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Hugh Schulze on his keys to empowering people—on a movie set and at a creative agency

Hugh Schulze on his keys to empowering people—on a movie set and at a creative agency

Melissa sits down with Hugh Schulze, author, movie director, and owner of c|change, to discuss how he gets the most from his movie crews and creative professionals to produce award‑winning results.

Melissa: Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior your host. On this podcast, I talk to top culture makers in the world today to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up this often overlooked superpower of organizations.

Season three of cultur(ED) is focused on change makers in the arts. I’m honored to have with me Hugh Schulze, who is the CEO of an acclaimed creative marketing agency, c|change headquartered in Chicago, and also an award winning film director and producer as well as an author. I’m lucky to have worked with Hugh and his agency for many years. Welcome Hugh, and thank you so much for joining us. It’s really fun, by the way, to have this, the tables turn right now, I’m enjoying that.


Hugh: Thank you, this is an honor. 

Melissa: Well, first off, congratulations on the release of your new movie Dreaming Grand Avenue. We are in the midst of a pandemic even still. So, what’s it like to launch a movie in the middle of COVID-19? 


Hugh: Yeah. Well, we finished the actual filming of Dreaming Grand Avenue, about a year and a half, before COVID officially hit. And even at that time, you know, the movie industry was going through a tremendous change with video on demand all the platforms, Netflix, and Hulu and STARZ all sort of competing with distributors and major Hollywood distributors. So, there was already some stuff in the mix and then COVID hit. And even now, as we’re talking James Bond, has yet to be released, The Dune release has been pushed back. And so for us, the big challenge was, how do we do this in the middle of all of this chaos? And the advantage for us has been, we’ve been able to get some video on demand streaming platforms. But obviously you pay a cost for that and then you’re sort of doing this hoping that you’ll get a larger reach, with more people, kind of going in and word of mouth, passing that information on. So it’s less about marketing, now and more about social networking and connecting the viewers to the movie. 


Melissa: Well, it’s exciting, very, really, exciting. 

To produce a movie is an enormous undertaking with all the moving parts, so many people to coordinate. And it’s also a short-term project—right, it’s something you have to stand up and then eventually ramp down. So how do you prepare for the ramp up of culture that needs to take place on the set in addition to all the logistics, the sets, the actors, the actresses, etc? How do you create that culture in such a short period of time that breeds creativity from the moment people start arriving on the set?


Hugh: Well, you know, in terms of making a film, the culture is really one of, kind of a three ring circus, you have day players who come on, and they’re used to working for a short period of time, coming onto a movie, working for 30 days or however long the shoot is—and then rolling off of it and waiting for the next job and the next job. And there’s a certain adrenaline rush from that, for people who are involved in the movies. As a director, for me, a lot of people talk about budget, in terms of how many cameras you’re going to be able to have, the talent that you can hire, the different crew people that you can bring on. But a key element for me as a director is getting pre-production right. Because the more we get pre-production, right, the better, production will be, and there’s always surprises in the midst of production, but I strongly believe like a lot of directors, that if you’ve got the pre-production, right then the mistakes that you make during production can actually add to the film and provide some surprises, or interest, or whatever. But when I say pre-production I’m meaning, I would love to be able to have actors rehearse together. But very often, the budget only allows them to come onto camera and work together for a certain period of time. I would love to be able to storyboard everything, and make sure the shots are aligned. For your listeners, if you’re ever looking for an interesting lesson in terms of making movies, the storyboards, that Alfred Hitchcock did for North By North-west, you can see literally every shot that he did before he ever set up the cameras or had Cary Grant run through a field. So, it’s great to be able to have that luxury, or budget, if you can do that prior to production. But usually, the bulk of the money goes into production. 


Melissa: Yeah, so you’ve got all these people coming now–day workers. Unfortunately, you’re saying sometimes you don’t have the budget to set up the pre-production. What do you do as a director, when everyone does start arriving onset to create that tone, that environment that really helps bring out everybody’s best and create the best possible movie you can?


