When One Head Is Better Than Two

Kelly Sullivan on set A candid moment for actress Kelly Sullivan (Jina)

I’m usually very scared when I’m approached by a hyphenate to work on their film – the producer/director. I wonder how they’re going to handle it when I need to have them sign a check while they’re on set trying to direct, or when I have to get their signoff or opinion on something that will not add value to the screen, but will definitely fuck us if we don’t take care of it. Often the experience isn’t pretty. I’ve had arguments over the cost of bagels.

But I recently found myself in a similar situation, and, probably due to hubris, I figured I could handle it. I could walk the producer/director tightrope. I’m still not sure I’ve pulled it off – I often worry that I’ve been too worried about producing to be as effective a director as I could have been. But it is possible, and with some sweat and initiative, it can even be enjoyable, to wear two hats.

Trading Space For Time

In military tactics, there’s a maneuver called trading space for time. You send a fast, light force up against the enemy, then retreat ahead of them as they advance, harassing them then running out of their reach. By the time they hit your main forces, they’ve been demoralized and depleted.

Independent filmmaking works in a similar (though hopefully less bloody) way. Without a huge budget to depend on, you need to spend a lot of time in prep, chipping away at the problems of getting locations, signing up vendors, raising money, finding cast and crew, etc. If you wait until just before you start, or count on being able to hire your buddies at the rate they promised you six months ago, you will inevitably burn through more cash than you want to and probably achieve suboptimal results.

So if you’re the producer and director, start early. Do your line producer’s script breakdown, and director’s script analysis, as early as possible. You may have to do some of this work over again if you do a rewrite down the road, but that’s okay. You’ll be able to answer the ‘big picture’ questions:

  • What are my characters’ arcs in each scene, each sequence, in the whole script?
  • How many locations?
  • How many script days?
  • How many characters?
  • Special props/action/effects?
  • How many shooting days does it look like I’ll need?
  • How are my characters’ choices reflected in dialog vs. nonverbal (image/action/sound/wardrobe/makeup/hair/editing)?
  • What can go wrong?

You will never know the complete answers to these questions. But getting some initial answers now will enable you to write up a shooting schedule, a budget, a scene-by-scene ‘beat sheet,’ and some creative notes to pass on to your department heads.

Leaning On Others

I had to lean on the people around me more than I would have if I’d had a full-on partner, especially during preproduction. My attorney, casting director, DP, and production sound mixer heard me bitch a lot. Since most of them had known me for a long time I think they were okay with it. (At least I hope so). On the other hand, I believe it gave them an opportunity to contribute more to the film creatively than they might otherwise have had. This is a very good thing. Your crew will almost always know more than you about their specific area. They’ve probably solved the problem you’re facing before, and can find their way to the solution faster than you can.

Staying Organized

There’s no real secret organization sauce. But if you’re constantly looking for things, forgetting appointments, and leaning on other people to keep your life together, you had better find a system that you can work with. Nothing erodes people’s confidence in their leader faster than seeing that the boss can’t find the map, never mind the road. And since much of your job consists of communicating with others, it’s also critical that your system be understandable by more than just you. That’s the real basis for the seemingly endless paperwork that accompanies filmmaking – production reports, callsheets, sound reports, camera reports, lined scripts, location directions, crew and cast contracts, and even the script format itself.

Recognize and Contain Your Obsession

It happens to every director: you get fixated on something that you think is critical. My obsession was over some smaller props (paperwork, crayons, some other odds and ends) that had to look absolutely 100 percent right. Other directors I’ve worked for had a specific shot they insisted on (and which completely screwed up the schedule to shoot). Maybe you wanted a location to look just like the one you grew up in. Or you have a line you think is so important you’ll shoot 50 takes until your actor gets it right (or he bites his tongue and chokes on it). As a director, you are completely convinced that the audience will not get your film if this ONE thing isn’t right, and you will drag the entire budget and schedule (and your precious prep time) down to get it onscreen.

Guess what: in all likelihood, the audience isn’t even going to register this ONE thing – assuming it even makes it into the final cut. Audiences overlook gaps and fill in details all the time. Use that to your advantage as a producer – push your director-self past your detail obsession (I realized I had to stop when I kept going on ebay to buy more crayons).

Be In the Moment AND The Moment After That

As a director, your focus should be on what’s unfolding in front of you on set, in the rehearsal space, or in the editing room. As a producer, you should be thinking at least one step ahead, and preferably several.

To deal with this I did my producer’s prep in the morning when I woke up, and when I first arrived on set. Then I tried to stay in director mode until lunch. I leaned a LOT on my PAs, giving them petty cash and problems to solve. They were awesome.

At lunch I tried to think about the schedule, reshuffle the day a bit, then I got back into director mode until wrap. Often I dropped off my DP, Ben Wolf, on the way home, so we both had a chance to talk over the ups and downs of the day. I often got some ideas from talking with him about the next day. At night I tried to slip back into director’s mode by reading the sides and my scene analysis notes just before going to bed.

The main idea here is to not try to do both jobs at once, but do each one fully, when it makes the most sense.

Give It Up

At a certain point, despite your best efforts, your director and producer selves will clash in a big way, and you’ll have to make a decision that could cost you big bucks but save the film. My personal opinion is that the director should be allowed to win in this scenario. You can often find more money in the budget, or cut back on something else, or (worst case) raise more money. But having 3/4 of a movie that’s on budget doesn’t benefit anyone.

The trick is that you can only play this card once. On Found In Time I scheduled a over-ambitious day – combining soundstage work with a big chase scene. Stunts, set building and dressing, extras. Needless to say we went into OT. But there came a point where I just had to let it go, or we wouldn’t have gotten the material we needed to make those scenes work. I ended up cutting back on a few other things for the rest of the shoot, and recouped some money through prop returns.

Okay, next time I’ll get back to post production. But to sum all of the above up, the key things to being a director-producer are: do your prep ahead of time, stay organized, and get good people to work with you.