I’ve had a long-running discussion with a good friend of mine about something we call “the rigor.” I believe it began back in our film school days. Simply put, the rigor means holding ourselves accountable for the integrity and quality of our work, being ruthless in our assessment of our projects, fearlessly accepting honest criticism, and checking our ego at the door. Because here’s the thing about filmmaking, or any creative endeavor for that matter: We can’t rely on any outside authority or employer to supply the rigor so crucial to the success of our projects.
Hollywood is full of people who will shower you with praise, and as soon as you’ve left the room, pull your film’s financing, pass on your script, or drop you as a client. They’ll avoid any kind of rigor, fearful they’ll offend you and alienate a potential moneymaker down the line. Or worse, they don’t even have the knowledge or capability to provide any useful input, no ability to even assess the material in front of them. Even friends and colleagues can be afraid to tell you the harsh truth. But the harsh truth is what we always need, like it or not.
Given that we can’t count on external rigor to come to our rescue, we must cultivate it from within. Like a muscle, we must continue to exercise it and keep it strong. We must continually ask the hard questions, re-write and re-edit our work, and honestly confront the weaknesses and strengths of what we create. What’s working and what isn’t? And in those rare situations where we can trust someone else for honest feedback, we need to push them to be as brutal as possible. We can always ignore their input, but we need to hear it first, then evaluate for ourselves.
The other benefit of the rigor is it tempers our tendency to fall in love with our ideas and creations. And while it’s crucial we have a ruthless passion for everything we create, we must always be willing to question and evaluate our work as it takes shape. As the saying goes, we must be prepared to “kill our darlings.” Another friend of mine reminded me a few weeks ago about a quote from Jean-Claude Carrière: “Every day we must kill our father and rape our mother. Every day.” Jesus. Certainly an extreme version of the rigor, but metaphorically accurate.
On my last film we had written an entire ending sequence that we were editing and re-editing for weeks, and it just wasn’t working. Finally one morning my editor and I decided to eliminate the entire sequence and see what happened. In fairly short order we had a new ending that worked much better than what we had written. My writing partner freaked out for a day or two, and I didn’t blame him. After all, we had spent a lot of time and effort crafting an ending for our script that we really liked. Not to mention the multiple days and thousands of dollars spent shooting the scenes. And we were just going to throw it out? How could we do that? Answer: the rigor.
This sort of sacrifice at the altar of the editing room is hardly unusual. As filmmakers, we “write” a film three times: once when writing the script, again when we’re shooting on set, and finally in the editing room. At each stage we must kill our darlings, or the film will suffer. But clearly the rigor applies much more widely in our creative lives. And ideally in our personal lives as well. In a world of increasing ease, convenience and instant gratification — not to mention “alternative facts” and faulty logic — holding ourselves accountable and avoiding the easy path of lazy comfort is more important than ever.
Hey, I’m no saint living in a gleaming temple of creative perfection. I’ll take the easy way out from time to time. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. (Or five steps back, for that matter.) We’re all flawed works in progress. But I believe just the awareness and willingness to engage the rigor will take all our creative endeavors — and our lives — up a level.