Fail Early, Fail Often

That great idea that’s swirling around in your head and you want to get just right? Forget it. Or shoot it for nothing. Tomorrow. With one actor playing every part.

Ideas aren’t precious. The best idea you ever had probably just popped into your head one day because you put two disparate thoughts together or smelled a cheeseburger while looking at a rock. Ideas just happen. They are sparked by outside stimulus and the worst thing you can do is put all your faith in a single idea.

I’ve known many a creative soul who have hung onto the one idea they had and tried to make it perfect. Instead of flexing their creative muscles, they’ve treated one concept as if it was going to change the world. And when they did make their dream project and it flopped, they spent years and years plotting the next flop. One idea should not make or break your career.

At an industry meeting this year, I met a young man who was enthusiastically pitching his idea to anyone who would listen to him. He had never directed a short film before, but this film was going to be his foray into Hollywood. It was a science-fiction epic that looked like it would make Avatar’s budget look micro. He had commissioned artists to come up with gorgeous concept art, and was talking about spending $10,000 to shoot a trailer. Within 5 minutes of his pitch, it was clear he’d lifted the plots of the Book of Exodus and Star Wars and jammed them together. He was aiming so high on his first try at anything that he hadn’t given himself a chance to fail.

Fail early, fail often

I’m not any further ahead on my path to making it big than the creator of Moses Skywalker, but I stand by the Japanese proverb of “Fall seven times and stand up eight”. Failure is the only way you learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s in taking an idea and executing it at less than ideal circumstances that we find out how to execute better. We can’t all be Orson Welles, changing cinema forever at the age of 25. That may have been Welles’ film debut, but it’s easy to forget that he’d been working in radio and theatre since he was a teenager, building the storytelling muscles that he’d need to make a film.

I directed 19 short films in about as many weeks in 2009/2010. I don’t think we ever had more than 3 people working on any film, cast and crew combined. Most of the films aren’t very good, but some of them gave me ideas that I was able to carry on into later productions.

There are ways to try ideas out and to learn to let them go. Improv classes are incredibly useful for learning how to let an idea go. You might walk into a scene with a brilliant idea, and a less-than-giving scene partner might discard that in a second. It’ll hurt, but you’ll be too busy trying to figure out the next moment of the scene to hang onto the pain. Can’t afford to make the film idea you so desperately want to do? Grab a friend and shoot it with them as still photos. Scribble it down as a comic book, whether you can draw or not. That way, you’re not only exercising your storytelling muscles, but the important visual ones as well that are so important to filmmaking.

Consider if that idea isn’t better off as a radio play, or a comic book, or a short story. If the idea is good, then explore it more in another medium. But keep working at becoming a better filmmaker. That movie about a dragon pirate mermaid saving the world from space sharks? It can wait a few years while you hone your craft on smaller fare. Most important of all, create because you want to create, not because you want to be a millionaire. Nothing says that better than the story of Van Gogh.

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