The Godfather of Gore on Project Management, Part I

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Metaphors can’t prove a point but they’re terrific ways to illustrate them.

Take project management. Some projects are voyages of discovery (imagine Magellan, consulting a Gantt chart and holding weekly status meetings while circumnavigating the earth). At the other extreme are projects more like assembling a model airplane, where a finite, enumerated list of tasks in a specific sequence makes all kinds of sense.

In between are projects with similarities to painting (a canvas, not a wall), and others that are like making a movie.

Hmmm. Making a movie. I have a source for that. Meet the Godfather of Gore … the co-inventor of the splatter movie and reason why, in high school, my summer jobs were so much odder than anyone else’s, Herschell Gordon Lewis (aka Dear Ol’ Dad).

KJR: When you made movies, were you managing a project?

HGL: Absolutely … in my role as Director. When I was Producer (which I avoided), I was more like a project sponsor.

KJR: Why did you try to avoid being the Producer?

HGL: You know the definition of a Producer, don’t you? He’s the schmuck with the checkbook.

KJR: Oh. Okay, then. So what’s it take to make a successful movie?

HGL: There are a lot of ways to go about it. I always shot from a very specific script, according to a specific schedule. Someone like Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, does a lot more figuring things out on the spot. I can’t tell you much about that approach, though. We never could have afforded it.

KJR: Then how did you go about making successful movies?

HGL: There were a bunch of elements that let us do it.

First of all, as I mentioned, we had to deal with hard economics. We started with a fixed budget and worked backwards to figure out how much production value we could put in. That’s why we needed a shooting script and not just storyboards or a general concept.

Second: We recruited individuals who were capable, within the budget we’d set for their participation. We were lucky, in that we were always able to get people who had a natural enthusiasm about the project. Also, in the movie business there are always people who will accept less pay in exchange for a screen credit.

KJR: Sort of like companies that get good but unseasoned talent, and a lot of hard work from people who want to build their resumes?

HGL: Exactly. Next, we always had mileposts along the way. We made sure we met them, which meant there was never a last-minute panic to get it done. Ours were every day, and as you know we kept working every day until we’d shot that day’s scenes. Of course, we’d shoot an entire feature in two or three weeks, so we couldn’t afford to get even a day behind schedule.

By the way — I don’t know if there’s any parallel to the kinds of projects your subscribers manage, but when we put a shooting schedule together it had nothing to do with the script sequence. I’d cut the script apart with a scissors and regroup things so we’d never have to go back to a location, and so we’d need each actor for as little time as possible.

KJR: And I always thought the scissors were your way of expressing your opinion of the script! On a semi-related subject: Did you do anything that resembled the testing that goes on in software projects?

HGL: Sure we did. This was long before digital, of course. In the age of film we looked at the “dailies” … the footage we’d shot the day before … to make sure everything would work. When it wasn’t what we’d wanted, we had a decision: Re-shoot it, live with it, or edit it out of the script.

That’s one of the best things about digital — it eliminates the chaos of having to fit re-shooting a scene into an already full schedule.

KJR: Not that different from showing new software features to end-users every day so we aren’t caught by surprise during end-user acceptance testing?

HGL: Well, we never had such an impressive vocabulary, and anyway, we were our own end-users, constantly trying to anticipate how an audience would respond.

KJR: But weren’t you once quoted as saying you didn’t know who went to see your movies, because nobody had found a way to measure IQs that low?

HGL: Yes, but then I never let diplomacy get in the way of a good wisecrack.

KJR: Seems like a sound policy to me.

As does ending with a cliffhanger to bring everyone back for more. Stay tuned …

Comments (4)

  • Oh my! Getting two generations of wisdom now. How are you going to top that?!

  • Making a movie is a better analogy for software projects than constructing a building. It seems obvious to me, but little has been written on the toipic. Successful movies are made using a wide range of budgets. Directors with different styles get the job done in different ways.

    One thing about software is we never make the same system twice – that’s just like movies. Even when there’s a sequel or a remake it’s still quite different.

    Robert Rodriguez & James Cameron have completely different styles and both are successful. Cameron delivered Avatar, an incredibly expensive movie, and it was incredibly profitable. However, a large budget doesn’t ensure success, many big budget movies have failed. Rodriguez and others deliver small budget films that are highly successful.

    An entire book could be written on parallels between software development and making movies. I’m pleased you’re exploring the topic.

  • I’ll definitely be back for more.

    I found your father’s off the cuff comment about digital really interesting, not so much because of what he specifically said, but the apparent implicit assumption of getting to know and use new technologies as appropriate.

  • I’ve long been an advocate that movie making is not only on of the largest projects a human being can take on, not just in strict PM terms but also in creative terms… I also agree with Chris that it fits very close to the create application development life cycle, esp. large ones. I believe IT is still more art than science and movie making certainly seems to reflect this axiom. I’ve been completely fascinated by large scale, epic movie making in view of software and application development for a long time. (My favorite creative project manager/director right now is Ridley Scott. We need more Ridley Scott’s in IT right now. Steve Jobs is one. Application of the movie making industry PM approach to software is one of my curent, on-going passions!)

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