Last year I directed my very first micro budget feature film from a screenplay I co-wrote. For one important role I needed to cast an older male actor in his late 50’s, early 60’s. I was worried that it would be very hard to find a good actor that age who would be willing to work for an unknown first time feature director with a tiny budget and an even tinier physical stature.
I’m a five-foot tall and ninety-eight pound woman. I often buy my clothes from the kid’s section of department stores – partly because they fit and partly because I love bright colors. To top off my domineering appearance, I’m a blonde. If you were to guess my occupation based solely on my looks you would probably think: preschool teacher. So I don’t really come off as an authority figure to sixty-year-old men.
I was surprised to find that based on the strength the script, I had some very talented men show up for the audition. One in particular stood out from the bunch, let’s call him “Bob”. Bob fit the role perfectly and nailed the audition. His resume also showed that he’d worked a lot. When we offered him the role and his agent let us know he had accepted, I felt like he was doing me a huge favor. Humbled, I wrote him a gushing email about how excited and grateful I was to have him on board.
Perhaps I seemed a little too humbled and grateful, because on his first day of shooting, Bob showed up an hour late. Even though he was fully aware we’d only have five hours at the location. Upon his arrival he made a beeline to craft services before declaring, “This isn’t going to work for me. Can someone get me a breakfast burrito?”.
“Of course! No problem”, I said, apologetically, before sending one of our five crew members to drive to the nearest café.
Bob then pulled out a heavy leather jacket that he had brought from home. “I thought this would be great for me to wear in the scene” he said. I wasn’t crazy about the jacket. It was a little too hip, and made him look maybe too good considering his character was supposed to be a month away from dying of cancer. But we were already running so late and I figured this costume choice was the least of my worries.
“Um… Sure!”, I said.
Before shooting our first take Bob pulled me aside. “I’ve come up with some alternative lines” he said.
I glanced at the script he was holding, and noticed he had crossed out a lot of the dialogue and written his own dialogue on the side.
“Oh, okay. What lines were you thinking of changing?” I asked politely.
He read me the alternatives. He’d changed pretty much every line. And his approach was so confident that I didn’t have the guts to completely shut him down.
“Yeah, great, We can definitely try some options!” I said.
After shooting the first few takes I soon realized his new lines weren’t working.
“You’re doing an awesome job, Bob. I’m just thinking maybe from now on, let’s do a few takes with the lines you’ve come up with, and then some takes with the original lines.”
“Ok”, replied Bob.
Although when the time came to shoot the scene as it was originally written, Bob would forget to say the scripted lines and just continue to say his own lines.
“Yeah, that was close enough”, said the woman who’d slaved over ten drafts of the screenplay.
The more I deferred and handed out gold stars, the more license Bob took on set.
“Is that lens going to work for this angle?” he asked my cinematographer.
“Make sure your boom isn’t in frame” he instructed my sound guy.
My crew bit their tongues but I could tell they were getting frustrated with him and frustrated with me for not standing up for them.
“Wow, Bob. You should be the director”, I said.
But I didn’t say it in the bitchy way I should have. I said it with encouragement, kind of like a preschool teacher.
When I got home that night, I looked back, baffled by my weakness. Why had I set my status so much lower than him from the get go? Why had I been so submissive and overly humble? And why did I established no firm boundaries on set when he started throwing suggestions at me? In hindsight I must have seemed completely wishy-washy, like I had no vision and no idea what I wanted, when in reality I had a very strong vision.
A couple days later, I was having coffee with two female friends who are also directors. I told them about my experience with Bob. They both shared similar experiences of their own.
“It can be really tough directing older men,” one said. “For some of them, it’s very hard on their egos to be told what to do by a woman. Especially a much younger woman.”
“Totally” I agreed.
But deep, down I knew that my situation with Bob hadn’t been like that. Bob certainly overstepped his bounds and made some bad choices. But more to the point, I hadn’t really showed up to direct. I wasn’t acting like the director. And I wasn’t doing my job, because I guess I felt like I didn’t look the part enough. I was confirming whatever bias he might have had about me. And I was doing it all because I really wanted him to like me. Because I didn’t want to come off like a bitch.
We had the rest of the week off from filming so I decided to spend that time doing damage control. I composed a respectful, but firm email to Bob letting him know that while I appreciated his ideas, our time on set was very limited therefore I needed him to stick to the script or to run suggestions by me before the shooting day, so that I could have time to properly consider whether they would work for the scene. I felt much better after sending the email, believing that we could move forward in an effective working relationship with these new boundaries in place.
Boy, was I wrong about that. Bob responded with an angry email, telling me that I would never make it as a director if I couldn’t learn how to collaborate with others.
Long story short – there was no repairing that relationship. I let a boundary be crossed, and now he wasn’t going to respect me as a director. I had to let Bob go. So my plan for getting him to like me really hadn’t worked out. It cost me money to pay out Bob’s contract and reshoot that scene but it was worth it for the movie and for my own self esteem. I was buying myself a do-over.
At the reshoot, I made sure to be warm, open and friendly but to also be firm and set boundaries immediately. And the guy did a really good job. He was six foot four and the age of my father. He certainly had to look down in order to look me in the eye when I gave him direction. But after I yelled action, I found that the things I was saying had landed. I gave him the chance to be directed by me and he took it.