Erik Friedl’s Power and Wonder of Happy Accidents

I’ve long been a believer in — and proponent of — the power of happy accidents. It’s not a new concept, but I first truly understood it when I was working with an independent film maker on six different projects. One of my past life chapters was working at a not-for-profit organization. I was in charge of education and outreach. As part of my job, I wrote and produced six educational films. To do this, I worked with an amazing film maker named Erik Friedl. Erik was what most people think of when they imagine an “independent film maker”: intense, creative, and quirky. He is a fascinating man. He attended boarding school in the Swiss Alps. He sat in on editing sessions with Norman Jewison. He resisted video insisting on the purity and warmth of film-stock. Erik and I got along wonderfully, even though most of the upper management types at the organization couldn’t even hold a five minute conversation with him without their eyes glazing over.

I learned a lot about creativity and vision from Erik. But one of the most significant nuggets he taught me was to “embrace the happy accidents.” If we had a scene to shoot but the weather or the crowds or the animals weren’t cooperating, he would sit back and see what they gave us rather than wring his hands over what they didn’t give us. If we were supposed to shoot at a location but discovered it had been demolished, we would see what the alternatives presented and shoot there. If a random person interrupted an interview and began pontificating, he would keep the camera and reel-to-reel Nogra tape deck rolling just to see what we might get. On more occasions than I can count, the unintentional “gets” were just as good — if not better — than what we planned.

When we write, we may make mistakes. We insert a character we hadn’t planned on involving in that chapter. We write a scene which we later find doesn’t fit into our pre-determined timeline or outline. We insert the wrong without noticing. Our works may not reflect what was in our head, but the accident made them better. (As a perfect and timely example, when I wrote that last sentence, I wanted to write “Our words may not reflect…,” but my fingers wrote “works. I was going to change it, but when I looked at it I preferred the universality of works over words!)

This week, give yourself some leeway as you write. Don’t be so concerned with writing correctly or beating yourself up if you make a mistake. Instead, look it over. Think about it. See if the mistake was really a “happy accident”…then go with it. You never know where it may take you.

John Caruso

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