The Top 3 Mistakes I've Made On Film Sets (Which You Should Avoid Making) / by Keith LaFountaine

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
— Murphy's Law

Maybe it's a bit cliched to begin this post with one of the most over-quoted adages in existence; however, it is important to mention, mainly because of how true it is in the film business, and on film sets.

I have been fortunate enough to be on many film sets (here defined as sets with more than one actor and more than two crew members). Of my own films, in the past five years, I have behind the camera four times. If there is something I have learned while on these sets, it's that Murphy's Law can be expected to rear its head at some point or another.

No film runs perfectly. There are always human errors that are made, whether you have a crew of five or a crew of five hundred. These mistakes are things that could have been avoided through simple logical deduction, and some precise planning. However, for one reason or another, I messed up. More importantly, though, here is how you can avoid making them yourself.

3. MOVING FORWARD WITH AN UNFINISHED SCRIPT

This itself is not always a mistake. There are plenty of films out there (Jaws for example) where they practically wrote the script on location. In the 2017 documentary, Spielberg, Spielberg himself admits that they had no finalized script when Richard Dreyfuss joined the project. There are also situations where improvisation is more applicable than a rigid script. Taika Waititi used a more improvisational style for What We Do In the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok.

I wrote the script for my 2016 feature, Departure in about two weeks. It was 60 pages long, was very rough around the edges, and desperately needed further re-writes, revisions, and -- most importantly -- time for me to think about it. However, I did not do these things. Instead, once I had written those words "HARD CUT TO BLACK" on paper, I was instantly putting out casting calls.

Departure ended up being a mostly improvised film anyway. I realized that my cast worked best when they were able to take control of their scenes with general tips -- it gave the film a more relaxed, casual, and accessible feel than the script would have. This is easily noticeable when comparing the scripted scenes with the improvised ones. While the former feel stilted (due to my dialogue that I didn't revise), the latter felt more natural, and more believable.

Making a feature is complicated and there are a lot of things I would go back and change. However, if I could choose only one thing to do over again it would be to spend more time with the script. Doing so would have allowed me to flesh out my ideas more, trim the fat on the story, and overall create a more engaging, accessible, and enjoyable film.

2. NOT USING TIME ON SET WELL

Even in the digital age where we aren't literally burning money by running rolls of film, time is still the most crucial aspect for a film set. It spells the difference between a well-made, and confident, film and a less cohesive effort. As a director you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, especially if you have a rigid budget -- you want to spend more time with the material, on set, so that you capture the best takes and are able to fully realize your film. On the other hand, you are spending more money every second you, your crew, and your actors are on set. In other words, sometimes you have to sacrifice perfectionism for budgetary comfort, and vice versa.

In my most recent film, Mirror, I overestimated how quickly we would be able to shoot the scenes we had. I inferred, based on my script, and on my shot list, that we would be able to get through everything in three days, roughly averaging around nine hours a day. Boy, was I wrong. We spent roughly ten to twelve hours a day on set shooting. 

Most of this was my fault, as I continually called for multiple safety takes, and would try and challenge my DP and have him set up complicated shots. Because of this, and because of the nature of the film's narrative itself, morale in the cast and crew eroded at a quick pace. By the third night we were all overtired, overworked, and ready for some R&R.

If I had been a little more flexible with my scheduling, and if I had been more efficient (or more intelligent) on the set, I could have shaved hours off each scene, and saved a lot of time and effort. However, I didn't and -- while the film itself came out great -- cast and crew morale suffered for it.

1. WORKING TOO HARD, AND BURNING OUT

I am still learning, and still honing my skills behind the camera. Part of being an effective director, especially one that likes to be a part of on-set tasks beyond working with the cast, is being a leader. No matter how tired, how sapped of energy, or how irritated the cast or crew may get, it's the director's job to pull everything together, and to get the team through the day.

However, the director can't do this if they, themselves, have burned out.

My team and I shot Departure in roughly fifteen days. We had a few half-days thrown in there, and a few overly long ones as well. These days were roughly ten to twelve hours long, and sometimes consisted of driving two hours between our locations when necessary. Needless to say, this took a huge toll on our crew members, our cast, and on me. In fact, by the end of it, I was barely making it through the day. Our last few days of shooting I was sick, tired, and stressed -- I relied a lot on my team to bolster morale in the group, and to get us through each and every day. Needless to say, some simple planning, and better scheduling, could have changed that.

When I shot Mirror we worked incredibly hard every day. By the end of the third day, I was burned out yet again. I wasn't as involved on set as I usually was, and my cast noticed this (and called me out on it). I managed to find some energy in me to push through the rest of the day, and we wrapped on a positive note. However, the energy and excitement that had been present on set during the first day of shooting was gone by the end of our final day.

The point I'm making here is that making a film, like many things in life, is like running a marathon. If you run really hard for the first six miles, the remaining length is going to be a pain-in-the-ass to get through. When you're on a film set, though, there are people's careers, money, and precious time on the line. You can't afford -- both literally and figuratively -- to overwork yourself, and to burn yourself out too quickly.

At the end of the day, your team is going to be the most important part about this shoot. Even if you manage to avoid these three mistakes I have made, there will undoubtedly be other hurdles to overcome, and other challenges to face. The goal is not to avoid tribulation entirely, but to know how to handle it when it inevitably occurs. Having a good team by your side, who believe in you and your story, is priceless especially during those moments when you don't believe in yourself.