On one of the first days of shooting his film, From Dusk Till Dawn, 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 out and the station would explode 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. As balls of fire tore through the station’s doors and windows the crew was thrilled. They got the shot they needed. But joy turned to terror as the explosion grew and flames engulfed the surrounding set. The set they still needed to shoot.
The production designer started to cry. When the smoke cleared it revealed the charred remains of months of planning and a $15 million movie budget on the line.
Rodriguez himself has spoken about how new filmmakers will complain to him how everything went wrong during their shoot, and how disappointed they become when things don’t work. Of this Rodriguez says, “They don’t realize yet that that’s the job. The job is nothing is going to work out.”
There’s almost an unspoken competition in today’s entrepreneurial landscape around who can fail forward the fastest. However, it’s one thing to fail, learn, and move onto the next project. It’s another to turn a catastrophe into a gift that makes the original project better.
Because things are going to go wrong. The ability to respond creatively to the ordeals of life isn’t just the job of a filmmaker. It’s woven into the job description of life. The job is 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 true test of creativity is recognizing that, oftentimes, disorder and randomness aren’t happening to us, but for us.
The dust settled on the set of From Dusk Till Dawn and the set designer dried their eyes. 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.
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 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.
What will we do then, when our best-laid plans explode? Can we be like Robert Rodriguez and stand before a distraught crew and a torched movie set and say,“It looks good. Let’s keep shooting.”
Source notes: Robert Rodriguez, episode 98 of The Tim Ferriss Podcast
This newsletter is a condensed version of a longer article I wrote: How To Collaborate With Catastrophe