And the Bland Shall Not Inherit the Earth!

And the Bland Shall Not Inherit the Earth!

Tom Peters

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. Coppola then spent the next
two years editing the film. Result: Some label it a pathbreaking 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. To wit: 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 massive heart
attack on location. Helicopters that were the centerpiece of the famous beach-
assault scene were frequently diverted by then-President Ferdinand Marcos to
fight rebel insurgents. Later, back in San Francisco, a disgruntled editor stole
the master copy of film’s ending and sent Coppola an envelope a day containing
ashes. Any one of these or a peck of other fiascoes could have meant the

– Good directors are tyrants. In a world rushing toward democracy, 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. 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,
Coppola dismissed his lead actor (replacing him with 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 Coppola, who owed them $14 million in
overages. 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 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,” Coppola was mad for
details. At the drop of a hat, and against vociferous studio advice, he’d ditch
a month’s work. Thirty takes of even the most insignificant shot were routine.

– Good directors ignore their audience. “You just have to make something
beautiful,” Coppola said at one point. “You can’t worry about if anyone will see

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

– Good directors improvise. 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.

– Great directors toy with madness. “Film … is a metaphor for a journey into
self,” Eleanor wrote; “you have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a
little to come out the other side.” Coppola did all those things. He teetered at
the edge for years, using up every ounce of physical and mental energy. The
process was as destructive as it was creative.

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.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.