How to Give Direction, Take Direction and Sometimes Just Get Out of the Way
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise...
My first day at MTV wasn’t at MTV. It was at one of the best post-production facilities in New York. Bob was editing a zany promo for my supervisors, a couple producers at the network. They were stuck for almost an hour, coming up with a transition between a couple shots. I knew they had to be burning through money. The hourly editing rates in downtown Manhattan were steep. So I threw out a brilliant suggestion. Without missing a beat, Bob threw me out of the session.
Who the hell was I, a newbie suggesting anything to any of them?
I thought I was going to be fired on my first day. Minutes later, I was invited back in the room but warned to only speak with the producers. I smiled a little when I saw they used my transition, but I didn’t dare say a word for days.
I learned a valuable lesson. It’s not always about having the right idea. It’s about how that idea is presented, and to whom.
For example, I was on the set of a comedy shoot in Portland when my director of photography, Steve, gave me a suggestion. I didn’t agree with his idea, and passed along my direction to the talent – omitting his. During a break, Steve pulled the client aside and floated his suggestion. To my surprise, the client yelled across the soundstage the exact idea my DP had told me just minutes before.
This didn’t end well for Steve.
I locked eyes with my soon-to-be-former DP. My rant began with, “Let me tell you why that’s a terrible idea...” Sure, I could have gone a different way, but there are ways of giving feedback, and there are boundaries you should never cross. Like talking directly to my client behind my back.
Of course, I’ve made mistakes talking to clients.
Not Giving Feedback
One time in particular, I should have said something and I didn’t. And it turned into a disaster while shooting. I didn’t have a good feeling about casting an actor, Nathan, for a Group Health commercial. My client loved Nathan. My inner rationale was that he only had one word to say. How bad could it be? It took 26 takes to get right.
Sometimes saying nothing is the wrong move. Other times, it’s better to just pull the string and get out of the way. Or is it?
Giving the Wrong Feedback
On the set of an AT&T shoot, I was lounging in my director’s chair, chuckling as the talent crushed joke after joke in the script. My deep, insightful comedic direction again and again was simply, “We’re moving on. Next setup.” The head of production at the agency, Razz, wasn’t pleased, and pulled me aside during a break.
Directing looks easy when you have a great crew, a solid script and wonderful talent. But it was made clear to me that the agency wasn’t paying me a lot of money just to sit there and laugh my fool head off.
I gently reminded Razz that I earned my money back when I went to the mattress with the whole agency over hiring this actor and kicked back some of my "huge" day rate to get this director of photography. It didn’t set well with her. Until…
The client wandered over and exclaimed, “Isn’t this going great?!”
And that agency never hired me again. What I learned is that sometimes no feedback is the right move: when actors are doing a great job and when the head of production doesn’t understand why they’re doing a great job.
Many know that the great director Robert Altman once said, “When casting’s done, 90 percent of my creative work is done.” Something I know: 100 percent of feedback isn’t about being right. It’s about knowing when to give feedback, when not to give it, how to give it, and who you give it to.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike