Eddie Jemison on the “chemistry and mystery” of teamwork

Later this month I’ll be presenting “To infinity and beyond! Using Skype group calls to do cross-border read-throughs of movies” at the 6th International Symposium on Digital Technologies in Foreign Language Learning (March 29, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto).

As part of my preparation, I talked to actor Eddie Jemison, best known for his role as high-tech expert Livingston Dell in Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13. He provided some wonderful insights into the teamwork behind three of the greatest ‘ensemble movies’ of all time.

Eddie_Jemison

Photo from IMDb.com – Photo by Michael Caulfield
© WireImage.com

In the extract below, he shares some fascinating thoughts on creating “a net of goodwill”, and providing a “safe place” where people can be themselves.

Q: With Ocean’s 11, Steven Soderbergh [the director] said the challenge was “to have camaraderie … without having it look like the cast were having more fun making the movie than you are watching it.” In general, this is a key objective for many different kinds of teams: achieving camaraderie, but not simply for the sake of it. Was there anything in particular that helped the Ocean’s 11 cast to hit the perfect sweet spot (camaraderie with a higher purpose, if you like)?

A: There was real camaraderie on the set and it was hard to put your finger on where it started.

My guess would be from the leader, George Clooney. He was the leader in the film and on set as well. He and Brad Pitt seemed to bond and they cast a net of goodwill to everyone on the set, not only the 11 actors but to the entire crew. They knew everyone’s names, talked to everyone equally, but humour was by far the tool that broke the ice. Good jokes, bad jokes, bawdy jokes, impressions, comical bits, pranks, practical jokes, playing characters, stories. Every one shared stories at any and every moment. Funny stories, personal stories, embarrassing stories, stories about other people.

George Clooney really enjoyed setting people up and pranking them. There were basketball games on set, balloon fights, little contests that came up in the moment, who could out do someone else in some small task, teasing. And at night, everyone hung out together, casual parties, drinking, dinners, many many poker games.

It came from the very top, too. Producer Jerry Weintraub went to great expense to make sure that the entire cast had a safe place at the hotels, away from the crowds, to hang and talk and drink and share stories and meals. A safe place to be loud and be themselves and not movie stars.

The environment on set was always fun, always lively, always loose. Game playing and in-jokes kept everyone on the same team and on the same page. There were times that Steven Soderbergh had to calm us down, redirect the energy, but with all the respect we had for him and with so much general goodwill, it was easy to refocus and get back on track.

It is difficult to say what the right mix is, where camaraderie gets in the way of creativity. I’m not sure there is a formula to it or an exact limit to fun before it gets in the way of work. The best you can do is feel your way. There were times during Ocean’s 12 that I personally thought it was more fun than productive, and yet my best memories are from that film in particular. There were times during Ocean’s 13 where I felt it wasn’t nearly fun enough throughout.

It is difficult to judge the balance. There is a chemistry and mystery at work and it is difficult to control, but certainly the cues for camaraderie come from the top and work their way down. None of the smaller actors like myself or the crew members would have known how to behave if it weren’t for Jerry Weintraub setting the stage for fun, George Clooney and Brad Pitt slinging their arms around everyone to form a brotherhood, and Soderbergh shaping the energy into good work.

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