Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

Nurturing creativity in filmmaking

Management was one of the biggest con tricks of the Twentieth Century. It was a useless and exploitative artefact, turning a simple job into a “profession”, with its own jargon and meaningless qualifications. It was just a piece of magic invented to amass power and rewards for the few; to increase efficiency and profits by sacking people, outsourcing and reducing wages and conditions. Not difficult to do, but not equitable either. It was distasteful. The winners were managers, not society. It was irrelevant to my purposes.

In our business people don’t need supervision to make them work, let alone the stick. They’re so over motivated, I’ve often had to stop them working, locking them out of a cutting room and telling them to go home. After a few hours judgement coarsens. Macho hours are not the same as quality hours. Young people need guidance, alternative suggestions about how to approach a problem, and above all, they need to be believed in, so that they can begin to believe in themselves. If you give colleagues your trust and your approval they will relax and stop wasting energy coming up with excuses or covering their asses. Worry and insecurity use energy wastefully. My rule was, if you make a mistake then share it immediately. We’ll put it right together and then afterwards calmly pick out the details to understand why it was made. It was important that I did just that when I made mistakes. I saw people relax when I explained that I hoped they would make mistakes because then I would know they were not afraid to take creative risks.

Above all, when I felt they were ready I gave them responsibility. I gave them sole producer credit. These days these seem so important, like all the other tokens of status. I remember in Hollywood spending more time and effort negotiating credits and even the relative sizes of Winnebagos, in the most bizarre and arcane detail, than in producing the film. But the credit I offered to these kids said to them I was confident in their ability. I would take the Executive Producer credit, partly to calm the broadcaster and to remind everyone that the buck stopped with me because I was still in creative control.

When you teach your kids to ride a bike, they can’t learn by watching you. They need to get on the bike and do it. But they might be afraid to try, or try and fall off, if you just point to the bike, thus destroying their confidence. Instead, you hold the saddle firmly as they pedal away, running beside them and encouraging them. You then take your hand away, just an inch, ready to grab when the bike wobbles. After a while you’re just running behind them. Then you set them off, but remain standing. To see that proud, amazed face when they turn round at the end of the street is wonderful.

Hating arbitrary power began with my father and proceeded through my childhood. I believe films should be run in a relaxed, consultative way, encouraging everyone to share ideas and to accept those that work, whatever their source. I’ve been given good suggestions from wardrobe assistants and second ADs. I tell my students to value everyone. Why are they there if you don’t value them? A unit driver, for instance, can make or break a day’s work. At six thirty in the morning, they pick up an actor, who is hiding nerves and possibly a hangover. If that actor is driven courteously and efficiently to the location and others then offer coffee and a smile, that actor will arrive at the camera feeling loved, secure and open to the director. I’ve seen too many arriving fractious, defensive and hostile.

Training is neglected by too many production companies. It costs money and affects profits. Most don’t have enough nursery slopes, away from the spotlight, on which kids can learn and fail. In fact the whole country has been casual, often derelict, for years, neglecting to nurture the creativity of new generations. It’s a lack of creative capital, the investment of which is long term and uncertain. It’s reflected throughout the economy. Short term in a world which demands patient investment. I’m proud of our kids: actors, writers, directors and producers. I’m angry at the cruelty and indifference which stifles and tramples promising people. It’s an industry friendly to hustlers now, where art is a mere commodity and making a profitable sale is the height of creative ambition.

McKinsey’s mantra is “if you can measure it you can manage it”. The problem is that you can’t measure creativity except retrospectively, and even that is disputed. To locate and nurture creativity you need people of taste and sensitivity, with exceptional antennae, not qualities easily found on the executive ladder; you need patience because creative work, as opposed to repetitive manufacture, doesn’t come to order; you need to encourage it, over time, through frustration and failure. Plant in good soil, offer water and sunshine, prune where necessary and resist the temptation to constantly dig it up to see how it’s doing. You also need to connect each commissioner with the result, to see over time how they’ve performed. Involving layers of management confuses and allows escape from responsibility. Managing artists is a delicate art in itself. The management consultants might be effective doing their grubby work in old fashioned manufacturing industry.

A company growing an idea in Silicon Valley has to nurture creativity or die. The trick is to demand tight discipline with room to play. The days are over when people could be manipulated like machines, when Frederick Taylor and James McKinsey thrived. Television and film companies need to go on the front foot, believe in themselves and then give its creative base the power and the responsibility to deliver.


 The Day the Music Died is the memoir of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett. For the first time, Tony shares exclusive details from his childhood in working-class and war torn Birmingham. He takes readers behind the scenes of a selection of his more famous productions, offering secrets and anecdotes. Some moving and some amusing. Now available to buy on Amazon.
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