Calling in favors is the true currency of indie filmmaking, and often the form of these favors is enlisting friends to be a part of your cast or crew. Perhaps you’re all equals, having gone into the project together to make something you’re all proud of. Perhaps one person created something cool and everyone else swarmed to support. In any case, though, mixing business with friendship and not having any money is bound to get complicated. Here are 6 tips I’ve learned or gleaned from fellow filmmakers on how to work with friends and actually stay friends with them.
1. Decide on a leader
From my How To Not Fight On Set article:
As early as humanly possible, you need to decide who’s in charge; if the command structure is weak or fragmented, you will fight more because everyone is vying for control. Even if the same person isn’t in charge on and off set, make sure everyone is aware of the food chain no matter where they are. For example, in my projects so far I’ve been a writer/actor/producer and am in charge of most things off set, but as soon as I put my costume on, my director is the point person. If I disagree with the director on set, the solution is either for me to back down or for them to try both because the director is in charge and I have to respect that.
This is even more important when you’re among friends, and it’s going to be uncomfortable at first, but you’re going to have to get over that. You have to take your work seriously, otherwise no one else will. Keep the lines clear and you should be able to skirt the muddier parts of collaborating with friends. For more advice on the leader/friend balance, check out @kmd’s article all about it!
2. Get it in writing
See here and here for some guidance, but all that considered, it doesn’t have to be a crazy 18-pager in full legal jargon. A contract in this case is largely to indicate, in writing, that all parties take this work seriously and that they have agreed upon terms and responsibilities for said work.
This is important for actors as well, not just producing partners- make sure your talent signs some version of a talent release form, giving you permission to use their image in relation to the project wherever you like (film festivals, distributors, screenings, etc) because without that paperwork, technically, they can force you to remove your series from a promising opportunity. Not to say that your friends would do something like that, but it’s not unprecedented that a person you were previously on good terms with would act petty after a conflict.
3. Make friend time
One of the hardest lessons I learned my first time filmmaking was that just because you were working with your friends doesn’t mean your friends only want to see you in a work context. I was also living with said friends and going to school with said friends on top of working together, and I would bring up production concerns over dinner or on the way to class or in passing as I went to take a shower, and it took its toll.
Making friend time means making time where project talk is embargoed, where you’re just whoever you were before this creative endeavor. Especially if you’re the creator of the project, you cannot expect your collaborators, however passionate they may be, to be as invested as you. Let your friends take the initiative to bring up the project when you’re “not at work,” otherwise keep your trap shut and ask them about their date last night.
4. Equal treatment
In most cases, you won’t only be working with friends, you’ll also have a smattering of friends-of-friends or even perfect strangers. If you’re in charge, make sure to treat all parties equal- if your friend is goofing off, give them the same kind but firm admonishment you would anyone else. This might be uncomfortable, but again, you’re going to have to get over that. It’s not personal, it’s their job, and making it clear they don’t get special treatment will go a long way in getting everyone on the same page.
5. Use your words
Presumably, if you’re friends, you’re used to talking to this person. Don’t let being collaborators stop you- if there’s an issue, use your words. Talk it out. Making something together, especially when there’s no money and limited time, is inherently stressful even in the best of cases. You need to make sure you’re comfortable navigating the uncomfortable, and there’s no better way than just to communicate. No judgments, no blame, no name calling, just talk.
If your friend is pissing you off, or not holding up their end of the bargain, or being generally disruptive, don’t snap at them or hold your tongue. Take them aside, calmly explain what’s bothering you, then don’t walk away until you’ve come to a solution together. Diane Chen advises you to “say more things out loud to each other than you think is necessary.” Better to over-communicate than the alternative.
The Canadians on Twitter put it best- “You can be friends and not work together!” And it’s true! Just because you and your friend are good filmmakers in your own rights doesn’t necessarily translate to being good collaborators. I know plenty of talented people that I could never work with, the same way I have tons of great friends I could never live with. It’s not personal- I still admire/like these people, but I also know my working style and theirs and that they aren’t compatible. I’m also not saying my working style is better, or theirs worse; we’re just different, and that’s ok.
Of course, it’s often not until you’re mid-project before you realize this, and sometimes the other person is blissfully unaware or blissfully unwilling to admit it. That’s a topic for another day (though @ghettonerdgirl has a great article about when to fire someone you should check out) but in the most basic terms, if you’re calm, reasonable, and have evidence to back yourself up, just suggest that you part ways professionally. It’s better than pretending everything’s fine, digging yourselves even deeper into a hole of resentment, then ruining your friendship and possibly your project in a fit of pent-up rage.