How to Make Great Things Fast

Across all the professions I’ve happened to work in, I’ve realized there’s a common phrase all the seasoned professionals have said to me at one time or another.

“Don’t rush.”

Acting, directing, fight choreography, personal training, fundraising, construction, writing…in all of these, at one time or another, one or more old pros have said this to me. “Don’t rush.”

At the same time, across all the jobs I’ve held, I’ve always had times where we had to deliver fast. In fact, a demand for speed is absolutely the norm.

So what gives? Why do all the people who know their stuff say “don’t rush” but at the same time we are constantly demanding speed out of our work?

First of all, yes, there are times when the boss is demanding impossible speed, when the market wants something before it’s ready, when I myself am demanding too much out of my own capacity to deliver. Sometimes somebody has to be told things will have to slow down or else things will fall apart.

But the boss isn’t always wrong. And sometimes great things get done quickly.

So there must be a difference between speed and rushing.

Rushing is blind – it’s focusing on the finish line, it’s cutting corners. It’s heedless – let’s just get something to show that we’ve done something. I’m going to write 5 pages today so I can tell myself I wrote 5 pages. For me, it often comes from a place of needing to validate my identity as an artist, a writer, a mature person, what have you.

Speed is different. Speed requires focus, concentrated energy drilling down on the immediate problem. You can’t rush a screenplay, but a professional knows how to focus in and work on THIS scene, THIS character moment, THIS line, this action beat. And then how to step back and assess it QUICKLY against the mechanisms of the whole story, then dive back into the immediate.

In weightlifting, I’ve encountered a phrase that I think is a key concept, perhaps even worthy of being called a mental model. I first encountered it specifically in Olympic lifting, which is a VERY technical art form, and can result in a lot of bodily pain if done wrong, repeatedly. The phrase is this:

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

It doesn’t mean move in slow motion. It means give every overlapping portion of the movement its due – there’s a setup, an initial pull off the ground, a movement of the hips, a pulling from the shoulders, almost pulling yourself DOWN under the bar as it moves up over your head, and a solidifying of the body as you land beneath the bar.

It’s a lot different from “throw this bar over your head 20 times.”

So if you’ve trained each movement, separately, and also how to move from one to the next, a more complete movement emerges. A smooth one.

But this also refers to taking action. When you slow down your mind, you focus on the moment, and then the next moment can follow smoothly, and the next, and the next, and because you’ve smoothed out the motions, the bar travels upwards at unbelievable speeds. Instead of focusing on several movements, you’ve re-integrated them into a single smooth motion.

You can muscle things out, or you can remove the friction. One beats you up. The other doesn’t, and leaves you ready for the NEXT movement.

So when the old timers have said to me “don’t rush” they didn’t necessarily mean “don’t ever move fast.” Rushing, to me, means I’m prioritizing muscle over removing friction.

You can’t rush writing. You can’t rush acting. You can’t rush directing. You can’t rush producing. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t go fast. The key components, then, are knowledge and focus. KNOWING what to focus on, one moment at a time. Knowing HOW to slow down in order to speed up.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

(To be clear – I think this quote originates the Navy SEALS, referring to how to train for operations, and also execute them. I may have gotten it from Jocko Willink, Tim Ferriss, or Dan John – I honestly don’t remember)

“It’s Who You Know” – Really?

Have you ever encountered some new skill, seen someone demonstrate something to a class, and think to yourself “I can do that, but I need to disappear to a place by myself, perfect it, and return so that I can wow everyone with how good I am at it?”

I have. A lot. And the impulses behind that, the things to do to mature beyond those impulses, are the subject of a different post. What I’m interested in here is how this has influenced my strategy.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life prioritizing skill, developing my own ability. And to some degree, this has gotten some good results.

Let’s call the skill “What.” WHAT must I, myself, do, in order to do something awesome? What must I, like Bruce Wayne, learn in secret in order to emerge as the One who TOTALLY STUNS EVERYONE out of NOWHERE?

I dunno, maybe this perspective is a little…unbalanced?


This was made most obvious to me, as I look back on the way I started out my graduate program at USC. I got to know some wonderful people, and was learning at a rapid, sometimes painful pace. About a year and a half into the program I started to suspect that something was wrong with my approach to school, however. I wasn’t getting selected for things I wanted. I wasn’t even getting asked to help on projects. People would ask how I was doing, but generally I didn’t feel connected to the program, to the people IN it (with a few very special exceptions).

