How to deal with divas & be a superstar leader

July 11, 2016 Robert Hardy

Director of Bitten, Less Than Kind, Robson Arms & Hiccups tells how to inspire your teams every day. 

James Dunnisson tv director Canada

James Dunnison spends his days doing what many of us would envy, directing some of Canada’s biggest television series, from the werewolf thriller Bitten, the comedies Seed, Robson Arms and Brent Butt’s Hiccups, to the made-in-Winnipeg series Todd and the Book of Pure Evil and Less than Kind.

As one of Canada’s most prolific TV directors, his days are a flurry of activity – rehearsing a scene with his lead actors, talking about sets that need to be built and dealing with problems that need to be solved fast.

But what Dunnison spends most of his day doing is leading a large, a diverse team towards a single goal – making the best TV show they can.

It isn’t always easy, but over the years he’s learned some great lessons about leadership that we could all learn from. They come down to four things:

  1. Having a vision
  2. Creating a plan that inspires the people on your team to fulfill that vision
  3. Making sure your team has everything they need in order to succeed at their part of the plan
  4. Trusting yourself and your team to make it happen

We interviewed James Dunnison about his work, and what leadership means to him.

Q. What, in a nutshell, is a TV director’s job?

The director’s job is to build the event of the story. Simply put, the producer is the financial boss of a production and the director is the creative boss.

I start with the script and create a vision of how I see the finished episode or film. This includes breaking the script down into everything from key emotional moments to notes on tone and pace, to technical requirements as well as storyboarding each scene – which is kind of like a simplistic cartoon/sketch of how I think the shots should look and feel. Then through days and weeks of intense meetings with my department heads (director of photography, production designer, props master, wardrobe designer, set decorator, stunt coordinator, etc.), I try to get everybody on board, working towards making that vision happen.

When the actual shooting starts, the crew should have a rock solid idea of what they need to do in each scene, and I spend my time on set mainly coaching and cheerleading the actors, the director of photography, the dolly grips and the camera operators. A lot of it has to do with keeping the cast and crew’s energy and focus up through a 12 to 14-hour stressful day.

Q. You make it sound a lot like being an enterprise department head or project lead. What is the most difficult aspect of the work? 

People.

An average crew numbers roughly 150 people. You’ve probably seen all the trucks and gear lined up on some city street. A film or TV production is like a military operation, with a lot of moving parts and a lot of time and money pressure.

Q. What’s the most rewarding and inspiring aspect of the work?

When you’re at the monitors watching a scene play out, and the camera’s rolling, and all that crazy “pre-visualizing” and coaching you did suddenly crystallizes in front of your eyes. The scene goes from a few words on a page to something electrifying.

It’s magic. I often get goosebumps. Sometimes my eyes well up.

I remember watching playback of a shot we’d done of an incredibly ambitious action scene on Bitten, and I heard this communal gasp. I turned around. All the key crew were standing behind me, riveted to the monitors and blown away by what we just pulled off. That was pretty cool.

Q. Success is infectious! It sounds like people and planning are keys to your success. How much time do you spend communicating and motivating other people?

I would say that’s the lion’s share of my job. Anybody can come up with a concept of how to shoot something, but if you can’t communicate it and rally the troops to embrace it, you’re dead in the water.

There is nothing worse than a sea of blank faces staring at you because they have no idea what you want, or they feel you’re screwing up and not giving them the tools they need to do their jobs. In fact, that’s a recurring nightmare I’ve had for years.

Usually, in the nightmare I’m standing on a fire hydrant in the middle of the dissenting hoards, stark naked, with no idea what my concept was. Which I’ve definitely experienced, especially earlier in my career. Not the naked fire hydrant part. Just losing the confidence of my cast and crew because I’d failed them as a leader. Nothing is more soul-destroying. And nothing will get you further from your goals.

James Dunnison film tv

Q. What do you find are the best ways to lead?

There are a couple of credos I think are valuable. Probably the most important is: keep no secrets. Explain everything you’re doing and what the thrust of it is, including the emotional response you’re trying to elicit from your audience.

The more people know, and the more you trust and enfranchise them, the better they will execute their jobs and help you realize your vision. Crews are smart, and they come with an awful lot of experience and artistic/technical ability. Keep them close and in the loop.

There’s a great saying in our business: “Nobody makes a movie alone.” You need all those people pulling in the same direction. I do that with everything from keeping my instructions clear and achievable to drawing illustrations and charts to showing them inspirational photographs.

I listen closely to their concerns or suggestions, too – not that I always take them, but I always listen. A talented camera operator or actor or director of photography can take what I’ve given them and make it far superior. That’s the trust part.

I also try to lead by example. I come in hyper-prepared and I consciously try to be the most focused, upbeat, energized person in the room – because I know it’s infectious.

The flipside is that if someone on your team isn’t doing a good job, then you’ve got to manage that and hold them accountable – which is a whole other tool set.

I am a great believer in positive support. Morale is everything, and good troop morale will get me the best out of my team. I’m not afraid to tell someone that I think we need to go again and do it better, or how I think it could be improved, but I am the first person to share a compliment when I see excellent work. In fact, I’m religious about it. Even if I hear a compliment from a secondary source, I will always immediately pass it on to the recipient.

