I’ve been visiting movie sets for 40-odd years. I’ve never worked on a feature or TV series on a day-to-day basis so I’m no authority. But over the years I’ve noticed over and over that sets are generally pleasant environments — caring attitudes, consideration for others, no hostility or temper tantrums to speak of.
On the other hand there’s always tension between directors of exceptional vision and eccentricity, and those who hate innovation and new ideas — who prefer to shoot films and TV shows in the usual way.
I remember reading that Brian DePalma once said that he was suspicious of happy sets because that indicated (to him) that people were goofing off. Back in the early ’80s an actor friend told me that director David Ward regarded the making of Cannery Row as a “constant war” with meddling studio execs and a crew that often resisted various outside-the-box ideas or ways of getting things done.
Today I was struck by a recollection from Booksmart director Olivia Wilde, which she passed along to Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell in a Variety video chat.
Wilde: “A very established actor and director in this industry” — two separate people, she apparently means — “gave me really terrible advice that was helpful, because I just knew I had to do the opposite. They said, ‘Listen, the way to get respect on a set, you have to have three arguments a day…three big arguments that reinstate your power, remind everyone who’s in charge, be the predator.’ That is the opposite of my process. And I want none of that.”
Wilde expands: “I think that it is an unfortunate part of the kind of the paradigm, that has been created over the last 100 years…the idea that great art has to come from a place of discomfort and anxiety. That the pressure cooker has to get to a point where it can be something intense and valuable in that way.
“I do think it may be a uniquely female instinct to say, ‘Look, we can be nurturing. And we can multitask.’ It doesn’t mean that anyone needs to be uncomfortable. And it doesn’t mean that I have to constantly remind you of my my position, because I don’t think anyone on a set has ever forgotten who’s in charge. It’s in fact, an incredibly hierarchical system.
“If anything, I think we’d all benefit to sort of remove the hero narrative from that structure, and to acknowledge that a director is a sum of all these parts, that we have the opportunity to delegate to all these incredible people that we’ve asked to come on board.
Fennell: “This idea of having three arguments a day…where do you differentiate between something that really important, and something that isn’t? I think that there are moments necessarily where you do have to be sort of fairly strict or straightforward to get things back on the rails.
“[But] I agree completely with what you say, I think there’s a sort of idea that being a tormented artist is the route to genius. I really do think, as I’ve sort of gotten older, it is just a mask for a lot of fear and anxiety. It’s kind of a sort of synonym for bullying.”
Question to production veterans: Have you ever worked under a three-argument-per-day director, and if so, how was the experience? Have you ever worked for alpha-lion types or persistent arguers who turned out to be really good, or is the general rule of thumb that the gentlest directors tend to be more effective?”