I realized that I’d isolated myself, in a sort of internal, competitive effort to become the best, to get “so good they can’t ignore you” – I, in turn, had myself ignored the possibilities of other people. I’d said no to enough projects in an effort to protect my own skill development, that I’d given people this subconscious message: I don’t have time for you.

But what is it they say about Hollywood? “It’s who you know”

I always thought of that phrase as sort of hollow. Shallow, even. But what if…I have laden the idea of short-term connections with a lot of negative bullshit?

So I started to help out more, to say yes to more people, to see if I could come on board someone else’s project and help move the needle for them.

And lo and behold, film school started getting better, more interesting, more connected. And yeah, I have let some of “my” projects slip to the wayside. But I started to realize that “who” is as important as “what.”

I’m still a lover of solitude, of creative loneliness and sitting by myself to toil something out of nothing. But if I think of the best times in my theater career, they were with great people. And the best results of that career came from the “who” far more than the “what” – and the who ultimately demands the what, demands the skill, demands the selection of great material, because you damn well BRING IT if you’re going to do something worthy of the great people you’re surrounding yourself with.

Do you want to raise your game? Being in the presence of people who demand the best out of me has always seemed to just pull that out of me. I didn’t have to demand it out of myself, I just had to respond to the excellence around me.

And you can be the most skilled and talented [insert job here] in town, but if no one likes working with you, if no one feels a sense of connection to you, how far do you actually think you’ll get?

Knowing What the Work is

…is sometimes the hardest part.

If I only think that writing is putting words on the page, I might not be giving time over to thinking about the basic elements of the story and putting them in order.

If I only think that directing is about figuring out good shots, I might get stuck because I haven’t done the other work of figuring out how humans might operate in this space. Or I may have not done the work of really reading the script and figuring out which humans and in what space in the first place.

In my rush to check off the box of “shot list” or “script” or “schedule” I might be missing all the boxes that come before it.

But it’s hard to sit quietly and stay on the task of something that doesn’t feel like work. I don’t mean reading the script – we were trained in school that reading counts as homework. But stopping the reading, thinking about it, pondering ideas and turning them over in our heads – the ephemeral work of Digesting – it’s hard, it sometimes brings more questions than answers, and most of all we don’t Look Like We’re Doing Something.

And of course, the time comes when the work *is* putting words on the page, *is* placing the shots and making the list. I can indeed waste time in that preparatory phase. That’s the whole idea of phases. You must move between them. You can even cycle through them quickly, with experience.

But when I skip a phase, or short change it, it shows.

“How hard am I working?” isn’t enough.

So: I must know my phases.

The Storyteller is a god of both Order and Chaos

There’s a comfort to the idea of omniscience – that everything at once can be consciously apprehended by someone, even if our own minds are too limited.

A story – a movie – tends to work when there’s a series of consequence (rather than merely subsequence). Human minds like consequence – this happened therefore that happened.

Drama asks for a “but.” This happened, but then this happened, therefore we did this, but that happened, so therefore we did that, but they did this so we therefore did that…etc. down the line. Thanks Trey Parker and Matt Stone

But the god-view is almost without the “but.” In the universe of pure order, everything is “therefore.” Everything is determined. There are no surprises, for the omniscient view sees everything coming.

It’s almost as if drama IS the very idea of order interrupted by chaos, then returned to order again. In classical comedy, order is restored by marriages and treaties, social bonds that were in danger of being lost or broken are healed. In classical tragedy, the descent of the hero leads to chaos, only restored by the death of the tragic hero. In a modern hero story, order is restored when the hidden, mature inner need of the hero triumphs over his or her superficial want – and the order of the world follows suit.

People can debate over whether the order-imposing structure of narrative is the imposition of a construct or a reflection of some underlying reality, but the point is, for storytellers, this is at the core of our work: this idea of threading together consequence. And the point isn’t to create a perfect representation of the world – otherwise most of modern dialogue would be stutters and ums.

It’s to say, in our own way, “life is something like this” – and then show people something that gets them nodding (or laughing, if we’re going for gold).

Who is Qualified to Write About Directing?

Let’s get a little impostor syndrome out of the way here.

