Today I will be talking about a subject that no one ever seems to discuss but it’s one that creatives have to endure perhaps more often than most. Whereas I can admit that sometimes collaborating on a venture can be awesome, there are times when it just ISN’T a good idea for productivity or for your sanity or career or goals or bank balance to do so. I’ll also discuss specific types of collaborator that you MUST learn to avoid.
I’m itching to get into today’s podcast but as always though, let’s look back at last week’s episode and discuss how you are getting on with PROTECTING YOUR MENTAL ENERGY. That was another one which I feel very passionate about. It’s of such vital importance to our productivity levels that now that you understand what it is, I am hoping you have already started implementing measures to protect it. Please check back if you missed it as it presents some information which. Like today's episode, isn’t raised too often and really should be.
This week I’m talking about creative collaborations with people, but not just any people. I’m talking about the ones that I’ve seen all too many of in my short time on earth– I’m talking about what I like to collectively call collabo-HATERS.
Steven Spielberg talks about collaboration - he says “When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it's you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”
My professional behaviour and many of my own values were learned during my time as a student at Scottish Youth Theatre. The standard of training which I got there made some of my later, supposedly higher level training pale to near insignificance, and one thing that we did a lot of was COLLABORATION.
Perhaps more correctly stated, it was ENSEMBLE WORK where COOPERATION was key - but within that ensemble the talent level was high and the spirit of collaboration was strong. We worked closely together to form tight performances based on a mutual passion for the theatre and mutual respect for each other and formed great long lasting friendships along the way. We staged some outstanding critically acclaimed shows and the spirit of collaboration, although firmly under the directorship of an incredible artistic director Mary McCluskey, was infused through all of it.
In recent years though, I am sorry to say that I have found it increasingly difficult to find true collaborators “in the wild” as it were... I mean I have found many team players and good people, but it only takes one bad apple to ruin a creative project.
They say that there is no “I” in TEAM …but these days I’m more likely to say – well that depends...
The COLLABORATORS I’m specifically talking about are likely to be a partnership between two or perhaps three creatives who perhaps head a team such as a writing team, a director/producer or writer/director or co-writing partnership but I’m sure they exist in many other areas too. I can only talk of my own experience here.
Sadly, I have LEARNED THE HARD WAY that getting hitched to the WRONG collaborator CAN lead to utter misery and a lot of angst and a lot of wasted time and mental energy.
Harry Truman once said that "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."
When true collaboration happens the way it's supposed to, everything becomes better. You SHOULD find yourself working faster, finding mistakes more easily, being more creative, raising the bar of quality and producing overall better work. I know this as I experience it on film sets every week. The well-oiled machine of a truly collaborative team effort especially when led by a steady hand is a beautiful thing but…
…that said I’m sure that I am not the only one that has been scarred by the unpleasantness of bad collaboration. I suspect in fact that this is a situation which many of us face every now and again, and if you have been particularly UNLUCKY you will have found yourself in negative creative partnerships all too often.
… and there’s really not that much out there, on the internet at least, that discusses what I perceive as quite a serious problem for creatives. There are a few articles aimed at writers, authors specifically, which I’ll put links to in the show notes but generally speaking it’s a lot of positivity about how awesome it is and next to nothing about how crap it can be too.
I have the beginnings of an identification system, for recognizing useless, flaky, untrustworthy or plain dangerous collaborators, or as I coin them here - collabo-haters. And I’m doing an episode on it as you need to watch out for these types of people. They will destroy – DESTROY – you’re creative projects and they will break your heart, dissipate your passion and ware down your soul - if you let them.
Here are a few archetypes of bad collaborator. These can stand alone or in their worst incarnations will be a combination of more than one type.
By far the most common type that I have come across is THE HIJACKER.
The HIJACKER you see is the supposed collaborator that sooner or later tries to ASSUME OWNERSHIP, IN PART OR ALL, OVER YOUR CREATIVE IDEAS or PROJECT.
I feel like I’m the first to raise the topic of hijackers in creative work like filmmaking. I touched upon them I think in an earlier episode but let's get into it.
The lowest level for me is, to put a name to it for this podcasts sake, the Low-Level HIJACKER. That’s the person who tries to invite themselves onto your project without you actually asking them. Typically this will be someone who turns a conversation about what you are doing, by the time you get to the end of it, into a project that they are doing with you.
