4 Qualities of a great collaborator

by | Sep 30, 2023 | Blog, Directing, Filmmaking

I’ll admit there are some people I’m extremely attracted to and others in which I’m very turned off. Get your mind out of the gutter, I’m talking about creative attraction. That “it” quality. Of course talent is huge, but I’m talking more than talent.

Yep, this is a blog about what I think makes a great creative partner beyond being extremely talented (let’s hope we are). This is what I hope to be and what I’m looking for in my collaborators.

I work with actors, producers, directors, makers of all kinds in filmmaking. That includes writers, costumers, composers, sound designers, editors, production assistants and more. Some of these craftspeople I spend lots of time with (months/years) and some it might be just a day and a few emails. For the most part, I like to think I can “get along” with everyone. But we’ve all been there when we’re tired, hungry and ready to go home and there’s that one person who just doesn’t seem to get it or even care. They’re a weight holding things back. I can deal with that once in a while, but on the whole, I’m looking to build trust in my creative relationships that result in something beautiful and impactful that we are all proud of. And the work we make is just as important as the relationships we build.

Here are four-ish things I’m looking for, my non-negotiables, in creative partnerships.

#1-I want (and seek) partners who are honest, friendly, emotionally healthy, mature adults.

What a dream to create with, be on set and do life with a good, kind, grown-up person. (This shouldn’t be a rarity). As a filmmaker I constantly remind our cast and crews we are living our dreams. Look around, give a high five, appreciate one another. We’re in this together! This is what we work so hard for, so I don’t have time for laziness or to walk on eggshells with passive aggressive behavior or deal with the toxicity of immature people’s gossip. I try to lead by example. I like to think I’m a graceful person. I believe in second chances, even thirds and fourths but if a person can’t be honest (I have no tolerance for people who steal and make our office/sets unsafe), reliable or dependable then we are dead in the water. Good teams require trust and love. Nothing festers quicker than resentment, envy and hatred in all its forms among the relationships of creative collaborators. Creating is tough and challenges will arise. A great partner tackles these head on with compassion, believing the best and giving the benefit of the doubt. We can see our challenges as problems to solve and opportunities to grow.. A healthy, emotionally mature person can share their frustrations and seek to reconcile and forgive. We grow so much when we are willing to address conflict and tension head on and not ignore it. But if team members are unwilling to share their feelings, they can bottle them up and possibly blow up or sometimes even rant to everyone else which causes division and disunity among teams. This usually derails the creative project or ruins it completely. I don’t have time for that. Pass. Let’s create, let’s work and let’s enjoy each other in the process. If you can’t trust your creative partners to work well together and have your back, time to find other creative partners

2-I need a good, responsive communicator.

Notice how I didn’t say great. I’d LOVE a GREAT communicator but I at least want my partners to be GOOD communicators. This is a skill that can grow but I can start at ground zero. A good communicator prioritizes responding to texts and emails. When you can’t show up or will be late, let a brother know. I can’t tell you how many times I have had people totally flake on meetings. I’m talking about important meetings where there was a major pre-pro for a film or planning for our BraveMaker film festival. You can tell when a person will be a passionate and committed collaborator when they over-communicate well. These collaborators might text/email things like: “Heads up I’ll be 5 mins late. Or “Just so you know, I’m on my way. Here’s the five things I’m working on this week.” Or my favorite is when a partner texts: “COPY THAT.” I love when people acknowledge an email or request made by text so I’m not wondering if they receive it. I will go all out for a person who’s good at communicating and seek to give them opportunities whenever I can. But if I have to chase people down, remind them of meetings, ask multiple times if they are interested to work together or collaborate. Pass. (I occasionally remove unresponsive volunteers/interns from our BraveMaker weekly Zoom meeting invites. If I never hear from them again I know it wasn’t meant to be a good fit for our team. The ones who notice and want to come back usually get reinstated). I don’t understand how many actors/filmmakers do not follow-up, it’s mind boggling. They will lose out on so many jobs. Good creative partners also say what they mean and mean what they say. The worst are when we over-talk and under-deliver. (I’m not just pointing the fingers at others but myself too). We don’t need any more creative collaborators who say they’re going to do something and don’t. Huge red flag. Let’s be better about our follow up and follow through. As John Mayer sings, “Say what you need to say.”

#3a-I value people who ask good questions.

Good questions make me better as a person as well as more creative. There are good questions about a project like: “Tell me about this idea, what inspired it? What is the best use of our time to accomplish it? What’s the goal of the project? How can I help? How can I best support you and help raise money for this film?” And there are good questions about the person making it. Questions are great especially when you’re getting to know a new potential collaborator. Make the time to get to know someone, genuinely inquire, just don’t talk about yourself (see more on that below).

