Having labored in various corners of the moving images industry for most of my adult life, I continue to be surprised at the number of people I meet who are under the impression that yelling at people who aren’t doing what you want is somehow productive. Anger is a powerful tool and an all too common stress reaction, but it’s also the least effective means of motivating people to be creative that I can think of. That said, long hours, frayed tempers, and willful lack of compliance with critical tasks can bring out the worst in all of us, and I’m no exception. But that doesn’t change the fact that anger is seldom a productive strategy, particularly in one-on-one interactions.
In my own experience as a director, the very worst thing you can do when working with an actor who isn’t giving you the performance you want is to yell. Giving in to anger and saying anything along the lines of “that was terrible,” “you’ve got it all wrong,” “what were you thinking,” “that’s not what I wanted,” etcetera, is invariably a mistake. While I’m sure there are thick-skinned actors out there who may have no problem with this kind of spirited feedback, I strongly suspect they’re in the minority, because most will take this with as much of a poker-face as they can muster, and then quietly shut down, fighting feelings of shame, insecurity, and anger of their own. Consequently, you’ve just eliminated any chance you had of getting a nuanced performance or having an open and honest conversation about the performance that you do want.
One would think this would be obvious, but apparently it’s not.
Impatience, anger, and shame are counterproductive when the objective is to communicate creative ideas, and to influence the behavior of others to make positive contributions to the needs of a project. You may think you’re delivering “tough love,” but in reality you’re filling the mind of the other person with a multitude of unhelpful feelings, defensiveness chief among them, that will crowd out actual creativity or the ability to suss out how to achieve the actual goals you have for the scene.
In short, creative projects work best when you’ve got people trying to figure out how to help you, rather then trying to figure out what they’ve done wrong. The two are not the same.
This is just as true when working with the rest of your crew on set, or with your collaborators in post production.
DPs, Production Designers, Editors, VFX artists, Motion Graphics Designers, and Colorists are all artists who, if you’ve hired well, are in the game to give you their best work. They’re also people who will get just as defensive, insecure, angry, and ashamed as any actor if you allow yourself the luxury of belting out negative, brusque, or abusive feedback in moments of frustration, particularly as your first means of communication.
I’ve said for years that there’s no better way to learn how to work with people then to make a movie with volunteers who have no reason to show up other then to help you out, because the minute you become angry or tyrannical, they’re gone. When working with people who are doing you a favor, no matter how impatient or irritable you feel, you need to take a deep breath and learn to initiate a dialog based on more positive ways of communicating, or you’ll be working alone.
This all assumes, of course, that you’re working with someone who’s as genuinely interested in a positive outcome as you are, which is a minimum requirement for creative collaboration. If this is true, I’ve always felt it’s important to extend the benefit of the doubt to the other person’s motives. They did what they did because they were trying to help, but it just didn’t happen to be what I had in mind. No harm, no foul, it’s time to go back and try to communicate better. The flip side of this is that the person you’re communicating with needs to make the effort to listen, to not be defensive, and to make an effort to take the note, correct the situation, or communicate whatever problem is impeding progress.
Assuming I have motivated collaborators, I’ve almost always found that cheerful communication has gotten me better and more immediate results, and it’s a lot more satisfying to work with a collection of happy people who feel safe in the creative environment you carve out for your team. When making my way though any disagreement in which I’ve a vested interest in a positive outcome, I really try to keep the following in mind—is my goal to make the other person feel bad, or is it to give them a reason to change what they’re doing? These are very different objectives, and require different strategies of communication.
Of course, there are always going to be situations where this kind of management fails to provide the outcome you need. In these situations, I find it’s usually because either (a) there wasn’t enough planning to enable the thing you now want to happen, or (b) the person who was hired for a particular position wasn’t the right fit in terms of experience or temperament.
Alternately, if you’re finding that nobody ever does anything right and you’re constantly at odds with everyone you’re working with, it’s entirely possible that the problem is you. To be blunt, a lack of preparation, undeveloped communication skills, or being so stressed that every reaction you have is fight or flight are all factors that contribute to anger management issues on projects. The solution in all of these cases is to step back and take the time to figure out what you need to do to chill out, because none of this is actually your crew’s problem.
Take five minutes. Drink some water. Eat a healthy snack (especially eat a snack, low blood sugar is the enemy of chill). Take a few deep breaths, and focus on clarifying what the real problem is – the thing that’s causing your frustrations – in your own mind. Only then are you in a position to address the issue and communicate the beginnings of a solution.
Again, I understand. Deeply. Filmmaking is an inherently stressful occupation. Deadlines, weather, unexpected costs, equipment problems, software issues, location troubles, and myriad other factors conspire to make problem-solving an ongoing part of each person’s job. These frustrations pile up, and if you’re not careful you can end up being a powder-keg of agitation without even realizing it. So part of your job, if you exercise any creative leadership in any part of the filmmaking process, is to be aware of what your mood is, and to control yourself. The more you can address issues in a calm and methodical manner, the better your communication will be, and the better your collaborators will be able to help resolve problems in the spirit of genuine teamwork.
Keep in mind that most projects are marathons, not sprints. Anger is the enemy of long-term productivity.