I fired an eight-year old girl.
It was the third day of production on The Movie, which had already endured freak rains, poison oak, rattlesnakes, bee swarms and a mountain lion. None of which could compare to this little girl.
The soon-to-be-fired pre-teen was a stand-in for our eight-year old actress. As a stand-in, her entire job was simply to reflect light and not be annoying. She failed.
She was über-annoying: a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Nellie Olsen. Whichever way I looked, she was there. While I was discussing wardrobe with an actress during lunch, Demon Girl pushed her way into the actress’s trailer, just for a look.
I promptly told the first A.D. that I wanted the brat gone. When she somehow showed up on the set after lunch, I clarified my earlier statement: I never wanted to see that little girl again, beginning immediately. A white production van arrived to whisk her off to whatever circle of Hell or Reseda had spawned her.
Was it really this little girl’s fault? Perhaps not. She was, after all, eight. Her parent-slash-guardian was alarmingly lax, considering the aforementioned rattlesnakes. And there’s a compelling argument that children should not be stand-ins at all. 1
But that’s not the point.
I offer this story of juvenile termination to illustrate the single most important skill I developed while making The Movie: I learned to care less.
It seems anti-social — anti-human — to argue for less compassion. But in order to direct the film, I consciously decided to harden my heart a little. And by Zeus2, it helped.
In ordinary life, I’m nice, to the point of obliging. I tend to treat people in my life like guests at a never-ending dinner party I got roped into hosting. I want everyone to be comfortable, yet at the same time, I secretly want them to leave.
I find myself apologizing for things completely out of my control, like the weather, or the incompetent baggage clerk at Newark.
A friend of mine, who is one of the more emotionally-intelligent people I’ve met, labels this behavior “over-functioning.” I take responsibility for things that I should better leave alone, and reverse-delegate tasks out of a skewed sense of fairness.
This is a questionable strategy for life. But it’s a flat-out awful strategy for directing a movie. A director’s first and only concern needs to be getting the story into the camera — damn the cost, fatigue, frustration and hurt feelings.
So I changed.
I decided that while I was on set, my only responsibility was to the movie, and my ability to direct it. With this philosophy in hand, many decisions became easier.
It didn’t matter why the little girl was annoying. It wasn’t my job to figure out what her malfunction was, or why her parent-slash-guardian wasn’t keeping tabs on her. The little girl was getting in the way, and thus, she had to go.
When the the focus puller tripped during a complicated Steadicam shot, Ordinary John would have insisted that he get checked by the medic. Director John didn’t. Mr. Focus said he was okay, so we kept shooting. I could see he was hurt, but that wasn’t my responsibility. He was a grown-up, and it was his decision. He could take care of himself.
The real test of this new philosophy came while we were shooting at my house. Normally, the presence of any stranger in my home sends me into full host mode. 3 But when it came to The Movie, I let it go. The house was just a location; the crew was just the crew; it wasn’t my responsibility to find more toilet paper.
The real surprise of my Month of Caring Less was that I found myself caring much more deeply about the things that actually mattered.
Without the background noise of a thousand little niceties, I could focus much more clearly on what I wanted to happen in front of and behind the camera. I could talk to actors about motivation in very precise terms, because all I cared about was their moment, not the long-simmering feud between the gaffers and the camera department.
To be clear, I didn’t become an asshole. I think.4 I only yelled three times, which is three more times than I would normally yell in a year, but well within guild standards. After the little girl, I fired three other crew members, not because they were bad people, but because they weren’t doing what I needed them to do for the movie. Which was all that mattered.
And now that we’ve wrapped? I’m probably a little less obliging, a little less eager-to-please. I expect more out of people, and am quicker to express my displeasure when someone isn’t performing.
Still, there’s no doubt I’ve gotten softer. As I recently wrote to that better-adjusted friend:
I’m worried that the theoretical actors and crew of my theoretical movie might feel exploited by a decision I don’t need to make for months if ever. This keeps me awake at night. Not North Korea. This. Bah.
Which, in a way, is fine.
I think part of being a writer, or an actor, is letting yourself feel things without judgment. A director leads an army into battle; a screenwriter leads characters into danger. They’re vastly different jobs, which require different temperaments.
But I’ll definitely keep part of the experience with me. After you’ve cared less, you recognize a certain dishonesty in a lot of what passes for sociability, and the opportunity cost of too much pleasantry.
For example, the first day of shooting, there was one crew member I was certain wouldn’t work out. He was uncomfortably weird and grumpy. Yet as I watched him work, I realized he was just really into his job. Essentially, he was doing what I was doing, putting the movie first and everything else later. He was too focused to be friendly. But he ended up being a lifesaver, solving problems in seconds that could have taken minutes.
So what did I learn in making The Movie? It turned out, I could care less. And both the film and I were better for it.
- I had asked about using an adult little person for a stand-in. Apparently, it’s not uncommon, but we couldn’t swing it in time. ↩
- In appreciation of Richard Dawkin’s [The God Delusion](http://www.amazon.com/God-Delusion-Richard-Dawkins/dp/0618680004/sr=8-1/qid=1160776464/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-6262160-3232047?ie=UTF8), I’ve decided to stop referring to the Abrahamic God and start spreading the wealth to other mythical deities. ↩
- If I haven’t offered you something to drink within the first minute of your arrival, either I’m off my game, or I’d rather you leave. ↩
- I guess technically, I shouldn’t care if I did become an asshole. ↩