Name your best actor. What do you go for? King of the jungle Christian Bale types? Big bear action figures like Chris Hemsworth (think Thor)? Or comedian monkeys: the Seinfelds out there?
The division, by the way, is not mine. Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, spelled it out in an episode of Comedians in cars getting coffee. (I love Jerry Seinfeld the thinker, but that you know by now.)
I have to say these days I’m adding one more to Lorne’s list. The creatives. Who would that be in the zoo? The dolphins, maybe?
In real life, that’s Ethan Hawke. Of whom I have always been, let’s say, a composed fan. I never went overboard with the Sunset trilogy and there’s only so much I can say about Great Expectations.
But I just spent one hour listening to him on a New York Times Facebook live and when did it all flow by? And why did it end?
The guy is a spilling slot machine of quotes, stories of how Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando landed on greatness their so different ways (one learned lines and rehearsed the actions ad infinitum, the other was all about spontaneity) and how Macbeth and his wife were into this happy marriage. But guess what, she said “kill this guy, we’ll have it so much better” etc.
The man is positively flamboyant. And has three movies out this summer, of which I am promoting none, but will probably see all.
But here’s what I love about him beyond the spirit, and the culture, and the presence. It’s how he picks his work avenues and cultivates them with a designer mind.
Yes, he is an artist. And yes, he is an intellectual. And he is a creator. A writer, a director etc. But it all springs from his designer mind. Or so it looks from the output, at least. We never spoke. Yet.
How can you tell someone is a designer if they never make clothes or iPhones and cars? Well, you look for the principles of design at work.
What are the fundamentally important things?
Does the creator see things as systems? See them all come together?
Is the result both beautiful and simple?
Does it fulfil the purpose?
Everything gets stripped through these lenses. And it’s all done in a string of choices. Design is about making choices. What goes in matters. As does what doesn’t.
Any object you use is a work of design. You don’t really acknowledge it as such until execution goes beyond the mark of really good into exquisite, with a message printed on ribbon: “what the artist meant.”
So I think Ethan Hawke has the mind of a designer. He designs vehicles for whatever goes into his head to live into the world and run with the banner of his message.
One of his films this summer is a biopic. Some unknown yet great country singer-songwriter. Here’s a juicy bite of a designer mind at work.
“You know what biopics are like? You like Johnny Cash, right? Well, here’s a few of his main life moments edited to his main songs.”
(I am paraphrasing all over, but that’s the gist of it). “There’s a get-discovered scene, an ego-takes-over scene, a drugs-run-the-show-scene and an I-have-to-get-clean scene etc.” With one exception: Raging bull. That movie lives beyond the life of Jake LaMotta. Hawks says. And I agree.
And then Hawke went on and made a movie without any of those scenes in it. It went to Sundance.
Because a biopic should not be the story of the guy’s life. It should be a vehicle of the guy’s message, distilled from life facts. Whatever he was out there living, that calls to a distinct group of people called the audience.
Your copy should not be about your business. It should be about what it does for those you serve. Principles of design apply here too. Keep it to a minimum and keep the magic.
I heard one designer say it’s a fantastic journey to go there every time. Tell me about it.