Until film school, I had always approached filmmaking with a DIY attitude. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, that is, if you know what you’re doing.
Whether I knew what I was doing back then is questionable, but my biggest fault for wearing all the hats was a lack of trust.
Since then, I’ve come around to building teams, and let me tell you: it makes shooting so much smoother. Filmmaking is unavoidably collaborative, and as a director/producer, it can be easy to put your vision in a tunnel. With the right people on board, though, details are thought of that would’ve never otherwise crossed your mind, set up times are so much faster, and your production just looks better. With the wrong people, though, your whole production could potentially fall apart.
Given these stakes, it’s crucial for any producer to build a team thoughtfully. Having been on all kinds of productions, this is what I’ve learned as far as hiring a crew goes:
1. Always recruit people you trust.
Are they flaky? Do they keep deadlines? Are they punctual and effective workers? The answers to these questions will help you determine whether a potential crew member is someone you trust.
And it’s extremely important that your team is trustworthy, or you may end up with a sloppy film or worse—an unfinished film.
Obviously, you can’t know the answers to these questions unless you’ve worked with the person before. That said, it’s always best to go with people who you’ve already seen in action. Otherwise, ask for recommendations from the people you trust.
When I go to recruit my team, I always choose people who I know personally or who have been recommended to me by credible sources. If the latter, I still make sure to get the full story from several people who have worked with that person before. The more you know about a potential hire’s work ethic and quality of performance, the better you can predict the outcome of your film with that person on board.
2. As much as you can, pick people who you have a good relationship with (but make sure they can handle the responsibility).
Bad blood on set is no good for the morale of production, nor is it good for efficiency.
There are people out there who I know are very talented, but I no longer consider working with them because I’ve either seen or heard of their bad attitudes and unfriendly dispositions.
Making a movie takes cohesion and mutual respect.
If you’re not on good terms with someone, or you know that they’re not a team player, go with someone else. It’s better to hire someone with a mediocre reel who will listen to direction than get in a power-struggle with someone highly sought after who doesn’t know how to collaborate effectively.
On the other hand, never hand out a responsibility to someone whom you’re great friends with but have no other prior experience. That could end badly not just for the production, but even for your relationship.
3. Make sure they see the vision—and that they love it.
If you have a team of people who believe in you and your story, you will (arguably) be in better circumstances than a director with a big budget but a mediocre movie.
This is because people will work harder for something that they love than something that just pays the bills. That said, make sure your team has a sense of pride in being involved. This isn’t just good for morale on set, but also for when you release—the more that people are invested, the more they’ll share and get the word out about your film.
4. Always have a detailed, written agreement before starting.
Do this even if it’s a DIY project. Even if there’s no pay. Even if they’ve been your best friend since 2nd grade.
The reason why I say this is because you never know where your film might go. With the right strategies, there’s always the slim chance of making a profitable film. (And even with such slim chances, isn’t that a goal anyway?)
The last thing you want to do is end up making a semi-successful or major smash hit film and have everyone bitter that they didn’t a cut.
Spell out all the possible circumstances and what each team member will get in them to avoid any gray-area expectations.
If there’s no pay up front, consider dividing up possible profits into percentages of deferred payment. Whatever way you do it, make sure that your hired hand feels that the terms are fair and what they’re getting out of the experience is worth it to them.
This way, you’ll protect your own reputation as a producer or director and maintain important work relationships into the future.
5. If you’re on a budget, don’t be afraid to negotiate with the people you really want.
Remember, transparency is key. And back to point #3, passion not only can be contagious, but also cost-cutting. (I hate to say it that way, but it’s true.)
In the same way you’d pitch a project to a possible investor, you can try and pitch to a potential hire to negotiate a rate of compensation that suits your budget. Don’t abuse this though. If you have the money, pay people fairly. If you don’t, be honest about it.
The more that people trust you, the more they’ll want to help you.
6. Don’t bring people on just for the sake of bringing them on. They should be doing something.
Don’t waste people’s time, and don’t waste your own set space.
The first “full” shoot I ever did, I had way too many PA’s. There were four of them, and for the majority of that 12-hour day, they sat on a couch and did nothing.
Since then, I’ve developed a rule of having little to no PA’s on each shoot. Obviously, this recommendation is directed at indie productions that aren’t using guild and/or union workers. If you are using the latter, there are pretty strict guidelines about what work a hired crew member can do and not do. If you’re not bound to those constraints, though, many responsibilities can be consolidated.
Take, for example, the times where I produced, made lunch and bought expendables all in the same production. Or the other time when my 1st AD also ended up being my script supervisor.
7. Always be respectful and gracious.
Finally, never miss an opportunity to show your gratitude to your team. Most indie productions are huge undertakings, and the people behind them are donating long hours of work to make it happen. That said, respect your crew, and show them that you appreciate them.
Doing so makes for a happy set, and there’s nothing better, especially when you’re working 12-hour days.
It’s also just a good thing to do.
Hopefully this will help you out the next time you go to put together a team for your film. Want to add or argue? Feel free to share your two cents in the comments.