Hugh: You can know when, when people are making movies about making movies, they often show, like the everybody coming together and the director kinda giving them the big speech, the locker room speech, before we go out and shoot. And actually, I think one of the keys to success of anything, are the one-on-one interactions with department heads. So if I’m talking to the cinematographer, the cinematographer wants to have a conversation with me about the vision of the film. He doesn’t necessarily need me to cheerlead the whole group, and in fact, when that’s happening, he’s probably checking his messages to see what his next gig is going to be. 

But it’s the same thing with the sound engineer or the wardrobe person. We’ve had some great people on Dreaming Grand Avenue and the one-on-one conversations I’ve had, have been instrumental in making sure that everybody sort of got my vision. But there were conversations that were separate from each other. The cinematographer didn’t need to be in the same room with the wardrobe person. So that, I think, is one of the things that a lot of people see us as cheerleaders. And certainly, when you’re on set, you want to do that. You want to have that sense of everything under control. But generally, it’s more allowing people to be heard about what their ideas are because that’s what I enjoy, in doing this—is seeing people who are the real professionals. I cannot operate a camera. I mean, I can tell you the difference between different lenses and what their effect is going to be. But I need that cinematographer to really tell me the best way, the best lighting that we’re going to get, and have a conversation about them. 


Melissa: So, curious, since you are not only as we’ve been talking, a director, and a producer, but also a CEO. Have you pulled in that same concept of one-on-one that you do onset into your business, and how does that work? 


Hugh: Yeah, I think everyone wants to be heard, and I mean, really heard. They don’t want you to just be there telling them what your vision is. It’s like, I know that you have certain skills, and let’s talk about this. What’s the best way that you’re going to feel good at the end of the day, about what we’re doing together. So it is a mix of that. 

I would say that, c|change has been around now for 20 years and usually it’s the big gatherings that get people energized, but people still want to have that one-on-one. But I think that on a film set, you’re moving so quickly, that you need, like, OK, let’s start off with the start of the day. I’ll give everyone a shot list, so everybody kind of knows what we’re shooting through the day. You can’t do that every day in a company to kind of give the specific shot list of what you’re going to do. But, by the same token we try and have at least quarterly meetings where everybody’s brought into one place, pre-COVID this was, and just talking. 


Melissa: So you mentioned about pre-production and one of the things you said, you’d love for actors to be able to rehearse together before they actually get on set. So, that kind of reminds me of when I think about putting on a movie, I think of like almost extreme teamwork , right? You talked about shots being a storyboarded before they’re actually storyboarded. I think I’ve read or seen that sometimes down to the minute where things are organized and planned. So it’s kind of like extreme teamwork, in my mind, in order for it to come to life. So what do you do if you don’t have the budget in pre-production? How do you make that teamwork really sing, from day one?


Hugh: I think it’s a combination of things. one is having the trust in your team to ask for options. For example, we had something scripted that was going to be shot and needed to be shot on the Southwest side of Chicago that was a quarry and the cost and everything else, from getting the whole crew down to the Southwest side, of getting the permissions to shoot in the quarry of doing all this—it was just the budget wouldn’t take that. So, two weeks before the shoot, we said, we need another option. Well, I know somebody who has a tour boat company in Chicago. And what we did was we completely reconfigured the scene to be shot on a tour boat on the Chicago River at two o’clock in the morning. 

And that may sound like a tremendous arduous task, but in many ways, because it was in Chicago, because we had the people there, it was really just a matter of getting the tour company to agree to let us run their boats at that time. And it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, which came about as a, here’s a solution to a problem, and here’s somebody who can help us do that. So that’s kind of what I mean about the surprises that come up, in movies and can really change the look and feel of a film. I’m not sure how the movie would look if we shut down the quarry on the Southwest side, but it’s a different film because of that. 


Melissa: I get that actually. I think that also plays—I mean maybe not in the same way in business, but sometimes surprises and things that you have to pivot in the middle of a problem do become blessings in disguise, or you make lemonade out of lemons, or whatever you want to call it. And sometimes they become some of the best part of whatever solutions we as business people come up with. So I think that resonates with me actually, even as a as a CEO, myself. 

