(originally published on my Nerd Out Newsletter on 10/21/23)
Let’s get weird with oil derricks and kid’s books!
On an episode of the SmartLess Podcast, co-host Will Arnett asked Paul Thomas Anderson how he was able to create a realistic 20th century oil-rig for his award-winning film, There Will Be Blood.
Daniel Day Lewis gives an unbelievable performance (duh), but it’s the cinematography, scenery, and practicality of the set design that stuck with me long after the credits rolled.
PTA’s response to the question was transparent and inspiring:
I worked with Jack Fisk, one of the great production designers who started his career with Terrence Malick and David Lynch.
I contacted Jack Fisk and had written the script and I needed to create…
I needed a lot of help with making oil derricks and the recreation of an early California town.
We were trying to learn how to get oil out of the ground, and really trying to do our research. And [Jack Fisk] said the greatest thing, he’s like “you know I found that if we can just get a children’s book about this it’s really better than trying to really understand how to do it with all these kind of books that are this thick.”
And it was one of these great lessons, and like yeah, get the children’s book first and don’t you be, you know, because it’ll have drawings, it’ll be simple. And it was like, “Wow, Jack Fisk gets the children’s book first. Alright that’s really good advice.”
What a delightful lesson to share.
Here’s a director at the top of his craft, sheepishly asking an industry legend how to create something complicated and demanding…
And the recommended solution was to just buy the damn kid’s book.
I’m reminded of the various quotes often attributed to physicist Richard Feynman:
“If you can’t explain an idea to an 8 year old, you don’t understand it.”
If we’re going to learn something new, we might as well start with books intended for 8-year olds. They cut out all the fluff and just teach the important stuff.
Plus, there are pictures!
We don’t need to feel dumb about asking questions and not knowing how something works. There’s no shame in perpetually cultivating a beginner’s mind. And we can learn from any type of source, no matter its intended audience.
I’m currently taking beginner violin lessons as a 39 year-old. The average age of my teacher’s other students is six.
He uses the same teaching techniques for them and me. Why? Because they work!
I’ll leave you with one final quote, from The Office’s Kevin Malone:
“Why waste time, say lot word, when few word do trick?”
Less can be more, and there’s wisdom to be extracted from unlikely sources.
(By the way, I guarantee this is the first time Kevin Malone and Richard Feynman have appeared together.)