Engaging the Disengaged

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When I teach or meet up and coming filmmakers one of the things they constantly ask is: how can I prevent losing a crew or a cast member? I usually start by giving them some highlights about things they can do, but basically it all starts with one word, engagement.

Engagement is a complex process especially in the movie business but it applies to truly any position in the working world.

What does it mean to be engaged?

I think people often misinterpret this word. Engagement can be thrown in with attention, involvement, even participation, but when you think about the most common definition— two people who have agreed or promised to marry —that definition really gets to the root of it all. Good ole Merriam Webster gets truly at the heart of it — pardon the pun — by describing with some scrolling down past other more common definitions: “emotional involvement or commitment.”

Good ole Merriam Webster gets truly at the heart of it — pardon the pun — by describing with some scrolling down past other more common definitions: “emotional involvement or commitment.”

I love this (and dictionaries for allowing the process of re-examining language) because that is what is at the core of this work of creating a film. Emotional commitment or involvement. (Note: this does not apply to investors or financiers as they are primarily concerned with the business and not the art.)

So many young filmmakers will throw money at people to help them on their films, and its true that people should be paid (although there are more resources out there beyond money), but filmmaking is an art form. Art is a process not of the mind, but of the heart, of the spirit.

Money can help, but if the only reason someone is participating in your film is because they are getting paid, God Help You.

Finding that emotional commitment can be hard. However that emotional commitment is where the form begins. If there is no emotion or connection in your writing, how can you possibly expect there to be any emotion or connection on screen?

The matter that relates to me is this. Sometimes as a producer I have found myself chasing the money, but in the end I have to make sure that I am chasing the engagement. Because what I have learned the hard way is that you cannot truly engage someone in a process they feel no emotional connection to. I have an incredible ability to stir up engagement, but what I’ve found is that if it isn’t really there, I don’t have the power or energy to sustain it.

A friend once said to a line that she had heard in a spiritual service. “Go with the yeses.” It’s simple, but a good note. Why bang your head against a wall with people who are not engaged or disinterested in your endeavor?

See their no as an opportunity to be freed to find the next actor, writer, crew member, colleague who wants to participate.

The lesson I have relearned is this: You cannot engage someone who does not want to be engaged for whatever reason. Certainly, you might be able to engage them on a temporary basis, but it will only work temporarily. If the fallout doesn’t occur early on, it will occur later in the process. Later in the process is always worse than earlier where you both feel that you’ve invested so much.

The best way to avoid these scenarios is to look for signs that someone is truly engaged. So here are a few ways to recognize engagement:

1. Money. If a discussion about money is the first thing that comes out of someone’s mouth when speaking with them about an artistic endeavor, this may be a sign that the person may not be truly engaged. If the money takes over the conversation, this is also problem. This is not to say that people should not be paid for their work, but if that overshadows all other aspects that are relevant to the project, it’s something to think about. An engaged co-worker will come to an agreement about the money and move on to the really fun creative stuff, the execution, the nitty gritty. If an agreement cannot be reached then that transaction is at an end.

(On the opposite side, I also want to clarify, that not talking about payment at all is not good business sense and can lead to problems down the line. It’s good to bring it up and take care of it, but it should never monopolize the conversation.)

2. Contribution. When I make a film, I am always looking for collaborators because that is what I feel making art is about. If I hire someone to work with me and they only want to execute my ideas, I find that worrisome. While its true that a producer or director should have a vision, that vision is a seed that needs to be watered with more ideas to grow. A true collaboration means everyone is a part, every party wants to make a contribution. They want to feel a part of it. They want to have a stake in it. They want to add to make it better. If this potential colleague has nothing new to bring to the table, this may indicate that they’re not really engaged.

While its true that a producer or director should have a vision, that vision is a seed that needs to be watered with more ideas to grow.

3. Schedule. Engagement is also about commitment. If you begin working with someone, start setting up times to meet, brainstorm, plan. If they start flaking and miss meetings or keep moving them, postponing calls, arriving to meetings later and later, or you have to keep reminding them of something that happens weekly, this is warning of engagement. People don’t repeatedly forget things that are important to them. These are all signs that they are not engaged. When something is important, people make time for it. They make it a priority. When someone is engaged they create a space to make time for you to work together. You both want it to be successful so both of you will look for ways to make that possible.

4. Accountability. This goes hand in hand with Schedule. In the making of a project, there are always steps that need to be followed. Watch to see how good that person is at staying on task with his or her own promises and commitments. There are certainly situations that deserve an exception but if a pattern appears where a colleague repeatedly does not deliver on said task, this is a sign that that person is not truly engaged. People who want to be successful will adhere to a plan, a schedule to bring about success. They will be checking in with you on their own, be excited about what may come next and want to speak with you about it. They are bubbling over with things they want to do and have already done. There should be accountability points along the way to the final end, and you will want to watch for those.

5. Less and More. Lastly, engagement is also about quantity and quality. Someone who is not engaged will tend to do just enough to complete a task at hand. They want to do the least amount of work or provide the least amount of effort to accomplish a task. Maybe they are always looking to leave or end early, they just want to do the bare bones of what is needed. This means that the are not really invested. Investment is important. Someone who is engaged is more likely to contribute more often, to provide work that goes above and beyond what you asked, who does more than expected because they believe in the work and take pride in it. That emotional attachment is what you are looking for to really rich a higher level if that is the plane you are looking for.

Someone who is engaged is more likely to contribute more often, to provide work that goes above and beyond what you asked, who does more than expected because they believe in the work and take pride in it.

Finally I just want to add, that engagement should not necessarily describe a person’s character. People can be disengaged for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they are not really interested in the project, but it could also be maybe they need some fast cash, or maybe some personal issues are happening at home that are truly drawing their attention— it happens. It could also be that maybe they are more engaged with other projects. Whatever the case, it is not your job to find out why, but to uncover whether they are truly engaged and if not, find someone who is.

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