How Do You Know When Your Film Project Is "Finished"?

Letting go of perfectionism.

“Movies aren’t finished. They’re abandoned.”

Could you sit through the world premiere of your own work?

In the case of Gone Girl – an audience favorite and critical sensation – director David Fincher couldn’t. “I was there for about an hour,” he shared, “and then I had to leave because I was going to throw up… You can always make something better. They say, and it’s true, movies aren’t finished, they’re abandoned. And you have to make your peace with that.”

This coming from the man who did 99 takes of a single scene in The Social Network, to get exactly what he wanted.

Of course, Fincher is operating in a rich tradition of meticulous visionaries, foremost among them Stanley Kubrick:

Stories abound of Kubrick’s uncompromising perfectionism.

For example, for his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick made Tom Cruise – one of the biggest stars in the world – walk through a door 97 times. The production went on to set a Guinness World Record for “longest constant movie shoot” at 400 straight days. For The Shining, Steadicam inventor and operator Garrett Brown did 30 takes on his first day in 110 degree heat: “I quickly realized that when Stanley said the crosshairs were to be on someone’s left nostril, that no other nostril would do.” One line in the screenplay for Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon – “Barry duels with Lord Bullingdon” – took 42 working days to edit.

On and on the stories go. As The Simpsons joke, “All right, let’s burn this, let’s rewrite this and uh, let’s start all over.”

There’s a part of me that deeply respects such strong commitment to a vision. My own perfectionistic tendencies seem validated by stories of my filmmaking heroes pushing through adversity to achieve their creative goals, securing places for their projects in the pantheon of classics.

But when is enough enough?

When are you satisfied with that scene in your screenplay you’ve been reworking for three weeks? When do you move on to the next shot? When do you decide that the movie is picture locked? In other words, how can you “make your peace” with Fincher’s paraphrase of Leonardo da Vinci’s timeless maxim: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Barry Lyndon | Warner Bros., 1975

Back in high school, I had a friend whose father was an experienced psychologist. He watched as we edited our film late into the night, school day after school day, fussing over frames and more or less killing ourselves to juggle homework with finishing the project.

One evening, he pulled us aside and sat us down. “I’m glad you guys care about this so much,” he said, “But I want you to understand something. Perfection is the enemy of excellence.”

At the time, I just nodded politely, eager to get back to work. But now, years later, I understand what he was trying to teach us. Sometimes, the pursuit of perfection can get in the way of actually doing the work. It can become an insidious justification for procrastination.

Whether or not we realize it, we sometimes use perfectionism as an excuse to avoid making real progress. It’s often easier to tweak a line than to craft a whole new scene, right? It can feel safer to do another take than to strike out into the uncertainty of another shot, and it’s less scary to endlessly refine an edit than to declare your film “picture locked” and risk public ridicule of the end result. Whatever the reason, lurking in perfectionism is the seed of resistance to true productivity. It doesn’t always take root, but when it does, the quest for the best becomes pernicious. We impede our own progress, subconsciously hiding behind the desire to create the perfect film.

I once found myself racing the clock on set, in desperate need to squeeze a few more shots out of the day but hung up on a handful of details. The take just wasn’t right. Eventually, my Assistant Director put her foot down. “It’s your call,” she said, “But think about this – do you want a perfect half film or a good whole film?” We got one more take and then moved on to grab the rest of the scheduled coverage.

“Making films is all about – as soon as you’re finished – continually regretting what you’ve done,” legendary director Hayao Miyazaki says:

“When we look at films we’ve made, all we can see are the flaws; we can’t even watch them in a normal way. I never feel like watching my own films again. So unless I start working on a new one, I’ll never be free from the curse of the last one. I’m serious. Unless I start working on the next film, the last one will be a drag on me for another two or three years.”

Miyazaki breaks free of perfectionism’s orbit by moving onto his next project – a fantastic approach, since doing more work is the only way to close the gap between your ambition and your ability:

To be clear, it’s not wrong to do 99 takes (assuming it’s in the budget). Nor is it wrong to do your best to make your movie the fullest possible expression of itself! You want to be proud of the projects you put out there, after all.

Just be wary that perfectionism has the potential to stall your progress. It’s up to you to discern when it’s productive to obsess over a detail, and when it may be better to “make your peace” and let it go.

In the wise and playful words of Salvador Dali, “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

 Michael Koehler, with

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