Regarding difficult jobs, I have always subscribed to the following mantra: “Never quit. Make them fire you.”
To clarify, I would never deliberately do anything to get myself fired off a job. Simply put, sometimes you will run into a job from hell. You’ll be on a job where nothing is going your way. The hours will be long, you’ll be overworked, underpaid, and everyone will be angry all the time. There will be moments when you want to quit. You’ll want drop your gear, throw up double birds and walk to crew parking. Don’t. Those jobs are the most important in your career. They sharpen your skills and define how you handle stressful situations. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice by quitting, not to mention the damage you’ll inflict on your reputation.
When I was six months into my career as a second AC, I got the opportunity to work as B camera on a feature shooting in Los Angeles. I was thrilled because, not only did the film have big name actors attached, the camera crew was full of heavy hitters as well. The director and cinematographer were both huge names in the film world. The steadicam operator and assistants were all experienced and used to shooting huge movies. I was ecstatic to be on the team. I was beginning to feel confident in my skills as a camera assistant, and I hoped I’d be able to make connections on the upcoming film that would catapult my career forward.
The movie was an unmitigated disaster. As of this writing, it sits at an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. The dialogue was terrible, the lead actor had the charisma of a block of wood, the story was bland, and that’s to say nothing of the internal strife amongst the camera crew. The A camera focus puller and the A camera operator fought constantly. Their disagreements started out over the operator’s lack of communication skills and eventually soured into deep personal dislike for one-another. The aggressive shooting schedule had us working fourteen-hour days at a breakneck pace, and our tier 1 paychecks offered us little comfort. For me, though, the worst part of the shoot was dealing with the cinematographer.
One quality that gets very little attention in the film industry is leadership capability. There is no human resources department on set. Directors and cinematographers are given nearly tyrannical power during the shoot, and that power is very seldom checked. The cinematographer on our movie is known for his volatile temper and aggressive attitude on set. He’s what people in the industry call, “old school.” As I learned over the course of the next five weeks, being old school gives you a free pass to treat your crew however you see fit.
Every day I showed up on set during the movie, I knew that, at some point, the cinematographer was going to scream at me in front of the entire crew. He zeroed in on my inexperience early in the shoot and made it his mission to beat the bad habits out of me. I’m not going to pretend like I was able to shake off the constant humiliation. It sucked. I hated coming to work every day. I arrived to work with a strong sense of foreboding and left every night physically and mentally spent. After one particularly tough day, I came home and drunkenly bought a plane ticket for a solo trip to Colombia. I knew that, once the movie was over, I wanted to be somewhere far away.
You too will reach a “plane ticket to Colombia” moment in your career. You’ll show up to work every day ready to quit for some reason, and it’s important for you to see those projects through. Although I was miserable the entirety of our five-week shoot, the movie completely transformed the way I conduct myself on set. When you’re subjected to such intense scrutiny and situations, you learn to work under pressure. After that terrible movie, I never again felt stressed out or discombobulated at work. I had made my way through a gauntlet of sorts and come out the other side stronger. I know that, no matter what happens over the course of the day, I’ll be able to handle the situation calmly and professionally.
The terrible projects you want to quit may end up being the most important of your career. Your handling of difficult situations is vital to your long term career success. The only way to grow accustomed to handling those difficult situations is to live through them. Ultimately, ask yourself, "what's the worst that can happen?" You'll try your best and end up getting fired anyway. I've been fired before, it's not that bad. Most people I know have been fired. In fact, the first (and only) time I was fired off a job, people I knew called to congratulate me and officially welcome me to the film industry. When you quit, though, you're giving up early.
I'll close this post by offering this disclaimer: if there's some shady stuff happening on set or you're feeling unsafe, get out as fast as you can. Nobody can fault you for walking out of a potentially dangerous situation. Barring those circumstances, stick around and work through your bad situation. Never rob yourself of the opportunity to test your mettle and grow professionally. You’ll hate the experience in the moment, but you’ll eventually be thankful for the lessons you learned.