Looking for innovation? Try opening the door to havoc


May 04, 1992|By TOM PETERS | TOM PETERS,1992 TPG Communications

If you're a senior manager or in any way charged with innovation, go see "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" (the critically acclaimed documentary about the making of "Apocalypse Now").

Next, read "Notes," Eleanor Coppola's book about making "Apocalypse Now." (She's the wife of director Francis).

Then take three days off, retreat to a cabin deep in the woods -- and contemplate the creative process. (Do not take along a gun, a case of booze or rat poison.)

I recently made that three-part odyssey and emerged incredibly exhilarated -- and hopelessly confused. Which, I think, is appropriate: If you believe in participative management, you will be disabused of your silly idea. If you believe in autocratic management, you will be equally disabused of that notion. If you think you can figure out what determines success vs. failure -- well, then you're beyond salvation.

Movies are real. The huge entertainment/media business is a U.S. export bonanza. Big film projects amount to $50 million "new product development" efforts, which take off or collapse within days of launch. Moreover, the studio production process -- temporary alliances of professionals collaborating on a complex new product -- is spreading to every industry.

Yet the risks are enormous. Francis Coppola commissioned a script for his Vietnam War epic in 1969. After numerous fits and starts, location shooting began in the Philippines seven years later. It was phenomenally complicated and left the initial budget and time line in tatters.

Mr. Coppola then spent the next two years editing the film. Result: Some label it a path-breaking success, others an overblown flop. "Apocalypse Now" did win a Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival (top prize at the top festival) and ended up grossing $150 million (it cost about $50 million to make). We learn that:

* Life (in the movies as elsewhere) is a roll of the dice. A typhoon destroyed the complex, expensive sets. Marlon Brando came to the Philippines very fat -- and his part had to be reconceived on the spot (while he pulled in $1 million a week). Co-star Martin Sheen, then just 36, had a heart attack on location. Helicopters that were the centerpiece of the famous beach-assault scene were diverted by then-President Ferdinand Marcos to fight rebel insurgents. Later, back in San Francisco, a disgruntled editor stole the master copy of the film's ending and sent Coppola an envelope a day containing ashes. Any one of these or a peck of other fiascoes could have cost the ballgame.

* Good directors are tyrants. In a world rushing toward democracy, Mr. Coppola admits that movie direction is one of the last bastions of the dictator. It must be so. There's no room, ultimately, for more than one grand design.

* Good directors are masterful participative managers. Mr. Coppola spent hour after hour, day after day, listening to, talking and struggling with individual actors and other professionals. He is at least as good a listener as he is an order-giver. In case after case, he pushed actors to become more than they had been before, allowing them to create their own, deep conception of a character.

* Good directors have guts. After weeks of expensive shooting in the Philippines, Mr. Coppola dismissed his lead actor (replacing him with Mr. Sheen). He also mortgaged his house and all his assets to complete the film. (United Artists took out a $15 million life insurance policy on Mr. Coppola, who owed them $14 million in overages. Mr. Coppola claimed at the time that he was "worth more dead than alive.")

* Good directors are visionaries. It's said that Mozart could "hear" an entire symphony at once -- before sitting down to compose.Though Mr. Coppola changed every element of what he did hundreds of times, it's clear that he, too, was enraptured with an almost religious vision.

* Good directors are perfectionists. Though a "visionary," Mr. Coppola was mad for details. * Good directors ignore their audience. "You just have to make something beautiful," Mr. Coppola said at one point. "You can't worry about if anyone will see it."

* Good directors pander to their audience. Despite his artistic inclinations, Mr. Coppola was clearly out to make an entertaining adventure flick.

* Good directors improvise. Mr. Coppola had a grand scheme, but thrived on spontaneity. Eleanor Coppola contends that Francis does his best work when he lets things flow and waits for the magic moment to emerge.

These vital, if elusive, creative principles have frightening implications. We cannot innovate without opening the door to havoc. Where do we get off, for instance, expecting brilliant products from bland product champions, let alone gray flannel committees? More next week.

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