How To Collaborate With Catastrophe
On one of the first days of shooting his film, From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez wiped the sweat from his neck and focused his camera toward a gas station filled with dynamite. It was the middle of the Texas desert and soon his actors would walk out and the station would explode behind them. The crew paced. This was the big opening scene. They had one chance to get it right. Rodriguez gave the signal.
“Quiet on the set.”
3, 2, 1…
The poet Robert Burns said it best way back in 1785 with the line, “And even the best-laid plans of both mice and men can go terribly awry.”
What Rodriguez and the crew didn’t know was that the special effects manager mistakenly put too many explosives in the station. As balls of fire tore through the station’s doors and windows the crew was thrilled. They got the shot they needed. But joy turned to terror as the explosion grew and flames engulfed the surrounding set. The set they still needed to shoot.
The production designer started to cry. When the smoke cleared it revealed the charred remains of months of planning and a $15 million movie budget on the line.
Rodriguez himself has spoken about how new filmmakers will complain to him how everything went wrong during their shoot, and how disappointed they become when things don’t work. Of this Rodriguez says, “They don’t realize yet that that’s the job. The job is nothing is going to work out.”
“They don’t realize yet that that’s the job. The job is nothing is going to work out.” -Robert Rodriguez
Think about it: You’ve spent months on preparation. Every step has been outlined. And then, poof. It goes up in flames. What do you do?
There’s almost an unspoken competition in today’s entrepreneurial landscape around who can fail forward the fastest. However, it’s one thing to fail, learn, and move onto the next project. It’s another to turn a catastrophe into a gift that makes the original project better.
Because things are going to go wrong. The funding for your startup isn’t going to come through. The book you dedicated the last year to will be misunderstood. You’ll learn a partner has betrayed you. The ability to respond creatively to these ordeals isn’t just the job of a filmmaker. It’s woven into the job description of life. The job is to confront random acts of disaster and ask, “How can I turn this into a positive? How can I use this to make things better than they were before?
A fitting example of this is the story behind the making of the film, The Room, which was the basis for the James Franco movie, The Disaster Artist. In The Disaster Artist, we see the main character Tommy Wiseau pour an obscene amount of time and money into making what is now widely considered the worst movie of all time. There are lessons of friendship and artistic expression in The Disaster Artist, but the most pivotal scene is when Tommy gets laughed out of the theater at his own movie premiere.
Suddenly, all his work is for nothing. He leaves the screening devastated until his partner chases him down and points out that the crowd is enjoying the movie, just not in the way he intended. What he meant to be a serious drama became a side-splitting comedy simply because it was so awful. And in that moment — on the brink of humiliation and ruin — Tommy somehow found it within himself to smile and say, “Well, of course they’re laughing. That was the plan all along.”
It’s our egos that insist we see our perfect plans through. Our egos tell us we can outsmart the curveballs of life with contingency plans and safety nets. But the true test of creativity is recognizing that, oftentimes, disorder and randomness aren’t happening to us, but for us. The great creative feat of Tommy Wiseau wasn’t his film. It was his ability to abandon his “master plan” and turn what should have been the lowest of lows into a legendary win.
The dust settled on the set of From Dusk Till Dawn and the set designer dried their eyes. The crew stood still, unsure what would happen next. Robert Rodriguez sent his assistant director a cool, “are you thinking what I’m thinking?” glance.
The now-charred structures of the set, pressed against the desert backdrop, brought out deeper feelings of desolation than they thought possible. While they may need to do some exterior repairs later, they now had something unplanned and unimagined. They had a beautiful mistake that would give the film the grit it needed.
If the explosion hadn’t happened the way it did, would the movie be the cult classic it is today? What if Tommy Wiseau had insisted his film was a serious drama and locked it away in a safe? No one knows for sure, but we can guess that both pieces of art would be looked at differently today, if ever looked at at all.
George Borges once wrote, “All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
It’s the raw material we gain from disorder that gives our art, our businesses, and our lives more meaning. When we collaborate with catastrophe, we find the sparks that can’t be manufactured. Through the cracks, comes the light.
What will we do then, when our best-laid plans explode? Will we have the courage and the creativity to see the gifts disguised as disaster?
Can we be like Robert Rodriguez and stand before a distraught crew and a torched movie set and say, “It looks good. Let’s keep shooting.”
“It looks good. Let’s keep shooting.” -Robert Rodriguez