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BSS2015: open under pressure

These are big shoes. Nominated for an Oscar, winner of a Golden Globe and many other awards, Australian actor/writer director Rachel Griffiths was introduced to the audience as also being a human rights advocate and ardent supporter of the visual arts.

Married to painter Andrew Taylor and mother of three (more of the eldest later), Rachel revealed in her keynote that she is, as we were promised, a force to be reckoned with. Confessing to being nervous at the outset of her first ever keynote, Rachel won us over with her charm, wit and easy wisdom.

She began with a compliment, congratulating the NZ film industry on its “insane achievements”, singling out our cinematographers for special mention before thanking us for Russell (Crowe). In a brief history of her collaborative practice she let us know that, while she’s not an expert in “this dance that we do” and while in the past she’s “been an asshole”, she’s still happy to say she works with people she’s been with from the beginning.

Underlining the theme that had emerged during each symposium session during the day Rachel’s key idea was that film making is a team game, with collaboration at the core of creativity. Tagged to that were the notions that success needs to be shared and that the film makers you share with should be people you regard as friends. Rachel quoted Peter Jackson’s lovely homage to Andrew Lesnie on his death as a case in point.

Other ingredients for success, she said, include generous praise, working generously, infectious laughter and a willingness to be up for the good and the bad. With True Detective used as an example, she said a failed collaboration will produce a failed programme. It’s important to respect the investment audiences have made in a production because they’re stakeholders and, lastly, new modes of production create good collaboration and test great ideas over time.

Rachel then proceeded to hand us a few salutary “take home points” in the form of her 11 year-old son Banjo’s theories of collaboration. Asked, “Who would you like to work with?” Banjo’s criteria were:

  • Someone who’s not as annoying as shit, unless they’re a genius.
  • Rachel’s elaboration: someone’s disgusting toenail biting is someone else’s sexual fetish. Never hire anyone you don’t want to have dinner with, never hire anyone who drives you crazy. Compromises must be made, but not the ones that kill the vision.
  • Someone who’s easy to talk to.
  • Rachel’s elaboration: You want people who are fluent in the process of negotiation, open system thinkers, people who say “yes”, people who are listeners. Collaboration is a testing of ideas to make them better – fragile people make that much more difficult. On a crew there are so many different types of intelligence – bridge this with a common vision.
    The producer is often the most gifted verbal thinker in the room. Their job to get the core vision understood and fleshed out so everybody understands the goal of what’s being made. Know when to walk away and aim for a conscious uncoupling rather than bad divorce. Remember the mercy fuck lets the pressure off. A platonic, collaborative mercy fuck is a public acknowledgement of your collaborator, transcending individual egos.
    Know when to concede. Care that the project is really good rather than about your own glory. Respect all opinions.
  • Someone who doesn’t get too into it or get too weird.
  • Rachel’s elaboration: Be prepared to let go of an idea. Don’t be too attached to the outcome. Share your toys. Give people room to find their voice. Stay human.
  • Someone who can do the job.
  • Rachel’s elaboration: Being brave and not risk averse is at the core of making the industry and the stories we tell more diverse. Be prepared to bring colours and twists to the work. Know your stuff.

In the process of explaining all that, Rachel played a game with us. (Most of us joined in and the odd bloke who crept out was very quiet.) The game was, hold hands with your neighbours, close your eyes and repeat after Rachel:

  1. “I commit to try to become easier to talk to, to say “yes” more often and to feel better about breaking up if it’s not working out.”
  2. “I commit to supporting the best solutions even if they’re not mine or come from the intern.”
  3. “I pledge to try to stay human and vulnerable and open under pressure.”

Good game.

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