The Film Business

How to Survive Filmmakers’ Big Egos


photo by: Rhonda Liberman

I’ve seen insecurity in producers, directors, other actors—any number of individuals, many times over.  Much is expected of them, they’re carrying a lot of weight on their shoulders and a great deal is riding on their ability to produce a quality performance or product that’s going to be well received and generate top ratings or big box office numbers.  I eventually developed a sense as to when poor conduct is project driven as opposed to, shall we say, strictly ego driven.  I was told a long time ago to put myself in their shoes, which I was eventually able to do.  And on a smaller scale, I’ve learned firsthand what it’s like to have to pull something off I’m not at all confident I can do, even though others are counting on me to make it happen.  The anxiety and fear can be intense.  Add to that a lack of sleep, and you can see how easily someone’s normally pleasant, well-mannered demeanor can fall by the wayside.

Knowing why it’s happening doesn’t excuse the outbursts, rudeness and temper tantrums, but understanding that it has nothing to do with you, and that you can’t take it personally will help you get through it.

When someone pushes your buttons, instead of striking back, let him know you understand, you’re on his side and you’re there to help.  When I see someone I’m working with bouncing off the walls, I can often diffuse the tense situation by walking up to that person and purposefully asking, “What can I do to help you?”  You have to put your bruised feelings aside, and instead of walking away from an unpleasant person, direct the offender’s attention to the job at hand.  Remind him that you’re both there for the same purpose, and if you can, try to get him to see another perspective.  Let him know you’re there to help, offer solutions, and try to convince him you’re on his side—that you’re there to support him, to do your job and to be the best (PA/assistant/whatever) he’s ever had.

If the other person is not letting you in, tactfully interrupt, non-aggressively.  Call him by name, and never strike back using sentences that start with “you,” as in, “You’re always such a jerk,” or “You never listen to what anyone else has to say.”  Those are attacks, and you’ll only make it worse.  You want to diffuse the situation, not fuel it.  Instead, use sentences that start with “I” (make it about you), like, “I know you’re angry, but this is important to me, too”  or “I’m having trouble understanding this—let’s try to work it out together.”  Monitor your tone and get your point across without being offensive, or you’ll lose him.

Don’t confront anyone in public.  If you think you might lose your temper, excuse yourself, take a short break and pull yourself together.  Don’t fall apart in front of others.  You can command respect without being aggressive, without withdrawing or giving up your ground.  Look him in the eye, wait for him to stop and cut to the chase—“The way I see it is…”  or “I’ll be happy to discuss this later when you’re calmer.”  And again, ask what you can do to help, communicate your understanding of the job and offer options to resolve the situation.

I was once hired to work on a show, and when it was over, the producer asked me if I’d like to come work for his company on a permanent basis.  This guy was a real screamer.  I had seen him fire a succession of people on our show.  They dropped faster than ducks in a shooting gallery, and he was definitely someone no one wanted to cross.  But strangely enough, there was also something about him I liked.  At that point in my career, I was feeling fairly confident, didn’t particularly need the job and had nothing to lose, so I told him I would be interested in working for him.  But then I calmly added that if he ever screamed at me the way he screamed at other people, I’d walk out and never look back.  He said fine, and that was that.  I took the job, and he never once screamed at me.  I think it’s perfectly okay to stand up to someone like that, but be prepared should it not turn out in your favor.

I’ve worked for some very difficult people, and it always makes the job that much harder.  When you’re in this type of a situation, though, you’re the only one who can decide if it’s worth it.  Is your need for the paycheck, the credit or the experience more important than what you’re having to endure?  Sometimes it is.  I know many people who just refuse to work for or with the notorious big-ego-bad-temper types, and if you were to ask them why, they’d simply say, “Because life is too short.”  Others do it willingly because some of the toughest producers and directors also happen to be some of the most brilliant filmmakers.  Working with them, they learn a great deal, get to work on some pretty extraordinary projects with some pretty amazing international crews and state-of-the-art equipment, and they’ve figured out how to let the bad stuff roll off their backs.  From personal experience I can tell you that I’ve done some of my best work and have accomplished more than I ever thought I was capable of when working for people who were overly demanding and wouldn’t accept anything less.  I couldn’t handle that kind of stress on a regular basis, but once in a while, it’s all right.

When it comes down to it, not everyone you come across is going to represent the worst aspects of the business.  Some fall into a sort of a gray area—not the best and maybe a bit frantic, neurotic or disorganized, but certainly not bad people.  And then there are some genuinely decent, honest, caring people out there.  When you get to work for the good ones, do the best job you can for them, let them know how much they’re appreciated, how much you would like to work with them again—and stay in touch.

Excerpt from Hollywood Drive: What It Takes to Break In, Hang In & Make It in the Entertainment Industry by Eve Light Honthaner. Copyright © 2005, Elsevier. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment
   Phyllis K Twombly said on April 9, 2012 at 8:44 pm

So true. Those words, ‘how can I help’ cut through so much. Often it’s just what a frustrated person needs to hear. And sometimes you’ll find a ‘difficult’ person isn’t that hard to work with.

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