In my career on various TV news and interview shows, I’ve visited more than 5,000 sets – movie, TV and web series. This is my advice for when you visit a set. I was there primarily as a journalist to interview the filmmakers and cast, but I think it applies to anyone who might find themselves on the set of someone else’s production.
1. THEIR PRODUCTION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE
This means that you shouldn’t interfere in any way with their shooting, their schedule or their plans. They have to make their movie or show in the short time they are on their set, so stay out of the way as much as possible!
2. IF YOU’RE GOING TO WATCH, STAY OUT OF THE ACTORS’ EYELINES
Many actors don’t care if there are visitors around, but they don’t want to see them while they are working. Having some stranger peering at them, right in their line-of-sight, is distracting. So, watch from a discrete position. I was on the set with Emma Thompson, one of the nicest people around and she said she really needed her eyeline clear of anyone who wasn’t absolutely necessary, so we kept it clear.
3. DON’T HOG THE VIDEO MONITORS
Most of the time you should just stay away from the 'Video Village' where the monitors are set up for the director and producers to watch the filming. On a few rare occasions, I was invited over to watch, which was a privilege, so be unobtrusive. Be invisible. They’ll appreciate it.
4. DON’T EAT THE FOOD
Usually the publicist will invite you to visit the craft service table, but if you haven’t been invited, you have to realize, it’s not your food and only the cast and crew have been catered for. I’ve worked with a lot of news camera crews who act like they’re entitled to have anything they want to eat. I see them with plates piled so high that you can’t even see their faces. They stuff candy bars and snacks in their bags and their pockets. That’s rude. You’re a visitor. You should have fed yourself at home. Yes, if you’re there a long time, you can ask to have some of their craft services, but it’s not there for you. Also, don’t make a pig of yourself. I was in line behind one of my crew guys and I thought he was just reading the menu – “Beef, fish, chicken”, but he was ordering all three meals. At once. Because it was free and because he could. That’s more than rude.
5. THE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR RUNS THE SET
If you need to do interviews with the cast and crew, generally the publicist sets that up, but the First AD runs the set and you should introduce yourself to him or her, let them know what you need, find out how it would work best in their schedule. If you communicate with them first, you’ll get what you need. Many set publicists are pros and will take care of all that, but it’s good to let the AD know who you are.
6. FIND THE RIGHT PLACE TO DO INTERVIEWS
Again, a real pro publicist will have figured this out before hand. but if they haven't, scout the set and find a place that works. If you’re shooting video (or digital) and you have to light it, then you can’t be close to where they’re shooting, you’re going to hear them and they’re going to hear you, which will make things difficult. It’s best to set up either on a non-working set or somewhere close by that the actors can get to easily – but that won’t interfere with the production. You’ll have to talk to the electrical department to get power. You may have to get permission to move props or pieces of the set (and if it’s a union set, someone will move those things for you, so you have to let them know). Sitcoms are easiest – they just light a set they’re not using for you, but that doesn’t happen anywhere else.
7. IF YOU’RE SHOOTING BEHIND-THE-SCENES, GET PERMISSION
During a set visit, you obviously want to shoot behind-the-scenes and a publicist will have already let everyone know, but once again, you should make sure the First AD knows you’re there and that you have permission to shoot. Sometimes a director or an actor won’t want a certain scene shot, so ask first. You might think it’s fun to take your camera and follow actors around the set, over to their chairs or to the craft service table. Don’t do it without asking them. No one wants a camera shoved in their face when they’re eating or when they’re talking to someone privately. Again, it’s their set, not yours.
8. SHOOTING TAKES OR REHEARSALS
Some sets and some actors have rules on whether you can shoot takes (when their camera is actually rolling) or rehearsals (before their camera rolls). Some actors don’t want you to shoot rehearsals because they’re not doing a full performance. Others don’t want you to shoot takes because you might distract them. So find out from the publicist and the AD what the rules are.
I was on a set with Robert Duvall and he didn’t allow anything at first, no rehearsals and no takes. I asked him why – and he said they might not use the take that I shot. So I made a deal with him that whatever we shot, we’d find out which take was actually used and then we’d only use that one. It wasn’t easy but that’s what we had to do.
On another occasion, a then-hot TV star stopped us from shooting rehearsals. So I said to the AD, "I hope we can shoot takes." The AD asked the actor, who said we couldn't. (who The AD asked the actor how we were supposed to tell the story of the film without shooting anything and he said we could shoot him chatting with the director between takes.
Well, that was just impossible, so I waited till the actor had his back to us and we shot the scene without him knowing it. I know, that’s not what we should do, but the actor was just being a jerk. We then waited about eight hours for him to turn up for the interview, we received excuse after excuse and he finally turned up, acting as though nothing was wrong, pretending to be friendly. We did the interview, but I was steaming and would have gone home earlier if I could, but that wasn't my call, so be prepared for that sort of situation.
9. TRY TO GET THE INTERVIEWS FIRST
If you’re doing a set visit and you need interviews, do your best to get to the stars as soon as possible, otherwise, you could be stuck all day. If you’re able to see most of them first, the whole set will feel more comfortable – and it also means you can leave sooner. I was on a set with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny De Vito, Emma Thompson and Ivan Reitman – and we spoke to all of them within two hours. That made the whole production much more relaxed and it made us more familiar to the actors, who didn’t mind having us around.
On-set interviews have to be brief, because they have to get back to work, so organize your questions and get what you can in about ten minutes, because that’s all the time you’re going to have.
10. BUT YOU WILL HAVE TO WAIT
Again, it’s their production and you’ll have to wait for your interviews and that's because the star is needed on set and they just can’t free them.
We waited eight hours for Dustin Hoffman on the set of OUTBREAK, but that was only because he was in every scene. He came over to us several times, hung out, told us he was glad we were there, but then he had to rush back to do a scene. When we finally got him, he was fabulous, even picked up our camera and shot his own tour of the set, narrating it for us.
So if you think you’re only going to be there an hour or two, think again. Be patient.
11. KEEP ROLLING
If you or your cameraman is shooting behind-the-scenes, don’t be lazy. A lot of crews I’ve worked with think that if you get two or three angles of a scene, you’re done. I’ve been on many, many sets where something marvelous happened in Take Nine or Take Ten – and we weren’t rolling on it, because the cameraman had decided we had enough footage. If you’re still there and you’re waiting around, just keep rolling. Who knows what great stuff you’ll get?
12. BUT YOU MAY HAVE TO CHOOSE WHAT TO GET
Frequently the actor you want to interview may be shooting a great scene, but one of the other stars might be available for an interview. If you only have one cameraman, you’ll have to make a choice (and you should choose the interview). The only other choice is to have two cameras so one can keep shooting b-roll while the other shoots interviews.
13. MISTAKES WILL HAPPEN
I was on a set with Sylvester Stallone and James Woods – both of whom are very funny and both of whom like to make fun of each other. So I had them together between takes and they were hilarious, making all sorts of insults at each other’s expense (not mean stuff – they liked one another a great deal).
What I didn’t know was that they were needed back on set and I was holding things up, but the AD hadn’t told me, the publicist hadn’t told me. Nevertheless, we were blamed for them falling behind schedule. Once again, just try to keep talking to the AD to find out what you’re allowed to do.
14. SOMETIMES YOU TAKE THE BLAME WHEN IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT
It’s always easy to blame the outside camera crew when something goes wrong. Years ago, I was on a set of a TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode with Kirk Douglas and his son Eric. .
The scene was taking place in the trenches during WWI. Eric had to run breathlessly into the room where his father waited and deliver a line. He kept blowing the line. Finally, he looked way, way back into the set. Past his father, past the director, past their cameraman – to where my cameraman was shooting their scene and he said “I can’t act with that camera there!” Obviously, he could barely see my cameraman, but he had to blame somebody, so we were escorted off the set.
15. THE STORY YOU’RE AFTER IS NOT ALWAYS THE ONE YOU’LL GET
I was on the original CLIFFHANGER set in the Italian Alps with Stallone quite a while ago. My bosses at the time told me they didn't care about the movie. They wanted me to somehow get Stallone away from the set, and among the Italian natives, just have him doing tourist-stuff in Italy.
Iit was off-season, so there was no one at all in the mountain ski towns where the crew was staying and it was snowing, raining and sleeting the whole time. So no way was anyone wandering off anywhere. Plus they were literally shooting on the side of a mountain, so there was nowhere to go.
My story became the battle of this great cast and crew to get the movie made under amazingly hostile conditions. So we shot their superhuman efforts to get it done (their food at the craft service table had about a foot of snow on it) and it ended up being a great story, but it wasn’t the story I was told to get.
Then there was Stallone. We were scared of him. I’d barely met him before, so I didn’t know what to expect, but he was fabulous. He kept calling us over and gave us jokey scenarios for us to shoot around the set while he was waiting. For instance, he had us shoot him on a very early version of a cell phone, while sitting in a tent on a mountainside with snow all around him, trying to order a pizza delivery. He couldn’t have been more welcoming. That makes all the difference. He was a pro who knew what had to be done.
16. DON’T USE THEIR EQUIPMENT
Bring along everything you’ll need for your shoot. Don’t ask to borrow their equipment, tThey need it for their production. On a Stallone shoot, I had a local crew who hadn’t brought the lights I requested to the location. They thought it would be fine to ask the film crew to light the interview area for us. What a disaster! Sure, the film crew did it, but that took precious time away from their production and used up lights that they might need and the DP (the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond) was not happy with us.
To recap the main rule is: DON’T INTERFERE WITH THE PRODUCTION. They come first. You have to fit in with them, be unobtrusive, get what you need, then leave without bothering them. If you do that, everyone is happy, you get a good story – and they’ll invite you back again!
About Dennis Coleman
Dennis Coleman has written, produced and directed countless hours of broadcast television. He has met and interviewed thousands of celebrities and Hollywood movers-and-shakers ranging from Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise and Will Smith to James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, as well as legends like Bob Hope, Rudy Vallee, Hal Roach and Lauren Bacall. He’s been on the sets of thousands of films and TV shows, including Cliffhanger, Mission Impossible 3, NCIS, the Lethal Weapon films, Everybody Loves Raymond, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Friends and the X-Files. He’s covered just about every award show: The Academy Awards, the Emmys, the Grammys, the Golden Globes; and more movie premieres than he can remember: The Matrix, Toy Story, Titanic, Harry Potter – the list is endless. Dennis spent over ten years at Entertainment Tonight as a segment director. He was also supervising producer on the FX show DVD ON TV and post producer on the History Channel series SOLD. He co-produced the documentary Women Who Made the Movies with film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon. He executive produced the short film Iguana Love which was featured at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and was bought by Creative Light Entertainment. He’s written over a hundred articles on the entertainment industry for numerous websites including, My Fox, Entertainment Connection, EHow, Helium, AnswerBag and Demand Studios. He was a segment producer and writer on the Sarah Purcell-hosted interview show Public People Private Lives and a freelance field producer on shows for MTV, VH1, A&E, ESPN and PBS. He started directing and writing the hit shows, Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, Runaway with the Rich & Famous and Fame and Fortune & Romance. Dennis got his start in the movie business reading scripts for Francis Coppola, Fred Roos during the day and managing a movie theatre at night. He’s seen lots of movies. Almost as many as Leonard Maltin. But not quite.
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