Consensus or Group Think?

Usually, when people talk about “group think” they are condemning bad decisions. Yet when they talk about “consensus” they are implying that the group or crowd must be right.

When good leaders make bad decisions because advisers not only fail to speak up, but fail to even consider that better options may be available, that’s Group Think. When two people share the same view, and everyone else is afraid to speak, that’s Group Think. Group Think is when people not only fail to challenge the consensus, but fail to consider that the consensus may be wrong.

Look at almost any war, and you’ll find that the consensus behind at least one side’s leadership was wrong, and went largely unchallenged. However, war is politics by other means, and I do not wish to discuss politics.

Before getting into heated political mud fights I may wish to forget, I’ll talk about a “non-political” area, one where I’ve wasted time in debates that have turned ugly: film theory.

Now, most ugly debates about film theory are political with a small p. Fan boys square of against haters on the topic of some screenwriting guru, or auteur theory, or a certain genre, or a certain film school or style, until one side gets tired of arguing over who is right. The problem is, rather than having the courage to say “I want” or “I like,” many people try to silence the opposition in order to win at all costs.

The way I see it, there are no one-size-fits-all creative solutions. Right and wrong is the domain of morals and ethics, or something like mathematics, not creativity.  Sure, creatives have ethics and morals, but there is more than one creative process.

Generally, I’m in favour of a strong script. There’s no point in writing a script unless you’re going to use it. However, Mike Leigh’s films, (and low budget films like Monsters), don’t have a complete script, but they work with a treatment or even an outline. The lack of a concrete script, when you have a tiny cast and crew of experienced improvisers (and are unable to prepare or even know your locations), can allow you to adapt to opportunities that you can’t predict ahead of time.

However, when you try to apply the flexible-script-approach to a larger production with a large cast and crew of highly paid people, or to anyone who isn’t a super-improviser, you’re likely to run into budget issues. (This is one reason why I think microbudget geniuses often fail when given a larger production.) Still, during the course of even the most disciplined large production, a well scripted scene may be altered for practical reasons.

In other words, both planning and adaptation can be good things and both have their place. Rather than debating which is the right way, we need to consider the needs and opportunities presented by each story, each team and each production.

Unfortunately, most film-making manuals, blogs, and seminars don’t consider the possibilities. They recommend a lot of rigid, unrealistic, one-size-fits-all solutions, because they think that being rigid makes them sound knowledgeable. For a creative industry, a lot of film consultants sound incredibly dogmatic.

Part of the problem is that the second guru, rather than doing his own research, builds on the theory of the first. The second guru might even be doing this subconsciously, having developed an observer bias created by reading the first. Soon you have two gurus giving the same advice, then three, until a false consensus emerges.

This false consensus (the result of subconscious plagiarism) has cursed fields, from ethics to medicine. And things get really ugly when poor translations are added into the mix.

In Medieval times, a medical text spoke of “mumiya.” Mumiya originally meant something like tarmac, but it was imported, so almost nobody in Europe knew what was in it. Sadly, when mumiya supplies ran out, “mumiya” was mistranslated as “mummy” or human remains. When imports of the real mumiya ran out, some doctors used dead human body parts to “heal” their patients. This kind of thing happened until modern doctors decided to stop relying on the wisdom of the ancients (and the consensus around a few translations) and began to study anatomy first hand (and perform their own experiments.) Then, they discovered that the consensus was often wrong (oops.)

Like doctors, I believe filmmakers can learn from dissecting scripts, business plans, film history, and their own experiences, to learn the “anatomy” of film-making, rather than relying on the words of experts. Then, when you know your basic anatomy (and have done your research on the possible causes of different symptoms), you can examine the individual patient, er, film.

Sometimes, when there are many ways of doing a scene, the key creatives will have a debate. The director might listen to various members of the cast and crew before making a decision. Then this creative or practical decision might clash with the commercial and administrative input of the producer’s team. As everyone clearly and honestly voices the reasons for their ideas and objections, more options might be considered.

Unfortunately, you often don’t know what those options are until you have your team, location, equipment and other resources together. But you have a few guides like your script, business plan and budget (and storyboard, shooting schedule, etc) to help determine which resources you should seek out or develop. And, you can gather around opinions and input before completing your plan.

Worse, sometimes one person’s opinion will be so strong that no one has the courage to challenge it. This person may be a guru who never even made a film before. Getting back to the evil dictators of history, many of them relied on ideologies created by dogmatic “experts” to further strengthen their hold on the population. These dogmatic ideologies may even have had good origins, but be misinterpreted or misapplied by the consensus.

Despite what the gurus and self-proclaimed experts claim, there’s no real consensus in film theory. There may be a majority who prefers to work a certain way, but there’s always a courageous filmmaker somewhere willing to take creative risks and make a movie that a neglected part of the audience enjoys.