Who: Joshua Wolf Shenk is a Los Angeles-based curator, essayist and author, whose latest book is Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Shenk analyzed two-person dynamics in creative fields that have helped shape culture — including famous pairings like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Vincent and Theo van Gogh, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In September 2014, Shenk was joined at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal for a sold-out classroom discussion about Powers of Two, and the creative benefits of working in pairs. Among the anecdotes imparted during their discussion, was Shenk’s description of the dynamic between the van Gogh brothers, and Boal’s take on his dynamic with filmmaker and creative partner Kathryn Bigelow while collaborating on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Camera In The Sun followed up with Shenk to discuss his book for a September 2014 interview, with some examples of pairs that have left their mark on history.
What is the concept of Powers of Two?
Powers of Two is about chemistry in creative pairs — this thing we call chemistry, or electricity, or synergy. Trying to understand this quality between people that buoys both up, and allows people to do something beyond what they could do on their own. Which we’re familiar thinking about with Lennon-McCartney or Watson & Crick — sort of these very famous pairs. But the book is about the way that this quality is actually fundamental to the creative process, and shows up in all kinds of spheres across creative fields, in all kinds of manifestations, including very often when one partner is not known to the public. So Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo: we know one, but not the other. Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, same deal. Steve Jobs many people think of as a lone genius. But in fact, his creative life was riven with relationships all the way through. So the book is trying to understand this quality, and how creativity emerges from it.
Creativity is fundamentally about the meshing of opposite qualities. In some ways, we’re very familiar with this. For example, a great novel might be from the mystery genre with a high literary quality. Those two things coming together in an unexpected way would be a creative act. But it’s also true that there are ways in which we don’t think about creativity. Because we think about originality, we think about novelty, we think about things being different or strange. We think about Jackson Pollack breaking rules. But we don’t think about the tradition and the form that is underneath that. We don’t think about the way that that work is brought to the market. So we think about the artist, but we don’t think about the art dealer. And that dialogue is often essential to the way creative work happens and is brought into the world.
Shenk on the dynamic between Vincent van Gogh, and his brother, Theo:
Starry Night, to me, was one of the most significant pieces of art in my life. I would go up to the MoMA with my New School ID, that got me in free, just to see Starry Night and stand there looking at it. There’s a scene in a movie I cannot remember, where the early part of the movie is black & white. Then the character sees Starry Night, and the movie comes into color at that moment. I think it’s a metaphor for the way that image reaches out and breathes color, and light, and vitality into so many people. We think of Van Gogh alone on the heath — the romantic image of him as a lone genius — and there’s this sort of darker twin of him as a mad genius. I had known when I started the book that he had a brother named Theo, that he wrote him many letters, and I’d seen Theo described as his supporter. What surprised me is the extent to which they were entwined from the very beginning of Vincent’s career. It’s actually not clear to me that Vincent did not become an artist in the first place in order to stay in a relationship with his brother, who was his last thread before he kind of fell down into true madness. Through the many years that Vincent was struggling with his work, Theo was not only his financial supporter, but was his aesthetic partner, and his sparring partner for a lot of the ideas that they were working out, introducing him to influences. The triumphant conclusion is that by the end, both of them thought that they had co-created the work that bore Vincent’s name, and served in different roles — but very much entwined in work together.
In the early days of their work, when Vincent decided he wanted to be a painter, he was very much isolated, and he had no formal training, and was he was totally cut off. Theo was in the center of the art world. He was a dealer in Paris, and he was exposed to a lot of the stodgy traditions. But he was also mixed up in this vital scene, and Vincent was sending him his work. And for years, and years, and years, Theo was responding to him and saying, more or less, “Not yet, but keep trying”, and “You should look at this”, and “You should try this.” The most significant thing is encouraging him to check out the Impressionists, and Vincent was very reluctant. He was obsessed with representing the darkness of the peasants, and The Potato Eaters was the triumphant piece of that period. That’s what I’m gesturing at — that Theo is holding the standard. It was when Theo began to see that the work was good that they really started to get traction. It was when Vincent came to Paris to join his brother, and was living with him, and met the people that he had access to through his brother — as I say in the book, that’s when Van Gogh really became Van Gogh. Of course, it also went the other way around. Vincent was stirring up all kinds of excitement that Theo then fed off. In some ways, Theo had gotten into art because of his brother’s influence. But that entwined them, and that kind of moving around each other went on from the time they were boys, all the way through Vincent’s death.
