Directors such as Nolan and Tarantino are banning cellphones from sets -- but not everyone is on board
By STEPHANIE MERRY | The Washington Post | Published: January 2, 2018
It’s hard to imagine any corner of the planet where smartphones aren’t ubiquitous. But director Christopher Nolan is fairly certain that in the not-so-distant future, every movie set will be like his own: entirely devoid of phones and the zombified addicts they spawn.
"In a few years nobody is going to be allowing that on sets," he said while doing publicity for his Golden Globe-nominated "Dunkirk" this year. "It’s an unprofessional lack of concentration, so our rule is very simple: If you need to make a phone call or use your phone to text, you go off set."
But should we take the word of a guy who doesn’t even own a cellphone?
Maybe -- because he’s not alone. Just as the wider world grapples with the habit-forming machinery sending us phantom vibrations from our pockets, a small number of directors are taking a hard line. At the moment, Nolan’s most vocal comrade is Quentin Tarantino. If others follow suit, it would drastically change the feel of movie sets where long stretches of downtime are conducive to constant, widespread web surfing.
Nolan and Tarantino’s views aren’t altogether surprising, considering the two are also some of the loudest defenders of old-school technology in the great film-vs.-digital debate. They’re hardly Luddites, though, and besides, they have compelling reasons for their rules. For starters, every device is equipped with a camera, and leaked footage at the hands of internet pirates is a real concern. (Tarantino almost scrapped making "The Hateful Eight" after just the script was leaked.)
Secondly, much like loud phones in theaters, an ill-timed ring on a movie set can really ruin the experience.
"There’s nothing more frustrating than taking all the time to get the camera ready and get the actors prepared and get them in there and start shooting the scene and something (messes) it up that’s not directly in front of the camera," said producer and assistant director William Paul Clark, who has worked with Tarantino in various capacities since the "Pulp Fiction" days. It’s one thing when a problem occurs in front of the camera -- an actor flubs a line, for example -- but a crew member’s cellphone going off is like an unforced error.
On Tarantino’s sets, one person has the job of collecting phones at "Checkpoint Charlie" -- "he’ll even charge it if you want," Clark assured -- so the rule is crystal clear.
"It’s accepted and it’s known that if a phone goes off on set, that’s your last day," he said. No one has ever gotten fired that he recalls, though he does remember a fruitless manhunt after a ringtone sounded during the filming of "Django Unchained."
Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson -- who is a frequent collaborator with Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, among others -- prefers a cellphone-free set, but acknowledges certain benefits, including the ability to quickly share footage with other departments.
"The makeup department can see the actress or actor in detail as can wardrobe, hair, production design," he wrote in an email while filming the Shailene Woodley movie "Adrift" in New Zealand. There’s no need to crowd the monitors when everyone has their own tablets and phones to see the shots.
There are other practical reasons to keep phones on sets. While shooting "Landline," director and co-writer Gillian Robespierre had a baby at home -- and with babies come the potential for emergencies. She nearly laughed out loud when asked whether she ever thought about boycotting cellphones.
"No, we wanted a happy set -- and we had a happy set," she said while in Washington, D.C., over the summer promoting her movie. "I feel like there might have been a couple scenes where there was even a cellphone under a tush."
Even though her movie takes place in the 1990s, she didn’t feel the need to force her actors to also pretend they were actually living in that era.
Meanwhile, "Marshall" director Reggie Hudlin considered a phone ban but thought better of it. As a producer on "Django Unchained," he saw the benefits, especially the bonds that happen when the cast and crew aren’t burying their noses in their text messages. Then again, he said the people who worked on "Marshall" grew just as close.
Besides, the star of that movie, Chadwick Boseman, would not have been a fan.
"It would be a problem for me,"Boseman said, not because he’s some kind of addict but because he uses his phone so often for work purposes. He writes notes and listens to audio clips from his dialect coach; he even queues up music from certain eras to get himself in the right head space.
"To me it’s none of your business what I’m doing with it because it’s a tool for work," he said. "So you can’t ban my cellphone."
But there remains an intangible argument for nixing phones that’s pretty convincing: the focus it creates.
Writer-director Azazel Jacobs opted for a cellphone-free set when he made "The Lovers," which came out in May. He had no checkpoint and never threatened to fire anyone, but early on he requested that the cast and crew keep their phones out of view. The result was refreshing, he said, especially when thoughtful conversations between takes enhanced scenes. That might not have been possible on a set where the call for "cut" is usually also a signal for everyone to reach into their pockets.
"It’s like creating a period piece in your life when you do that," he said during an interview this year. "Let’s all step back in time; we didn’t even know how wonderful it was."
The star of the movie, actor and playwright Tracy Letts, has had similar rules while rehearsing for the stage, because it keeps people engaged in what’s happening around them rather than escaping to another world.
Nolan agrees. "The way the human brain works, there’s no such thing as multitasking," the director said. "It’s a myth in intellectual terms. You process information linearly so when you look down at your phone, you are stepping out from the other conversation you’re having."
Added Clark: "On a lot of movies that I do where (the ban) is not a requirement, at any given time I’ll stand there and see everybody doing something on their phone: texting, a game, something. And what I see from that is that they’re not paying attention to what we’re doing."
There are times when that’s OK. The makeup team doesn’t necessarily need to watch the electricians set up the shot.
"However, it does get frustrating when we’re rolling and you see people texting, just because there’s a lack of focus that may not be harmful -- but it’s certainly not helpful," Clark said.
For Nolan, putting phones away is simply the next step in a natural progression. When cellphones were first getting popular, there wasn’t etiquette for how and when to use them. But over the years, the general population has started to find consensus on what’s socially acceptable.
"We live in this strange bubble," Nolan said. "The cellphone comes along and you’re sitting at lunch with somebody and they start having a conversation with somebody else, which nobody does now because after a few years we figure out that’s not appropriate. With the smartphone culture, it’s 10 years old and it’s taking time to figure out."