Some of you have heard me talk about an amazing experience I was blessed to be a part of early my career. I was a field producer for a BBC documentary on success and failure in Hollywood. As part of an interview team of four people I participated in over 70 interviews with some of the most successful people in Hollywood. From Kathleen Kennedy to Doug Wick after he’d won the Oscar for Gladiator to Akiva Goldsman who’d just won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind to Pierce Brosnan at his house. It was like the best grad program in movie-making ever created.
We interviewed many, many producers and, as you’d guess, they all had lots to say about directors. I heard more than one producer talk about directors who approach filmmaking like it’s an “act of war.” As a young director who’d spent most of my career in the theatre at that point, I found this analogy really intriguing. It’s not like the theatre was always touchy/feely, but I would never have called directing theatre an act of war.
So, it was ironic to find myself using war metaphors when it came to directing Saturn Returns. The emotional, physical and mental challenges of directing a low budget feature in a small town 350 miles away from Los Angeles are immense. The analogy of being a general in war in which there were many battles felt spot on.
So what do I have to say about this “war?” Lots, it turns out. One of the things that might be most surprising is that as a director, I found that I generally lost most of the battles. It turns out that losing battles was par for the course. I don’t mean that I didn’t make decisions and see my choices and vision reflected in countless aspects of the film. On the contrary. My choices are everywhere, my fingerprints on 99.99% of what you’ll see on screen.
What I mean is that I had to get okay with losing battles in order to win the war. I had to let go of my ego over and over again. My experience of directing was the opposite of what the popular myth holds about directors and directing—that we are all egomaniacs and dictators. Sure it takes a high level of confidence (and probably ego) to lead a group of 30+ people through a grueling process, making decisions every second of every day for 13 to sometimes 18 hours a day. No doubt.
But for me, anyway, that process wasn’t about asserting my ego. It was about the vision I was holding in my mind and the decisions that lined up with that vision.
So, here’s what I do mean by letting go of my ego. When there actually was a battle (and there were several) I found that if I fought it to win it, then I generally lost. By that I mean that I won the battle but stood to lose the war. And by lose the war I mean risk not making my day and not completing the film. Completing the best film I can make that is as close to the vision in my head is winning the war, in my book.
I’ll give you an example. There was a crew member who was visibly unsupportive, at times rude and even verbally abusive. I know, surprising right? Actually not so much. Film shoots bring out the best and worst in people.
On our last day of shooting the verbal abuse started again. I’d taken this person outside a few times to talk over the course of the shoot and we’d reached a détente of sorts. But on this last day the comments began again. We were almost done shooting with one last shot that was important to get when the light was just right. I remember sitting inside by myself, waiting for the light, while everyone had started wrapping equipment. And I thought, I can go outside right now and scream at this person in front of everyone and subject them to same abuse they’ve subjected me to. Or, I can do a quieter version of that, but let them get a taste of how it’s been for me the past few weeks.
And I sat there and despite my very, very deep anger, I realized that if I were to do that I’d win the battle and risk losing the war. Even on this last day, 18 days in with only one shot to go, I might not get the shot I needed and risk not completing the film. And, who knows what I would need from this person in the future? Better to let this latest crappy behavior roll off my back.
And, most importantly, I realized I needed my energy for more important things. At that point I was only a third of the way through my “war” and I needed every bit of energy to lead the team through the rest of the process.
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting you be a doormat. You can’t be a doormat and lead a group of dozens of people through anything, let alone a film shoot. You have to have confidence and boundaries and assertiveness at every turn. And you have to know when and where to let the bad behavior, the lack of professionalism, the terrible decisions, the rudeness, roll off your back. It’s about picking your battles, or even avoiding them altogether because you’re up to much bigger stuff.
My ego wanted to go scream at that person. My commitment to making the best film I could stopped me and allowed me to “get over it” in less than 10 minutes.
So, what did I do? I relaxed on the couch for the first time in weeks. The sun went down and we got the shot. While I can’t say I have love in my heart for this person, I don’t lose sleep over them either. Part of getting good at letting it roll of my back is actually letting it go and getting on with the more important stuff. It’s about actually embracing losing the battle in order to win the war.
I haven’t won the war, yet. (We are still in post.) But I’m well on my way.
Shawn Tolleson is a writer/director and career coach. Her film Saturn Returns is currently in post production. www.saturnreturns.net. You can learn more about her programs and services as a career coach at www.entertainmentcareerstrategy.com .