You look at the history of virtually every pair I describe, it’s very hard to imagine the work without a relationship. That doesn’t mean they’re not two distinct, significant, idiosyncratic individuals. In fact, one of the things that’s most valuable about a pair as a model — both as a working unit, and as a way to understand creativity — is that it allows us to simultaneously understand the necessity of solitude, and distinctions, and individuals, and the importance of community, and connection, and exchange. Both of those things are really important. We live in this weird world where they’re constantly set in opposition to each other. It’s like “The individual is significant” — “No, it’s about the collaboration.” That’s what we learned in high school. It’s like “The great man theory” — “No, it’s the culture. Thomas Jefferson. It’s the ferment of that period of intellectual history.” And the pair — both actually in the work that they do, and also as a way of representing the creative process — allows us to see that we do need very special individuals. Vincent van Gogh, he was the kind of character that they broke the mold when they made him. I mean, he’s just a very, very peculiar, driven, intense guy. But it is hard to imagine him doing what he did without his brother.
Can less-than-friendly pairs be creatively productive?
One of the underlying points of the book is that we have this idea that creativity is synonymous with happiness. In fact, happiness has its own complications. But we associate it with well-being, and pleasantries, and so forth. Whereas creativity, it really doesn’t matter what it feels like while you’re doing it. If the work is good, then that’s the standard. A lot of creative work is made through great difficulty. So the energy of that partnership can take a lot of forms.
A lot of things that we think of as being the products of moments in history are actually driven by relationships. We think about what happened at the end of the Cold War. It seems monumental, and it was monumental. But it also had a lot to do with the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev. The relationship between Mandela and De Klerk in South Africa. A lot of times when things don’t work, it’s also because of personalities. It may be that there are deep underlying cultural differences, or challenges, or very different interests. But there are fundamental differences in cases where great advances are made diplomatically. So relationships are sort of the hidden story behind virtually everything in the creative world. It’s totally familiar to us, because we understand friendship, we understand love, we all organize our lives around it. And yet, in the study of creative fields, there’s virtually nothing about it. To the contrary, what we usually get are biographies and monographs, and the sort of relentless story of the lone genius and the individual. So we hear about Reagan winning the Cold War, we hear about Mandela as a hero. But we don’t look in depth into the nature of the relationship. That’s in part because it’s really challenging. It’s more complicated. It’s a more difficult story. But it’s also because we simply are lazy.
What was the dynamic between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien?
Virtually everything I know about Lewis and Tolkien comes from a scholar named Diana Pavlac Glyer. Her book, The Company They Keep can tell you everything you want to know. When they met, Lewis was an atheist, and Tolkien was a very serious Christian. Tolkien remained a serious Christian. Lewis eventually converted, and actually became a popular theologian — which then really irked Tolkien on the other side. Because he thought, “Who is this guy to be talking theology? He’s not a scholar. He’s not a pastor.” So it’s very often that the people who bring out the best in us, also irritate us.
The way it often comes up is around what it’s like to meet someone who you are charged with. The image that illustrates it to me is that sometimes it is natural and easy, and it’s like we’re a toy car that just needs a battery. But other times, it’s like getting an electric shock. It’s the same kind of voltage, but the delivery is an entirely different experience. Often, pairs are entirely absorbed in each other when they first meet, talking for hours on end. That was the case with Jobs and Wozniak. That was the case with Freud and Jung. But often, the sparks are flying. Larry Page and Sergey Brin broke into an argument when they first met. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, when they first met, C.S. Lewis went home and wrote in his diary, “No harm in him. Only needs a smack, or so.” They found themselves on the opposite sides of a curricular fight that was extremely important to them. And in many other ways, they were entirely at odds with each other. That’s fundamental. It’s often the case that two people who are going to do great work together really get under each other’s skin.
The other example I know from that small world [of English academia], although much later, is Watson and Crick. They had an extremely aggressive dynamic between the two of them. They both believed that if one had a notion, the other ought to do everything he could to knock it down. But that’s how their work advanced.
