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The Drama Triangle & Difficult Personalities: How to Deal with Film Industry Quirkiness

By Lydia Hurlbut

“Difficult People are your key to self empowerment, you need to learn how to cope with them, not let them dominate and affect you.”
– Janice Davies

I have been married to Shane and surrounded by the film industry for 25 years this October. I was lucky to find my soul mate so early. It has given me a lot of time to observe and counsel behind the scenes. The variety of personalities and ways of interrelating have always fascinated me because there are so many layers to what really makes people tick. Initially, it is easy to personalize difficult encounters. However, with both time and wisdom, it makes much more sense to remove the ego and have a wider lens.

Film industry quirkiness is notorious. Big personalities, intense time pressure, and thousands of dollars riding on getting the shots to make your day. As a filmmaker, how do you deal with difficult personalities, especially if you are stuck with someone on a long feature?

In this scene from The Godfather (one of my favorites), Al Pacino’s character wrestles with making new choices but gets pulled back into the same old way of relating; a way that increasingly makes him so uncomfortable it impacts his physical health. Drama is the common denominator.
 

 
The Two Critical Questions:

1. Do you feel like your life is filled with drama?
2. Is your energy drained? Are you surrounded by constant criticism and negativity?

The Drama Triangle. Remember this triangle and the different roles associated with it. The order of the triangle does not matter. I just prefer to have a hero at the top.
 
chart
 
VILLAIN: If someone is in villain mode, think attack/defend. They are fighting, yelling, “raging against the machine.” Explosively reactive and constantly looking for a new target. No one is immune from their barrage of verbal and possibly physical abuse.

VICTIM: It is the person constantly complaining and struggling with how the world has wronged them. Life is without any solutions because no one really understands their unique problems. They have no desire to move on because getting attention through manipulation is the primary focus.

HERO: The person who swoops in and saves the day. Endlessly solution oriented and people pleasing. Smoothing over the choppy waters of the villain or boosting up the victim. Exhausting on both fronts because the work is relentless and never finished.

These roles are what make people seem “difficult” to deal with, because they are all dependent on one another. In order to engage with someone in villain mode, you need to either be in victim or hero mode. We may subconsciously get caught in the trap without realizing it. It is a sticky web because the triangle is entwined, energy draining and reactive! We have all met emotional vampires, the people whose energy sucks you dry and leaves you exhausted.

The dramatic triangle is a bad habit, perhaps something we learned in childhood. It is also a bit fun because life is always frenetic, chaotic and never boring. Simultaneously, it is dangerous because people in that mode have very poor boundaries and communication skills. They are energetically weak and not coming from a position of power and strategy, which does not promote great cinematic images or healthy long-term relationships with directors.

Choose to step off the triangle and watch the shift. It is a powerful and proactive way of communicating. It allows you to feel in a higher creative flow, empowered to take responsibility, and available for job opportunities. In your next interview or shoot, please just observe the way people interrelate.

You can relate to people still on the triangle in a calm, supportive and unreactive manner once you have stepped outside that zone. It allows you to stand in your truth, as difficult as that truth may be. The truth often requires difficult, uncomfortable conversations that everyone dreads. As long as the intention of the conversation is pure and value centered with the greater good in mind, it may be easier than you think. Sometimes, sandwiching the criticism between positive acknowledgements may work well so the conversation begins and ends on a positive note. The hard truth is still present as the “meat.”

Here is an example of standing in truth from A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise is getting at the ultimate truth and attempting to lead Jack Nicholson off the triangle.
 

 
Ask yourself, “What is really important?” “Will you choose to be authentic, healthy and centered?” ”Where do you feel stuck?” The first step is identifying the issues or problem areas.

What situations have you encountered with people on the Drama Triangle and what has worked for you?

Author: Lydia

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13 Comments

  1. Wow Lydia,

    Thank you so much for this post. It was amazing. I always feel in the triangle. I work mostly with people who don’t understand filmmaking/docs/commercials but try to do quality work for them without them understanding the time and commitment it takes to give what they are asking for. This is a great response from the heart and I’m sure will be helpful when put into practice.

    Congratulations on 25 years of marriage. That’s amazing. I actually have wondered about that after spending a year of following this site, I’ve actually offend wondered how you deal with the demands Shane’s work has on him and his schedule within the marriage and family construct. I don’t want to ask too many personal questions but I’m really interested.

    I’m in a relationship moving towards marriage. Though I worry about my time commitments towards her and toward my work and keeping the same quality of work. It seems to me most of the guys posting amazing stuff on vimeo and doing great work out there with small crews or one man crews are all late 20s or early 30s single guys. I value my relationship and the marriage covenant, but often times finding myself having to choose, either the relationship or my work, and quality work. How is it that you’ve been able to make a long lasting marriage work with the interesting demands that hollywood places on Shane?

    Hope this is not too intrusive, but a balanced personal life with work is a topic that is still is within bounds of how to be a great DP or filmmaker I feel. It can be depressing sometimes loving my work but finding myself asking bigger questions about life when flying all over the world for shoots and then hunkered down in a cave editing while everyone else gets to enjoy a family. I love my work and where I’m at with it but don’t want to miss out on other blessings life has to offer.

    Thanks again for the post.

    Post a Reply
    • Derek,
      Your enthusiasm is contagious! Thank-you for the great response and kind words.

      The topic of making a relationship work in the film business is a tricky one because it is unique for every couple. What makes it tough is the relentlessness of the hours and travel demands. Shane and I have always taken it movie by movie and considered the needs of our children based on age. Travel was much easier when they were younger. Now, at ages 11 and 15, it is more difficult with the demands of school and sports. “Perfect Balance” is illusive as there are always choices to be made with many demands for a given time period. At times, work takes precedence and you feel grateful for the opportunity to be on a project and collaborating. Then, family has to be first for a bit to reconnect. I view it as flow rather than balance.

      For us, what works is being mindful and present each day with choices and decisions. I hope that helps!

      You seem to love what you do and care deeply about your relationship which make thoughtful decisions a given. Best of luck to you.

      Post a Reply
  2. This is a great article for LIFE not just the intense persona of my industry brethren and sisters – LYDIA -Thanks for a great reminder of how to behave decently.

    Post a Reply
    • Johnathan,
      Thank-you for the kind words and taking the time to respond. Leadership skills are critical for success in all areas of life! It is a passion of mine and I will write more
      in the future.

      Post a Reply
  3. Great post. Thank you for the reminder.
    This is more important in the business of filmmaking than any post the the latest gear!

    Post a Reply
    • Jan Becker, thank you very much for your kind words and your support. Gear is gear, leadership, the art of cinematography, lighting, and composition is what we are about.

      Post a Reply
  4. Very good stuff! Thanks.

    Post a Reply
  5. Lydia-
    This was a great article as usual. Something I think all of us (especially those in the business) can learn from and use on the next shoot. Although it can be hard to put yourself out of the triangle when you are on the 9th hour of shooting, I will make sure to think of this and help get myself in the right state of mind and concentrate on the job at hand.

    To answer your question at the end, what works for me is reminding myself I am doing what I love and keeping the passion alive to make what I am shooting the best it can be.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    Post a Reply
  6. Thank you Lydia for a great post. Your words have helped me through a difficult shoot this week.

    Post a Reply
  7. I so love this. I would love to see more

    Post a Reply
  8. I would very much like to welcome the film professionals to use the military history and military value to keep and protect Americas freedom to more get involved with our community as a responsible partner and involved in the many community partnerships at ft Bragg and Fayetteville NC
    David
    SF retired

    Post a Reply

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