What Tarantino’s Experience at the Sundance Lab in 1991 Can Teach Us About Feedback
A Cautionary Tale About Feedback
A few days ago, the always excellent Will McCrabb shared a picture of Quentin Tarantino and Steve Buscemi rehearsing a scene from Reservoir Dogs during the Sundance Lab that Tarantino attended in 1991.
Back in 1991, Quentin Tarantino was an unknown first-time filmmaker who had sold one screenplay (Natural Born Killers) for the WGA minimum ($30,000) and who was attempting to make Reservoir Dogs after having spent several years trying to shoot his first feature film (he never completed it), and raising money to shoot another feature (he didn’t succeeded).
As for the Sundance Lab, to quote Terry Gilliam, “Sundance is basically a chance to bring professional filmmakers and writers together with people who are trying to get into the business. What people do: they submit scripts and ideas of what they want to do, and then they give them two weeks up there and they make scenes from the film they are trying to make.”
So we can assume the Sundance Lab was an exciting prospect and a pretty important step for Tarantino toward achieving his goal of making his first feature (completed) feature film.
— WILL McCRABB (@mccrabb_will) January 23, 2015
When I saw McCrabb’s tweet, I was reminded of an anecdote I heard on the 1994 BBC documentary Quentin Tarantino – Hollywood’s Boy Wonder, where the young director and Terry Gilliam recall the Sundance Lab experience and the drastically different feedback Tarantino received during his tenure.
Tarantino’s First Feedback at the Sundance Lab in 1991
Here is what happened in the words of the two men:
Tarantino: “I wanted to experiment on my first scene, with long takes. I didn’t want to do coverage, I wanted to stream a bunch of long takes together and see how it would work. This was really the first time since I kind of got a little bit of sense about what I was doing that I had a camera bag in my hand again.”
Gilliam: “Quentin was overlapping, this is what was kind of strange, he had the experience of two groups of professionals. And the previous group whose name I will not reveal, had really been pretty rough on him I think.”
Tarantino: “They didn’t like anything. Anyway, that group leaves, and then the next group comes in and the next group is Terry Gilliam, and Stanley Donen, and Volker Schloendorff and Robert Estrin.”
Gilliam: “And our group loved Quentin because he was a man with such an incredible enthusiasm and an outrageous script, with crazy energy, great dialogues, and just the sheer audacity of what he was doing. This is where I think the Sundance Lab was a very useful thing because he had all this energy and all his ideas, this big chance to show everything he could do, and he did it all in these short sequences. The camera was here, and there, they were everywhere, the camera wouldn’t stay still. It was wow, and you couldn’t see anything. And I think that was a very useful thing for him to get out of his system.”
Emotional Feedback vs. Constructive Feedback
I think what stuck with me since I first watched the BBC documentary is the clear idea that there are two types of feedback, and depending on what type of feedback you offer, you can nourish someone’s potential and help them flourish, or you can build a wall against which they will hit hat.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Tarantino hadn’t received good feedback from the second group (he probably would have kept going, but who knows how much this would have affected his capacity to follow his instinct and tap into the rawness that made him who he is.)
- Emotional Feedback
The problem with the first group of creative advisers Tarantino faced to me was that their feedback was based on their taste.
They didn’t like it.
And that’s as useless as it gets in terms of feedback. (Just the same way that saying you like something is a useless feedback by the way. Yes, it flatters the creative’s ego, but that’s about all it does). When your feedback is not directed toward helping a creative tell what they want to tell better, but is rather used as a judgement of valor, that’s when you misuse the power of feedback and potentially create great damage.
In other words, emotional feedback is what you expect from your audience, once it’s done.
On the other hand, the second group gave Tarantino:
- Constructive Feedback.
Constructive feedback might not be pleasant to hear either, but they are here to help creatives find solutions to possible problems, think differently or transmit hard knowledge.
Of course we can point out that those feedback were made possible because Gilliam and the group in general liked Tarantino’s work in the first place, which made them want to help him get better, canalize his energy and find a way to keep what made him unique all the while learning how to control the camera. And that’s true.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What to Keep in Mind When We Ask for Feedback
A lot of people are not aware of the distinction between emotional and constructive feedback and think that giving their emotional opinion is a feedback.
Maybe they don’t have the tools to verbalize or point out to specifics, and then it means that we asked the wrong person to do an impossible task. So, the first step to enhance our chances to get constructive feedback is to ask people who have a certain skill-set and/or knowledge that we think might be helpful.
What to Keep in Mind When We Receive Feedback
I believe that when we receive feedback, we need to ask ourselves what type of feedback we are actually given: are they emotional or constructive feedback?
If we are receiving constructive feedback, then whatever the note, it needs to be acknowledged and considered, even if it hurts, and/or might ultimately been ignored for the purpose of the project we make.
If it’s emotional feedback, then we need to remember that this doesn’t say anything about our ability to tell a story, our work simply didn’t connect enough with the person to ignite constructive feedback.
What to Keep in Mind When We Give Feedback
When we give feedback, we need to put aside our feelings about the piece, and try to use our skills -whatever those skills- to give constructive feedback. That can be offering solutions, that can be giving perspective, and that always imply reminding the other person that those feedback are only suggestions made to inspire and can be ignored. (In other words, it’s not about our ego)
Also, It’s Very Hard for Everybody
It is hard to be honest and give good notes to someone. It is much easier to say that you loved whatever they did, point out to three things you liked and moved on.
And it is hard to receive notes gracefully, even if you know these notes are good notes, a part of you might have hoped to hear that everything was perfect (I know I’ve felt that several times, even though I knew it was not good enough.)
I believe that our job as a community is to help each other out by trying to be generous and genuine while offering constructive feedback, and by being brave enough to share our work with people who can give constructive feedback, and take the result gracefully. It all comes back to being vulnerable.