What effect does financial profit have on a pair’s creative collaboration?
The model of creativity that I am working from is it’s different than being original, or being interesting. It’s about bringing something into the world that’s useful — whether that’s a painting that is moving, or a product that can be sold. Now that is very deliberately a big picture view. You could get into the weeds, and draw enormous distinctions between making an iPhone, and making a great painting. Certain things of what we might call artistic creativity is often intent to challenge people, and to unsettle people, and to provoke emotions that many people day-to-day would avoid. Whereas, what me might call entrepreneurial creativity is intended to satisfy needs, or even evoke needs that people didn’t realize they had. So I’m an artist, and I’m also in business. I understand both the convergences and the distinctions between those two ways of being. But I am primarily looking at the convergences in the book.
The other thing to say is that within pairs there may be different motivations. Your question brings to mind the different frame of mind between Wozniak and Jobs that was evident from the start. The first thing those guys did together was they built this thing they called a “blue box“, which was a hacking device that allowed them to make long-distance calls for free. It’s a little bit hard to imagine today, but that was a really big deal. Wozniak thought it was really cool, and wanted to share it with people; and Jobs immediately saw that they could sell it. I don’t know that they had a disagreement about it, but they definitely saw it in different ways, and they did sell it. They made some money, and they moved on to the Apple, and it was a similar dynamic. Jobs was a consummate marketer, and he understood how to bring things into the world with commerce. That was never Wozniak’s strength. In fact, when Apple went public, he talks in his memoir about going around and giving portions of his stock to people he thought hadn’t gotten enough. He later spent his money in all kinds of odd ways. He was not a ruthless businessman, and Steve Jobs really was. That’s yet another place where the contrast is complementary. Because often one person should not really be thinking about the market that much, and should be thinking about the beauty of the thing they’re making. It’s often helpful to parcel out those functions and those ways of thinking.
How important were film portrayals of pairs to your research?
Documentary portraits are one of the best ways into these stories. There’s a movie about Matt Stone and Trey Parker called 6 Days to Air, made by Arthur Bradford. There’s an unbelievable movie called Valentino: The Last Emperor by Matt Tyrnauer. There’s a great documentary film about Marina Abramović called the The Artist is Present. And there’s actually a pretty good movie that’s not yet released about her former partner, Ulay, that he shared with me. That was also very helpful, and kind of deepened my sense of his side of the story.
The world of film and TV is one of the places where collaboration is most prominent. In film, relationships between writers and directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, relationships between directors and cinematographers, directors and editors. There’s a famous relationship between Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. I very briefly talk about Marcia Lucas and George Lucas. It’s one of my favorite examples of the lone genius myth: the way we think about George Lucas having birthed Star Wars from his fevered mind. When in fact, it was deeply collaborative, and his wife played a huge and almost-entirely-unacknowledged role in that work. The Coen Brothers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker — for South Park, and the movies they’ve made, and also Book of Mormon — it goes on and on.
Also, one of the chapters of the book is titled “Jokestein and Structureberg”. That comes from some TV writer who told me that it’s a truism in Hollywood that every writing team on a comedy needs a Jokestein and a Structureberg. One is great with lines, and great with unexpected moments. The other is great with form, and story, and sees the big picture. That’s kind of the understanding of how things work best. Mark Boal is a great American filmmaker, and has made two world-changing films with his partner, Kathryn Bigelow. He’s a writer and producer. But she’s also a producer, and primarily the director of the films. It’s a very unusual and dynamic partnership, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I’m studying. Mark is an extremely insightful, articulate guy, and someone I’ve always had great chemistry with. Since I met him 15 years ago, I’ve watched with great appreciation the work that he’s done. I had the idea, when I began to tour for the book, that I ought to think about conversations with other people, rather than presenting my work from a podium alone. Because it’s in the spirit of the book, and every conversation will be different. Every conversation will take on the quality of who I’m sitting across from. Mark is a big deal, and he’s a friend of mine, and he agreed to do it.
Mark Boal on his dynamic with filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow:
In my work with Kathryn Bigelow, the last two movies we did, I wrote and produced them. Which means I was wearing two hats. And she directed and produced them, which means she was wearing two hats as well. There were lots of decisions that had to get made on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. We didn’t always agree, even though we had a very similar vision for what the movie was. There’s always questions of strategy. But in that case, we had one sort of governing rule of our relationship, which I think works very well for us: that if we don’t agree, we don’t really move forward on that question. So there were times when things never got resolved, or they took weeks or months for someone to have to fight — where normally, it happened much quicker. Because even though contractually she had the veto power, if I disagreed — or vice versa — we would sort of look at each other and say, “Well, there must be something that the other person’s not seeing”, and then revisit it, and go back over it and over it. There’s a certain point at which the practicalities of the production take over. You know, the film is due. You have to hit a deadline. And usually somebody says, “OK, I give up. Let’s do it this way.” Then when you’re shooting, there are all sorts of daily timelines that you have to hit. So that helps enforce a certain kind of discipline.
The [stalemate] that I’m the most ashamed of was the casting for The Hurt Locker. I had written that script. I had been to Iraq and embedded with a bomb squad, and then wrote a fictionalized version of what those guys were doing, set in the real world, and sort of collaborating with Kathryn along the way. Then we set out to try to get the movie made. And she saw this movie called Dahmer — which if any of you ever want to see a really truly scary well-done independent horror movie, that’s one of them — starring a guy named Jeremy Renner, who was relatively unknown at the time. Well-known in the industry, but not outside the industry. Kathryn said, “Well, this guy, he’s amazing. He’s a great actor.” I was spending a lot of time at that point putting together the financing for the film. And the messages that we got back from the financial folks was that Jeremy might be talented, but he didn’t really have the presence in the marketplace to justify making [a move] of this nature. If we wanted to scale the movie back, maybe. So we did try to scale the budget back a little bit, but it just sort of wasn’t working. And Kathryn was very insistent. I personally, even though I liked Jeremy a lot, and thought he was a great actor — I had my own vision for who Sergeant James was, and it’s wasn’t Dahmer. You know, in my head he was like this heroic guy — or at least a complicated antihero. But definitely not a serial killer. I just couldn’t see how that actor could do that role. And so Kathryn, to her credit, she had the contractual ability to kind of force that decision, but she didn’t. We spent months looking at other people, and she let me go through this entire — what in retrospect is now — very masturbatory exercise of looking at all these other different actors, which we auditioned for her. And each person, they were great actors, but none of them had what Jeremy brought. And at the end of the day, she kind of wore me down. That had to take a while. That was about six months. She wore everybody down. And then on the first day of production, there’s always this point in the script, which is actually fairly early on, where James gets out of a truck and says something pretty bland and flat. A lot of dialogue was like that. In the readings that we had done prior to production, I noticed that those first lines needed help, because they didn’t really pop. And Kathryn said to me, “No, leave them. They’re fine. We just need the right actor to say them.” Anyway, cut to on the first day of shooting, Jeremy Renner gets out of the car, and he said that line, “Hey, what’s going on guys?” But he said it with so much bravado, and so much life, that it was amazing. And I thought, “Wow, I’m a really good writer. This is incredible.” And I remember turning to Kathryn, I said, “I will never fuck with you on a casting decision ever again.”
That’s one of those cases in which each brings such different skill sets to the table, that I couldn’t even remotely begin to see what she saw in Renner. I mean, now I do. But she could intuit something that I couldn’t.
The roles weren’t really blurred. But the work is the work. And at a certain point, you’re talking about story. You’re talking about performance. When it’s going well, which it did frequently for us, no one’s really thinking about roles. They’re just thinking about “How we can make this scene great?” By the way, it’s not just one creative relationship. Really, there are hundreds, literally. Like where people get up at the Academy Awards and say, “I want to thank all these people”, they’re not being really that disingenuous. Because it really does take hundreds of people. I can look at any scene in The Hurt Locker, and think, “Oh wow, thank god that so-and-so did this at that moment, or this scene would have been totally different.” Whether it’s the DP, or the guy that does the sound design, or the editor, or the choreographer, or the special effects guy that came up with some amazing moment — and solved some problem in the script by saying, “Why don’t we put a fan here, and it will blow dust across the screen, and then the fucking scene won’t be so boring.” OK, let’s do that. And then all of a sudden, the scene is really dramatic. So it really is like a dance party [with] a lot of different people.