CrE@+1Ve Collaboration: Work With Me Here People
I have a confession.
I’ve just spent the last who-knows-how-long (I lose track of time when I write) researching the perfect quote. The insane part is that it’s a quote I’ve already memorized, I just haven’t memorized the author. And I’m afraid if I don’t credit a wildly successful person you might not take it seriously.
The quote goes something like this…
A lot of people unconsciously define creativity based on what is trendy. They see the work of successful creatives and then expect creatives on a lower rung of the art-chain to follow their lead. The conflict in true creatives is that their definition of creativity is oftentimes originality, not the ability to copy and follow trends. This can make creatives appear as uncompromising idealists to people who just want to emmulate success, however a little forethought into setting up your relationship for quality collaboration can improve your experience and even make your work that much better.
Collaboration is a word that’s thrown around quite a bit. We all think we know what it means and, at face value, we do.
the action of working with someone to produce something.
Look closer. The key word to focus on is the word with.
Experience has taught me that in many so called collaborations people aren't working with each other. Certain power dynamics and egos can often trump true collaboration. Instead of working together as an orchestra, rogue agents pursue their own agendas, play their own notes, and in some cases subconsciously (or even consciously) sabotage their teammates. Jealousy and insecurity can motivate your tug-of-war team to cross the line and pull in the opposite direction.
So how can you be sure right from the start that you’re entering into a collaboration that will be mutually beneficial? Well, you can learn from making your own mistakes, or you can learn from mine.
Here are a few DCM Filmmaker Collaboration Case Studies:
There’s nothing like the high of actually selling your screenplay. When you get the check in the mail, you almost don’t even want to cash it. You want to frame it. Mostly because you’ve heard romantic tales of famous artists doing the same. They glance at that dollar daily and tell themselves the positive affirmation, from this single buck I will build my empire. But then the reality sets in and you realize that you’re a starving artist. While you’d like to survive off dreams and dreams alone, there’s something to be said for meals that don’t consist of mainly Top Ramen.
After optioning my second feature-length screenplay, I was thrust into the fun world of rewrites. It’s the instant success of “Yes, kid we love your script! Here’s the check. Now change everything about it!” I labored through 4 subsequent drafts of the screenplay in an attempt to make the producer happy, however, with each version I’d finish, I felt further away from the final draft - not closer.
Our production meetings would go something like this:
I don’t like page 6.
Okay, what can I do to improve it?
I don’t know. You’re the writer.
Yes, but what don’t you like about it?
I don’t know. It just doesn’t work.
Well would this work better… (suggest new idea)
No, don’t like that either.
How about (endless cycle of suggestions)
Lesson Learned: Avoid working with people who don’t bring their own ideas to the table.
While you might want to hog the creativity for yourself, working with others who bring their own contributions can only make your art stronger. A collaborator is someone who helps with the process… not someone who has no idea what they want and lacks vision. Quality collaborators won’t make your life more difficult, but will empower you to tell the best possible version of your story.
Q. What is the number one reason why people are likely to hire you?
A. Your previous work.
If someone likes your portfolio then you’ve already done more than half of the job convincing them to hire you. However, what happens after you're on the payroll and now they don't like the work you're doing?
Have you ever felt like you were hired on the merit of your creativity, only to have your creativity stifled? I worked for a client who gave me an endless amount of praise prior to hiring me - too much in fact. They would pile it on thick and even I would think “Thanks, I mean I think my work is good, but this is just ridiculous.” Interestingly enough, as soon as I was hired the client became impossible to please. I would spend hours laboring to make sure my work was absolutely perfect and then when I’d submit the close to finished product they’d tear it to shreds.
What was I doing wrong? How could I work so hard to deliver something that I was convinced the client asked for, only to fail so miserably that they wanted me to go back to the drawing board?
This dynamic went on for about two years across a wide variety of creative projects. Even though I was caught in a constant cycle of dissatisfaction, for some reason this collaborator wanted to keep me around. I felt my creative efforts were underappreciated at best and that I was being personally abused at worse.
