From my days in psychology, there are a few ideas that have always really stuck with me and helped shape my filmmaking. Below is one those ideas; it's a mistake we often make in how we see other people we make films with or for.
Keeping this one idea in mind has greatly helped me tell stronger stories, every time out.
First, the mistake...
There is a principle in psychology called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).
The Fundamental Attribution Error states that when we look to attribute, or find the cause of somebody else's behavior, we often overemphasize the importance of their personality, and underemphasize the power of the situation or context.
Take these two situations as examples:
1. You walk on set to see the director emerge from around the corner yelling at everybody in site "Get that crane up faster, we need to be ready to roll in 10 minutes!" "Where's my monitor, I need to see what's happening!"
He then turns to you and says "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
Whoa, you think, this guy (or girl) is something else. What an ass.
2. Okay, now imagine you're a wedding filmmaker. You show up on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, enter a brick house clad in pink frilly things, and find your way through the maze of people to introduce yourself to the bride.
You find her in the back of the house having her make-up done.
"Good morning!", you yell, "Excited?" She looks at you, smiles meekly, offers up an unconvincing nod of her head, and returns to her make-up.
Oh no, you think, this girl is a total drag. This is not going to be a fun day.
Now, I'm not sure about you, but I can see myself in similar situations many times over the years. We meet somebody, we form an impression quickly, and we assume that's who they are.
Here's a super simple, every day example of how the FAE works:
You're driving home and somebody comes out of nowhere and cut's you off. We quickly assume that he or she is a jerk for what they just did - that it's who they are. Now, perhaps he or she just got into an argument with a partner or feels very ill and is trying to get home quickly - the situation they were in could have played a large role.
Our natural tendency is to attribute the behavior to the personality of the person, but we don't give enough consideration to the situation itself.
Now, let's take this and apply it to the yelling director we talked about at the top. Perhaps he is just an unfriendly, belligerent person or maybe he just got a call from the client and they are pushing up the delivery time while also needing to make cut backs on the budget.
Or our meek and subdued bride. Perhaps the stress of a wedding, of having so many people focus on her, and her nervousness for having to speak her vows in front of a crowd have led her to respond to you in that way.
The point is not to suggest that the behaviors are good or bad, or to make excuses for them. The point is to realize just how much of a role the situation plays in shaping behavior.
Okay, so we have a tendency to undervalue the situation when we look to explain or understand the behavior of others - so what?
Why does this matter? And what could it possibly have to do with filmmaking?
Filmmaking doesn't happen in a vacuum. We work with people and we take images of other people. How we perceive or feel about these people plays such a large part in how we interact with them and how the video of them will feel in the end.
Here are some tips on how you can apply the Fundamental Attribution Error to filmmaking that can help you become a stronger storyteller.
1. Know that the FAE exists.
When you're making a film and interacting with people, especially when things aren't going well, always try to take a moment and consider the role the situation may have played. I always try and ask questions that would help them share their situation and help you to understand where they are coming from. Asking if they've had a busy day or any challenges at work are great cues to allow people to open up and share what could really be the source of their behavior. Once you know, you can help deal with it.
2. Do your research into the people you'll be working with or interviewing.
Get to know who they are truly are, and what their personalities are really like. That way when you show up to that interview or wedding and the person is not behaving in the way you were hoping for, you'll have the ability to discern whether that is who they truly are OR if it's the situation. When I am preparing to do an interview, I try to find as many videos and other interviews that person has done to see how they generally respond and feel.
3. Realize the situation you are creating every time you go out and shoot, and how that is such an important factor in the behavior of everybody you work with.
If you want an interviewee to be alive and passionate, create a situation that allows them to feel that way - REGARDLESS of their personality. Realize the role the situation plays, then imagine walking into a room with a handful of people watching you, a bunch of bright lights, and knowing that everything you say is going to be recording, reviewed, and analyzed. That would intimidate nearly all of us and therefore significantly change our behavior.
Until we find a way to shoot an interview without cameras, lights, and a crew - we need to always be thinking about ways to create a strong experience of this situation. We make sure to have the interviewee stay outside of the room, with friendly company, so they don't see us busily setting up. When we bring them in, we then start warm conversation right away and use a gentle tap on the directors shoulder to let them know we are rolling, as opposed to yelling 'ROLL' out loud and again making the interviewee more aware of their surrounding.
Here is the the big takeaway: