Photo by nicogenin
Did you realise you probably know Johnny Depp’s films better than he does?
That’s if we can take this interview at face value, where he claims not to have seen his latest movie Public Enemies.
Incredulous, the interviewer asks him why not. Here’s Johnny’s answer:
I’ve always kind of tried to avoid them as much as possible… I just prefer the experience. I like the experience, I like the process, I like doing the work. But then, you know if I’ve got to see myself – I don’t like to see the thing become the product, I suppose. Once they say “You’re wrapped” on the film, it really is none of your business. The director is going to take that performance or whatever options you gave him and the editor, and they’re going to do with it what they want.
From the outside, this might sound hard to believe. After all, for anyone who has dreamt of being a film star, surely watching the end product of your labours, seeing yourself up there on the big screen, is central to the fantasy?
Not for Johnny.
According to him, the exciting part is doing the work, immersing himself in the character and putting everything into his performance. After that, the film is “none of his business” – it belongs to the director.
Johnny is interested in the process, not the product.
Those of us who are actively involved in creative work will know in our hearts what he’s talking about. The minute you take your eye off the ball, forget the work in front of you and start daydreaming about money, fame and other rewards, you’re risking mediocrity.
And as we saw in my e-book about motivation and creativity, there’s a lot of research evidence to back up Johnny’s position. Harvard Business School Professor Theresa Amabile has demonstrated through her research that intrinsic motivation is strongly linked to creative excellence:
People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily the the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – not by external pressures.
(Theresa Amabile, ‘How to Kill Creativity’, Harvard Business Review, September – October 1998)
Extrinsic motivations such as money, fame and critical acclaim constitute rewards for creative work. While it’s nice to enjoy these things after the fact, Amabile’s research shows that focusing on them too much is a creativity killer.
Does Johnny Take It Too Far?
Johnny’s solution to the problem of creative motivation is brutally simple – he focuses exclusively on intrinsic motivation, and does his best to ignore the external rewards. I’m sure he remembers to collect his pay cheque, but by avoiding watching the movie, he minimises his investment in his screen persona and the finished artefact.
Now, many people might say this is a bit extreme, and it wouldn’t do Johnny any harm to watch his films at the cinema, and have the DVDs on heavy rotation at home. But then many people haven’t achieved a fraction of what Johnny has, creatively. So it sounds like his approach works just fine for him.
You could also argue that Johnny is in the fortunate position of having someone else to worry about marketing and shipping the ‘product’. I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this who would love to be able to focus on their creative process all day long, and hand over the messy business of business to someone else.
But listening to Johnny’s interview, and watching mesmerising performances such as Joe Pistone in Donnie Brascoe and the debauched Earl of Rochester in The Libertine, it’s hard to escape the thought that his uncompromising attitude has been critical to his success.
While millions dream of being a famous actor, Johnny Depp concentrates on acting.
Is it a coincidence that he’s the one who made it?
What Do You Think?
What do you make of Johnny Depp’s claim that he avoids watching his own films?
When working on a creative project, do you find the potential rewards motivating or a distraction?
Do you think it’s a good idea for an artist to focus on the creative work, to the exclusion of everything else?