I think directing, like a lot of our art forms in America, is the subject of so much love and hate. Much like actors, who are a joke (waiters) until they are adored (ohmygod the FRIENDS cast is getting back together!!!), directing in America is on a madly swinging pendulum of approval, disdain, adoration and disgust, when it comes to how people seem to look at you.

(how YOU, aspiring director, think people are looking at you)

But if you want to be an artist, that whole thing of “how most people look at you” must cease to matter. Because it’s not about you, it’s about what you make. How you are making.

Am I a Great Director, who has been given the laurels of Director by some grand committee, so now I’m approved to bloviate about Directing?

I highly recommend reading Finite and Infinite Games. It creates a really valuable distinction.

The game of titles is a limited game. The game of doing is unlimited.

I direct. That’s something I’ve done and will continue to do. And I think it’s worth writing about how it’s done well, and how it’s done poorly, and I’ll be wrong sometimes and right sometimes and that’s fine.

I direct. I write. I act. I choreograph fights and design action. I produce.

Whether someone else wishes to bestow the titles along with those actions isn’t up to me. What’s up to me is what to do with my time, my creativity, my effort, my heart.

So I direct. And I think it’s worth my time to write about that experience. I hope it might even be worth someone’s time to read about it.



Who Comes Before What (Sometimes)

The question of “who” keeps coming up as important.

I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over “what” – what do I want to do? What do I want to be known for? What do I want to spend my time on? What should I get good at?

But I’ve realized (far later in life than I ought to) that “who” should often come before “what” in the order of operations.

Who do I want to work with? Who do I know that elevates the game? Who do I combine with to make something great?

If you know someone you want to work with, it helps you narrow your field of targets.

WHO do I want to spend my time with?

It’s not putting the cart before the horse if you’re thinking about “what can be done really well with this team.” It’s an act of looking at your horse and thinking about what cart it’s best suited to pull.

Who do I want to be connected with, personally, professionally, casually…?

Conversely, if you have a great idea, but your current team isn’t the one to do it, you either need a new team, or a new idea. Or you need to build in the time for your team to learn how it can execute this new idea – but in most creative work, that time isn’t readily available.

Who do I want to be? Not what, but WHO? Who pulls me towards that best, most mature version of myself?

ITERATE or…What is Up With Storyboards Anyway?

When I was rehearsing a show with Synetic Theater, we’d often stumble upon a novel idea or concept – usually a potential solution to a problem we were having with the story. Because theater is a risky act, even in rehearsal, we’d often start chatting about an idea for a while. Eventually someone, usually Paata, would throw up their hands and say “let’s just do it!” and we’d try it out and usually the answer of whether it was valuable or not would be made apparent.

A few minutes in rehearsal to show off a simple idea can save lots of discussion time.

As the technical demands grow, this kind of showcasing becomes more costly. Films are full of technical demands, and most of them are quite expensive – so often the idea is “whatever lets us do it more cheaply in advance will better guarantee the product.” The many forms of director’s preparation are all lumped into this “pre-making” concept, from script analysis, to rehearsals, to pre-viz and storyboards and shot lists and pre-shoots and overheads…and more. Some people hate some of these things and love others, and for some it’s vice versa.

I think what we’re often chasing, as directors, are ways to iterate our way in to the story. A script is an iteration of a story, and shot list is an iteration of the points of view of the story. A set of storyboards is also an iteration, though often it’s interpreted as though it is a blueprint, rather than an iteration of the story with some of the crucial parts missing (like, say, sounds and actors and motion).

Iterations, even those with flaws, allow us to step back and see not “what we’re working with” but something like what we’ll be working with when it comes time to shoot (or edit, or write…).

And when something is working, you can sometimes see it in these “pre-iterations.” They’re not the thing itself but versions that you can quickly re-do.

So I try to get better at pre-iterating, and seeing the opportunities and pitfalls of a production within those iterations, but also trying to remember this:

The map is not the territory.

The script is not the play. The play is the play.

The screenplay is not the movie. The storyboard is not the movie.

The rehearsal is not the movie. The dailies are not the movie.

The movie is the movie.

The Problem of Talent

Talent is wonderful. Some people find easy and enjoyable things that others find difficult and scary. At an early age, I found that a few things that other people thought were hard, I found easy.

But there’s limits to (most) talent. There comes a point where raw talent will not take you further, whether it’s in athletics, acting, singing, directing, mathematics…anything.

Education and practice must step in. The more talented get further more easily, and perhaps can enjoy training more readily, because there’s an inherent joy in doing something you’re good at.