So tell us a little bit about, you know, I think the movies—everything you read from, like Us magazine, to whatever’s on the shelf in the supermarkets back when we used to go to supermarkets was around the drama, that ensues on movie sets. And a lot of times in the tabloids, it’ll talk about the actor that’s the diva or the actress that’s difficult to work with. So, tell us when you encounter some of these difficult personalities onset, what type of things do you do to make sure that that individual or that group of individuals doesn’t create the wrong culture for the set that you’re trying to develop? 


Hugh: Yeah, it sort of ties into running a company juncture. We’ve actually run into this a lot. So, I guess I don’t really think of it as a multi-step process. But the first thing I’m trying to do is just have a one-on-one conversation. Away from everybody else, away from members of their department. And I remember there’s one case where basically, what I tried to say was my disappointment was this person was sort of relying on the rest of the department to do things. And her expertise was not really being brought to the game; I can see where things were not being done as well. So, one is to sort of work with that person one-on-one. In terms of a movie set, what I try and do is, then, if that person is just—their head’s out of game, they’re just, they’re not working with us, is to work around them. If it’s an actor that you’re having a particularly difficult time with is to lean on some of the shots of other actors, who are reacting to the other actor. So they’re not on camera, and you’re not relying on them quite as much. But you’re still getting, kind of the mood and the elements of emotion that you want from the scene itself. But you’re not just on them the whole time if they’re not working. If it’s the rest of their department, maybe you do bring in other people to kind of work around that. 

We had somebody that we brought in and they were being interviewed for a particular position. And it was like everything they said could come out of a Broadway musical. The energy was just there, every answer to every question, was just so intense, so great and so loud, and we sat down and thought about it, and we thought, you know, we’re a quiet company. We really need somebody to lead like this because this person is going to bring a lot of energy and it’s going to move us forward. And people come in and talk about how quiet we are and is that a good thing? So we brought that person on and within 60 days, it was just a total nightmare. Because with that volume comes a certain drama as well. This is somebody trying to be dramatic. And I think that’s really where we realized that our quiet in the office is because we don’t like drama. We just want to ask what the client wants, and the client brings enough drama. We don’t need to add to that. 

And I think that trusting yourself and your own culture—I was a little embarrassed that I felt this person will solve our limitations of energy. And it worked out the opposite way. 


Melissa: So what lessons have you taken from the set and brought back to c|change? 


Hugh: I think one of the things that is great about moving from a movie where everything is intense and you’ve got, you know, your 10-hour day, and you’re just there and you’re only in that location for that day, and you’ve gotta get everything—is that you have more time, that maybe the problem doesn’t mean to be solved this second. Maybe if we wait till tomorrow and talk about it, then there’ll be less energy around this. And all parties will feel a little less engaged in this. It’s not to just push things off or we’re not going to deal with the problem. But I think there’s an urgency, sometimes, that you’re doing it whether it’s on a set or in a company, that would benefit from just a walk around the block. 

I remember my first film, Cass. We were shooting at night, and it was just—there was a very large confrontation that happened with the lighting crew, and they messed up big time on it. And rather than saying anything, I just turned around and walked off set. I walked, I don’t know, maybe walked half a mile or a mile, just walked around the neighborhood and eventually found my way back. And what I realized is when I came back, everything had been fixed and reset and, you know, people were moving. And it was actually my not confronting people that freaked everyone out. Like, where did he go? What happened here? They weren’t sure what was going to happen when I came back. So, part of it is just letting other people solve it too and seeing what happens. If I’m going to trust them professionally, then I also need to trust them professionally to solve it. 


Melissa: So I think, you know, you work in a business environment with c|change which is also a creative environment and then obviously a creative environment on set. So how do you balance giving feedback? You know, especially in an environment where a lot of it’s very subjective. So, I’m curious how do you give that feedback that continues to motivate people, continues to have people want to participate, want to be part of a good culture. I’m curious—any advice or tips you might, you might have? 


