Every year, armies of people invade Los Angeles chasing dreams of fame, money, and glory. Sadly, despite movies like Rudy (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), and La La Land (2016), all which dramatize how never giving up pays off in the end, simple math dictates most Hollywood dreams will end in failure.
That’s because too many people do Hollywood ass-backwards. If you have the strong organization skills and creative instincts to be a producer, but decide to be a writer instead, you’re just setting yourself up for rejection and despair. Likewise, almost everybody in film school wants to be a director, but only one in three thousand actually has the required skill set. Your chances of success are much higher if you’re maximizing your best skills, not championing your worst.
James Cameron epitomizes the play-to-your-strengths approach to Hollywood success. He got his start working in the art department on crap Roger Corman movies, making models for shlock like Galaxy of Terror (1981), then parlayed what he learned there into directing some of the most successful films of all time. His early ambitions were to be a screenwriter, but Cameron figured out pretty quick he was a special effects guy at heart. All his films reflect this life-altering realization. He didn’t go from a two week directorial stint on Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981) to making romantic comedies. Instead, Cameron-the -writer focused on writing simple high concept screenplays with straightforward narratives. This allowed Cameron-the-director to push the boundaries of special effects and, in the process, filmmaking technology. Movies like The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) all represented great leaps forward in the use of digital effects. His scripts don’t suck, but they don’t sparkle with literary wit, either. Let’s be honest, you don’t see a James Cameron movie for the story or characters. You watch his films because Cameron is the rarest breed of Hollywood director: a true cinematic visionary. He knows this. He knows he offers us shit we haven’t seen before.
Similarly, Quentin Tarantino gives us dialogue we haven’t heard before. He, too, knows how to play to his strengths as a filmmaker. He’s a writer first, a director second. The kind of writer/director who gets off on making a war movie — Inglourious Basterds (2009) — without any battles so he can focus on letting his actors deliver chunks of complicated, well-crafted dialogue. That’s his secret sauce. As someone who wanted to be a big time actor, his dialogue scenes are the most important part of his movies. Narratively, Tarantino films are a mess — save for Jackie Brown (1997), which has the advantage of being adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch. Story structure doesn’t matter to Tarantino. He writes just fun parts, fuck everything else. But by using clever title cards and jumbling up the order of all the good bits, Tarantino comes across as an avant-garde storytelling genius. In reality, all he’s doing is hiding his writing deficiencies. It’s a perfect example knowing of thyself.
What James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino can teach us about success is this: it’s better to be great at what you’re good at than to be good at what you do poorly. Ultimately, Cameron focuses on being an innovator while Tarantino knows his strengths and weaknesses well enough to have quit acting to concentrate on writing and directing his writing. For that, we should all be grateful, especially if you’ve seen him trying to co-star with George Clooney in Dusk till Dawn (1996).