by Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
There are some interesting parallels between movie making and education. The actors interpret the lines provided by a screenwriter in much the same manner as teachers present a curriculum. Success in both is measured by the response of the audience. The people in charge have significant auxiliary staffs—writers, editors, designers and technicians for one; counselors, cafeteria workers, IT specialists and bus drivers for the other. Time constraints are a critical consideration in making a film and running a school. Working within a prescribed budget looms over the two endeavors. And perhaps most importantly, the overall vision of a movie’s director or a school’s educational leader will be a critical component in determining eventual success or failure.
Studying the work of the best
Prior to the recent Academy Awards an article in the Washington Post presented insights into the directing styles of three of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers—Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg. After examining the methods of the three, it is apparent that many of their basic philosophies could assist school leaders in achieving academic success.
The most appropriate approach may be found in studying the work of Woody Allen. According to documentary maker Robert Weide (“Woody Allen: A Documentary”) Allen, the director, is a far cry from the nervous and neurotic character he often portrays on the screen. He has a simple formula for success—hire the actors best suited to meet the needs of a movie’s characters and then let them utilize their talents. Weide explained the Allen method:
“The conventional wisdom about ‘serious’ actors is that they want to dissect their character with their director, discussing everything from the character’s back story to what he or she had for breakfast that morning. Allen engages in none of this ‘nonsense’ (his word). His theory, rather, is to ‘hire the best actors, shut up and get out of their way’.
“The actors eat it up. Many of the performers I interviewed spoke of the sense of liberation they feel when a director is confident in their ability to come up with the goods without micromanaging their performance. Says Martin Landau: ‘We never discussed the character. I never heard anyone complain about it because I think it allows a good actor a kind of freedom: ‘Here’s a canvas. Paint!’ ”
But this sense of freedom and creativity is not without bounds. Allen allows his staff large amounts of input and independence but he has a definite vision for the final product. Weide explains:
“Allen may be uninterested in babbling on about his ‘process,’ but he’s definitely going after a specific result, whether or not his actors realize it. Naomi Watts seems to have caught on to his subtle sleight of hand. She refers to Allen as ‘the best actor’s director I’ve ever worked with,’ but concludes, ‘There’s not as much free rein as we’re led to believe, because he has a sense of how the scene’s going to work and we need to move within those parameters.’ Still, she realizes that “he wants to empower us to find it. . . and he’ll do it in such a gentle fashion that we don’t even understand it’s being done.’”
Adding a few other ingredients
The philosophies of Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg provide additional thoughts on leadership. Scorsese biographer Mary Pat Kelly (“Martin Scorsese: Il maestro”) wrote:
“Many actors who have worked with the maestro credit this mix of structure and creative flexibility with his success as a leader on set. ‘It was loose and methodical at the same time,’ Ellen Burstyn said of the process…‘Of all the directors I’ve worked with, Marty is the best at providing an atmosphere where actors can do their best work. He trusts actors and involves them.’
Steven Spielberg, says biographer Joseph McBride (“Steven Spielberg: Control freak and collaborator”) takes a very different path to cinematic success:
“Spielberg became highly skilled at the fine arts of delegating and collaborating, qualities essential to good leadership in a profession that involves orchestrating the work of hundreds of helpers. And yet he also remains an unabashed ‘control freak.’ How does he balance those paradoxical sides of his creative and business personality?…(Spielberg) has learned how to surround himself with a small comfort zone of longtime collaborators he trusts implicitly…Such people are his filmmaking family, a tightly knit bunch he carries from project to project, drawing creative sustenance from them while demanding a high degree of creative independence.”
While much of what appears on the silver screen may be an illusion, the steps necessary to make it great are not only real they represent an excellent formula for education. The methods of these three directors could provide some important lessons for education. From the teacher’s perspective Allen’s goal of finding the right actors for the various parts and then allowing them creative freedom is particularly intriguing. School leaders must be given the tools necessary to create the best staff possible. To that end districts need to allow more flexibility in hiring including less bureaucracy and more aggressive recruitment. I once interviewed a candidate and quickly decided that she would be a great fit with our student body and staff. However the district required that every applicant take a “Gallup Survey” an automated phone questionnaire. Her poor performance was not surprising since one of her strongest qualities in my opinion was her thoughtful responses to questions. This test was not designed to allow for such careful consideration. My AP voiced concern about hiring her since she was below the score established by the district. Fortunately she agreed that this was a good candidate and the young lady became an outstanding member of the math department. At many schools in the system, she would not have been hired.
Once a superior faculty is acquired the best strategy would be to follow the “Annie Hall” director’s advice—let talented people create stellar results. The synergy between actors on a set is no different than the interaction of teachers at a school. Good work begets more positive results; a poor performance in either context can negatively impact many. Add in the trust of Scorsese and Spielberg’s ability to delegate and maintain a strong cadre of staff members over a long period of time and the production of an “award-winning” educational program is viable.