We movie people may be glorified carnies, but we work hard. It’s important to feel appreciated.

And on a film set, you can feel the wheels fall off when morale goes south. It’s brutal.

Q. There’s a lot of talk about the challenge of leading ego-driven ‘star employees’. But you literally are managing stars – how do you deal with the occasional fits of ego and emotion that they bring to work?

Yes, I am definitely familiar with egos and divas. Our business bursts at the seams with them. In my experience each diva is different, and the diva attitude can poison a set and undermine everything you’re trying to accomplish.

Some divas, like all actors, simply live for attention. Giving them a little extra attention costs nothing, provided it doesn’t piss off another cast member. I have no trouble with that.

I’ve had a diva say no to everything I asked them to do, and then do it exactly as I asked, every single take, as if they simply needed to assert their ego and pride but were secretly listening. When I first realized that was happening, I just put on my imaginary Teflon suit, kept praising this guy’s performances when I thought they were amazing, and continued to give him direction despite his resistance and insults. (Strangely, that star, who was truly a star, would later say I was one of his favorite directors).

One important thing to remember is that diva behavior usually comes from a place of insecurity. You need to figure out what that insecurity is and put a little salve on the trouble spot.

I had another diva actor recently rip my head off on set as we were blocking a scene, loudly and angrily, in front of the whole cast and crew, accusing me of understanding nothing about his character and how he would move through the scene. It was completely inappropriate but I knew that a) he was one of our stars, and it would be a mistake to shred him in front of the others; and b) he was a “method” actor and the scene was about his character falling to pieces, so part of him throwing a hissy fit was actually just his process of “getting into character,” even though it wasn’t pretty.

I went to his trailer later, before we shot the scene, and asked if everything was okay between us. He apologized and said exactly what I already knew – it was just part of his process of preparing for the scene. But here’s the mistake I made – the second he threw the hissy fit, I should’ve said, “Okay, grab a Coke and a smoke everybody. Take five.” Then I could’ve just sat down with him in a secluded place and worked it out.

That’s People Management 101: responding quickly, taking the conflict into a private setting, and reducing collateral damage. It also gives you the opportunity to practice good diplomacy – you make sure you emerge from that private space with him or her getting a win, and you getting a win too. Your team will love you and rally behind you for having done it.

Q. How do you inspire your team?

I try to be the most energetic person in the room, and the best prepared. I anticipate questions and I put together answers long before the meetings. I also try to keep it loose and fun. I know that when the crew is able to laugh and open up in a meeting, they’re listening and engaged, and I’m going to get good work out of them.

And I just try to listen, with a “the best idea wins” attitude. In other words, if their idea is better than mine, I’ll steal it. If it’s not, I’ll say “Thanks, but I prefer the direction we’re headed in.” And if their comments and suggestions are becoming annoyingly frequent and unhelpful, so will my answer: “No.”

Q. You have all these departments and dozens of people working for you. How do keep track of everything they’re doing without micromanaging?

That comes back to communication and trust. Nothing angers a seasoned crewmember more than a director telling him or her how to do the intricacies of their job.

I firmly believe micromanagement is the best way in the world to screw yourself and everything you hope to achieve. People thrive when they’re trusted and believed in. Which is not to say you don’t need to steer them down the path of what you’re trying to do, and keep checking in with them, BUT they need the space to do their jobs.

Would any of us want to be micromanaged? Especially when we come with a skill set that is far deeper than our boss’s in our specific department?

I think micromanagement is the surest conceivable way to face-plant. You’re not teaching a horse to trot or gallop. You’re mastering the whisper, the bit and the reins.

Q. What tools do you use to help you communicate with your team?

I do a lot of stating the obvious and keeping it loose, but most importantly clear. I’m always surprised by how many times I go over something before the person I’m talking to really hears it. So I invent different ways to say it, to keep it novel, and then try to stay on top of how that person is running with it.

If I’m frustrated or upset with somebody on their trajectory, I make sure I never berate them publically or address them below their level of intelligence. I will hold them accountable, but it will be a private matter.

Again, in the film world, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. If you have skilled technicians who you aren’t getting the best out of, it’s up to you to figure out how to turn that around and get them back on their feet and charging forward.

You need to damage control and also cheerlead. You need to channel Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. I’ve got a bunch of his quotes in the binder I take to work every day. My favourite is:

“One thing we all have to do tonight, we've got to focus. The game plan, the fundamentals, gentlemen, moving the sticks is what we're going to be doing out there. And listen, fellas, there's a joy to this game, is there not? There's a passion, there's a reason why we're all out here. Other than the fact of the pride that it gives us and the respect that it demands, we love to play the game. So let's go out there and have fun tonight. Do you understand? Because tomorrow, if you give 100% of yourself tonight, people are going to look at you differently. People are going to think of you differently. And I promise you you're going look and think differently about yourself. Clear eyes. Full Hearts.”

Now learn how to identify leadership material in your company. Stay tuned for part two with James Dunnisson.

About the Author

Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy is a Vancouver-based television producer, writer and development consultant. Through his company Perfect Day Productions, Robert works with leading producers, writers and networks to help create innovative new television series, digital media and documentaries.

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