It was one of the first days of shooting the film, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the director 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 casually walk out of the station as it explodes 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. Balls of fire tore through the station’s doors and windows. The crew was thrilled — they got the shot. But that joy turned to terror as the explosion grew and flames engulfed the surrounding set. The set they still needed to shoot.
The production designed started to cry. The smoke cleared and revealed charred remains of months of planning and a $15 million movie budget on the line.
Rodriguez has spoken about how new filmmakers complain to him when things go wrong during their shoot. 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 meticulously outlined. Not one corner cut or detail overlooked. And then, poof. It goes up in flames. What do you do?
How many times have you heard it? “Fail forward and fail fast.” Failure may breed growth. Yet, it’s one thing to fail, learn, and move on. It’s another to turn a catastrophe into a gift that makes the original project even better.
Because things are going to go wrong. The funding for your start-up isn’t going to come through. The book you spent a year writing will be misunderstood. You’ll learn a partner has betrayed you.
The ability to respond to these ordeals creatively isn’t just the job of a filmmaker. It’s woven into the job description of life. Our power as human beings is in our capacity 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?”
The 2017 movie, The Disaster Artist is the story behind the making of the film, The Room. 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.” The Disaster Artist is a story about friendship and artistic express, but the most pivotal scene is when Tommy gets laughed out of the theater at his own movie premiere.
We watch as brutal laugh fills the room during scenes meant to be deep and serious. Tommy is forced to face the fact that all his work, the hours of writing and directing, and the millions of dollars invested, has become an immediate and overwhelming failure.
He walks out of the screening devastated. It isn’t until best friend and partner chases Tommy down and points out that the crowd is enjoying the movie, just not in the way he’d intended. His serious drama becomes a side-splitting comedy simply because it was so awful. And it was in that moment — on the brink of humiliation and ruin — that Tommy 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 that 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 greatness is recognizing that — more often than not — disorder and randomness aren’t happening to us, but for us.
The greatest accomplishment of Tommy Wiseau wasn’t his film. You could even say that what Tommy did was purely out of ego — just another front to save his skin. It doesn’t matter. He was still able to reach deep, think fast, abandon his “master plan,” and turn what should have been the lowest of lows into a legendary win.
“It looks good. Let’s keep shooting.” -Robert Rodriguez
The dust settled on the set of From Dusk Till Dawn. The set designers dried their eyes. The crew stood frozen, unsure of 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.
The writer 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 and randomness 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.
To follow through and accomplish our goals, we need to keep our ability to improvise. We need to look for the gifts disguised as disasters. To see the possibilities that perfect planning misses.
What we want is to be able to stand before a distraught crew and a torched movie set and say, “It looks good. Let’s keep shooting.”