Why is mediocrity such a powerful force?

Ive hit the decade mark!

Yes, Im now in to my second ten years working in Soho’s post production world.  Not only that, I’m ten years working with some great Directors, DoPs, Producers and Exec Producers (not to mention the great people that are hired by these people).

In that time I’ve met all sorts of characters – some geniuses, some nutcases (music promos!), some incompetent, some living on a different planet, and quite a lot of the in-betweeners, a sort of mediocre, they are just, well, getting on with it – making a living.

What’s rather more concerning is I’m still deciding if my work is mediocre.  One thing that has struck me in recent years is that a lot of the people I count as talented (certainly more than me) also aren’t sure if they are mediocre too.  What is surprising is how desperate the really good people are not to be mediocre.  Its almost an obsession, you see it painted on the faces of great creatives, and also, though not as often, on the faces of producers that hire them.

I’ve found myself during the last couple of years sat in meetings, or in the grading suite, or chatting outside a pub with a DP / Director / Producer just saying “we’ve got to be bold with this – punchy”, with Directors and DPs drumming in to me that “we’ve got to push this look, this scene is all about the starkness, it cant look like everything else out there” etc etc.  Yet, by the time shooting starts, and certain execs wade in, the whole project is diluted, re-scripted, and everything that the Director had in their mind is gone.

Then on the flip side, I’ve sat with very gifted DPs and Directors who say very little, but know exactly what they want, its a subtlety to the image, the delicate film-making process, that takes it from mediocrity to that next level.  The directing, lighting, editing, score and the grade can be delicate, slow-burning tension – but the result, anything but mediocre – in its own way very bold.

Interestingly, its this passion that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, and particularly with the shows I’ve worked on this year where the whole team on these projects have tried to be bold, which has propelled these gifted few to such great heights, in a tough market of lowering budgets and mediocre commissions.  Its tough for these more bold creatives and producers to get a job, yet the jobs that could be on offer aren’t the ones they even want to do.  On occasions they have to take them to cover their own personal costs, even though of course the personal cost could be quite great – you are, as they say, only as good as your last job.

Its a stark fact that more than half of producers and exec producers are at odds with these people because what they want is actually mediocrity, an easy life, to get that perfect TV show that gets the ratings and challenges nothing, engages enough, and passes the time and gets a repeat series – hey presto you’ve secured a second home in Devon or even France.  Hopefully it will allow them to make a more dynamic project later for their portfolio, if they have the will to be bold.

For a century of film-making, gifted and bold creatives have pushed back on what is the safe route, and time and again the result has been a more successful final piece.  Mediocrity has seen millions of films, commercials and TV shows end up on the scrap heap, yet when we look at just The Top 10 IMDB Movies (as voted by the users of the site), we see a list of strange choices:

1) Shawshank Redemption: A film set in a prison – Exec Producer “Sounds a bit down – really, another prison break film?”.  Did nothing at the box office, had little P&A budget backing it – then, when people started to see it, well, the rest is history.

2) Godfather: Mob picture, set around a family – 3 hours long, and it was the Exec Producer Robert Evans that made it this length!  It is sloooooow.  But its certainly bold.  Violent, slow burning, an epic movie.

3) Godfather 2: A great follow up to the first, Coppola delivers a tense story of the next generation of the Corleone family.

4) Pulp Fiction: A masterclass in disjointed storytelling, casting and post production – Exec “Why Travolta!?!? All these storylines?” – thankfully the Weinsteins were involved and they have a track record of spotting bold talent

5) The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: not much dialogue, whole lot of on screen tension – then there is the bolder than bold score from the genius of Ennio Morricone (N.b. my fav, Once Upon a Time in the West, which is for me the greatest direction, score, editing and photography I’ve ever seen – shots held for literally eternity – now, editors and execs love a cut).

6) The Dark Knight – A director that uses (mostly) one camera, 70mm, and lets it run well over 2hours – and Hollywood hates that.  He manages to spend millions, which you actually see on screen, as well as being one of the very few films of the comic genre that succeeds as a great movie.  With Inception as well, he shows that a Director’s bold vision is enough to take over a $1billion.

7) 12 Angry Men – Now this is my favourite in this list because its set for nearly the entire movie in a single room.  Its also in black and white, but its a masterclass in acting, scriptwriting and direction.  You can imagine the screams “this picture is all set in one room, the audience will get bored after fifteen minutes”.  Most execs freak out at a one minute courtroom scene. “Quick more cutting, we need to speed it all up, people will turn off!”

8) Schindler’s List: A true story, adapted very well to the big screen.  I can imagine a few squeaky shoes at that first production meeting.

9) Lord of the Rings: Fair play to Peter Jackson, he managed to get a studio to let him spend millions on adapting a book no one had ever risked to take to the big screen on anything like this scale.  And at 9, he clearly succeeded.

10) Fight Club: a film about people who like to beat each other up for fun.  The oddest premise, with Meat Loaf in a supporting role, and with super bold direction – again, can you imagine the elevator pitch?!

So, despite the fact that so many of us try to be bold, we do lose out to the mediocre.  We for instance are always dealing with producers that just want the cheapest deal, do everything in one big post house, usually with a safe pair of hands / an old drinking mate / or that’s near their office.  Yet, the fact remains, for really great work to be made you have to be bold and pick the team that has the utmost ability to deliver the best.  It doesn’t matter if its TV, commercials, or features or docs, its got to be bold, for me, its like Top Boy, The Wire, to Breaking Bad, to The Fades and on – do not give in to mediocrity, and strive to produce films, whether 5 seconds or 13 hours, that take the audience on a new and exciting journey.

During the next ten years, my motto is “Push it”, and thankfully I’m now working with clients that feel the same – and its fantastic!

If you’re a young filmmaker, whatever your discipline, be bold, be bold, BE BOLD.

Thomas Urbye


The Look

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