Directing requires serious people skills! In this follow-up to Stu Pollard’s interview with Craig Johnson — writer and director of the Netflix movie Alex Strangelove — we dig into the more intangible aspects of directing.
The first part of this interview covered the two films that launched Craig’s career, True Adolescents and The Skeleton Twins. Here Craig humbly and generously opens up about the collaborative and wildly unpredictable life of a filmmaker.
Stu Pollard: You’ve talked about this in other contexts, but can you speak to the emotional part of directing? Managing everything you manage and also your own stress level?
Craig Johnson: I’m a pretty even keeled guy, but film shoots are stressful and stuff goes wrong. And even in the best of circumstances, stuff goes wrong kind of a lot. And constantly. So I was shooting my first film and it was just a rough day. Things were going slowly.
We had a first assistant director who was a lovely woman, but who stepped in a week before we were shooting because our original first AD dropped out. So we found this woman who had been a key PA — that’s it, that’s all she had done. But we’re like, we like her. How hard could it be? First AD being the hardest job on set, just so you know. The one person you don’t want flustered and frustrated is your first AD. Because part of their job is to keep problems away from the director.
So we had a particularly stressful day, and she came up to me very upset, talking about something that wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t my fault, but a scheduling thing that in her head meant we weren’t going to be able to shoot the whole next week that we had planned.
I just snapped, I lost it. I think I ripped the schedule out of her hand and threw it on the ground, like a big diva moment, and stormed away. That felt good for maybe 32 seconds. And then I was like, “Oh, I feel bad. I feel bad.”
Stu was walking with me and he says, “Hey, how you doing?” I was like, “I’m okay.” He goes, “Good, good. You really can’t do stuff like that.”
After I cooled down, I remember apologizing to every single person that witnessed it — especially the first AD — and I said, “I’m so sorry. You’re doing a great job. I am having my own thing.”
That was one of the most critical lessons I ever learned, and I’ve never lost my shit ever again. And I’ve been about to. I’ve been frustrated. But you take a deep breath, you go walk off set, you scream at a brick wall, you kick a can, you yell privately. Or you yell at your producer and get it out of your system.
SP: And the only reason I needed to tell you that is because when I was directing my second feature, I had a clipboard throwing incident in front of everybody too.
Would you talk about how you handle egos and the wide range of personalities on set?
CJ: Your job often as a director is making everybody on set feel like their job is the most important. So that’s the costume designer. That’s the director of photography. That’s your producers. That’s the actors.
But it’s really the actors. You have to be there for the actors and sometimes you have to indulge some insane behavior.
It’s a little bit of an art, but managing all that is a huge part of the job. So if you have an understanding of human psychology and therapy, how to talk people off the ledge, how to make everybody feel like they’re being listened to. To realize, oh, this actor is an alpha male, so I’m going to treat them with warm, maternal energy. This actor is a joker, so I’m going to be kind of light on my feet. This actor really needs me to hold their hand, so I’m going to try to do that as best I can. It’s a huge part of the job.
On my first film, everyone knew it was my first film. But if you’re the director, you’re the director. It’s on you to know that if you’re there, then you belong there and you deserve to be there. If people have issues with that then you just need to know that that’s on them, coming from a place of envy, or jealousy. That said, you should know that people who have had more experience than you are going to be valuable and you should listen to what they say. Case in point, Stu, we were all a bunch of kids and you’d probably had the most experience out of any of us.
SP: In that situation too, you chose producers wisely. Because that’s part of my job as a producer, if somebody’s making your life difficult on set, then I either need to get rid of that person or change their attitude. Our job as producers is to let our directors operate in a space that allows them to create.
CJ: If you want to have a set function, try to find a balance between men and women on set. I love having a lot of women in key roles. Out of my four movies, I’ve had three female directors of photography. Sets can tend to be these alpha male dude-y places. And that’s not energy I love. So I find that if the balance is a little more equal — gender, sexual orientation, all of it — then that sort of alpha male thing gets a little mitigated. And everyone’s on better behavior and people are understanding each other better.
That said, famous actors, they’re all going to come with a little bit of quirkiness and baggage and some of them are truly difficult but worth it. So you just bring that in as part of the equation and everybody knows that’s the deal. And you do your best. I try to avoid the actors who are truly nightmares, and sometimes you have to ask around a little bit because somebody might have had a bad experience with an actor, but maybe that’s not the actor’s fault. But you’re never going to avoid wild, insane personalities on a film set, or in this business. You have to learn how to navigate them.
SP: Let’s talk about the work/life balance thing, making sure you take good care of yourself. That’s something you have to do on set with those long days. So what are some ways you keep life at home from not going bonkers because of how busy you are, but also on set just to keep yourself healthy so you’re at your prime?
CJ: There are two answers. There’s the on set answer, which is: your life on set is answering a thousand questions every minute. So you almost don’t have time to think about anything else. I would recommend having an assistant, someone there to hand you a water, remind you to eat, to help you. Someone dedicated to you. I didn’t have one on True Adolescents. I’ve had one on every other set. Drink lots of water, eat healthy, try to get enough sleep. Sometimes it’s really stressful, but try to get sleep.
The more existential life question is in the periods in between projects when you don’t know where the next project will come from. I’m in that period right now. I had at least four movies fall through that I thought I was going to be doing this last year. My last movie came out a year ago. And then I’m working on some TV projects right now. But that will be a constant in your life. No matter how successful you are, when you make your first movie, second movie, third movie, there will always be this uncertainty that you’re ever gonna work again.
I had a writing professor at NYU who was a working writer, so he’d make these trips to LA to pitch things. And one day he came back looked a little bedraggled, and I think he’d had kind of a rough trip to LA. And I was like, “How are you doing?”
He’s says, “I’m good, I’m good. But I gotta tell you, if you’re gonna survive doing what we do in this business, you need to make peace with uncertainty.”
And that has held very true. You have to make peace with uncertainty. You don’t know if these next projects are going to happen. And so you need an outside life. Your whole life can’t be the movie you want to make. I know that is the driving force for all of us. It is for me. But oh my God, date people, have a relationship, have a family, have a dog, whatever it is that you like to do.
Take a vacation that’s not just to write your script, try to find these things because you need that support that’s unrelated to the movie. If the only thing that you have is this career or the dream of this career, it’s just going to be hard. It’s really, really hard. That sounds obvious. I mean we all have friends and family and a life and all that. But cling to it and know that it’s okay to take breaks as well, to be a human.
Thanks again, Craig! Great advice as usual.
Stay tuned to the Lunacy Productions Blog for more great filmmaking knowledge from Craig Johnson and many other amazing creators.