For example, you say, I’m doing this wee film about such and such, which then becomes them responding, oh we should do this in it. And you are like woh woh whoa there - “WE”? That’s the sort of person that somewhere down the line after you have shot it without them, will be overheard telling someone else how they came up with the idea but they’ll never usually try to take on a larger hijack as its just lies. I should perhaps have referred to them as the bullshitter, but you certainly don’t want to get into a collaboration with one of those either.
Another low-level hijack might happen with someone further down the line in meetings when a team member tries to shift the direction of a meeting in a direction that suits them and won’t allow it to get back on track. To avoid this use Oprah Winfrey’s system for all meetings. She asks right at the start. "What is our intention for this meeting? What's important? What matters?" – and with that bookend in place, a meeting can be kept on target, and a low-level hijacker attempting to sidetrack the agenda can be kept at bay.
So that’s what I will call, for the purposes of this podcast, a LOW-LEVEL HIJACKER.
Now - A MID TIER HIJACKER - might manifest as a daily crew-member visiting set who has a skill. I’ve seen it in a camera operator who had decided they knew better than everyone else and just wouldn’t shoot what they were asked to do. I see these types quite often on either low to no budget projects or on bigger budget films where you perhaps have a first time director – For me when it happened, I let it slip at first, as I thought - this guy really knows what he is talking about and AS I HAVE A SORT OF BRILLIANCE VERSUS PAIN IN THE ASS SYSTEM which I apply when I work with people I figured - He acts like he knows what he’s on about – He acts brilliant. Maybe he is! WHEN THAT BRILLIANCE SCALE TIPS INTO THE PAIN IN THE ASS AREA, THOUGH, YOU REALLY NEED TO BE WARY.
Sadly with the camera operator, I’m talking about, when I saw his work in the edit, it just wasn’t that good at all and I realized I should probably have pushed back a little more and made him shoot what he was asked to do. A daily helper doesn’t have a long invested interest in what you are doing you see, and some people like to come in and “save the day” and move off again. Sadly, like with the low tier hijacker, the only guarantee in their work is that they will be telling other people how they saved you in the time they were on set when they hit the pub later that day.
Another MID TIER HIJACKER will perhaps be someone who hijacks your time or if you have listened to the last episode, who hijacks your mental energy. This goes into the area of time wasters which I tackle in episode 12. Time wasters will hijack your time by playing on your goodwill, or guilting you into doing something that suits them down to the ground and benefits them greatly, in the guise of it being a good idea for you, but in reality they leave you, in the end, feeling tricked or conned in some way as your own goals are left behind whilst you effectively work for them rather than with them…
With HIGH-LEVEL HIJACKERS we hit Defcon 1 BEWARE BEWARE – These are ones that come in under the radar, and gain your trust - then do a less than brilliant job along the way, make mistakes and leave you to clean it all up, wait till it’s all finished, disappear completely for a few months of post-production telling everyone how wonderful they are and then when the film goes into the public eye they try to run off with the prize… And If you hear in my voice that I’m talking from experience here you’re f*ckin beeped outright.
But even they are not the ones that annoy me the most. Those are dangerous people but the hijacker I detest most of all is the one that steals your voice or your reputation to use for their own ends. I once had an armourer call me and ask who someone was that had used my name to try and hire AK47’s for a job. I swear to god I had no clue who that person was – Turned out to be an extra. Someone else inferred I was a producer on their film and actually succeeded in borrowing two action vehicles in my name. I got called by the person that loaned them whilst he was on set who said who the hell is this assh*le ? Beeped out and I swear, I totally swear I had never met them! I did know who he was, but I only from reputation, and it was bad. He’d used images from a big show at Stirling Castle which I’d spent 3 months doing fight direction on in a document he’d sent out saying he was a stunt man. He wasn’t a stunt man either and he had NOTHING to do with that Stirling Castle event whatsoever.
You’ll get people like that try to attach your name to film productions in development and even use your resume to gain trust until they get what they want and then they turn around and burn you. They’ll say they got there on their own and you get side-lined. These people exist and I dislike them intensely.
So that’s the HIJACKER and I am sure there are more examples.
