‘Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.’ ― Eleanor Roosevelt
This is what would happen in my film life: amidst the literally hundreds of items being juggled every day on a film production, there would be one big oversight. It would cause me to lose sleep at night, drink gallons of coffee and get hugely stressed resolving the issue.
The one thing I knew, after all the drama, is that I would be extra cautious and prepared on the next film to ensure the same problem would never arise. And after all that care, it wouldn’t.
But – of course – there would be a different oversight, a new drama.
The perfectionist in me would despair over the the lessons being neverending. Would I ever have that perfect shoot? That flawless project?
The answer? Never ever.
But I was getting incrementally better at my job.
Because I frame most things with the lens of cinema and entertainment, I’ll use the example of a TV show. There’s the mini story of each episode. And there’s an overall story arc that strings together the different episodes together to show us the characters’ bigger journey. While each episode is self-contained with its own beginning, middle and end, the real pleasure comes from taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture.
I didn’t realise at the time that the overarching story for me was the process of learning itself.
I don’t mean it in the ‘American Dream’ way, where we work hard and then reap the benefits.
I mean that the learning bit by bit, the growing, the evolving, is the benefit. Anything achieved thereafter is a sweet bonus. Graft is the thing.
Sadly, for the most part, the journey of graft is rarely appreciated. We want to reach the finish line in triumph but not see or show the blood, sweat and tears. We like to believe that effort and hard work has little to do with it.
Some years ago, a woman who wanted to work in film contacted me via mutual friends. She was close to my age and had been working in another industry. She wanted to know how I had started. I gave a brief account of my (at that point) 15 years of working my way up the production food chain. This was the conversation that followed:
She: What are you doing now?
Me: I’m an executive producer.
She: What does that mean?
Me: I oversee the production on behalf of the studio.
She: Okay, that’s what I want to do too. But I don’t want to spend all those years working my way up. Just tell me how I can get your job without doing any of that.
I am rarely rendered speechless, but I was on that occasion.
The seduction of effortlessness
Graft is considered dull. If we want to lose weight, we don’t want to hear that we should eat more nutritious food, cut out the processed crap and move more. No, we want to believe there’s a magic bullet that will somehow do everything for us without our having to do anything at all. Perversely, instead of counting calories/cutting out food groups/downing shakes and pills/using complicated machinery/having surgery, it’s the simple graft that ends up being cheaper and easier.
Graft destroys the myth of ease. We want to believe in Oz, and not see the little man behind the curtain. Big, successful production houses keep film scripts for an average of seven years in development before moving into production. M Night Shyamalan wrote ten drafts of his hit, The Sixth Sense, and the first five drafts were about a serial killer. The first draft by Richard Curtis of his breakthrough script was called Four Weddings and a Honeymoon.
Graft is viewed with suspicion. Graft doesn’t look sexy. Graft feels too nerdy. Perhaps we like to think that luck plays a role in others’ success, and that fortune didn’t smile on us. We want things instantly and effortlessly. We think we are entitled to everything because we see so many people who seemingly achieve it all without strain.
Fear of the present
We may work hard at our jobs because we enjoy it, it stimulates us and we feel challenged in the best way possible. Or we can work hard at our jobs because it’s poorly organised, we fear our boss, or worry about losing it altogether.
There were years I put my head down and toiled away at jobs that weren’t challenging but paid well. There were times when I was ready to get on any film in another part of the world, just to avoid confronting the reality of my marriage at home. There were moments I made myself busy all the time so I wouldn’t have to face myself.
In the right circumstances, however, graft and the learning curve make us become exquisitely aware of our present. We are shaped by our past, we are excited by the future, but we are most of all thrilled to be where we are.
Falling and failing
Ambivalence about graft surely comes from a fear of falling. We worry failure has a stench that can be smelt at a distance and we often do everything to avoid it, including – naturally – not trying at all. Seen through the prism of graft and the learning curve however, ‘failure’ tastes if not sweet, then at least bittersweet. We are made stronger by our stumbling, falling and misses. The idea of falling becomes less corrosive. We tried, it didn’t work, we moved on. The last relationship didn’t ‘fail’, but helped us know ourselves better for the next one.
Graft helps us build a surer foundation than if we got there by fluke. When we put in the effort we prove to ourselves time and again what something means to us, and what we will do to keep it. This is certainly the case for those wanting to work in films. Captivated by the apparent glamour, many flock to it. Once the reality shows up the round-the-clock working hours, constant upheaval and relentless graft (with zero glamour), most – sensibly – slink away, finding refuge in jobs that don’t claim the soul.
I’ll have what she’s having*
We try to ignore the reality of graft when it comes to other people – we partially witness their lives and assume the rest. We think they have amazing marriages, immaculate bodies or beautifully mannered children. We think we’re the only ones who are doing it wrong.
Aside from the toxic tabloid culture that revels in finding flaws in celebrities, we find imperfection in others not just a relief but also endearing. It’s much more relatable than the painstakingly constructed façade of effortlessness. Show me an overnight success and I’ll show you the years of drudgery that preceded it. We’re relieved that other people have to work on themselves and their lives because we do too.
And I’m grateful we do. Because without challenges we become complacent, bored, restless. We stop seeing the world with fresh eyes. We no longer feel thrilled about life. Instead of our comfort zone being a place of rest where we recharge, it becomes our only zone. Days bleed into months into decades and we wonder where our lives went.
But when we do rouse ourselves up, redirect ourselves and put in the effort, we know we’ve earned it and that we own it.
Graft, you see, really is the thing.
‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.’ ― Michelangelo
[*Hard work: you just can’t fake it.]
Simply reading her exquisite prose tells us how much labour has gone into writing it. Read Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, a panoramic tale of love, loss and redemption.
Watch Rocky, a film that former soft porn actor Sylvester Stallone wrote to break into mainstream cinema. While he completed the script in only three days, he refused to sell it to a studio until they agreed to let him star in the lead role. Given the endless sequels and Stallone’s penchant for starring in right-wing, hero-centric, go-America films since and in perpetuity, we forget that Rocky didn’t even win the match at the end of the first film.
Watch Searching for Sugar Man for the deeply moving story of a musician, Rodriguez, from the early 1970s, who didn’t find the success he so richly deserved at the time. Listen to the soundtrack that has remixed tracks from his original two albums, with beautifully crafted and charged songs that stir the soul.