My Recipe for Humble Pie
I was directing my first feature film and I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I mean, heck, I have a master’s degree in theatre and have directed too many stage productions to count; I’ve produced movies and have directed a whole passel (as opposed to, say, a mere half passel) of short films; plus, I did four years of post-graduate study in film and have taught filmmaking at three universities. So, what was there to know?
At the end of week one (I’d love to tell you this happened long ago in a galaxy far away, but it was earlier this year) my Producer said he was hearing complaints. “But no one tells you to your face,” he explained, “because they like you and don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Hey, at least I’m a likeable loser. Oy.
So, I prayed–because God has no problem telling my things to me face–and He gave me His prize recipe for Humble Pie. Here it is:
Step One: Gather ingredients (call an urgent meeting).
Step Two: Mix ingredients (admit you’ve screwed up and ask for help).
Step Three: Bake at extreme high temperature (i.e. listen to their complaints, write down their suggestions, and earnestly thank them—they’re giving you one of the most important lessons of your life!)
Step Four: Remove from oven and allow to cool (send team home with promise to apply their suggestions).
Step Five: Serve warm, topped with a generous layer of fresh whipped humility (diligently review and apply their suggestions—over and over again)!
The Specs: The short films I’ve directed all involved my doing everything (lighting, directing, shooting, catering) with a little whatever-is-needed assistance from a couple of crew members. By contrast, my first feature film had over 30 dedicated specialists (tiny by Hollywood standards, but still substantial). Their advice at that fatal meeting:
- Give clear, concise directions, and then trust the crew to do their jobs (lighting, camera, costuming, make-up, props, set decorating)
- Give immediate “Yes” or “No” answers. (Do I? Well, yes and no…)
- Don’t think out loud (how is that even possible?) It comes off as uncertainty and/or conflicting direction.
- Don’t talk big picture (“She has this suppressed rage she got from her father when…”), talk little picture (“This is where she finds the gun”). No one can keep me from thinking big picture—that’s where I live—but I’m gradually learning when to and when not to share that picture.
- Be specific!* Don’t say, “She’s depressed, so she drinks and wanders around,” say, “She enters through this door, pours herself a drink here, then goes and stands here.” The lighting crew doesn’t need to know why she’s drinking, they need to know where she’s drinking!
- Affirm people: To Camera Operator: “That was the best shot yet—I love how the tilt-up landed on her face just when she started to cry!” To Costumer and Hair Dresser: “The rumpled sweater and mussed hair mirror her depression perfectly!”
I’d like to say I performed brilliantly for the remainder of the shoot. I didn’t, but I did improve. I might even have snagged a Most Improved Director award if there’d been one (of course, I was the only director). And I’ve saved the notes from my crew in a “Read This Before Filming” folder. No, I’m not a perfect director…
But when it comes to eating humble pie, I take the cake.
*Ironically, I used to get flak from actors for being “too specific” (i.e. too controlling), so I learned to include them in the process: “This is when he realizes he loves her—show me the moment that happens!” Creatives (cinematographers, productions designers, scenic artists) need some freedom too, but within parameters. Others (gaffers, grips, script supervisors) need diamond hard facts!