But there are other types of collabo-HATER too. I got a bit of feedback on twitter for this section, and I won’t name names as I don’t want to get them into trouble but the first one that came up was THE FLAKE. That’s the collaborator that just turns into a loon and embarrasses you in front of a client or your crew or just in general and you find yourself inching away from them literally and figuratively. These people rear their ugly heads only once other people start interacting with them, and you realize that either they have no people skills at all or they are just plain rude and disrespectful. I hate seeing people treated with disrespect and it immediately turns me off a collaboration. I don’t like being embarrassed or finding myself having to apologize for someone, who appears to represent me. I’ve been lucky in this field, I’ve not got into bed as it were with too many FLAKES.
The UNPREPARED is another collabo-hater that came up on my twitter discussion about this topic. That’s the person that turns up on the day when it’s all important that everyone is on the ball and you discover that they haven’t listened at the meetings, haven’t read the script or charged their batteries or prepared in any way and these collabo-haters are very common. I usually find that this is some guy or gal that’s got it into their mind that they are somehow DOING YOU A “FAVOUR”. They’re usually late too incidentally. I had this happen to me on a film of mine. Everyone was getting paid but this one guy somehow missed that tiny detail and called to that he was going to be late. In his mind, it was some unimportant short film. He arrived into a situation where I had some 40 cast and crew and a full dressed location set and a local star actor involved before he realized that it was a full serious shoot. He actually said, I didn’t realize it was gonna be like this, and I was thinking, so when you thought it was a p*shy wee film you were going to just give it your least possible effort. Believe me, you never want anyone on set that has it in their mind that they are doing you a favour because when they let you down, they’re doing you no favours whatsoever.
Another I have identified is THE UNWELCOME GUEST. I heard a story that there was a really cool new production company formed and they were doing great stuff. They didn’t have much money though and the next thing I heard that someone had come along to help out. This wasn’t really someone they’d invited in, he’d kinda invited himself and was working for free. After he had his foot in I heard he was trying to creatively change or lead what they were doing and had caused what we in Scotland would call a stushy – or a great deal of upset. They had a devil of a time getting rid of this guy and getting creatively back on track to where they were before this uninvited collabo-hater came along.
Michaela Watkins who plays Valerie Meyers in Casual says that Film and TV production is COLLABORATION and I absolutely agree with her, EVERYONE'S JOB IS INVALUABLE in the collaborative teamwork that takes place on and offset with all departments but as I work through this list I’ll just remind you that I’m largely talking about lead collaborators. I’m aware that this is another long episode so thought I should jump in with a reminder!
The next collabo-hater is THE CHERRY PICKER
This one is self-explanatory perhaps. The cherry picker wheedles their way through a production sometimes working quite hard, but leaving all the jobs they are disinterested into their co-collaborators. Cherry pickers need to be identified and dealt with as soon as possible.
That said I will qualify this one as you may find that you match quite well with a cherry picker. I’ve seen awesome collaborations between people who enjoy the administrative side and those who love the creative. I raise it here as a problem collaboration if you have two people that really have the same skill set - it can be very disheartening for the one left to pick up the difficult and less engaging jobs within the partnership and in that situation ultimately IT WILL FAIL.
THE SIDELINER is like a substrata of the hijacker and will start cutting you out of communications and make arrangements behind your back. These people think they are clever and if you let them get away with it they will become MARTYRS telling everyone who asks that without them, the production would have fallen apart. I’ve felt a bit like that myself sometimes but I think I’ve got over it now. I cut these people off as soon as it becomes clear that I’m becoming a glorified secretary and not an equal collaborator.
This happened on a project on which I became the producer. After about two weeks I was finding out stuff I should have been aware off from the start and I got dropped right in it at an important meeting. After that and a third strike where he was just plain disrespectful, I dropped that guy like a hot potato and sent him a list of production co-ordinators instead. I was on board as a creative and active producer but he, it turns out, did not want me to influence the project in any creative way. When I left, his project died. These people need fools about them that will do the hard work so they can start to play the part of CHERRY PICKER I mentioned a minute ago. And some of the hijackers will try to sideline you along the way too – Be aware of this as they’re some agenda usually behind their actions.
