Film Directing – Notes From the Trenches

Posted by Rena Sternfeld on June 30, 2014 in On the set |


Haven’t written for a long time, and with that crossed one of the “no-no’s” of blogging. You have to be dedicated and provide new content, all the time.

But when you work 70 hour weeks as script supervisor (yes, had to do that to make ends… closer), you get sucked into a new world, and it’s all consuming.

You live most of the day in that world – the world of filmmaking, of make-believe. There is another world order in this community, with a clear hierarchy of leaders and subordinate. Things you can do in another world – like go to sleep at approximately the same time every night – are dictated here. Today you sleep at night, tomorrow you sleep during the day. You’ll eat when you are told and spend long days in places you have never been before, in condition that do not promote health and well-being. You agonize over a shot, a mistake you might have made, and words and gestures directed toward you in the heat of the moment. Behaviors that are not tolerated in other environments strive here. There is not even an attempt to disguise it to be anything else but dictatorship.

There is a clear leader who tells everyone what to do. And the character of that leader sets the atmosphere in this world. I’ve seen actors become leaders and I’ve seen directors who think they lead, but do not. Unfortunately I also had my share of leaders who are tyrants, and some who verge on mental illness and are dangerous to themselves and their surroundings.


It takes time to realize that this world order exists in this world alone, and slowly put things in perspective.


For those who want to be directors, being on sets and seeing how others do it is a valuable education you will not get anywhere else, including film school. But – how you handle questions, how you handle problems, how you deal with pressures and not finishing the day’s schedule can’t be learned – it has to be experienced.

Since I have lived in both worlds – being a crew member – and understanding the dilemmas of a director, I have a few observations about directing from the trenches.

Sometimes directors are their own worst enemy. Getting involved in the workings of every department from start to finish seems like the right thing to do in order to have total control of the process, but watching from the sidelines I realized that it takes too much of the director’s time and attention.

Trying to do everyone’s job is a huge waste of the director’s time. If you like to bump the camera operator to get the shots yourself, you achieve two things: Everyone realizes you are not a better operator than the one that does it for a living and you are so busy with the frame, the light, not to see the c-stand, that you hardly have time to notice what’s inside the frame – you know, the important stuff.

If you dictate how the production works, you sometimes don’t see the forest for the trees. Example? A director asks the make-up department how long it will take to clean up an actor who was covered in blood. The head of the department (who was replaced later in the movie) told the director it can be done on the set without taking the actor to the makeup trailer 10 minutes away, and – it will take only 10 minutes to clean him up. That is an A.D. question. As a director you should concentrate on the performance, not on scheduling the day.

As we continued with the shoot, the director added more and more blood on and around the actor. The actor’s jeans were glued to his thighs, his hair was matted, covered in blood, sand and leaves after lying dead on the ground for a few hours… When the time came to clean him up, the makeup department came to the AD department and said they have to take the actor to the trailers to take a shower and wash his hair. The AD department approved and the actor hopped into a van to go to base camp.

20 minutes later the director was ready to shoot the cleaned up actor, and was told he is on his way from base camp and will be there momentarily.

All the director heard was that the actor was taken to base camp. He went ballistic, cussing everyone from the actor to the makeup to the A.D. department, blaming them for causing him to be behind schedule and sabotaging the production. While he was still ranting, the actor arrived, all cleaned up, ready to shoot.

What was the big deal? You ask. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. All went as planned and he really didn’t wait long for the actor, but he was mad as a hatter because he was not told that the actor goes to base camp and as far as he was concerned THEY DIDN’T DO WHAT HE ORDERED.

The atmosphere on the set changed dramatically. Cast and crew who watched the director scream, 5 inches away from the 2nd AD’s nose, were terribly put off. He lost the crew that night. If before they were giving 110% to make the director’s vision come to life, now they started walking a little bit slower, giving only the necessary minimum.

Surround yourself with people you trust and let them do their job. As I was taught in The Israeli Army’s – A good officer is the one who delegates authority. A bad officer is the one who tries to do it all by himself.


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