Better On Set Experiences = Better Stories

What are the ideal conditions for creating a work of art? Director Caitlin FitzGerald and DP Eve M. Cohen asked themselves this question as they started planning their most recent film project, Mrs. Drake. On a film set—with tons of moving people and parts, ever-changing call sheets, and occasional hanger from inadequate craft services, there’s plenty of potential for stress levels to rise. And stress never breeds a masterpiece.

As an actor (she currently stars as Libby Masters on Showtime’s Masters of Sex), Caitlin describes sets where constant chaos has impeded her performance. And as a DP on countless indie projects (like Be Somebody), Eve describes the overall tone on set as being one of “a low boiling panic.” The pair’s conclusion? Things don’t need to be this way.

A still from  Mrs. Drake.  Image courtesy of NSP.

A still from Mrs. Drake. Image courtesy of NSP.

“I'm interested in watching actors push themselves into a place of danger where it's messy and real and rare,” says Caitlin. “Where they don't get to be in control. I don't think you can go to that place unless you feel like you have a really safe container.” This comes down to establishing trust—between directors, actors, cinematographers, and crew—and creating a space on set to be vulnerable.

So how did Eve and Caitlin start to change on-set precedents? They went into production for Mrs. Drake with a clear goal in mind: create a safe space for a story to truly reach its fullest potential. 

Here’s Eve and Caitlin’s advice for how to make the space to create on set.

Find great collaborators

Having a strong support team in place or a like-minded collaborator can help you realize your vision...and help you in the day-to-day tasks of managing an indie production. Caitlin and Eve met on the set of Like the Water, a truly indie film with an all-female cast (DP, actors, writer, producer, costume designer, and director...that’s pretty rare, people). The production was a holistically collaborative effort. They both describe the experience as revolutionary.

“We started everyday on set standing in a circle talking about what we were learning, what we were grateful for, what we were having a hard time with,” says Caitlin, who was the lead actor and a co-writer of the film. “It was a totally different feeling of being at work, because it didn't feel like work. Instead, it felt like a really safe collaborative space to be creative.” This led to a crucial realization about the importance of process. “After a time I thought, ‘Oh! I see. The making of the thing is as important as the thing itself,’” she says.

Connected by the power of this experience, Eve and Caitlin have been making work together ever since. As she set out to direct a new narrative short, Caitlin knew she wanted Eve as a DP on set to help establish a similar tone.

...and the right story.

The story for Mrs. Drake came to Caitlin by way of the film’s lead actor, Rachel Fowler, with whom Caitlin had previously worked. Although Caitlin had directed a short, this would be her first time directing a longer film. “I was a little nervous to direct something I didn't write, but I loved the script,” she says.  

What’s the heart of the story? “Mrs. Drake is about a single mother who is struggling and feeling very overwhelmed,” says Caitlin. “Her six year old comes home from school one day and says his teacher locked him in a closet. To me, the film is about the difficulties of motherhood, particularly single motherhood and the kind of expectation our society has about women in that particular role. It's also a story about blame and responsibility and how we often want to hoist our guilt onto other people instead of dealing with it ourselves.”

Another key reason Caitlin and Eve both wanted to make Mrs. Drake? The script doesn’t tokenize the main female character. “When I read the script, I thought it was a taut, smart, and sensitive film about a woman who felt incredibly real and dimensional to me,” says Caitlin. “Those are the stories I care about telling.”

Eve acknowledges that oftentimes, a complex female character written into a script will change to better appeal to audiences as a production evolves. “It was so important for both of us to show a strong, fragile, and complicated woman who was going to be strong and fragile and complicated all they way through,” she says.

It was so important for both of us to show a strong, fragile, and complicated woman who was going to be strong and fragile and complicated all they way through.
— Eve M. Cohen

Set a tone from the beginning

With a dynamic story and a goal in mind, setting a tone for the production from the start was key. How did Eve and Caitlin get things off to a good start? Daily breathing exercises where the crew circled up together. This allowed everyone to check in and get on the same page—and the crew was into it. “I didn't know if people were going to be up for this at all,” says Caitlin. But even their key grip Paulie, someone who Caitlin perceived as a tough guy, embraced the practice—he even lead a lunch-time yoga session. The take-away? You may quickly find support if you put your vision out there. “It was a nice lesson for me to establish the tone for the kind of set you want from the first moment, and not to judge people too fast,” she says. “Allies will emerge where you didn’t expect them.”

Click here to follow Mrs. Drake on Seed&Spark and contribute to help bring the film to life.

Connect with the whole crew

A still from  Mrs. Drake.  Image courtesy of NSP.

A still from Mrs. Drake. Image courtesy of NSP.

