Should you ever work with family on a film? When I say working with family – I specifically am talking about casting. Some people seem to do quite well with casting their own family. Martin Scorsese famously used his mother in several films (she also appeared in The Godfather Part III), and Lena Dunham cast her mother as herself in her debut feature Tiny Furniture.
I decided it would be interesting to use my own family in a film. Undoubtedly, I’ve written aspects of my family into my movies before and I’ve definitely stolen their names, or part of their names, for different characters in scripts I’ve written, but I wanted to know what it would be like to actually be on set with them so I wrote a short film that was auto-biographical and would star myself, my wife and my four kids. We shot it over the weekend and what I discovered about working with family was quite interesting.
There’s a comfortability on set that is really great
Having your wife and kids on set can be really great at times. Often when you’re working long hours to get through your shot list you end up missing the good night hugs and kisses that you have gotten used to as a father. Even if you don’t have kids, being on set can take a real tole on your relationship and having my wife around was quite nice.
Even though there wasn’t a lot of bonding on set or private time just having my wife and kids around meant that I didn’t feel like I completely abandoned them while shooting which can often be the case. Ironically, when shooting was over everyone was kind of sick of me and went off to their own rooms. It’s a far cry from the normal, excited greeting I’m used to when returning from set but that’s the trade off I suppose.
Your family will often surprise you with how good they are
I was expecting my wife and kids to be absolutely horrible when it came to acting and I was pleasantly surprised. My wife kind of nailed every take. She needed minimal if any direction and was very very natural. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised because I’m writing characters from my own experience and I have a pretty good ear for dialogue so it wasn’t like they had to do much work to get in character, but I’ve had horrible experiences with people being natural in front of a camera before and was totally thrilled to see that wasn’t an issue with my family.
I think if you spend time making the filmmaking process look fun and easy then most people tend to drop their hammy nature when the camera turns on, but it was still something I wasn’t expecting and was quite happy to see.
The other I’ll say is that it pays a lot to write for the person you cast. I’ve actually re-written entire roles for actors when my first choice wasn’t available or passed on a project. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reshaping dialogue and story arcs to fit actors I cast because I feel like the less they have to push themselves to become the character the easier time everyone will have on set and the better the film will be.
Working with Family – They’re not filmmakers
One thing where family and friends will not be quite as natural as other people used to the pacing of a film set is in their endurance. It’s not that my family wasn’t engaged or excited, it’s just that there are a lot of moving pieces on a film set and when you don’t have a job to do or don’t understand what’s going on, you tend to zone out.
It’s the same reason kids have a hard time watching the news. They can literally be watching footage of a volcano erupting less than five miles from their house and they’re eyes will just glaze over with boredom. The reason is simply that they don’t understand what’s being told to them. Nothing incites boredom more than confusion. The more I learned about cameras, grip, electric, audio, assistant directing, producing, etc. the more I knew what was going on during production and now I found myself knowing more than most people on a set because I wear many hats. As a result, I rarely, if ever, sit down during filming because there’s always something for me to do.
Of course, actors are quite limited in how much they are actually allowed to do on a union set so they tend to have long hours of nothing when they’re filming. This is why actors get trailers – because sitting around and feeling useless is actually quite cruel. In the case of my family, I just sent my wife and kids to their room when they weren’t actually on camera. I think more than one of them actually managed to get a nap in while we were shooting some exteriors.
Working with your own kids is especially challenging
Disciplining your children and getting the performance that you need out of them while also producing, acting is quite difficult. My kids are young – 6,4,3, and nearly 7 months at the time of this writing and managing them on set without help was quite difficult. I say without help because there were long stretches where my wife was breast feeding or was on camera and I needed to be the main supervisor.
If I had to do a TV show or a longer film with my kids the first thing I would do is hire an amazing babysitter who would keep them occupied, fed, and rested. The hungrier or more tired the kids became the worse they were with delivering lines and at a certain point it just felt wrong to keep pushing them so we got fewer takes than we would have gotten with an adult actor because they clearly needed a nap or a snack and were losing it.
I think everyone should work with their family at least once
One thing that is really great about shooting with your family is that they gain an understanding for the work. They start to understand what it’s like to be on a movie set, how long things take, what some of the terminology is etc. The morning after my shoot my wife asked why the camera man said “speeding” instead of “rolling.” That’s a question that would have never came up if she didn’t come onto the set.
I think everyone should cast their family in a short film just so they can share the magic of filmmaking with them. Just keep the crew small, the locations simple, and make sure that you have a comfy bed for them to zonk out on when they get tired and bored which will inevitably happen at some point during the shoot.