Production is not for the faint of heart. Long hours, physical strain, and emotional exhaustion are part of the job. Stress can bring out the worst in people, and when you have to work with difficult talent and crew on set, a production can can go south quickly.
So what’s the best way to work with difficult people on set? We asked Angela Tortu, a seasoned assistant director who has worked on a wide array of productions, from big budget features like Crimson Tide to shows like Entourage and Scrubs, how she sidesteps potential issues on set.
Look for opportunities to build trust
1. Give them a chance to express their side of the story
When a problem does arise, take a breath, and give them a chance to express their side of the story. This is usually enough to turn the situation around.
Tortu recalls a tense experience working with Sharon Stone in regards to a blocking dispute:
“Sharon was pushing back. She said, ‘I’m not going to do that. I need a stunt double.’ I noticed that she was getting more and more frustrated, and preparing herself for a big battle. Rather than forcing the issue, I just replied ‘That’s not a problem at all. Do you have a preferred stunt double? I’ll be happy to call her.’ Sharon was surprised that I didn’t push back. With a softer tone she replied, “Really? Okay. Great!” The following day she came in with an upbeat attitude, and requested to speak directly with me for the remainder of the shoot.”
According to Tortu, one of the most important building blocks for trust is to make a sincere and proactive effort to listen. Do this, and you’ll be seen as someone who has everyone’s best interest in mind.
No one should be treated like a punching bag
2. Don’t make a scene when someone messes up
Every job on set is important. All positions deserve respect. However, as tensions escalate, some people may blow off steam in public (we’re looking at you, Christian Bale). Whatever you do, don’t allow anyone, especially yourself, to have a meltdown on set. Not only does it make everyone uncomfortable, but it destroys hard-earned trust.
“When somebody is chronically difficult or makes a serious mistake on set, never make a scene of it. No one should be treated like a punching bag, and broken in front others."
Instead, pull the person aside and engage in a private conversation one-on-one. If the issue turns out to be chronic, get the producer involved.
Search for creative solutions
3. There’s never a magic bullet
This is a people-oriented business. People are different. A solution that may work for one person may not work for another, so it’s important to identify solutions that fits the situation and the individual. For example, if your lead actor is chronically late to set but sensitive about the topic, you can forego the conversation altogether and try making their call time earlier.
Tortu recalls an experience on the set of a commercial where one of the leads, a 5 year-old girl, refused to exit her trailer:
“No matter what we said, she just wouldn’t come out. So finally, we decided to bribe her with candy and toys. Believe it or not, it worked. After a few minutes, she finally stepped out. It might seem a bit silly, but it worked for that situation.”
Difficult talent and crew situations come with the job. When in doubt, listen, be kind and tailor your solutions to the individual’s needs.
Do that and you’ll be well on your way building a positive culture on set.