Helping the whole crew connect, and giving everyone a sense of equity in the project, will also help establish a positive environment. On set, Caitlin encouraged actors and crew to interact so they would be comfortable with each other. Eve played and rehearsed with 6 year old actor, Ashton, so he would be used to the camera.

And how can you keep people feeling involved on an indie? Let them know that they’re important, and give them value from the production, too. “I think gratitude is important from the jump,” says Caitlin. “If you’re passionate about the project, you hope that your passion can infect everybody else, and a lot of people come along for the ride.”

Take-aways don’t always have to be tangible. Eve says, “In addition to gratitude, I think it's also constant education. I think that every time you're on set you're learning something new.”

If you’re passionate about the project, you hope that your passion can infect everybody else, and a lot of people come along for the ride.
— Caitlin FitzGerald

Keep it calm

Because the film was emotional and one of the main actors was only 6, Caitlin and Eve knew they needed to create a space where actors could focus. And that means keeping things quiet on set. “The material was incredibly sensitive, and we had incredibly sensitive actors,” says Caitlin. “Keeping the set as quiet and contained as possible helped. We made sure that there weren’t a ton of extraneous people on set standing around and watching.”

Caitlin’s own experience influenced this approach. “For me as an actor, I find that really helpful,” she says of calm on-set mentalities. “If you're in a very emotional place and suddenly there's an eruption of noise and chaos and people yelling for equipment and stuff between takes, it’s hard.” They used tricks like saying “Whenever you’re ready” in lieu of yelling “Action!” to ease into scenes.

Plus, a calmer set will give you more room for effective communication. Listening to the needs of the actors was important for Caitlin and Eve. They believe that listening will lead to better performances, and ultimately better stories. “Contrary to some other shoots, we wanted to be able to listen to a person, hear them, and acknowledge them,” says Eve. “It’s about making sure that set is safe enough to listen to people so that they get what they need to do a great job."

The cast and crew of  Mrs. Drake  circling up for a breathing exercise.

The cast and crew of Mrs. Drake circling up for a breathing exercise.

Know where to go

Another way to avoid generalized chaos? Keeping the crew informed and connected about what’s happening. That way, if someone has an issue, they know where to go—stress-free. “On a lot of indie shoots, everyone is used to a constant, super high level of excitement all the time,” says Eve. “I try to make sure that everyone on the crew knows who they should talk to if they have a problem. Instead of yelling or getting upset, people can refer to a controlled chain of command that can help.”

Even though there may be less of a traditional hierarchy than on larger sets, it’s easy to keep everyone on the same page with small productions. And less stress ultimately means a smoother production, and a better experience for everyone involved.

It’s about making sure that set is safe enough to listen to people so that they get what they need to do a great job.
— Eve M. Cohen

Open access resources

Giving cast and crew access to all available resources helps create a spirit of collaboration, too. As a female DP, Eve notes that sharing resources and being accessible helps her get crews to work with her. “As a younger woman, I have to get people—sometimes all-male crews—to understand that they're going to have to listen to me,” says Eve. She creates a sense of equity for the crew so they can all feel invested. “After I establish the crew, I give them access to everything—the shot-list, the script, my music playlist. I share all of these inspirational elements so that everybody can feel more enveloped in the production.”

Caitlin and Eve on set

Caitlin and Eve on set

This access continues after a shoot wraps—Eve often takes calls from past crew asking for advice on set, and has her own network of contacts for emergency situations. “It was a revelation that I or anyone can ask someone else for help,” she says. “I feel like I have more knowledge because I have a foundation of contacts that work off each other.” Much like creating open-source software, fostering a support network helps continue the spirit of collaboration.

Lead fearlessly

Ultimately, creating great on-set experiences and making great films happens when great leaders are at the helm of a project. How did Caitlin and Eve lead fearlessly?

“From my experience watching Eve as a DP, knowing as much as you possibly can about what you're doing is important,” says Caitlin. Caitlin says a strong team helps, too. “I think it can be intimidating to try and direct because the technical aspect feels like a barrier,” she says. “But if you find collaborators who you completely trust, you can communicate with them to get what you need.”  

And once you find those people, keep them close. “This production was full of magic,” says Caitlin. “I do think when you find your people in film, you have to stick with them. It makes a difference.”

Creating great on-set experiences comes down to collaborating to get the vibe you want. In turn, your story will shine if you give your actors and crew the space to do what they do best. To see the principle in action, follow Caitlin and Eve’s film, Mrs. Drake, on Seed&Spark for updates on the film.

Have any thoughts on collaboration or creating great films? Tweet us @storyandheart, and be sure to check out Mrs. Drake and follow the film's progress on Seed&Spark.