Fast Company has long been fascinated by Hollywood’s relationship with ingenuity; the industry relies on original thinking to create entertainment that captivates and shapes society yet it also steadfastly resists ideas, business models, and technology that threaten the status quo. That’s a recipe for rich stories. Our new anthology, Hacking Hollywood, goes inside hit shows to explore how they’re made and to glean some insight about creativity and collaboration. We profile the upstarts and the interlopers trying to shake things up.
Here, two of the contributors, Fast Company executive editor Rick Tetzeli and Co.Create staff writer Joe Berkowitz, talk with Hacking Hollywood editor Chuck Salter about what they learned from Martin Scorsese, Lena Dunham, Judd Apatow, John Hodgman, and Mel Brooks.
Salter: In your profile of Martin Scorsese, you mention that he’d never made a children’s movie or a 3-D movie until Hugo. I was struck by his willingness to take risks at a point in his career when directors are often tending to their legacy. What’s the key to his boldness?
Tetzeli: Scorsese’s models all struggled with the studio system: Rossellini, Wells, Wilder, Cassavetes…These are all directors who maintained their own point of view, whether or not they could do it working with traditional movie studios. Scorsese just decided early on that he’d embrace that same courageous standard. His historical understanding of the movie business helped. He understood the costs going in, and he also understood the potential, the power, and the distribution of the studios. He’s a realist about his own career.
Salter: Scorsese has remained prolific over 45 years. How has he avoided burnout in a notoriously tough business?
Tetzeli: In truth, there have been periods of burnout. He had times in the ’70s where he took the partying too far, and it was hard for him to get things done. And he’s had other times where his movies haven’t been hits, and he had a hard time finding a studio to produce the next one. In fact, hitting bottom a couple of times has served as a great reminder for him of what he could throw away.
That’s what I mean about being a realist. He doesn’t see himself as someone who’s always going to deliver a hit, and he’s not precious or spoiled. When you compare Scorsese’s sincerity and honesty to that of some younger, blow-things-up directors who feel they’re owed the world after a couple of $200 million box office hits, it’s bracing.
Salter: His list of side projects is staggering. How does he throw himself into a project as consuming as Hugo and still juggle so much?
Tetzeli: He’s just about the most energetic person I’ve ever met. Again, I think it’s that combination of honesty and realism. When he does an ad, he understands it’s about the money, but he wants to do it in a way he can respect. Also, at this point every movie he does is a challenge, has something that feels new to him. That was one of the great pleasures of Hugo: the combination of a new technology and a story that showcased one of the film pioneers he so admires.
Salter: The conversation in the book between Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham feels so intimate, as though we’re eavesdropping on one of their regular calls. How do these talks contribute to their creative process?
Tetzeli: I think they’re both willing to explore all kinds of feelings that are deeply personal. There aren’t any artificial, societal boundaries to their conversations. I think she helps him dig deeper into his emotions, in a way that can potentially deepen his stories. I think he helps her think about the practical steps that can help turn the raw tales of her life and her imagination into something accessible to many.
Salter: What makes their collaboration successful?
Tetzeli: They both have something significant to offer the other person. Oftentimes, collaboration is driven by this general sense that, Gee, we oughta get more brains into the room because more brains will be better. Well, that’s not true. Successful collaboration means the participants are each bringing something unique to bear.
Salter: Joe, you wrote the piece on Mel Brooks in Hacking Hollywood. I’m still trying to get my head around how long Brooks’s career has been. Six decades? Incredible. What did you learn from him about sustaining a creative career?
Berkowitz: The thing I took away the most was the importance of choosing the right partnerships. Whether it was Carl Reiner in their television work, which lead to a decades-spanning collaboration, or the individual members of Brooks’s ensemble cast. He kept working with them through the years because they were simply the best. Creative partnerships shouldn’t be motivated by business, but by people who understand each other, work well together, and have something of a mutual appreciation society.
Salter: I was struck by how his material often came from small, unplanned moments, like the improvised bit that became the genesis for the “2000 Year Old Man.” What surprised you about how Brooks works?
Berkowitz: What happily surprised me the most is that all the cool, rebellious aspects of Brooks’s work–pioneering the breaking of the fourth wall in comedy, making a silent movie, etc.–those weren’t just little decisions that arose in the making of individual projects. He actually had a self-imposed mandate to make trouble and mess with the system whenever possible.
Salter: We end the book with your the career advice that John Hodgman told you. It’s funny but also useful. Did you ask him for that, or did he offer it unsolicited?
Berkowitz: What was great about that interview was that Hodgman knew exactly what I was looking for, based on a quick pre-interview chat. He kept switching back and forth between silly madness about the end of the world, which would be fun to read for fans of his and the books, and actual actionable advice, the kind that Fast Company readers would want to receive. He struck the perfect balance.