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Career Dispatches

How to Handle a Difficult Director on a Commercial Shoot

How to Handle a Difficult Director on a Commercial Shoot
Photo Source: Pixabay

“Bill, you booked the Subway commercial!”

Cut to the shot of me in the city, clenching my phone, screaming in victory at anyone who will listen (aka the pigeons on the sidewalk who quickly fly away, terrified, to a safer street). I booked it! My 27th national commercial. For Subway. Free food! (Yes, this is how I think sometimes.)

I show up on set—an actual Subway restaurant closed that day to the public—and the first department I’m sent to is hair and makeup. I befriend them immediately as they’re usually the most fun and biggest gossips, and will give you a sense of what the set will be like.

The next department is costume. “Nice black socks Bill.”

If you’re a woman working on a set you should always bring flesh colored underwear in case they dress you in something sheer. For men, you should always wear black socks. You’ll never get dressed in anything else and if you bring your own you’re making their job so much easier, a goal every actor should have.

My scene is the first shot of the day. The set is bustling with close to forty crew members, all stuffed into this small restaurant. They’re directing huge lights, setting up the sound cart, laying down track which will help the camera smoothly glide back and forth for a dolly shot. It’s incredibly warm and loud. A few actual Subway employees are looking on incredulously. How could so many people fit into their small place?

The assistant director comes up to me, always the time task master. “OK Bill, let’s run it a few times so lights and camera can get it right. You walk in, you sit down in this booth here. Yeah? Let’s try it.”

I walk in, sit down in the booth.

“Great, let’s try it again. Lights, good?”

I walk in again, sit down in the booth again.

“Okay, great, last checks, let’s shoot it. Picture is up people. Lock it down”

All of a sudden, complete silence. Forty crew members come to a standstill. You can tell the Subway employees (the real ones) are impressed. I am impressed. This crew is a disciplined army.

The A.D. calls out over his microphone, “sound.” The sound guy calls out “speed,” which means the tape is up and running and we are good to record. The A.D. calls out “camera.” The director of photography calls out “rolling.” From the back of the room, the director calls out “action.”

I walk in, I sit down in the booth. “Cut!” Everything goes silent.

READ: The Very First Thing You Should Do on Set

Then from the back of the room, a sound that still raises the hair on my neck. The director screams out, “well that sucked!” It’s a punch to the stomach. Every single person turns to look at me. Every. Person. Even the real employees. Maybe not the sound guy who quickly puts on his headphones to check to see if all of his mics have just blown out.

You can hear me swallow. And I won’t lie, my first thought was, “I’m fired.”

But wait. I came in, I sat down in the booth. I did exactly what I was supposed to do. What’s going on? Then I understood.

This director is secretly terrified.

In my class, we talk a lot about being in service. Being present in the moment to recognize what is actually needed in the moment. It is our strongest tool as actors and is the only thing we actually have control over. By recognizing the fear in these moments, we can deal with it both in ourselves and in others in a deeper, more effective way.

I recognized in that moment that the director was nervous, both by the tone of his voice (masked as aggression) and by the fact that I did exactly what I’d been directed to do. So, very gently, I responded over the silence, “What do you need?”

Not “I am so sorry.” Not “please don’t fire me.” Not “what the hell are you talking about I came in and sat down in the booth.” Instead, “what do you need?” Service.

Silence. Then he screams out, “OK, moving on. Next shot.”

The army moves on to the next shot, the sound guy removes my mic and I’m done.
The director was just posturing, showing everyone on set who was boss, but with me he had no ship to put this barnacle on. I let it pass through and got right to the truth of the matter which was that I was just there to help. But for a second I knew exactly how those pigeons had felt when I found out I booked the job, and pigeons, I am so sorry.

Bill Coelius has been in numerous television shows including “American Horror Story: Hotel,” “Parks and Rec,” “The Office,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Law and Order,” and many others. His movies include “Taking Woodstock” directed by Ang Lee, and “Brave New Jersey” with Tony Hale. He has also booked 49 national commercials which has allowed him to visit Buenos Aires, hang out with James Gandolfini, and get naked on 43rd Street. He also teaches acting in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, and Detroit. Visit to learn more. Bill is also teaching a commercial acting “taster” class in New York City on June 6, 6-7:30 p.m. at Simple Studios. To register, contact

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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