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

  • July 10, 2013
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
The Drama Triangle & Difficult Personalities: How to Deal with Film Industry Quirkiness

Today we’re taking a look at how to deal with some of the difficult personalities you’ll come across in the film industry, and the mighty drama triangle.

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 over 25 years. 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.

The Drama Triangle Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

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?


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