The Power of a Reference

As you build your network and attain seniority, sooner or later someone is going to call you for a reference about someone you have worked with. I call for references all the time since, as a DP, I hire at least six people every time I get a job. Now of those six I’ll know at least two, so references aren’t required, but oftentimes I’ll work in a place where I can’t bring everyone so I’ll have to hire locals to fill out my key team.

More on that later. I’d like to begin with what happens when I get the call and what I say when someone asks me about a candidates viability. First – know that whatever you say will someday get back to you. If you have nothing good to say and know that you would never work with them again, then either tell the caller just how you feel - or say you would rather not comment or simply not return the phone call or email. Even though your silence speaks volumes, you probably won’t get beat up for words you did not say. If you say that the guy sucks and you hated every minute on set with him, those harsh words could come back and bite you, even though that’s how you truly feel. Years ago, I said some harsh things about an AD I had a tough time with - who incidentally has gone on and become a big time producer. And even though the Director asking about this AD promised to keep all of what I said in strict confidence – he went on and told the AD everything, anyway. A few weeks later I get a call from said AD, in the middle of the night, drunk on his ass, calling me every name in the book, etc. etc. And that was the end of that relationship forever. I could have used that contact when times were lean. But that bridge was burned forever because of a negative review from me – that he had caught wind of. But what if I had lied and said he was great, everybody loved him and that he was my new main man. Then what?  So you see - lots of bad things can come your way in either case! That director who hired that AD based on a false recommendation from me - might have called me back and given me an earful and would forever question my judgement.

Nowadays, if I’m not keen on who I’m asked about, I’ll just defer and let the performance questions move on to the next guy. There is no shame in this. And it is for this reason that you need to call more people. I always call three at the very least.

If you get two thumbs up and one thumb down then there is reason to be a little concerned - especially if the thumbs down occurs after you have hired the person. Be patient with your due diligence, proper vetting can save you from big headaches down the road and remember – even a good review won’t guarantee a harmonious relationship while shooting! Everyone will have a bad day, even you – so give your new hire a chance – warn him at least once if you aren’t jelling – then let him go if it gets real bad.

Here are some of the questions I’ll ask when vetting a potential crewmember. Generally I’ll let the person I’m asking start – particularly if they are enthusiastic about the candidate. But if I’m doing the talking I’ll ask if they are self starters, what are they particularly good at, do they prepare well, will they read the script and call sheets. Are they inventive, ingenious, curious? Are they ever late, sick, or come to work hung over? Do they work well with others, do they share tips with less experienced teammates? Most important though is do they think they’ll get along and work well with me and my way of doing things - my system if you will. You need to ask a lot of questions because if you sense your source is holding back, then sooner or later you’ll hit on something that will make him say something truthful about the candidate. And that’s okay – nobody’s perfect.

Managing personnel is a very important part of a Cinematographers job. Your choices effect performance and efficiency and when there is a rotten apple amongst the team, then you must fix that and quickly. A good, hardworking, well behaved crew reflects well on you as a department head and a leader. So though no one I know really likes the process of finding new people for very important positions – conduct this part of prep thoughtfully and thoroughly.

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