The worse collaborators are the ENERGY VAMPIRES (like Colin Robinson from one of my favorite shows: FX’s: What We Do in the Shadows) who suck up your time by asking questions in which they could easy google, look at their notes or a call sheet or take ten extra seconds to figure it out on their own. IE: Never ask a director where the bathroom is or where to empty the trash or how to find crafts services. Am I ranting here? Yes. I am. Maybe we should retire that saying “there are no dumb questions.” I also must add, TONE OF VOICE is key here. I’ve been around some collaborators that I can just feel their tone/body language is completely judgey when they ask certain questions. Do you know what I mean? They might say, “Why are you doing it that way?” (What they are really saying is their way is better). I have a thing with passive aggression. Just say what you want. Otherwise I’m out. When I encounter people like this I don’t ask them back to my cast/crew and/or I politely pass on collaborating with them in the future. It’s hard but sometimes we have to sever creative relationships and part ways to be our best selves.

#3b-I want someone who seeks to understand and can listen well.

Ok, if we ask good questions, now we gotta listen! Good listeners are hard to come by. Sadly, I think most of us, (I’m including myself), don’t always make the time to listen, it takes intentionality (and that’s a gift) to really listen to someone. I have been with some great listening collaborators in my creative work and on set. These partners seek to understand so they can execute on an idea to bring it to life successfully. Where I think many of us don’t do this well, unfortunately, is when we attend mixers and networking events. (Can I get an Amen?) I know, I know these are difficult experiences for some of us because it fees like all we are doing is “selling ourselves” or trying to prove our value. Is it our nerves and our insecurities that get the best of us? I think that’s why so many people at those events just talk about themselves. I can usually tell in the first few minutes if a conversation will be fruitful or not… if the person doesn’t seem interested in me and just talks about their life and many successes (wink, wink). I can go all night asking questions and learning about all their award winning work and all the famous people they have worked with (yes that is sarcastic) but if it’s been fifteen minutes and they haven’t taken a beat to ask me who I am or what I’m passionate about…usually that ship has sailed and it’s never gonna happen. I often feel like I need a shower after those conversations.

#4-I want someone who gets STUFF done.

Don’t just talk about it, make it happen. My favorite people are the ones who come with ideas and solutions to problems and take initiative to get things done. Instead of giving me of list of ideas/tasks I should do… they help do it! I most recently worked on a short film in Los Angeles, one of our BraveMaker fiscally sponsored films, Sweet Santa Barbara Brown.

I had the privilege of being a producer on the team and I also got a act, playing a small supporting (facial hair-less) role. I got to live out my own values as a producer, a creative collaborator. I wanted the writer /actor, Solomon Hughes, and director Eric Dyson’s vision to come to life however I could (and protect them from problems arising that they didn’t need to give attention to). I wanted the actors to feel supported and our team to know I would be a trustworthy, encouraging hardworking supportor. But what was so inspiring was the quality and chemistry of the team, a team of people living out these values. It was Hollywood level high. Many of them had already worked together for years and you could tell they had build good chemistry. ( I got to be newbie on the team).

Over forty people on set moving like a well oiled machine, three cameras, four camera operators, hair and make-up team lead by Oscar winning make-up artist, and props and wardrobe leads that have been on major films all over the world. No one was ever just standing around doing nothing. Everyone had a role and they knew what to do. Dreamy! Now, part of the professionalism of this kick-butt team was because they were used to working on big time prestiege cable/streaming show (HBO) and accostumed to big budgets, great gear and access to picture cars from 1983 (period pieces are expensive).

So maybe that’s part of it why everyone worked so hard. There was a budget!

See…I’ve been working on small or no budgets films, where we’re not getting paid much or at all and so people might night be as committed (in fact sometimes they don’t even show up). Or if we are getting paid it’s not enough to make rent but wee just do it for the love of the art (and some lunch). But money shouldn’t be the only inspiration for us to get stuff done. We do it because we love it, we’re commited and passionate people who GET STUFF DONE. And sometimes when we get stuff done without the money it can lead to paying gigs.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hired someone because they have volunteered and done a great job at our fest or on a BraveMaker set. And there are just as many times that I have not, nor never will hire someone, because they didn’t follow through or lacked professionalism and work ethic on set. This is a tough and competitive business. So level up!

The WGA strike is over, writers are going back to work and actors are hoping SAG-AFTRA strike will end soon. We all want to work because we love it (and beause we would like to eat and pay rent doing what we love)! So let’s go out there and do the work…it will pay off, I believe (and hope you do, too).

There’s no secret to success other than hard work and perseverance. Sure, knowing people and people knowing you helps, but being ready to work hard collaborate with these traits above will certainly help you along. Keep going. Be brave. You are the story. We are the story!