business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Coming on Oscar weekend, it was appropriate that the Washington Post business section had a piece about the management styles of three Academy Award-nominated directors - Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg.

One would expect that three directors with such different styles would have divergent leadership approaches. But while nobody would mistake Spielberg for Allen, or Allen for Scorsese, the amazing thing is that they all seem to share a belief that collaboration - not a dictatorial approach - is the best way to achieve their ultimate visions. (And, by the way, it probably is critical that they all have a vision for their projects ... they don’t use technology for the sake of technology, but in service of the content.)

In Scorsese’s case, the story says, “His leadership style is equal parts structure and improvisation, reverence and irreverence. It’s a duality that stretches back to Scorsese’s early years growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood of contradictions.” Scorsese believes in rigorous preparation, but “coupled with Scorsese’s sense of a higher order and purpose, and perhaps out of it, comes an instinct for how to successfully bend the rules.” Longtime collaborator Robert DeNiro refers to it as “a structure for the improvisation.”

The story says that the “attention Scorsese gives to process, this execution of his own vision by coaxing the best out of others, doesn’t only happen with the A-list stars on his films. Scorsese’s cinematographers say he imagines and then draws out every shot, each angle and all camera movements. Then he enlists their input, often offering them a chance to do things they never have done before ... Still, the freedom of experimentation Scorsese provides each member of his team acts in concert with, and toward the greater goal of, his vision.” And, people who have worked with him say, Scorsese maintains a sense of humor on the set, which keeps people wanting to work for him again and again.

Woody Allen is another director who seems to be able to get pretty much any actor or actress to work for him anytime, anywhere - usually for relatively little money and on projects that will never be blockbusters. For many of these people, it is because Allen has a Zen-like approach to directing; he doesn’t even “direct” the actors very much, because for him it is all about casting - making sure the right people are in the right jobs, and then making sure that he gives them the freedom to do their jobs.

A Woody Allen set, the story says, “lacks the self-importance, the preciousness of many movie sets run by less accomplished directors. For instance, Allen does not retreat to his trailer while the crew is setting up the next shot. In fact, he has no trailer, which tends to diffuse any complaints an actor may have about his or her own accommodations. Between takes, Allen remains accessible to cast and crew as he sits in any nearby chair, talks to his assistant or his producer (who is also his sister), reads the paper or practices his clarinet until he’s needed again ... It also helps that the hours are reasonable, and the actors aren’t overtaxed. Allen works mainly in single master shots and doesn’t bother shooting coverage from numerous angles. This alleviates the need for actors to do the same scene over and over again just so that the editor will have different shots to use within the scene. So what appears to be a stylistic choice — a minimalist aesthetic — is actually just Allen’s way of staying on schedule by eliminating a lot of repeated takes. In his usual self-deprecating manner, he claims he simply doesn’t have the patience to seek absolute perfection. Once he gets a good take, he wants to move on, wrap at a decent hour and get to the Knicks game in time for the tipoff.”

“It’s not rocket science,” Allen tells the Post. “This is not quantum physics. If you’re the writer of the story, you know what you want the audience to see because you’ve written it. It’s just common sense. It’s just storytelling, and you tell it.”

Steven Spielberg is described in the Post as “highly skilled at the fine arts of delegating and collaborating, qualities essential to good leadership in a profession that involves orchestrating the work of hundreds of helpers. And yet he also remains an unabashed ‘control freak’ ... Spielberg’s obsessive-compulsive nature helps account for his intense concentration on his craft, his unrivaled technical skills and his insistence on perfection from his crews. But he has learned how to surround himself with a small comfort zone of longtime collaborators he trusts implicitly, including editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, producer Kathleen Kennedy and fellow DreamWorks executive Stacey Snider. Such people are his filmmaking family, a tightly knit bunch he carries from project to project, drawing creative sustenance from them while demanding a high degree of creative independence within the Hollywood system.”

One of the things that the story points out is Spielberg’s ability to multi-task ... which, as it happens, is critical to his work process: “Some people would find it impossibly daunting to try to direct a film while also operating the camera and serving as one of the producers — not to mention simultaneously juggling the demands of helping run a boutique studio operation. Spielberg has been involved with literally hundreds of films and television shows as a studio executive and sometimes as a hands-on producer. He and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, have seven children, and Spielberg is unusual in Hollywood in being such an actively involved family man.

“And yet this seemingly overwhelming lifestyle not only stimulates his creative energies but also helps keep him focused. As he once said, ‘I’ve been doing this long enough to know how I work best. When I focus on one project to the exclusion of all else, I lose my objectivity. . . . I fall in love with every scene that I shoot. I think something is wonderful when it isn’t’.”

Great movies, I’ve always believed, are as much about alchemy as anything. But as the Washington Post stories made clear over the weekend, alchemy is really only possible with lots of preparation, a great team, an overall vision, and an ability to let people do their jobs and even improvise in service of the broader vision. And then, with luck, magic happens.

Sort of like any business.

It’s an Eye-Opener.
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