Lisa Joy, co-creator of HBO’s Westworld, says of directing, “[It’s] kind of like being the coxswain [steersman] in a boat race. You’ve got an idea and a direction you want to go in, but you’d simply sink if it weren’t for all the incredible talents in your boat.” Many directors and artists in the film industry share this sentiment (you can hear it in any Oscar speech to date), which suggests that great art comes from great collaboration, and great collaboration comes from trust.
I work in a team environment at NogginLabs, where every day I find myself using my filmmaking experience and knowledge, especially as they relate to the importance of trust in creation. A team is unified by more than shared goals — it’s unified by the respect and understanding team members pay to each other’s skills, personalities, and working styles. This is what allows people to bring their best ideas – and selves — to the table.
It’s also a big part of how we create engaging training experiences.
Creating a Set Culture
As our founder Brian Knudson likes to say, “Constraints force innovation.” Whether it’s actor availability, equipment availability, daylight, the thumping music of a neighbor’s party, money or… money, a filmmaker needs to know how to adapt. In an environment where constraints are inevitable and can run the gamut of no-big-deal to how-do-we-save-this-movie stakes, finding the right collaborators is key.
On a film set of any size or budget, it’s crucial for directors to find collaborators with whom they can share a vision and, perhaps more importantly, a professional dynamic known as the set culture. Many great television showrunners have policies surrounding their set cultures. For Jenji Kohan, creator of Orange is the New Black, it’s “No a**h*les.” Pretty simple. NogginLabs has its own version of Kohan’s slogan, albeit one that can be printed sans asterisks: “Smart. Nice. Funny.”
In my experience directing for both stage and screen, creating a set culture has been the most important starting point. I am a firm believer that product is reflective of process. If anyone from an actor to crew member feels unheard or unduly stressed, that person’s work will suffer for it. For example, when working with two young actors on a particularly emotional scene, it was important to myself and my Director of Photography that the actors felt in control. He and I built a sparse shot list and made clear that our choices would be dictated by theirs. The result was an honestly emotional scene that brought even our crew members to tears. I believe this was because the actors felt encouraged to take ownership of the process and were comfortable in the company of our crew.
Regardless of a person’s talent and capability, whether or not he or she will be a great collaborator boils down to two questions: “Can I spend valuable creative time with this person every day?” Put more simply: “Could I stand this person every day?” Inevitably, some of those days may end with you never wanting to speak to each other again. But the respect and the understanding of a shared vision should be strong enough to keep the boat moving. Regardless of whether you’re on a film set or in an office, it’s important to create a collaborative space that your team wants to return to, even after the worst days.
When I taught screenwriting to undergraduates at Northwestern University, one of the most undervalued lessons I had to impart to students was to not do someone else’s job for them. When we see a film, we see the result of sometimes hundreds of artists’ work coming together. Those decisions do not, and should not, rest solely on one person.
The screenwriter pens the script. There are very few hard and fast rules in terms of what level of detail that should include, but I’m of the school that says: