The right way to be wrong

Sam Mendes directed American Beauty in 1999. While he’d been phenomenally successful as a London theatre director, this was his first film. He’d been personally hired by Stephen Spielberg to make the film for the DreamWorks studio and had been given complete control over its budget, casting and creative vision. He’d also insisted on and been given a full two weeks of rehearsals with the actors. So when they got to day one of shooting, expectations were running high.

Confidence was definitely not an issue for Mendes. He’d directed Dame Judi Dench (in The Cherry Orchard) aged 24, Nicole Kidman in the hit production of David Hare’s The Blue Room and created two classic Shakespeare productions in London. But even so, he’d never directed a film before and this was a big Hollywood movie with a cast of stars, a lot of eyes on him and a shitload of pressure to deliver. So when the first day didn’t go well, he started to have doubts about his approach. On day two he wasn’t happy with anything he’d shot and by day three he was really concerned about the project. Nothing felt right and he sensed the actors losing faith. Mendes has described the work he did on those three days as “crap” and “disastrous”. He said: “It was badly shot, my fault, badly composed, my fault, bad costumes, my fault. And everybody was doing what I was asking. It was all my fault. There were more than a couple of sleepless nights when I thought, ‘Just help me out here.'”

When I mentally put myself in his shoes at this point, the options that come to mind are (1) tough it out, push on through and get the film made as best you can, (2) talk to a trusted friend for some support and an opinion or (3) reach out to Spielberg for advice. But Mendes did none of these things. After much soul-searching, on the evening of the third day of shooting, he spoke to DreamWorks to say, “This is not what I wanted it to be.” He told them that everything he’d shot so far was wrong and that he wanted to scrap it all and start again from scratch. This would clearly have a significant impact on the schedule and budget, not to mention the actors’ and studio’s perceptions of him. But he persuaded the studio that while everything he’d done so far was unusable, he now knew exactly what he needed to do.

While they were taken aback by this turn of events, DreamWorks backed Mendes and allowed him to start again. He did so and made one of the best films of the decade, a movie that picked up five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Setting aside the brilliance of the film he ultimately made, for me, his decision to start again is inspiring. I doubt most people (including myself) would have had the balls and boldness to have made that call, for fear of being seen as weak or indecisive. But in retrospect, I see it demonstrates phenomenal strength of will and self belief. Carrying on down the wrong track out of fear and insecurity would have led to a bad film and probably the end of Mendes’ career as a film director. It would have been the wrong way to be wrong. Having the guts to admit he’d stuffed up, taking it on the chin and acting quickly and decisively to get things back on track led to creative gold. It was the right way to be wrong.

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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