Reach Film Fellow Nick Paley on “HR” for Filmmakers: Making a Good Crew Great
Keeping an Underpaid Crew Happy
When you’re the director of a low budget film you wear a lot of hats and test many skills that are far removed from the actual craft of filmmaking. People management is maybe the most important of these skills and definitely the most difficult. While I’m reluctant to take any position of authority on the topic, as I’ve made a good number of HR mistakes on my previous films, I’m hoping that articulating some of the below will help me (and perhaps you) remember best practices for dealing effectively with the people who are actually making our movies.
So what makes a good crew member? The simplest answer is people who care. These are the kind of people who call you at 3am because they thought of something overlooked at the production meeting, the kind of people who check that the doorway dolly you’re renting won’t start squeaking after one use, the kind of people who volunteer to help in capacities outside their official job description.
It’s safe to say that 99% of young people working in film have an interest in doing their jobs well and are working in film because they enjoy it. These are the qualities of a great crew member. This means that when you encounter, say, a sound guy with a nasty attitude or a crafty PA sleeping on the job, it may be useful to look again at how you are interacting with crew members during prep and on set.
No matter how many things you’re juggling, the names on your crew sheet remain human beings that require attention and courtesy. Take Jim the Gaffer. Jim’s probably as busy as you are and although he’s agreed to work on your set (probably for less than he’s worth), it’s not occupying his every thought. Not even close. This means whatever momentary encounters (emails, phone calls) he has with you, or your producer, must be pleasant, helpful and efficient – even more so than he might be accustomed to. This starts in prep, when he gets the map to your location’s fuse box a day before he asks for it or when he’s emailed the catering menu plan before he has the chance to ask if there will be be vegetarian options. On a low budget production you will have so little control over so many elements, it’s important to show your crew you’re doing all you can to make their lives easier with the things you can control. This makes them feel appreciated despite low pay, and sets a standard for thoroughness that they’ll want to meet when they get to set. It means that when Jim turns on his hero key light (rented from the cheapest house in town) and the bulb is burnt out, he’ll consider it an unfortunate fluke as opposed to a piece of supporting evidence in the case for why your shoot is going to ruin his weekend.
Beyond the obvious reason to treat people well before and during production–because it’s a good thing to do–it’s also good for your footage. If you’ve ever crewed on a poorly run film production, you know how quickly work ethic can fall apart. Whatever task you’ve been assigned immediately takes a back seat to your sleep-deprived, malnourished brain’s efforts to recall the original reason you agreed to work on the shoot. The minute your crew starts thinking like this on set, the quality of your footage is going to decline. Booms will fall into shots, focus will go soft, late-arriving props will force you to combine shots.
On my latest short film (we wrapped production this past weekend) I faced some challenges in keeping my crew content. Our shoot was three days in upstate New York. For the meager rates we offered, that’s pushing it for an NYC-based crew. We made it up to them by paying close attention to their needs and allowing for small amenities that upped the quality of their experience without killing our budget. When they got to set, they saw that an unusual amount of care was put into our crafty and catering. They weren’t staying in a hotel, but they were handed a bathroom kit replete with miniature toiletries, a set of sheets, towel and pillow. These measures required a little extra spending, but you can’t put a price tag on what it means to your production to have a well-rested AC, a well-fed PA and a nicely-groomed gaffer.
Nick Paley studied film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His thesis short, Picture Day, produced with the support of the Warner Bros. Film Fund Award, was a national finalist for the 2008 Student Academy Awards and has played at festivals across the country. Nick has continued making shorts since graduation along with web content for FremantleMedia, CBS Interactive and the Upright Citizens Brigade theater. He hails from Vermont. Nick’s Reach Film Fellowship mentor, Jay Van Hoy, established the production company Parts and Labor with Lars Knudsen. This year, they premiered Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather at South by Southwest and Cam Archer’s Shit Year (starring Ellen Barkin) in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes.