What’s the Biggest Lie on Set?

“One more.”

Never, ever, ever believe a director when he says this. It is never, ever, ever true.

Usually, he’ll say this when he realizes the cast and crew have run out of patience, when it’s the 9th take on 12th setup of a scene about two people talking at the dinner table. He wants to assure you that, while it’s been a long road, we’re almost at the destination.

Except we’re not.

You might think this comes from the perfectionist streak in most directors. He wants everything to be just so, and if reality doesn’t match his vision, he’ll make you do it again and again, seven more one-more-times.

But that’s not it at all.1 What’s usually happening is, the director has no idea what he wants. He just knows he doesn’t want what he just saw. So he makes the actors perform take after take, until something, some way, somehow, sparks. Some part of the performance hits the director in a way that blows his socks off and he can finally see what the film is going to be.

Except that will never happen.

Because the director doesn’t realize he’s just as tired and out of sorts as the rest of us. He’s not seeing that special magic moment because he’s been sitting in front of a glowing monitor for fourteen hours, watching the same people say the same lines over and over and over. The lead actor could peel his face off and reveal himself to be a Skrull, and the director still won’t be impressed.

Not really. Please don't sue.
I saw this happen on set once. I don’t want to name names, but his rhymed with “Donny Jepp.”

But, to paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die.”2 You’re stuck in the endless loop of retakes until the director finally gives up and calls “Print!”

And then at the crew screening, you’ll see Take 2, in all its glory, up there on the big screen.

* * *


I use the masculine pronoun in reference to the director not because most directors are male (which is, sadly, too true), but because I’ve honestly never seen this when a woman was directing.

I’m not saying it doesn’t or can’t happen; it probably has. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but all of the female directors I’ve worked for seem to be much more aware of the mood of the cast and crew than male directors.

Which is not to say they’re not focused on making a good film or TV show. The two qualities seem to be unrelated. I’ve seen some great directors do the “one more time” thing, and some terrible directors. I’ve worked for women who were hacks, and others who were true visionaries.

I don't care what you say, Point Break is AMAZING.
You can probably guess which one she is.

Maybe this is sexist or selfish, but when I walk on set the first time and see a woman in the director’s chair, I’m honestly a bit relieved.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Usually. Sometimes you’re working for David Fincher, and he really is that exacting.
  2. It’s really fucking disturbing that it says “and,” not “or.”
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6 Responses

  1. We all want to get through the day without working abusive hours, but I don’t object to a number of retakes so long as the director actually knows what he/she is doing and going for… but the hacks (and I’ve worked for a thousand hack directors over the years) are just as you describe — clueless “directors” (and I use those quotes on purpose) who succumb to the lure of chasing a mirage down an endless stretch of the Mobius Highway. They’ll never catch it — at some point, they just give up and move on… but not before losing the respect of the cast and crew.

    You’re right about female directors, too. Maybe they lack the massive ego/ God Complex that afflicts so many male directors, but female directors — be they hacks or geniuses — are almost always pleasant to work for.

  2. Footnote #2: I’ve always said the same thing! What an interesting choice of words. But it completely changes the point he is making.

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