Indie Filmmaking Guide: Know Your Role! Part I

The numerous events I have had the (somewhat) dubious privilege of being privy to over the years have born the inspiration to assist those new to the industry.  Defining the primary roles that are involved in any production, can be a big help to those not in the know.

While these roles can be broken down into numerous positions, the guidelines that follow mercilessly pertain to each and every one of them.  Knowing and following them to the letter will enable anyone to conduct themselves in a professional manner while working with their fellow teammates.  Filmmaking, while creative and fun, is a business and that is one fact that must never be forgotten.

Executive Producer – The EP or more commonly known Executive Producer is a role essential to any production as the project likely will never happen without one.  By definition, the executive producer handles the entire production from behind-the-scenes.  They generally handle legal matters, money, and the overall business of the entire project.  These individuals possess incredible business acumen and are fiscally responsible for the production.  They however do not have any role in the technical or creative aspects of the piece.  

It is important to remember that the EP is strictly an office presence and while they may from time to time visit the set to witness firsthand how the money is being spent and maybe offer advice on business matters, they should never assume that their opinion on how to frame a shot or what an actor should do is actually warranted or appreciated.  This however does not stop some of them from exerting their individual power over anyone and anything.

A good friend of mine from film school recently discovered this when his EP came onto set one day, blitzed out of his mind with an equally blitzed aspiring starlet on one arm.  The pair had obviously been up all night and perfectly complimented each other in their Sheen-inspired physical states.  The inebriated EP then ungraciously demanded that the staggering starlet replace the currently cast lead actress.  Without argument, my friend disagreed, recommended the EP sober up and ask again later, and went back to shooting.  

Later that day, the Producer approached him and informed him that if the lead actress was not replaced immediately, the EP would proceed to pull the plug on the production by personally eliminating their funding sources, which he had the power to do.  Fortunately, the lead actress, in all her professionalism, humbly accepted the situation and, for the good of the project, collected her day’s pay and stepped down.  The film later went on to bomb terribly in the sense of acting.

Knowing who is handling the money beforehand is paramount and had my friend known his EP had a reputation for being a lonely, booze-hound, who frequently swayed to the demands of women, he would have taken his talents elsewhere.

Producer – During the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, the Producer held ultimate creative control of a picture, but since its demise, the position now encompasses overseeing the film in all on-hand aspects, from creative to technical to business.  Oftentimes the Producer will front a project with his own capital or seed money to help it get off the ground.  

The Producer is also able to provide creative insight while on set, often working with the Director throughout the entire film process from inception to delivery of the final product.  They generally are focused on maintaining the integrity of the project and ensuring timely completion.  Many Producers have an extensive directorial background and are able to assist younger directors with their bountiful knowledge of technical and creative procedure.

It is widely known, but rarely spoken of, that iconic horror-director Tobe Hooper relied heavily upon Steven Spielberg who was serving as a producer during the filming of 1982’s Poltergeist.  While Hooper was well-regarded in the horror genre, he had little experience with major dramatic elements and delivering a film with a lighter message.  Steven however had long since established himself a master of such fare and proceeded to “assist” Hooper in completing the film.  Film enthusiasts can easily recognize the incredible number of Spielberg-signature shots, effects, and edits throughout the film.  Without his presence on set, Poltergeist might have sunk further than the Titanic instead of earning a whopping 3 Oscar-noms.

Never be afraid to admit when you’re out of your element.  This tale proves Hooper followed that advice.  Some would say he took advantage of Spielberg and basically allowed him to direct the film while he sat back and enjoyed the paychecks, but it takes a big man to ask someone else for help and admit you’re skunked, especially on a film set (when all eyes are upon you).

Director – Make no mistake that on any film set the Director is, and I’m serious, God. Charged with overseeing everything the EP does not, it is the Director’s vision that makes the script come to life.  It is their talent that gives scope and gravity to a scene, and it is their infectious creativity that both charges and inspires all around them.  They are the Alpha and Omega of a production and a film can easily live or die within their hands.

A Director must be a master of his emotions.  When hundreds of people are rushing about them with hundreds of jobs to do coupled with the technical aspects of a shot and the emotional aspects of his actors, it is easy to understand how they can be so easily overwhelmed.  Tirades, tantrums, and explosive verbal attacks are commonly reported from the sets of major films (as the joining of so many glory-hounding egos tends to create a festering swamp of emotional exasperation).  With this knowledge going in, a Director must be a master of not only his emotions, but of multi-tasking, management, creative altruism and compromise.  They must be capable active listeners.  A Director unable to take any advice from anyone for any reason on any subject will find himself ostracized and very alone, segregated from the team, earning themselves a David O’ Russell reputation and leading a production as hopelessly soulless as 2002’s Serving Sara.

Maintaining control is the first thing a Director must keep in mind.  Control of the set, the actors, the crew, the budget, the various departments, and the schedule all fall into this category.  Those individuals who have found themselves capable of this incredible feat discover career success very quickly.  Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum and there is truth to the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child”.