Was I too sensitive and egotistical that I couldn't take notes, or was it that this abuse was part of their process so they could feel like they were contributing?
Lesson Learned: Some people just need to have something to say even when there’s little to be said.
To quote George Lois, "Reject Analysis Paralysis. Get the Big Idea, think it through - it all fits. You know it's right, you know it's ambitious... it thrills every cell in your body. Do not analyze it. Trust your gut. Trust your insticts."
One of the best assets any creative person has is their instinct. As all artists know, our work is very personal to us, so an attack on our art can feel personal. If you follow your instinct and then are being told consistently that you're wrong, you start to fear your ability to make good judgement calls. You become constantly afraid of making mistakes. Paralysis can set in and you become afraid to speak up and share your honest opinion lest you be shot down again. This dynamic is not conducive to good work.
Work with people who understand the big picture rather then the ones who obsess over that single pixel or single line of dialog. Attention to detail is important, but majoring in the minors will kill creative productivity.
Then there are those collaborations we all live for. The ones where it all just gels.
I’ve experienced enough of these to see the consistent benefit of a zen collaborative environment, and as it just so happens my most recent project, Nora, was one such collaboration.
After attending a networking night, I was approached by a junior-doctor turned film-producer who had a vision. He was tired of medical films being dry and boring. His theory, if we focus on the human elements instead of clinical data we can open minds and effectively relate to the needs of patients.
From day one the concept was clear. Do something different.
In collaborating on the screenplay, we let our characters speak for themselves. We developed a narrative that would personify the NHS in the body of an elderly woman on her 70th birthday. Like our favorite allegories, we filled our narrative with symbolism. For example, the threat of Nora being put into a convalescent home would symbolise the threat of health-care privatisation. This wasn't a story about us. It was a story about the greater good. About a transformation in the perception of people with vested interests in an public service that was in need of leadership. In order to deliver a powerful narrative that was both transformative and accurate, we needed to open ourselves and listen.
The open atmosphere we created around our production attracted well over 100 applicants which we narrowed down to a cast and crew of just over 20 key players. Roles were written around the strengths of our actors rather than a closefisted grasp on the script. We wanted people to have a vested interest in their collaboration and didn't want to treat them like cattle (despite the fact that great filmmakers of the past - Alfred Hitchcock - so narrowly reffered to actors as such).
The creativity and passion we brought to the project sparked a fire that took us all the way to British Film Institute where we're about to premiere Nora as part of TEDxNHS.
Lesson Learned: It doesn’t have to be a tug-of-war. Collaboration shouldn’t mean compromise.
You don’t want to just surround yourself with people who tell you you’re awesome when your not, just like you don’t want to surround yourself with people you tell you you’re shit when you are producing good work. Don’t feel like your work has to be perfect before you show it to collaborators. Show your work as you go so you give collaborators a chance to collaborate. Let your collaborators surprise you and challenge your assumptions about the art you’re working on together. As the great screenwriter Paul Schrader once said, “a screenplay is not a work of art. It’s an invitation to collaborate on a work of art."
When starting to work on a project, there is a lot to be done before you go into production. Pre-production is an essential step that first time filmmakers often skip. And finding key collaborators is one of the most important aspects of pre-production.
In my new class, which is the second part of my Micro-Budget Filmmaking course, I teach my entire pre-production process to help students ensure that their projects are set up for success.
If you're interested in finding out more about creative collaboration techniques, follow the link below and get two free months of access to Skillshare where you can watch not only my classes, but thousands of others on a wide range of topics.
It’s time we shed the disempowering belief in Auteur Worship. Too often, we highlight those who are the single driving force behind a film and bring up examples of their unwavering stubbornness as proof of their genius. However, leading a team of collaborators who are all equally invested in your project is the true sign of genius.
The key is to find someone who’s willing to help you make your mistakes and in time you'll find yourself making less of them.