THE COPYCAT – This is the person or organisation sometimes that STEALS YOUR BLUEPRINT. I’ve had it happen to me numerous times and this is the hardest one to spot. They’ll come on board to work with you, but sometimes as early as the next week you’ll see them using your templates or running a similar thing. My cousin is a painter and decorator – he has this with apprentices. I mean everyone has to learn somewhere but I tell you what I notice these days. Some people want a fast track to the top. They don’t want to do the hard work and gain the experience. They want what you have now. At least once a month I’ll get an email to fightdirector.com basically saying. I want your job. Please teach me for free asap. I’ll come on set and help you. YOU may recognise that one as the UNWELCOME guest.
Look I could easily go on but I’ll leave it there. These are just a few examples of the sort of collabo-haters that are lurking in the creative world and you are far more likely to find that they are a collection of the ones listed here rather than just being one of the archetypes. You may find your own unique breeds out there too, but how do you deal with them?
There is an old business concept that says you should hire slow and fire fast. That you should take your time when bringing someone into your organization and if it is not working out, let the person go quickly. It’s not quite that simple in real life but it’s worth considering. I need to temper that advice a little though by saying that if you wait too long to consider, all the best people might be taken. Use your heart to determine if a collaborator will be good for you, or not.
SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
Finding out too late that you are working with a bad collaborator is awful. No other way to put it, but you needn’t as I have done all too often, throw in the towel and shut it down. There is no one best solution but…
A good first step is to try talking honestly, respectfully, and directly with the problem collaborator about the issue. If you have set up clear agreements, which I’ll talk about at the end here, then revisiting them can make conflicts easier to settle. The goal of your conversation might be to gently inform your collaborator that the things are straining as they might not even be aware of it. You can identify which of your goals may be at odds and identify possible solutions together. It’s not easy, but it’s better than most of the alternatives.If that doesn’t work, you might try asking someone in a position of authority to mediate—a producer or someone in a similar position, or a respected, disinterested neutral third party.Sometimes though the best option is just to put up with it for the time being, but not carry out any further work together. In a worst-case situation, you will likely have to abandon a project.
BUT I HAVE ANOTHER SUGGESTION
Don’t collaborate in the first place. There I said it.
Here’s the thing right - The first line of defence against getting hitched to the wrong collaborator is to ask yourself, do I actually want to have a collaborator? You should really ask yourself - Do you even need a collaborator?
I know soooo many creatives that make the major mistake of inviting people to collaborate on a project without ever thinking it through. They’re so keen to tell people about it and get people involved in their next big scheme that they end up sharing it out and promising roles in it and crew jobs when it shoots.
You need to learn to develop what I’d call a HABIT OF CARE and STOP THIS BEHAVIOR. It’s just as important sometimes to learn not only when to speak up, but when not to speak at all.
I also know creatives that, especially when they are putting something together and I’ve done it myself too, who will invite someone on board that really doesn’t have the skills or the drive or the standards or the talent sometimes, or if they do they’ll be invited on to help, not because they are needed, but really just to make the writer or whatever FEEL BETTER about what they are doing.
This is a fast track to collabo-hating because when that person lets you down or disagrees with you and derails your project they’ll still have their name attached to it –
- and you won’t be able to get rid of them. If you invite someone on to co-write with you for example and you eventually sell the script and you know in your heart that you did all the work, you’ll STILL have to give away half the earnings to them. Just to make you feel better because you got a bit scared or lost faith in yourself in the early days. You didn’t need a collaborator to share everything with – what you actually wanted was ADVICE. You could have talked to a friend, you could have PAID a script doctor or other professional, you could have done anything other than pull in someone that wasn’t fully behind what you were doing AND SIGNED AWAY HALF THE PROJECT.
I get approached by folk all the time asking me to read their scripts and inviting me on to produce or direct and in all honesty, I don’t have time anyway but what I say to them is this – You don’t want me to take your script or idea and work with you to take it further unless you want to pay me to do it of course as then I’ll be invested. To which they will be like – what? But I’m a creative genius and I’m gifting you this opportunity – But I still say - you want to do that yourself – Because most people will not be as passionate about your story as you will. And people don’t like to hear it but I’m doing them a favour believe me. I know people that have fallen out with me over that advice and you know what, that bothers me a little but – I stand by it.
