Integrity Times Creativity: Simple Rules for Show Biz Success

I’ve talked previously about the importance of surrounding yourself with a solid team that you trust. Recently, this point was driven home to me like never before. Perhaps I’m a dork, but it seems self-evident to me that operating with integrity in this business is the way to go. It always shocks me when I’m reminded not everyone operates this way. I’d been working with a favorite film client on a concept that would shoot in a dry lake bed in the desert. I’d wanted to shoot something with dancers for a while and the client agreed it was right for this. The final concept featured one dancer backed up by one model. When our production date moved up by a month, I was able to cast a great model we’d worked with before but we found ourselves scrambling to cast our dancer. As the date drew closer, we got lucky: the DP had a friend! Our savior was from another desert town and she’d meet us there.

I brushed off the red flags of her not looking quite as pro-dancer as she had in her photos, and her shrugging answers when I’d asked her what choreography she’d prepped as she’d promised. We got to set around noon on an admittedly hot day. But we all knew what we were getting into when we signed on for a desert shoot. The crew set up a nice shelter and we had a leisurely lunch. Understanding we’d not shoot for several more hours until the light improved and the heat abated, we moved into doing camera blocking (which means we figure out camera placement, framing, moves, and actor placement for each shot we want). It can be boring. For everyone but the DP, it mostly involves standing around. The crew armed themselves with umbrellas, water, and spray bottles, ready to head onto the lake bed. But I couldn’t find our dancer.

I finally located her, whimpering in her car’s AC. She said she didn’t like this and didn’t want to do this. She suddenly claimed she was allergic to the sun and refused to get out of her car. I was gob-smacked. I wanted to argue that she was from an even hotter desert town and remind her she’d agreed to exactly this heat and exertion, not to mention sun. I wanted to scream that she was the star of the whole concept, that we’d already spent tons of money to get everyone out here, that we didn’t have a video without her, and how could she possibly be so completely lacking in integrity? I wanted to growl that, on shoot day, it’s not about what anyone wants but what we’ve promised to do. But I didn’t do any of those things. I gaped like a fish. Then I reminded her we didn’t plan to shoot her scenes until near sunset so the heat would not be nearly as bad. I assured her I didn’t want her to do anything that might hurt her body. I asked her to stay in her nice AC, drinking water and taking care of herself. I told her we’d do the camera blocking without her and could she please just consider waiting, cooling, and see how she felt in a few hours? ‘Before she sinks my whole production,’ I thought. She sulked and shut the door.

The confused crew and I headed out onto the lake bed and duly blocked the shots we needed. This was going to look great; by far our best visuals to date. I turned back to the camp and sort of choked.

– Guys, her car’s gone.

– Gone, gone?

– I don’t see it.

– She just left?

– Who does that?

– Maybe she went to get more gas for her AC?

– Did she text you at least?

– Nope, you?

– She just left!

– Ohmigod, what a…

And a string of expletives and disbelief followed from all. None of us could believe that a performer would just leave a whole production hanging like that. None of us could believe the lack of professionalism she’d displayed. We couldn’t believe it because none of us would have ever chosen to behave that way. We laughed over shoots we’d sucked it up for, injured, sick, or in over our heads. We looked at our little circle. We were the people who step up.

I turned to our model:

– So. Can you dance?

– Sure!

And just like that we rewrote the concept, redid the costuming, and pulled together as a team. The rest of the day was a blur as we ran for shots, pulled off costume and location changes, and captured some true magic.

In the end, the dancer did us a favor by removing herself from our equation. She may have had more training but she could never have pulled off the stunning transition our model did or the furious passion of her dance. Who knows how unpleasant she would have continued to be if she was unhappy. Who knows all the other ways she may have slowed down our production, even making us miss critical shots. As much as it may be gratifying to be mad at her, in the end I can only wish her well as she made our video much better by not being part of it. By abandoning us, she forced us to dig into our own creativity and the project was better for it.

Weeks later, the dancer finally reached out to the DP… not to apologize but to say his later post asking how to communicate with a friend who’d disappointed you (with no reference to her or the shoot) would hurt her career. No sweetie, having no integrity hurts your career. Be your word. Do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it. If something changes, be in communication. If you’ve made a commitment, honor it or replace yourself. Your issues should not become the production’s problem. Live by these simple rules and this business will be much more rewarding for you and those who work with you.

I can’t wait to work with my crew again. I have objective evidence they are the best. And as always, I look forward to working with new artists and seeing where their talents take us. And next time one turns out to be a flake, I wouldn’t mind finding out some time before we’re about to roll cameras.

About heidihornbacher

A graduate of UCLA’s screenwriting program, Heidi has written numerous features, treatments, and TV pilots for various independent producers. She’s judged for the Slamdance Film Festival screenwriting contest and co-founded the Slamdance Script Clinic. She and her husband founded PageCraft Writing in 2008 offering script coaching and writing retreats in LA and Italy. Her clients have gone on to find representation, win contests, and become working writers. Heidi has written, directed, and produced numerous commercials, music videos, and electronic press kits for various artists. She’s currently making a documentary film about British artist Paul Whitehead.
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