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Careers Clinic: How do I deal with a schedule clash between paid and unpaid work?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I saw a graduate piece by a young director at a student film festival last year and loved it. We got talking afterwards and I said I would love to be in one of his projects. I ended up playing a lead in his first independent short. It was a very low budget two-day shoot and we didn’t quite get all the shots we needed before the light (and the money) ran out. At the time, he felt that this could be fixed in the edit, but feedback from festivals suggests he needs those extra scenes after all.

There was nothing in the contract about this, and I would normally help out, but I’m currently on another job – a theatre in education tour around the country.

None of the reshoot days suggested work for me, and I am now getting increasingly snotty calls and emails saying I am letting him and the whole crew down and standing in the way of the project’s success. He has also pointedly reminded me that I made the first approach.

I’ve always been a team player, so I feel guilty about putting a spanner in the works. I also don’t want to burn my bridges with somebody I think will be a big name in the future, but what can I do?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE Learning to deal with schedule conflicts is a useful skill for any actor to acquire, but the situation you describe doesn’t strike me as a hard decision at all. It only seems that way because you are allowing somebody to guilt-trip you into prioritising their agenda over yours.

You may be correct about this young filmmaker being full of talent and with a bright future ahead of them. But no amount of ‘talent’ gives a director (or anybody else) licence to push actors around. The fact that you made the first approach when this project began is neither here nor there. You were hired for your time and talent and you did the work that was required of you.

Filmmaking is hard and often requires passion, commitment and sacrifice from the directors of the future. But if the filmmaker doesn’t know how to manage budgets and schedules, include contingency clauses in contracts, or communicate in a professional manner, that is their problem, not yours.

You are currently doing paid work for which you have (I hope) a contract with another production company. This job being a TiE project doesn’t make it any less important than Mr Up and Coming’s glittering career. If other members of the cast and crew decide to go back on demand to do the reshoots, that is their prerogative, but if any of them were prioritising that over paid work, I’d be having the same conversation with them that you and I are having now.

If the calls and emails you are getting are in any way harassing or threatening, that is out of order and should be reported immediately. But, assuming it is just petulance, the sooner he finds out that this is not the way to get somebody back on board, the better it will be for everyone.

If you genuinely do feel the project is worth completing, talk to your current employers about what days would work with their schedule. If you are as essential to the film as you are being told, the reshoot will have to work around you.

At the very least, your expenses should be covered, but I certainly wouldn’t be shy about asking for a fee and an amendment to the contract.

If you need further justification for your stance, remind yourself that teaching this potential ‘auteur’ to treat collaborators with respect will ultimately benefit their own career as much as any other actors who have to work with them in future.

John Byrne is careers adviser for The Stage and is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne


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