We Are Film Jerks

Over the years, as I’ve grown to know and love so many of the people who work in our industry, I’ve been struck by the almost blind call to duty of so many of them. This calling is what I affectionately refer to as being a Film Jerk. What does it mean and how does a producer channel this extreme devotion and enormous resource?

Film Jerk, to me, means there’s no such thing as the word “no” and no such phrase as, “It can’t be done.” It means God created mountains for the express purpose of having that Film Jerk move them in order to get a better shot. It’s “get it done at all costs” – up to the the human cost that maintains everyone’s physical safety and the financial cost the line producer has approved . Why the “jerk” label? That’s how they are perceived in the outside world. Film jerks come up with the most insane and unreasonable requests and work the most insane hours under extreme conditions, all in the service of making a movie. That’s what sets them apart.

People with straight jobs are often told and encouraged to think “outside the box.” They have to be told to do that because that’s where they live, inside a box. What attracts them to their job is the security of knowing exactly what’s going to happen every day and exactly what’s expected of them. Production people don’t really “live” anywhere. It’s a traveling circus on the best days and a hot mess on the worst. For starters, the hours are horrible by most standards. When we budget a standard shooting day, we budget a 12 hour day. That’s 12 hours of work time. In between there’s roughly an hour break for lunch. What that means is that a crew member expects to be at the set for a minimum of 13 hours each day. That’s an awful lot of hours for a five day work week and if you’re shooting on location that could be a six day work week (we’ll try to discourage six day weeks in future posts).

Now let’s take that 65 hour week and add to it the fact that you’re usually on your feet for the better part of it. And you’re in a constant state of “readiness”. Movie sets are where the phrase “hurry up and wait” was coined. You wait, wait, wait… then have to leap in and do your job in 60 seconds. Depending on what department you’re in there are varying levels of physical and/or emotional stress. If you’re a grip or electrician you will be handling a lot of very heavy and usually very hot equipment. If you’re a make-up artist you have the almost impossible task of making that actor look as good in the 13th hour as they did in the 1st hour. And please hurry it up because you’ve got 100 exhausted crew members waiting to get this day over with!

Keep in mind that your day may be even longer because of your wrap time. Cleaning up, clearing out equipment and loading trucks might add another hour to your day or more. Once the shooting ends for the day just about every crew member has some additional work to do before they can leave. Finally, heaven forbid that you are a driver of one of those trucks that was being loaded up. Those people probably have another 30 minutes to one hour to drive that truck to a secure parking lot – and don’t forget they had the same amount of extra time added to their day that morning when they picked the truck up.

Most of these folks are operating on adrenalin and the reason for the adrenalin rush is the human body’s reaction to a massive dose of stress at almost every turn. The end result of say, finding the only guy with the key to the elevator at 2am or convincing the city film commissioner to give your movie star a police escort to get them to a helipad faster so they can make a public appearance in another city, brings great satisfaction. But it’s the agonizing couple of hours spent trying to solve the problem in the first place that exerts tremendous mental pressure. And there’s really no getting around it. You are in a business that spends tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars per day to create and capture once in a lifetime moments on camera. Even if you have the money to come back and do it tomorrow – it won’t look or feel the same. And your business, by definition requires a lot of people to collaborate and do their best work at all sorts of crazy hours under all sorts of crazy conditions – all in the service of telling a story.

So what’s the producer’s role in all this?

The producer gets to manage not only their own stress level, but the stress level of the entire crew and cast. Assuming that you’ve hired smart talented people, that stress and anxiety level is the main obstacle to getting the best work out of everyone. Maintaining the right “internal temperature” of the set is vital. There needs to be enough focus and concentration to get the work done but it must exist within a relaxed and open environment where people are free to be creative.  The “Film Jerk” mentality is a powerful resource but it has to be applied with reason. It’s almost like protecting people from their own instincts. That actor who is willing to do their own stunt, for example, needs to be protected. The same goes for that crew member pushing themselves to get the work done in that 14th hour of the day. A producer should know when to ask for that kind of effort and when to step back and say, “I appreciate the offer, but let’s get a good night’s sleep and come back to this tomorrow.”

That’s an easy thing to say as I sit here at my desk on a leisurely Sunday morning creating a new blog post but it’s not so easy to actually do when you’re in the heat of the moment.  What do you do when you have to finish a day’s work or take a huge budget hit? Do you push the crew and cast to a ridiculously long day or take the hit or… is there some other smart solution? This is the thing every producer struggles with and something I’ve faced for my entire career. Sometimes I make the right choice and sometimes I make the wrong choice. And sometimes, I just don’t know.

That’s the key role of a producer – dealing with those choices and making those decisions in conjunction with the director and the financiers. It’s really what underlies every course and every post on this site. It’s about passing on knowledge, tricks, tips and simple common sense advice. For example, I preach a lot about working very hard in prep because one of the best stress avoidance tools I can think of for a crew and cast is a well prepared Director and Producer. That’s huge and it’s one area we’ll spend so much time on. As another example, the Set Safety Course I introduced in my last post provides lots of very specific tips to help avoid some of the physical human costs of working under this kind of stress.

My most recent Film Jerk moment involved my daughter who was a Second AD on  a short film shooting out in Pennsylvania. On a Saturday morning at call time she found herself down a couple of PAs and made a desperate phone call to a friend in Manhattan who had been working freelance as a PA. She told her friend that she really needed help as soon as possible. Her friend, being a true Film Jerk didn’t even bother to go back to Williamsburg where she lived to pack a bag. She headed straight to a bus station, sorted out the best bus to take and was on set two and a half hours later. She worked the rest of the day and then another 12 hour day on Sunday, after which she drove the equipment truck back to Manhattan. I heard that story and I thought, “That girl is going to make it in this business.” She did what was needed without thinking twice and all in the service of someone else’s desire to tell a story. That kind of dedication is something we’ll touch on a lot in future posts. It’s what gets an Intern a paying job and gets a Production Assistant noticed and moved up. Over time, that person becomes a phenomenal problem solver because if “no” is not an option, then you have to dig until you find a solution.

So let’s celebrate that desire to “make the impossible happen”…Film Jerks everywhere – I salute you and I thank each and every one of you for a helluva job!

Do you have a favorite Film Jerk moment to share?