Hugh: I think I’m always learning from that. Everybody takes feedback in their own way. Some people have a whole lot of ego that goes with that and you know that if you’re being even the least bit critical that it’s going to be just—and sometimes it comes in because they’re very professionally driven and any critique is just going to be heartbreaking. There are other people that just want you to say what it is you want to do, and let’s move on; I don’t want to talk about, I don’t want to go into this, just tell me what to do. And so part of pre-production is really learning the language of each person for that creative dialog. 

A sound person can be incredibly uncommunicative because they’re more of the technician. But you’re dealing in sound, and you feel like, hey, we should be able to talk about this, and whatever. And at times, you could just see glazing over and the conversation is not happening at all. And it’s just tell me where I should go.

Whereas with an actor, then they want to go wander around. I’ll give an example on a short film I did. We had a child actor who was phenomenal, it was a 10 year old boy, and he was just like one of the best actors I’ve seen. And he was sitting there, and he was hitting every line he was doing. It was just fantastic. And then all of a sudden he froze up on camera. And there was nothing. And then he burst into tears. So I shut everything down, and we went for a walk. And just sat way back, as far as you go away from everybody else. And what it was, is that he had been so cranked up for that first hour. That when it was over with when, when he hit his first line that he didn’t remember, it all fell apart for him. And so, really, it was a matter of just calming him down and walking backwards a little bit, so that he could catch his breath. But we were, as adults, we were like let’s go, you really got it kid, and we didn’t give him the break he needed to come back from the next breath. And he did. 

But everyone else is kind of lost on the set, wondering what was going on while I was sitting down in the back of the studio working with him. 


Melissa: So you talked about the person who was super loud and brought a lot of drama to your organization. That was for c|change, correct? So when you are looking for members of your crew for a film, what is the balance of the right skills that you look for, along with the right kind of balance of how they’re going to add to and contribute to the culture? What do you look for when you’re trying to find people to bring onto your movies? 


Hugh: I like people to take responsibility for what they do. When I’m interviewing somebody, and they talk about all the problems that happened on the last shoots, whatever their role might have been, a red flag goes off for me. I’d rather hear them talk about what they’re proud of, what they did within that period of time. Now, granted, sometimes things don’t go well and people wanted, you know, they’re venting about a past shoot that never got out of the edit room, never saw the light of day. But when people have those sorts of difficulties, they’re very rarely talking about their own skills and work. And I like to hear somebody talk about what they solved and what they were happy to see. We had a production designer who I wrote, the script for Dreaming Grand Avenue, and she was the production designer on it. And I would say that every difficult thing we went through, she made it better than what I can possibly imagine in the script. We had maybe one disagreement about one aspect of the shoot. She came back to me, and I won’t get into the details for this, but it was the bathroom tiles in a particular scene. 

And she’d come to me with these two bathroom tiles that she was absolutely dead set on. I just felt that it was noisy and was going to create competition with other things going on in the scene. And she really fought hard for those two bathroom tiles. And I said, you know, I just, here’s what I’ve seen come in, and why they’re not working for me. Then the next morning, I mean, this was a late night conversation pendulum. And the next morning when I came in, there were three different bathroom sitting in my seat in my production office that were completely different from what was brought up before. So it was somebody who was listening to me when I was listening to them as well, and trying to find a way where the gap between what she saw and what I was seeing.


Melissa: So I think debuting a movie and publishing a new book could probably parallel bringing a new product to market, or maybe even launching a new business. So, what lessons have you learned about launching new products or new businesses that would make you even better for the next go round?


Hugh: When I think about a movie, or book, or any product that we’re doing for a client. The last 10 years, everyone’s used the word disruption. And, you know, everything is going to be every industry, every type of interaction is being disrupted. And you can certainly see that in the film industry. I mean, Netflix and Cannes still are not talking, so you know, a Netflix film can’t get into the Cannes Film Festival. So, it’s constantly a changing field. But I think the word I’m going to get tired of in the next 10 years, is hybrid.


Melissa: Tell me why? 

