Stop Looking At The Pieces
One of the frustrating things about working on this movie is that I am not supposed to talk about it… yet. But things are looking really good and sooner or later I will be sharing a lot. What I can talk about are some of the epiphanies I have had while climbing this particular mountain. As both writer and director on this film, a great deal of the movie is locked up in my head, and others working with me have to patiently wait for it to come out. During each phase of the project, a new pile of ingredients must be assembled into a whole: The script. The storyboards. The music score. Each one is its own little project. At each phase, the producers and crew around me go through a period where they are totally in the dark and nervous about how the ingredients will come together. Because they don’t have the luxury of living in my head. They have to sit outside my head and wait for it all to assemble. And it doesn’t matter how much I talk about it in detail, there are still nerves. “Well, is that going to be cheesy?” “Is that going to be confusing?” “Hmm, that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be good.”
Well it IS going to be good, trust me! I just KNOW it! (FYI, it doesn’t work when the director keeps saying that.) The truth is, half the time I don’t really, actually, honestly know if it’s going to all come together and work. I trust that through the process of shuffling enough pieces around, a “whole” will emerge. That’s the process. That’s creation. But anyone watching something being created is confused by it and can be very worried by the mess it has to be before it’s done. Dan Harmon, creator of “Community” and “Rick and Morty” and basically a creative mad scientist, said something really great about this: “If you’re present when things are being created, then what you’re seeing is always going to look like a mistake. It’s messy and a lot of it is wrong until it’s done. No decision makers should be anywhere near where creation is happening.”
Amen. But most of us don’t get to shove everyone out of the room until the art is done. We have to let them be a part of the process. The challenge I have founds is that a lot of a director’s time is spent managing expectations and reactions to the process, not the process itself. You have to keep all these people in the loop as you make something. That’s the job.
One of the biggest hurdles I’ve found with managing these expectations is that, while I’m looking at the “whole,” many others get stuck looking at the pieces. They can obsess over them. Many times I deal with executives who cannot have a conversation about the entree because they are really worried about the ingredients. Not even the recipe, but the single ingredients. Follow me? If I was making a cake, the discussion would not be about how much lemon juice is going in the batter, it would be about how sour and wrong lemon juice seems to be for something as sweet as cake.
“It’s cake! Cake is sweet!”
“Yes, but just a little bit of lemon juice in this particular cake will make the sweet part really good. Trust me.”
“But it’s from LEMONS!” (Producer presses intercom button) Linda, get me a lemon juice specialist. We need to have a meeting on the sweet or sour properties of lemon juice.”
“You’re not listening. It’s not about the lemon juice alone. It’s about how it will taste with everything else. Just let me put the lemon juice in and taste it.”
“The studio just called. They are telling us all kids hate lemon juice.”
I love metaphors. But you see what I mean? It’s not about the ingredients, or the pieces, or even the very skilled talents of individuals. It’s about the collective result of all of it. The end result will ONLY be the unique thing it can be with ALL the ingredients mixed in that unique way. Studios who bet their summers on movie stars or brand names or even “a really good script” still scratch their heads when the whole recipe does not cook up well. They were too focused on landing key ingredients. And no, I don’t know 100% how to make it all work either. If movies were easy, everyone would make hits.
The other part that grinds me is when well-meaning experts tell me the opposite: They tell me that NONE of the ingredients will save me, and any talk of relying on this ingredient or that ingredient is a weak position. As a script is written and rewritten, there’s a point of saturation where the page is not going to reveal anything more. You’ve got to get off the page and add a new “ingredient.” Perhaps the actors will bring something to it, even improv something I could never write. But I’ve had producers tell me, “Don’t rely on your actors to save the script.”
When we are finally storyboarding, there is a concern that the boards don’t have enough comedy or emotion yet. Trust me, I say, we will get more of that when we add music. “But we can’t rely on music to save the boards,” they say. As we edit the boards, dialogue and music together, we are still just watching sketches without much performance in them. I say a lot of that will change as we move into animation, but I’ve had very well-meaning producers tell me, “You can’t rely on animation to save you.”
Over and over, in every phase of the project, I’ve been warned not to lean on one ingredient to help other ingredients. “You can’t rely on actors to save the script.” “You can’t rely on music to save the performance.” “You can’t rely on animation to save the boards.”
While I completely agree that every phase needs to build on a solid foundation from the last one, I realized that another fact is true:
EVERYTHING RELIES ON EVERYTHING ELSE. EVERY PIECE “SAVES” EVERY OTHER PIECE.
Yes, I WILL rely on the acting to save the script, and the music to save the acting, and the editing to save the music, and the animation to save the boards, etc. etc. etc.! NONE of it works until it works together. NONE of it will be “good” or “finished” until I put the last piece in the puzzle. If the joke I wrote is still not funny, many times it’s because the right shot still hasn’t been paired with the right music and the right actor saying it the right way. Directing is all about working the ingredients until they taste good. It’s not math, it’s not a formula, and it doesn’t work the same way every time. Just let me stir everything some more. It’s that annoying creator thing again — it’s all in my head and the cake isn’t done yet.
I will be relying on everybody, thank you. There is no “whole” without the pieces, and I need them all. I think the disconnect and frustration with many who live outside of the creator’s head is that they don’t know how to look at the pieces. Love them only as pieces, and be patient until they form the “whole.”
Now for some reason I really need to go eat some cake.