I once worked for a guy named Dixon whose mantra was “The right money, the right tools, the right people: two out of three and you can build a masterpiece.”
Over the years I worked for a lot of different people. I was fortunate to be hired early in life by men who were eager to share what they knew and had learned in building their own careers.
When I thought I wanted to be an architect I had an after-school job in a firm that designed and engineered everything from private homes to commercial buildings and schools. The architect who owned the business saw to it that I received on-the-job instruction by assigning me to various tasks with the associates who worked for him.
While I was in high school, then college (and no longer pursuing architecture), I worked in broadcasting and film. The owners of the companies I worked for shared years of experience that often gave me answers to problems I encountered in later years as a filmmaker.
When I graduated and was beginning to make my way in the world of film, I also pursued another field I loved (and still do): automobiles. For a while I had a part-time sales job with a small dealer in foreign cars. The manager was a man in his 60s who had been in the car business most of his life. Eddie, for some reason, decided he would share his knowledge with me, partially by telling me great stories of his days as a service station owner, a bootlegger, and during the late 30s, as regional service manager for one of the country’s most prestigious car makers. A lot of what I know about keeping old cars running came from his stories as we worked after-hours on one of my cars or the owner’s Lotus racer.
Eddie’s way of teaching was to assign me a task, such as setting the ignition points on a car. I would do the work, then call him to check it out. I still remember his “Got it right?” question before he checked my work. Then he’d bend over the engine and check it himself. “Do it again.” Then he’d walk away. I’d check the setting, and sure enough, there would be some adjustment left. If nothing else, I learned not to be afraid of setting things tight to the specs. In other words, not to back away from something difficult, but to confront it, challenge it, to always seek perfection. It is a lesson that I have tried to honor all my life.
One of the many filmmakers I worked for used a different approach. We would work together in the final editing stages of a film I had written, and long into the night we would grind away at the Moviola, Phil putting the art into the editing, I sitting beside him, ready to expand or contract the script as necessary. It was often two or three in the morning when he would stop the film, back it up, run it, back it up, then turn to me and say something like, “I need 14 seconds of words here.” I’d get up, go to my typewriter, and come back with the 14 seconds of words. I learned to see, to connect and to work fast, no time for thoughtful lingering over words, but creating the right combination to fit the scene, walking back to the editing room just as the boss finished a splice. He’s run it again, I’d read the 14 seconds of words, and we’d move on.
In my own time, I’ve tried to carry on what those men and others taught me: to pass on the knowledge, the experience, the excitement of what my work meant to me, so that other young men and women could benefit from what I had learned, could carry on the skills and knowledge I had mastered with the help of those masters of craft I was fortunate enough to know. And I learned to always surround myself with people who knew more than I did, and let them show it.
The right money, the right tools, the right people: two out of three will create a masterpiece.