Five Things A Producer Should Never Say

1. “I can’t speak to you because I am mixing my movie.” (worst when said to the Director of your next project)

Producers do this all the time. They take advantage of whatever stage their movie is at to avoid talking to someone or dealing with something. Let’s get this straight. A producer may be “in a mix” and may even be involved in a creative discussion – I am not belittling that at all – but a producer is not sitting there riding those faders mixing the film. Now, a mix can have some very intense moments with a lot of back and forth, but by and large they are miserably boring places where I am usually engaged in other work until that moment where I am called on to listen, usually to a bird tweeting or some effect, and express my learned opinion. A producer doesn’t mix a movie, or color correct one for that matter. In general, don’t overstate the importance of what you are doing, especially to people who understand the process. Also, and this is just as important, don’t say something like that to a director on another project. You can’t leave a director hanging on any issue with the reason being you are too busy working on some other movie. To the director on the phone there is no other movie. Theirs is the only movie on the planet and you should always take their call.

2. “How’s the food?” (when referring to meals served on set)

 The food on the set is always just okay, unless it’s horrible. Part of the reason for this has nothing to do with the skill of the chef.  It’s important to understand that you are dealing with a caterer and they are doing your whole show which means they are making breakfast and lunch for 100 people every day for weeks on end. Even when the chefs are spectacular, they can’t vary the food enough to please all of those mouths. It’s the reason we don’t eat at the same restaurant every time we go out, even if we have restaurants that we love. It’s the same reason that, in my house, we split the cooking between myself, my wife and my daughter-in-law and son. And that’s only when cooking for 5 people. When you have a hundred or more there will always be someone who isn’t satisfied. When you walk around with a sign on your back that reads “complaint bureau” (at least it feels that way sometimes) then you might do well to just keep your opinions and your questions to yourself. In short, listen for grumblings and try to head them off but don’t “look for trouble” (as my mother used to say) by asking questions.

3. “We’ve gotta be done with this scene in 5 minutes!”  (worst done while charging onto set in the midst of a very difficult scene)

If you’re thinking this and feel absolutely compelled to say it, STOP. Take a deep breath. Go for a short walk while you  consider a couple of things: what kind of a jam are you really in? In other words, how serious is this situation? Now, ask yourself, “What’s the best possible outcome, both for the moment and for the long term?” It is probably not as bad as you think it is. We tend to get so wrapped up in the drama – not only in front of the camera but often behind it as well, that we can’t make rational decisions. And by the way, in 33 years of doing this, I’ve never seen a producer say that line and have it work. No one ever says, “Okay!” and moves on to the next scene. But if you try and understand why it never works I think you might find a better way to move that set along.

First, know that there isn’t a Director, Actor, DP or Assistant Director that willingly gets stuck in a quagmire of a scene. No one is starting the day saying, “Let’s spend 7 or 8 hours on that little 2/8th page scene.” Struggling with your work, especially in front of an entire crew, is no fun. It’s not unlike forgetting your lines take after take or screwing up a lighting cue over and over. It sucks. Everyone knows how much it costs or at least they know it costs a lot more than they can afford. Plus it’s demonized as unprofessional. Add to that the fact that crews are generally tired and they want to move through the work as fast as possible. Knowing all this should help you to understand that no one is trying to ruin your life or your career or even your precious budget. Alright, so we’ve established that this situation isn’t about you personally and that panicking never works. Now what?

Solving any problem requires that you have some knowledge and information at your disposal. Don’t wait until you need to “finish in five minutes.” When things start to slow down you should find your way to the camera and observe. That way, if things continue to slog along, you can make an informed judgment and offer the best advice. By the way, this is why I don’ spend all day sitting by the monitor and involve myself in every discussion about the shooting – that makes you part of the problem. Spending time away from camera not only lets you do other facets of your job but allows you to provide those “fresh eyes” at key moments.

So you’ve observed what’s going on – now what? You probably don’t need to point out the fact that the shoot is falling behind – everyone can feel that. You don’t even have to look at your watch. And this type of situation is the exact reason that I haven’t worn a watch in 20 years – too much anxiety for me and anyone who sees me staring at it. Once you have a feel for the source of the trouble, explore your options – either in your head or with someone else, usually the AD, but you can talk to anyone you trust. Then bring everyone together to discuss those options. Whatever you do, don’t panic. It’s not going to solve anything. Sadly, I know that from experience. If panic solved problems on a set I would have been singlehandedly responsible for saving a whole lot of shooting days and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

4 & 5. “Yes” and “No” ( As a knee-jerk reaction when a brilliant idea or unexpected problem occurs)

These last two may seem “cute” but they are really about keeping your options open until you really have to make that decision.  In short, it’s irresponsible to make a hasty judgment about any significant expenditure on a film until you are certain that it’s necessary. A producer’s job is to find that balance among three central questions: Does the Director feel that this is really important for the story? What do I need to know to make this decision unequivocally? And when does this decision need to be made?  Those three questions need to be answered every time a “surprise” presents itself.  One word answers aren’t enough.  A “Yes” may commit you to something you really can’t afford or don’t need. A “No” can stir resentment if the creatives feel you’re just trying to make your job easier and you only care about money.

You’ll have some time in prep and post to research things and make good decisions but the timeline is still short. When things come up during shooting, there is obviously more immediacy. Decisions here have a much shorter timeline.  And don’t forget, every decision has consequences across multiple departments. My suggestion? Ask a lot of questions. Always be positive but never making promises you can’t keep. Gather as much information as possible, especially from your key crew people. Finally, make the decision when you are comfortable that you’ve gathered all the facts and don’t second guess yourself or anyone else if it turns out not to be the right decision.

That’s my short list of “what not to say”. Do you have anything you’ve ever said as a producer or on a set that you wish you hadn’t?  Let me know!

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