Great Teamwork Makes Great Films, So What Makes Great Teamwork?

If you’re old enough to read this blog, then you’ve probably been forced to work in a group at least a few times in your professional life. There’s a ton of academic work out there espousing the benefit of teamwork, but if your experience is anything like mine, you’ve probably come to one indisputable realization: teamwork sucks. Between the egos, the shirking of duties, and the micromanagement, who needs it?

Filmmakers do. Cinema is an art form that relies on teamwork, despite what Robert Rodriguez would have you believe (seriously, don’t listen to him. Other than El Mariachi he hasn’t made a single good movie). You can’t make worthwhile films all by your lonesome, and even if you could, you’d quickly find yourself deficient in ways you never would have suspected. Take it from someone who tried one-man-banding everything in film school. It doesn’t work.

Not only is teamwork required in film, but good teamwork makes good movies. Whenever a cast or crew member espouses the genius and brilliance of a particular director, what they’re really saying is that the director created an atmosphere where the crew could work well together (or they’re just sucking up to further their careers). Of course no one actually admits that’s what’s really going on - they prefer to stick to the mythical idea of the lone genius who thrust the film into life by sheer force of will, but that’s marketing, not reality. Great filmmakers openly lean on their collaborators.* 

  • Steven Spielberg → Janusz Kaminski
  • Peter Jackson → Philippa Boyens
  • Quentin Tarantino → Sally Menke
  • Martin Scorsese → Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Christopher Nolan → Emma Thomas
  • Kathryn Bigelow → Mark Boal
  • Alejandro González Iñárritu → Emmanuel Lubezki

The list goes on.

I understand now why they do that. Last year at work I was assigned to a big project with a small team of lawyers. The workload in front of us was overwhelming, almost insurmountable in fact, and the politics behind it weren’t in our favor. The project had already been open for two years, but existed in a state of limbo because no one person could hope to accomplish everything that needed to be done. Eventually, five of us were brought in to try and move this behemoth to completion. While I hesitate to say the experience was fun, it was the first time in my professional life where I was on a team that operated flawlessly. Our process was unassailable and in the span of six months, we achieved what no one thought was even possible: closure. 

Why was that? What made us work so well together? 

I spent a lot of time thinking about it and then realized the best way to answer why we were such an effective team was to figure it out as a team! So last week we brainstormed together and came up with this list of factors that we felt aided us in our work. A lot of what you’ll see below is pretty common sense, but experiencing it in person clarified just how important these things are. Here’s what we came up with.

While most of what you see here is applicable to every industry, three stood out to me as particularly important to filmmaking. 

LACK OF EGO & COMPETITION

We all have an ego. We all want to be praised for our grit and determination, our intelligence and quickness of wit, our creativity and problem solving acumen. We all want to be singled-out for our contributions and publicly decorated for single-handedly saving the day. And maybe that will happen for some of us. No one goes into a glamour field without hoping to achieve some level of notoriety.

But it’s a hindrance in a teamwork setting. Teams work effectively when everyone on board puts aside their own desires and commits to a common good. The parties who are less interested in profiting from their association with the project (at least in the moment) and more committed to cooperation - and are less concerned with building a reel or winning awards - are the ones who function best on a team. Being a part of something bigger means recognizing the self-interest and trying to overcome it, because what glory is there in having only part of a film be great, even if it’s great because of you? 

In my own experience, I came to realize that cooperation meant that:

  • My ideas and insights weren’t always best.
  • I would have to accept ideas that weren’t my own and that I might disagree with.
  • I would have to learn some new techniques and skills and couldn’t just rely on what I already knew.
  • I would have to accept that even if I was a very important cog, I was still just one cog, and that I could not drive the machine alone. 

It didn’t always lead to harmony, but cooperation, not harmony is what drives effective teamwork. You don’t have to like your teammates or their ideas to make it work (although it helps). You can disagree and argue (and we did), but it has to come from a place of selflessness. Is this right for the project? Removing your ego from the equation makes that attainable. And this, by the way, doesn’t apply only to the lowest members of the food chain. The PA’s may work really well together but if it’s in the service of a tyrannical producer, it’ll amount to very little. In order for great cinema to occur, everyone from the director on down has to succumb to the egoless pursuit.

SHARING A COMMON GOAL

When we were working on our project, we didn’t always know what the specific result would be, but we had a decent idea of where we should end up and what items needed to be addressed. We all signed onto this idea at the beginning and kept that in mind each day as we plugged through some pretty grueling work. That goal was always fixed in our minds. It was the orientation point for us to rally around when we felt unmoored.

Putting aside your ego is critical, but for it to count in a meaningful way, it has to be in the common pursuit of something. Every successful team rallies around a shared goal. A football team doesn’t get to the Super Bowl if several teammates decide they don’t care about it. For filmmakers, it has to be the vision of what the film will be. What do we want this film to say? To look like? To feel like? When people see it in the theater a year from now, what do we want them to feel? 

A vision provides continuity and consistency. It creates a rallying point for everyone on the crew to say “this is what we’re working towards.”

With no vision comes aimlessness and then chaos. Cast and crew don’t sign on unless there’s a clear vision of the film, and they certainly don’t work well together if they can’t rally around it to deliver their best work. Remember, cinema is about story first and foremost, and that story applies as much behind the camera as in front of it. When the film is done, the vision is what cast and crew will be talking about on the junket trail. Certainly great work can come from chaos, and a vision is no guarantee of greatness, but without it, the crew isn’t working towards a specific thing, and that makes it harder for them to work together. 

ACTIVE LISTENING & COMMUNICATION

Communication and listening skills are critical in every industry, but they’re particularly necessary on a film set where the very act of directing centers on communicating the vision and collaborating with others to get the final result. If the director can’t or won’t communicate, no one will be able to carry out his or her vision. If the director doesn’t listen to his or her collaborators, good ideas may go unnoticed. Either way, you end up with a film that will probably not be as good as it could be, and that betrays the whole point of the art.

CONCLUSION 

No one goes into filmmaking to make bad movies or even good movies. People go into filmmaking because they want to make great art and entertainment. And with film, part of that is recognizing the collaborative nature of the industry and allowing others to share in that glory with you. When you treat people as equals, that facilitates teamwork. Good teamwork leads to inspiration and creativity. That leads to great cinema. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule. The French Connection is famous at least partly for the ongoing rivalry between Gene Hackman and director William Friedkin. On the set of Mad Max: Fury Road, Tom Hardy made an enemy of everyone on set due to his bad attitude. David Fincher and James Cameron are notorious for exercising monomaniacal control over every detail of every aspect of production, driving their crews to long hours and near-insanity.

But for the most part, directors who can create an atmosphere where people can work together, while in pursuit of a single vision, are the ones who end up making the best movies, not just to watch, but to experience making. That’s why we got into this in the first place.

*Yes, I'm aware of the irony of posting a picture of George Lucas as the header image since he was a notoriously bad collaborator on Star Wars.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA