When asked about his progress on inventing the lightbulb, or lack thereof, Thomas Edison reportedly said, “I have not failed 1,000 times; I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a lightbulb.”
The harsh truth about becoming a successful creative professional is that early in your career, you will be up to your elbows in non-functioning lightbulbs.
Worse still, unlike Edison, you will only know whether your lightbulb works if you can turn it on in the brains of gatekeepers, rather than simply knowing it works because the incandescent lamp lit up. Creatives almost always have to produce a lot of subpar work in order to get to the good stuff, the functional light bulbs. This is fairly common knowledge.
The dirty secret of creative work, though–and in Hollywood especially–is that sometimes even long after you’ve definitively established yourself as a premier lightbulb inventor, some of your further inventions still might not come to fruition, through no fault of your own.
Let’s dispense here with the lightbulb metaphor, which may have just fizzled out from overexertion, and get to the point. As The Playlist reports, Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro recently tweeted out an (incomplete!) list of screenplays he has fully developed over the years, only to see them languish in development hell. The list spans 18 titles, many of which should send a flurry of tingles through the brains of genre fans.
2/2 SECRET PROJECT (UNTITLED), SUPERSTITIOUS, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, HAUNTED MANSION, THE HULK pilot, THE BURIED GIANT, THE COFFIN, DROOD, LIST OF 7 (Mark Frost) and a few others…
— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) November 26, 2018
The director goes on to lament the time lost to these projects in a further tweet on the thread: “To be clear these screenplays are WRITTEN, done. Each of them took months or years of my life. Meetings, synopsis, beat sheets and [sic] were all written, features- 90-130 pages each.”
Some people, especially those just embarking on a creative career, might see the above list and despair. “If del Toro couldn’t get his passion project made after Pan’s friggin’ Labyrinth, what chance do I have?” is a reasonable takeaway. But it shouldn’t be the only one.
Anyone who read this fantastic New Yorker profile of del Toro from 2011 knows how excited he was about adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and how much work he put into it. But as he told Collider last year, the studio balked at an R rating and the film died at the location-scouting stage. The director then went on to make Pacific Rim, a modest hit, and Crimson Peak, a giant flop. The experiences helped pave the way for The Shape of Water, the 2017 film that earned del Toro Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.
It sounds like a cliché, and it is, but failure is an important part of the creative journey. Time spent on nonstarter projects is never a waste of time. Either you learn something from the experience, are driven by the disappointment from it, or make a meaningful partnership out of it that helps down the line. Just don’t forget that there is a “down the line,” whether you’re just starting out or, apparently, if you’ve already made Pan’s Labyrinth.