But therein lies the danger of talent. At a certain point, something stops coming easily. The enjoyable part is over, and the work must begin.

For me, and for many of the talented, I suspect, it meant that when the going got tough, I thought to myself “ah, that might be the limit.”

For those with less initial talent, but more determination, however, hitting the wall is a familiar feeling. They know that if you keep leaning on the wall, keep pushing, it starts to break. Tenacity is the first order of business.

For those who have never met the wall…they can be stymied, and decide it is impenetrable.

Talent does not guarantee tenacity – even as the fullest realization of talent REQUIRES tenacity.

Stanley Kubrick on Actors in Studios vs. On Locations

I’ve been reading The Stanley Kubrick Archives, and stumbled upon this little gem from Stanley Kubrick’s Director’s Notes on Spartacus:

“For a psychological story, where the characters and their inner emotions and feelings are the key thing, I think that a studio is the best place. Working on a set provides the actor with much better concentration and ability to use his full resources.” (Dec. 4, 1960)

This is also why I don’t think that motion capture work and VFX-heavy shooting in the studio is as difficult for actors as people may think. Actors do the majority of their training with only the essential pieces of the whole reality around them. A fully artificial environment is sometimes less stimulating and distracting than a real-world location. Yes, replicating a full reality for an actor can help them “act” less, but if that full reality is accompanied by a thousand distractions…you’re not getting the advantage you think.

Again Kubrick: “When Spartacus was being made, I discussed this point with Olivier and Ustinov and they both said that they felt that their powers were just drifting off into space when they were working out of doors. Their minds weren’t sharp and their concentration seemed to evaporate. They preferred that kind of focusing-in that happens in a studio with the lights pointing at them and the sets around them.”

For me there’s a similar sense of imaginative concentration available in two more places: the theater, and the wilderness. Isolated wilderness is very different from shooting on a city block with passers-by and bystanders. It replicates the sense of freedom of being a kid playing in the woods, where I have memories of being utterly free and creative.

It still comes down to the ability to dance and shout and wiggle around by myself, or with my favorite collaborators. And sometimes we have to generate that sense of freedom in front of other people. Lord knows, live theater demands it, but that’s a different phase of the creation.

Isolation, focus, contained joy and struggle and experimentation. It’s a theme of creativity that I keep seeing repeated in the work of the people I most admire. Bon Iver came out with a new album on August 30. Faith and Hey, Ma are two of the most uplifting, exciting things I’ve ever heard from Juston Vernon – he seems to have tapped into something new with his collaborators.

I can’t say I was surprised when I read this from Vernon, referring to their time recording i,i at the Sonic Ranch in Texas:

“It allowed us to feel confident and comfortable, to be completely free of distraction. I don’t think I left the property in six weeks. And in many ways the story of the album is the story of those six weeks rather than the almost six years of some of the songs.”

What Makes Interesting Acting?

Spending serious time away from acting has been something of a boon. I’ve come to realize how, when I was concerned primarily with my identity as an actor, I was caught up in issues of self-respect and a lot of feelings of inadequacy, both in relation to being a performer and even more so in relation to living in the so called “real world.”

I have gained a lot of new respect for actors ever since I stopped being one (impossible, but I hope you know what I mean), in part because it wasn’t until I let that go that I was able to get a real perspective on the actor’s contribution without it getting caught up in my own ego. And thereby I’ve been able to start differentiating between performance and acting.

It’s one thing to perform a monologue, it’s another thing to act it. I know, semantics, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that the purest acting is bereft of all performative elements except those necessitated by the medium (film, television, theater, particularities of sub-media).

I think what makes interesting acting turns out to be the same thing that makes interesting people. And most of that has to do with being interested. Aka, invested in the reality of the situation. Uta Hagen and a million others have said it better than me in terms of acting, but I just think of the example of a cat. What’s more interesting to watch, a person trying very hard to show you something you may or may not care about, or a cat that is intently stalking its prey? One thing is trying to pull interest out of you, the other is purely existing in the world.

What’s more compelling – watching someone recite Hamlet beautifully, or watching a son struggle over the death of his father?

I know, it’s obvious. But it wasn’t obvious to me – I came to acting so young that I conflated performance and acting into the same boat, deeply in my gut. It’s taken a long time for me to really understand what lies beyond showmanship.