Fall 2010

The Price Is Right

A veteran comedy director wonders if failure might be more valuable than success. After all, that’s what his mother told him.


SUCCESS STORY: One thing Holland, here with Matthew Levy on Sons of
, has learned is how to be “an amorphous blob of instinct.”

My absolute favorite Hollywood aphorism (I've quoted it so many times I have no idea who said it anymore) is this: "Hollywood is the only business where everyone wants to be second to do something." Rooted deep inside this waggish maxim is one unassailable truth: In this business everyone is terrified to fail. I mean, think about this—you can't get an agent to read your script so you can get an agent until you've got an agent. Or, in other words, no one wants to say yes for fear you're secretly a loser and you're suddenly on their client list and they look like an idiot. It's a virtual Gordian knot, a paroxysm of fear of failure. Well, you know what I say to that? Phooey.

When I was a kid and I was having a really bad day, my mom would always tell me, "You learn more from your failures than from success."

And I think mom got it right.

For example, there’s this guy at work, an actor, and he's a little intense and is kind of well known—which is to say, he’s older—and he's quite possibly drunk. And there I am, the director. I'm 26 years old at the time. He asks me if he's needed in the next shot because he wants to get back to his trailer. And I consider it for a moment—but really it's not in my plan to have him in the shot. And I'm a planner. I've planned this entire shoot in my head. I wrote the script and now I'm directing it. And I know he's not in that shot so I say,"No. I don't need you."

Now I should rewind a moment and explain that this was perhaps my first directing job ever. Up until this moment, I had only directed student films where I did everything—wrote, directed, produced, built the sets, baked the carrot cake for the crew—you name it. Directing for me had always been a completely practical pursuit—a hammer, tape measure, and X-Acto knife kind of affair. I design the set, spec the materials, rent the truck, buy and schlep the lumber, and build it. Then I direct. Bing, bang, boom. Very practical.

Okay. Back to the scene.

So we're lining up that next shot and as I look through the eyepiece of the camera, I see the frame and think, "Oh, shit. I really could use him in this shot."

And as I tell my DP that I approve the frame, I'm distracted because all I'm thinking is that I don't approve the frame. And I'm thinking that I need to change my mind and tell the actor I was wrong and that I do need him. But I don't want to do that. (There's the fact that he's older and the intensity and the quite possible drinking thing.) So I keep my mouth shut. And I shoot the shot, hating myself all the while.

Okay, truth be told, that episode turned out great. But despite that, what I remembered most about that shoot was my failure to change my mind in the face of a moment of simple instinct.

And I realized from that failure that I am a director—and that’s not a hammer, tape measure and X-Acto knife job at all. I am paid to be a big, amorphous blob of instinct—literally that’s how I think of it: I'm paid to feel things—and to tell people what I feel. And to make sure that what I feel finds its way onto the screen—or damn-well die trying.

And that moment taught me my first big Hollywood lesson: Failure is the key to success. I mean, it was exactly what Mom had been saying: You learn more from failure.

Success just teaches you to be rich and respected and desired—but what's that compared to an invaluable career lesson? A teachable moment? Am I right? Success will trap you. Success raises expectations. Beware success.

Then there was that time on my first feature. I was 29 years old and my producers (one was the writer) refused to listen to me when I said the script was 30 pages too long. It had been a four-week prep for a thirty-five-day road movie with kids. Every page of story that would never make it onto the screen was diluting my ability to realize the balance of the script that would. It had to be trimmed; I was drowning. So since no one would listen to me, I decided to throw a tantrum. I mean, all directors throw tantrums, right? Of course, it really wasn’t my style and I’d never thrown a tantrum before—but hey, I was kind of freaking out under the pressure anyway, how hard could it be? So I threw my tantrum, which really didn't go well at all. I failed Tantrum 101. I don’t remember much of the incident really—except for a general darkness descending over me, pervasive suicidal feelings, my agent suddenly flying up to location and that the incident completely turning the studio against me and in favor of my crazy producers who emphatically told me to "shoot the script." Which I did. The first assembly came in at 2 1/2 hours—for a family film intended to be 90 minutes. We later cut an hour out of it.

Okay, so I failed there as well. And basically what I learned there was never to throw tantrums. I remember how much pain that caused me. And I wish none of that had ever happened because I didn't get what I wanted and it just empowered my crazy producers and turned the studio against me. So that sucked. If there is good failure and bad failure, that was definitely the bad failure.

But still, failure sets you free, right? It lowers expectations and forces you to invigorate your process, your choices, your style, your career. You’re challenged to reinvent yourself. And that keeps you sharp, keeps you cool.

But what's weird is that successful directors also have to reinvent themselves—or they get pigeonholed into repeating the same exact work that brought them their last success—and that in itself is another form of slow, inevitable (albeit wealthier) self-immolation.

So what the hell was my mother talking about?

Failure is freedom? Success is a prison?

Maybe what she meant rather was that wealth, admiration, popularity—that’s a prison. Sure, because that kind of monetary and popular approval really puts pressure on pure creative choice-making. I mean, think of the pressure James Cameron was under after Titanic. How do you follow that up? Yes, okay, you make Avatar. But what next, eh?

No, wait. Cameron did it. And Spielberg and Soderbergh and…oh, Lord. Success doesn’t seem to have hurt some really great directors. So successful, rich and famous is a prison?

Well if it is, then it’s a prison I could get behind. So, yeah. I get it now. Failure, adios. Success, lock me up and throw away the key. I wanna do some hard time.

Mom, I promise to write.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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