The common "wisdom" about the movie business is that everyone, whether overtly or secretly, is angling to direct.1 Because of the pervasiveness of this idea, I think many of the more "lowly" positions on the set -- the PAs, the grips -- are treated with disdain by the higher-ups, who view them as opportunistic (and, for the more insecure artistes, as potential threats). An older hand at it, a career grip, who's been in the business 40 years for example, might be treated with a subtle pity, as though they had failed to reach what was presumably their "true" ambition.
More experienced filmmakers who have worked with proper crews I'm sure know better than this, so I'm talking more to the up-and-comers in the crowd. When you get to the point that you get to command a set, do not under any circumstances condescend to your crew. Do not assume that you are better than them, or that you have achieved what they never could. Because that's probably not the case.
When we were shooting Sandrima Rising, they hired a grip by the name of Popcorn.2 And he was phenomenal, I gotta say. Got the work done, kept his focus, never complained. And we would get to talking, as you do on any project, especially a long-term one. And he talked about how his father AND grandfather had both been grips in the film industry. He was a third-generation grip. and he loved what he did.
He loved the fact that he got to be a part of the creative and technical processes, without the rather crushing burden of having to run the show. He didn't mind that no grip, even key grip, is a household name (unlike directors and, to a lesser degree, writers), nor that he was not in the part of the industry that would ever make much more than a "modest" living.3 He just loved being a part of it, and love the part of it that he was in. Had no interest or aspiration for directing, loved being the one to realize the visions of the directors, solve a different problem every day, and most importantly, work regularly.
A director works on one project at a time, generally, and follows that through to completion, which can take a year or more. But crew can move from production to production, three or four months of shooting apiece and moving on to the next. The work is far more regular and, from a certain perspective and mindset, more rewarding. Like I said, every day a new challenge, instead of working on the same shots and sequences endlessly as you hone it into completion.
Another story, and the one that made me think of this topic again. I've been renting the RED to a no-budget feature titled Solitary.4 The crew is small, but so is the location, and as such I pretty much just stay the hell out of the way when I'm on set as camera support -- a project which I frequently designate to Anthony, so that I can stay home and work on Sandrima. But this weekend I went out with the camera on my own for scheduling reasons, and I met a grip who is doing his only weekend on the set.
The guy is a perfect case study in not judging a book by its cover. He's young, early to mid-twenties; good-looking, to the extent I'm surprised that he's behind the camera instead of in front. Very quiet, spends the day lugging equipment and such back and forth around the location. Easy to assume that he's a nice enough guy, but probably not very bright and therefore is best suited to manual labor.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, before working in film he took three years of engineering in college, as well as a year and a half of advanced physics studies, before putting college on hold to work in film for a while. His father was (is) a DP and he grew up on-set with crews and is comfortable with the "culture." He loves the physical labor part of it, but also -- as with Mr. Popcorn -- the synthesis of creative and technical problem-solving. He was more knowledgeable about filmmaking technology than most directors I know, and we had a brief but stimulating conversation about cameras, compositing, and shooting techniques. And still he, too, has no apparent interest in doing anything in the film business but what he's doing now.
While the grips carry equipment around and set up the lights, it's not mindless grunt work. They have to understand electrical currents and wiring in order to run cabling and power distribution appropriately; they have to understand the physics of light in order to get the precise lighting effects the DP requests5; and they've been on so many sets and solved so many problems that they can really bring a lot of diverse experience to bear on your current project.
If I remember to (and going back through earlier posts I discover a number of topics I've been "meaning to" talk about that haven't happened yet), I'll get into my thoughts on the "Auteur Theory" sometime. But whatever the case, when you get to make your movie, always treat the people working on the set with respect and dignity; and if they have suggestions, keep your ears and mind open.
Because despite the fact that you're the "guy in charge," there's still a good chance they're smarter than you.
- A corollary to this holds that everyone in Los Angeles is working on a script. This one I think is true -- if you walked up to a random person in the supermarket and asked them how their script was going, I would wager 4 out of 5 times the response would be an astonished "How did you know?"↩
- Seriously. I also know folks who go by Bear and Dragon. And then there's the concept artist Crash McCreery. You can get away with that stuff in this business. Hell, I go by Dorkman, so it's not like I can talk.↩
- I say "modest" because, with film budgets what they are, a key grip with his own kit is gonna do alright for himself. It won't be in the millions, but a high five figures, even low six, is not out of the question↩
- Not to be confused with an in-development project of my own that is titled Solitary, a title which really suits the project too well to change it. Not that most of you know anything about that project since it's nowhere near production and may never happen at all. But if it does, you'll know not to confuse them.↩
- Some DPs are very involved with the process and will dictate what to do at a very detailed level. But some DPs prefer to invoke more of a feeling, and a general sense of where the light will come from and what the quality of the light will be, and the grips interpret that into the actual rigging of the lights. ↩