What They Did for Love

We watched "Ballet 422" tonight; it's relatively short--70 minutes--and it's minimalist. It provoked a lot of reflection. The film follows a 25 year old wunderkind choreographer-dancer Justin Peck as he stoically works with all of the talented artists and craftspeople to create a new ballet piece for the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. He was just a kid!

I connected immediately with the film, though my professional life subsequently diverged wildly from his. At 25, having never worked on a feature film (other than at minimum wage as an extra in a number of Hollywood features), I directed and produced my first feature. I was supposed to earn the trust of almost 100 people: actors (some legendary) and a crew of people who knew their craft. Though I had faith in my vision, I wondered how I would command their respect.

Justin Peck comes across as relatively unremarkable, though he is anything but. He is accommodating and soft-spoken and more than a little awkward. Still, he has a vision. And while he honors the knowledge and experience of his colleagues--composers, musicians, wardrobe designers, lighting designers, stage managers--Justin figures out how to softly, and with humility, cling to the aspects of his vision he knows to be correct and adapt to the suggestions that he knows to be an improvement on his original vision.

I think leadership requires a number of elements that can't be taught but can be developed. I immersed myself in books and videos about every element of filmmaking before production, and I fleshed out my vision so completely in my head that if anyone would make a suggestion, I was easily able to compare the new idea with my original vision. The goal was to be deliberative but not second-guessing. I also intuited that the best way to command respect was to be genuinely humble and show respect to everyone, show up earlier on set than everyone else, leave later than everyone else, encourage creative input from anyone, sift through and assess often competing input, and decide with quiet strength.

One of my proudest moments was when I declared that the take we were getting would be the final one, because we had gone overtime, and I needed the cast and crew fresh for the morning. SAG rules and labor laws required a certain amount of rest time between days. The crew "shook me off" and told me they were happy to shoot as many takes as would be necessary to get the scene to my satisfaction. I was overcome with appreciation. Most of these people were used to working with "professionals." And now they were giving me professional courtesy.

After thinking about my film life more than 15 years ago, I found myself reflecting even farther back, to the time I saw my favorite musical, "A Chorus Line." I first saw it when I was a teenager and had never been moved that way by a theatrical work before. It spoke to me. I went into the city again with my friends Erin and Kristi to see it before it closed, and, to this day, I still have my "End of the Line" t-shirt in my closet.

One of the most beautiful and tragic themes to "A Chorus Line" that is reflected in "Ballet 422" is how all of the people who contribute to a comprehensive work of astonishing excellence and artistry--the culmination of years of purposeful practice--ultimately become relatively anonymous in service to the final product. Sure, among humankind, some artists' names endure in every field of the arts. But that was never what the work was about. "What I Did for Love." The work was about the commitment to the truth of the work, a pursuit of perfection that can never be satisfied, and a steadfast belief in the here and now.