I just directed an episode of a show that was WAY outside my comfort zone.
My comfort zone is directing a heartfelt performance, of creating a scene in the ersatz environment of a soundstage that feels real and spontaneous. I feel confident directing fish out of water stories, family stories, coming of age stories. I am comfortable with small crews in which I know everyone’s name and how they contribute to the collaborative whole.
But I don’t have a whole lot of experience with Visual Effects. Or Special Effects. Or Stunts. Or the overwhelmingly male energy of a writers’ room that made a Tone Meeting feel like a football game, with the accompanying cheers and swagger. So this last assignment that incorporated those elements felt really uncomfortable.
I would give myself daily pep talks. “You’ve been directing for years. You’ll figure it out.” “Anything you don’t know, ask. People will be willing to help.” “You can survive anything for eight days (of shooting.)” But all of those felt like empty platitudes when I was facing the reality of failing. REALLY failing. FAILING big-time.
It made me think of the universal human response to trying something new. Being afraid but doing it anyway. A baby attempting her first steps. A singer stepping forward from the choir to a solo. A baseball pitcher taking the mound in his first college game. A newbie director saying “Action” in front of professionals. And all are facing judgment. “Ah, good job.” Or “I thought he’d do better than that.” Or even, “I don’t think this (endeavor) is right for her/him.” Case closed, it’s all over. You tried, and maybe, you failed. Or maybe, you did okay. Maybe there’s room for improvement – AS THERE SHOULD BE. No one will ever do anything perfectly the first time they try. Everything requires practice. Ten thousand hours’ worth, if Malcolm Gladwell is right (and I think he is.) So that means that a person is pretty much guaranteed a lot of failure when trying to learn a new skill.
Directing film is a challenging position. Many skill sets are required. So that means extra opportunities for failure. And for someone like me, well-established and full of the inflated ego that comes with that, trying something new can be terrifying. But… What I learned about myself is that fear doesn’t fit me. I can’t operate that way; neither can I pretend to be something I’m not. So how, I asked myself, can I cope with trying something new but refusing to be afraid?
First, I did extra homework. I was completely prepared. Second, I relied more on others for help (first AD, script supervisor, DP) rather than going it alone, as I usually do (there’s that ego again.) And last, I gave myself permission to not be perfect. To know that I would fail and I would learn and survive. To laugh about it, to take it in stride, to grow and become better at my job. It’s okay to make a mistake, we all do. All of us humans, all of us directors. It’s all a process of evolution. And I’m grateful for a show that took me out of my comfort zone. I was getting a little too comfortable there, anyway.