So with all of that said, somewhere along the way you’re going to decide yes, I DO NEED A COLLABORATOR on this one - so how do you find the RIGHT one. Well for a start you look out for all the negative signs that I’ve already listed here. You spot those signs and you avoid these people.
Then you utilize that HABIT OF CARE and you choose carefully. Check them out. Ask others who’ve worked with them what they are like. It’s then you might find out that they constantly miss deadlines, or they act like they know what they are doing but really don’t. You find out then that though titled as editor or writer or director or whatever that someone else pulled them through it! And that happens all the time.
You might discover that they don’t listen to feedback or are always going to go with their own ideas over yours, they’re all "take" and no give or they are terrible communicators. It’s amazing what can be discovered with a little bit of a background check and if you are getting into bed with someone creatively speaking you want to know if they are going to pull their weight.
And when you’ve checked all this and you both think, you have found the right partner you then do the right thing and sign a PRE-NUP.
Yes, I’m going to end all this with COLLABORATION AGREEMENTS and to sweeten the deal I’m going to include my own collaboration agreement for FREE DOWNLOAD within the show notes. A collaboration agreement is a PRE-NUP – It sets out what will happen if one or the other of you lets the other down and locks you together so you have a commitment to each other when you sign it. It sets out the terms in full, with dates and timescales and credits, and fees etc. and if you find that one or the other of you is not really willing to give up titles or whatever when things get real like this and they have to sign, then you find out well before you get into bed with a collabo-hater.
DOWNLOAD SAMPLE COLLABORATION AGREEMENT HERE IN WORD FORMAT: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1TYyxHUJn8h-IUdz7y4meBCzzJ_9KOk4n/view?usp=sharing
When collaboration is great it is truly great - in the words of fellow Scot James McAvoy “Filmmaking is a miracle of collaboration.”
To sum up, please remember that when everyone is NOT equally invested in an overall purpose and goal things start to fall apart fast. At the start, I said that I don’t fully agree that there is no “I” in TEAM … and these days I’m more likely to say – well that depends... Well, what I was getting at there is that I personally like a pecking order. I like to know where I stand and sometimes what you need to be is not the benevolent collaborator. Sometimes you have to be the team leader, and make solo decisions and taking that further sometimes you need to be the boss. The one in charge that listens to your teams' ideas and decides what way is best to move forward. Collaboration is sometimes just not a good idea! Brigitte Nielsen said it well and I think it’s appropriate – “I like to be controlled, but that doesn't mean controlled like a dog.” You can be a great collaborator and still be a great team leader.
I set out into my career very much as a collaborator and I still enjoy that spirit of collaboration in all that I do. But I say the SPIRIT of collaboration quite specifically as ACTUALLY - I no longer seek true collaboration unless it is with truly BRILLIANT people. Take my advice btw and try to ONLY WORK WITH BRILLIANT PEOPLE. My most successful collaborations in recent years have been with Bryan Larkin, who is so much better than I am at so many things, but our skills have been complimentary and when we work together the work is always well received.
Just be careful that in any collaboration you find yourself in THAT YOU HAVE NOT ACCIDENTALLY BECOME THE COLLABO-HATER YOURSELF.
CALL TO ACTION
The call to action this week is not specifically related to the content. It’s just to ask for some help. I'd really love for you to spread the word about the show. I have about 120 subscribers. I’d love to get more people listening and I need your help to do so. Please just tell someone about the show. Have a talk about collabo-haters and encourage them to check in and listen. I do this podcast as I want to give something back to the professional film community and the more people I have listening the better it will be.
Now - I hope I’ve not totally put you off the idea of collaborating - just give you a few words of warning along the way.
In the words of the Indian spiritual master, Amit Ray remember that “Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with soil to bring flowers on the earth."
For now though - take control of your own destiny, keep on shootin’, watch out for collabo-haters and join me next week on Film Pro Productivity.
The music you can hear right now is Adventures by A HimitsuYou can view the show notes for this episode on the official website at filmproproductivity.comPlease follow the show on Twitter @filmproprodpod or on Facebook @filmproproductivityOr follow my personal accounts on Instagram and Twitter @fight_directorPleas support the show by subscribing, spreading the word and leaving an AWESOME review. Without your help, the show will never find a new audience.
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