Hugh: I just think that as we look at our office, I signed a lease for our office for c|change in January of 2020. And in March, we shut the doors. So I signed a 10-year lease and now, we’re on the hook for this for 10 years. And, we’re not sure who’s going to be coming back. We know that some people want to stay and work from home. We know that some people like coming in the office, partially. But that is going to be true of every industry and every company, in their own way is going to have their own hybrid. And I think that’s true of the film industry as well. 

So, when people talk about, do you release in theaters first and then go on video on demand three weeks after. I mean, two years ago, three years ago, it was bold they were bold to say that you were going to put something on video on demand at the same time you’re releasing in theaters. You were always and releasing in theaters first. Well, we’ve got to rethink that, now. As a professional who does interviews of other people on video, if you’d asked me three years ago, would we be doing video interviews by Zoom? I would have said, there is no way, the quality isn’t there. We’re going to get a crew into New York City. We’re going to find a conference room, we’re going to bring somebody into the conference room. We’re going to light it just right. 

And you know, now we got people’s macrame and stuff on the walls. And so we actually do find ways of communicating and everybody comes to accept it because that’s the way we’re all able to best communicate at the moment. And I find that kind of refreshing that we’ve all been able, in some ways, to adapt to Zooms, you know, Google meetings and really get work done. 


Melissa: You had mentioned earlier about when you have an individual that can be a challenge, one of the things you do want to set is to work around them right? You lean into another shot of someone else if you’re not getting it for them. Is there anything, any thoughts you have on translating that same concept into an office setting? 


Hugh: It would only be short-term, because really, what you’re doing is, you’re just evading a problem. The curse of a company is we gotta do it every day and we’re going to do it not just for this month. There are tricks you can do so the viewer doesn’t see the conflict you’re having. But if you and the person in the office have a conflict, it’s got to be dealt with. You can’t really trick around it. And I think that is when they talk about the magic of movies. You hear about these films where the romantic leads didn’t get along at all. And you’re like, oh my gosh, how did that happen? Well you can do that with a movie, you can edit around it and you can find ways of doing this. But that’s the beauty and the horror of working day to day in an office. You’ve got to kind of confront that. And the trick is there to do it in a way where people don’t get defensive. 


Melissa: So, what is the first word that comes to mind when you think of culture? 

Hugh: When I think about culture I think back to college Biology and the Petri dish. For me every company is its own Petri dish. We’ve had people who will thrive in a large company, hundreds of people. They want to be in a large enterprise. We’re a smaller company, you know, thirty some people and we have certain people who really like that, who like that intimacy, who like to be able to know–I like to be able to know everybody’s name. I can’t imagine having a company where there are people whose names, I don’t know. I mean it sort of freaks me out. I don’t know why, but it does. In the same way, you know, being on a set, you want, even if it’s a PA, a production assistant, that you’re working with, you want to be able to say, hey, thank you for doing that, or thank you for getting that together, or getting that out of the way it was in the back of a shot. But you want to just make sure that everybody’s feeling like they’re contributing and a part of it, so that when you’re finally showing whatever the final product is, that everyone feels invested in it. 


Melissa: And the one question we ask all of our guests, if you could have a super power, what would it be and why? 

Hugh: You know, can I have a counter superpower? I’d like to have clairvoyance, but I’d like it to be counter-clairvoyance, where people can read my mind. So many problems happen in an office because the communication. Sometimes, I think if you could just read my mind, we wouldn’t have a problem there. But I’m just not saying it, right. I’m not I’m not helping you get to the solution in the right way and it’s in a way because they can’t read my mind. 


Melissa: I like that. I think a Petri Dish and reverse clairvoyance are my, the first ones I’ve ever heard and I like them. Well, Hugh, thank you so much for your time today. It’s so wonderful to hear how great you are doing. And congratulations again on your latest film and thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. 

Hugh: Thank you, it was a real pleasure. 


Melissa: Thanks for listening to our cultur(ED) podcast, if you like the show and want to learn more check out our cultur(ED) website, and please follow us on iTunes. If you’d like to know more about our research, visit