Sharing the Love

The politics of working for free.

“No. I’m serious man, I’m not doing another take.”
Donald’s voice is muffled, speaking to me through the paint soaked Woolworths bag we’ve wrapped his head in. Spending the last eight hours as a dead body dragged from one car boot to another, through rugged bushland and ending up unceremoniously dumped in the freezing cold Cooks River is not exactly the high point in Donald’s acting career and his refusal, all things considered, is not unreasonable.
Dwayne and I put our heads together.
“How bad was the last take?” I ask him.
“I ran out of tape just as he was getting thrown in the river.”
“Hmm.” I squat down next to Donald and pat his knee tenderly. He blinks murderously at me through his non mud caked eye.
“You’re doing a wonderful job mate…” I begin.
There’s only one thing for it. I take out my wallet and gingerly remove a crumpled fifty dollar note. Donald drops his eyes and sighs.
“You bastard.”
In another three takes we have our shot.

Short films are built on favours. They are a necessary part of the business and used properly they can instil a set with camaraderie impossible to achieve on a paid production. I’ve been to enough Screen Aus talks to know that officially favours are held in high disrepute, and Equity is rightly vocal in its opposition to them – if everyone works for free we’ll all undercut each other and the industry will fall apart. True enough, but if you simply do not have any money and are not wily enough to trick some out of our favourite funding bodies, then your film is going to have to claw its way onto DVD on the back of a great multitude of favours – or it’s not going to get made at all.
The crucial thing about favours is they must be repaid. One of my colleagues recently donated a three week editing favour to a director, who while thanking her profusely has since refused to commit one day of his time assisting her shoot her own short. It seems some people see favours as their right, a privilege even for the giver, to whom they so generously afford the opportunity of slaving under such genius. Sometimes this is partially justifiable. When a cinematographer comes on board to help out a director mate get their dream film off the ground, it benefits all round if the film does well. It doesn’t necessarily trickle all the way down the crew however and the bloke mopping up the fake blood between takes probably isn’t going to be basking in accolades come Tropfest. It’s these people who should get paid first, or at very least placed smack bang on top of the “favours to return” list.
The art of directing actors is considerably more delicate on a budget free production and the allowable demands that can be made are substantially lower – despite the promise of “casting agents attending the premiere” or God forbid the dreaded profit share scheme.

For a director doing their first paid gig it’s positively a joy to order actors around knowing they’re being fully compensated. I was lucky with my first job and landed a corporate safety DVD which involved three hapless young NIDA grads spending ten hours stuck in a filthy drain, it was a wonderful day.

A great part about favours is that many find their way back to the giver in the form of paid work, I’ve scored countless ‘proper’ jobs after establishing a relationship over freebies - though it’s important to remain upfront as to the conditions of the work – and avoid the scummy “next time you’ll get paid” carrot held out to so many young freelancers.
With a little careful management and some creativity (I made a short film for a bloke last year in return for a bicycle) you might find yourself building a whole network of relationships based on trust and back scratching. If it works for our state government it can certainly work for us!


  1. February 19th, 2011 at 12:14AM

    Brilliant, Leslie, brilliant! I love your perspective and the way you've communicated it. Oh, and true to form, I have to comment on your use of our beautiful language: excellent -- and you know how I love to find errors!

  2. Pete Gill
    February 19th, 2011 at 01:37PM

    I love your thoughts, even though I am not your mum.

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