devote all that time on a film set and not even have anything to show for it. Give them their moment.
4) Don’t waste people’s time. Whether or not you’re paying them, no one wants to sit around for hours while you figure out what’s going on. Set your schedule ahead of time and stick to it as closely as possible. Don’t require actors to come in the morning if you know you won’t be filming their scene until after lunch. And if you don’t know when you’ll need them, then you haven’t planned well. The extra effort that it takes to create a detailed filming schedule (and sticking to it) will save you considerable money as well as contributing to better morale on the set.
And while I’m on the subject of time, it’s possible to film a movie without shooting ten to fourteen hour days. We’ve shot four movies, never having a shooting day that was longer than eight hours. In fact, a typical day on set for us begins at 8:30 and ends by 3:00. It’s just a matter of very careful advance planning of locations and cast for minimal wasted time. It can be done and your cast and crew will love you for it.
5) Feed your cast and crew well. This means providing food at mealtimes, not hours later. I’ve read facebook status updates of actors working on big time sets posting “Been here since 7am. It’s 3pm. Still waiting for lunch.” Then when they get it, it’s sub sandwiches or pizza. I don’t know about you, but if I go eight hours without a meal, I’m going to require more than a sandwich or a slice of pizza. I can only imagine how effective everyone is working on their empty stomachs.
I approach craft services completely different than any other director I’ve ever heard of. I, personally, handle the majority of meals. And the food is always (well, almost always) ready when we are. I use crock pots to prepare hot meals for cast and crew. Favorite meals include chili, spaghetti, crockpot lasagna, chicken noodle soup, taco salad, chicken tetrazini, and barbeque pork. I get everything ready the night before. Start the crockpot in the morning. And by lunchtime we’re ready to eat. Everyone appreciates having a hot, sit-down meal together before getting back to work. I see it as a gift that I offer to my cast and crew. We may not be able to pay them what they’re worth, but we can at least feed them well.
6) Make a big deal of your premiere. For many of your cast and crew, this will be their first movie. For others, this will be their first speaking role or their first leading role. They’re excited about it and they want everyone else to be excited as well. So go all out. Make it a red carpet event. To do this, rent a carpet or go down to your local fabric store and purchase red felt. Go formal. Encourage the cast and crew to dress up. They may not all want to, but most will appreciate the occasion, and your pictures will look so much better than if everyone showed up in jeans. Provide limo service for your cast and crew. For “Flowers for Fannie” we made arrangements with a local funeral home service. They loved the idea. The actors parked in the back parking lot of the church and the limo drove them around to the front. The limo just kept circling around the block until everyone had been transported. The actors loved it, the funeral home driver loved it, and, again, it made for great photos.
So often filmmakers are so consumed with the destination that they forget about the drive. The how is just as important as the where. In fact, how you get there can affect whether or not you get to your desired destination. I recently read a review of a movie where the critic said even though she didn’t personally care for the movie that much, she could tell that the actors really enjoyed doing it and that had an effect on her. I firmly believe that the morale on set comes across on the finished project. If nothing else, I know that a filmmaker’s Christian testimony will be impacted by his/her behavior on set. What kind of message are you sending to your cast and crew?
What have you done to show your cast and crew that you care? What has someone else on a set done that impressed you as an actor or crew member? We’d love to hear your stories.