From time to time it’s the case that I first meet a filmmaker in the context of trying to land their picture—as opposed to having met them in some other capacity beforehand (and thus already knowing them when it’s time to talk about their latest project). I’m reminded what a bad scenario the former case is. Far, far better to have some social interaction prior to that meeting in which you have to sell yourself.
Either way, though, one thing I recommend avoiding at all costs is talking too much. I was up for a small picture a few years ago, and had to take a “cold” meeting with a pair of producers (I was already friends with the director). The meeting was incredibly tense and awkward… and all the more so because the producers completely stonewalled me.
They literally said, like, six or seven words the entire 30-minute meeting. That kind of thing doesn’t just happen… it’s premeditated. But that didn’t occur to me then.
As the silent seconds thundered past… as the director stared in my direction with a hangdog look that told me he wasn’t gonna bail me out of this mess, all I could think of was: “What magical combination of words out of my mouth will cause these people to like me?”
I tried to fill the empty air with something, anything—opinions on their script, ideas of how my score would enhance the narrative, a preliminary concept for a palette—but it just got more awkward as they declined to respond. Again and again and again. Finally I was dismissed with a simple “thanks” (yes, I’m counting that as one of the six words they said!) and a nod toward the door. I’ve shown more respect to moldy, back-of-the-fridge lasagna before chucking it in the trash can.
It was one of the most humiliating professional interactions I’d ever had. It took me days to recover. If I’d been able to meet these people socially beforehand, at the very least I would have seen that dynamic in action ahead of time. I could have bowed out of the whole situation gracefully.
Could I have come out with a win? Was there some Jedi sequence of moves that would bring the picture my way? Almost certainly not. In this case, there was no hope for me (see below). Verbal economy is a best practice regardless, and sometimes it’s your only hope of retaining your dignity.
But I hadn’t gotten that memo. I just yapped my trap ad nauseam, hoping something would evoke a positive reaction. The better play would have been to let the silence fall, or simply to ask a couple of questions and then let the silence fall. Either way, I would have been demonstrating that I was comfortable without words… which would have put the pressure right back on them to say something. Then, if they chose to continue to disrespect me, I could keep control of my part of the equation by walking out without another word. Ending the meeting on my terms, and in a definitive, positive, fashion. That’s the strategy I recommend to you should you ever come across this particular brand of negotiator.
It turned out that the pair of producers in this little nightmare anecdote were in the midst of an all-out creative war with the director, so I was never gonna get that gig. Still, the way those producers wrung me out, just to make a point to the director about who was wearing the pants on the production, was asinine. And, after the sting of the insult faded, it was instructive. Now I know what to do when I find myself in one of those rooms (and I imagine you’re devising your own clever strategy right about now, too… which is sort of the point).
In happier meetings, being concise and focused is still important. It means that the words you do say carry more weight. They allow you to get to the point more quickly. This is a technique I have to work hard to keep at the top of my own mind—I have to be vigilant against my natural tendency toward wordiness. Especially if it’s a gig I really want, my tendency is to try to seize control of the situation with words… words… words.
That’s a bad idea, kids. For all kinds of reasons. Over-talking (and its first cousin, “always having to have the last word in a conversation”) is indicative of weakness, of a lack of self-control, of a feeling that the gig in question is needed rather than wanted.
Which leads me to this: no one gig should be everything to you. If it is, you lose any leverage you might ever have in your relationship with the filmmakers. You want to be affable, communicative, intuitive and responsible… but your self-respect demands that you stand up when it’s time to walk out of the room. Hopefully the gigs that you land will all be honeymoons, but don’t be afraid to use silence every once in a while to protect your turf. And don’t be afraid to take your toys and go home if your would-be collaborators are truly abusive.
There are times when it’s not worth getting the gig… and other times when the most useful thing you can do is act for all the world like you don’t want it. It’s amazing how much respect you can command when you prove you’re willing to stare someone down, or even to walk—not out of anger, pettiness or spite, but simply as a matter of self-respect.