Steven Spielberg’s Brand of Visionary Thinking

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Today’s guest contributor is former Wall Street Journal and Fortune writer, Erik Calonius. Erik collaborated with Dan Ariely on Predictably Irrational and he has a new book out from Penguin Portfolio, Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of  Us.


Do you remember that famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indy confronts a Tunisian swordsman: The swordsman twirls his weapon menacingly. Indy backs off, perplexed. Then he suddenly brightens, pulls out his pistol, and bang, shoots his opponent dead.

In a newly published memoir, The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman, the film’s stunt co-coordinator (and Harrison Ford look-alike), Vic Armstrong, describes how the scene came about.

And with it comes something special–an insight into Steven Spielberg’s special brand of visionary thinking. It happened like this, Armstrong says:

The cast and crew were in Tunisia. It was blisteringly hot. A stunt team had worked for two weeks choreographing an elaborate fight scene between Indy and a hulking swordsman.

But as they presented the scene to Spielberg one morning, a problem arose. “Look, I’m going to shoot whatever I can until three o’clock because then I’m getting out of here,” Armstrong recalls Spielberg saying. Peter Diamond, the stunt coordinator, was dumbstruck. He told Spielberg it would take four days to film the scene. Spielberg would have none of it. “I’ve got a plane coming at three, I’m out of here; I’ve got enough.” Other members of the crew protested, but Spielberg was adamant.

Assistant Director Dave Tomblin stood there in disbelief. “Well, it’s stupid doing the whole routine,” he fumed. “You might as well just shoot the guy with the gun.”

And here comes Spielberg’s visionary moment: There was silence, and then Spielberg brightened. “I’ll tell you what,” he exclaimed. “Let’s try that. Yes, let’s try just shooting him.”

And the rest is history.

The point is this: Some of us might have delayed our flight. Others might have created an elaborate plan to delegate the scene to others. But Spielberg displayed the mark of a true visionary. His thinking was completely out of the box: He grabbed an offhand comment, saw the genius in it and committed to it completely—and that’s what makes visionary thinking what it is.



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12 responses

12 responses to “Steven Spielberg’s Brand of Visionary Thinking”

  1. dave r. says:

    water and electricty follow the path of least resistance…spielberg, followed that path and came out a winner in that scene.

  2. Wendy says:

    Well there seem to be several accounts out there of who is directly responsible for changing the scene from that of a fight to a shoot out. Some claim it was Ford’s idea (he was sick with dysentery at the time and couldn’t continue). The fellow with this book claims it was another’s.

    Never the less your point is well made that it was Spielberg who ultimately made the call to give it a chance. We would all do well to take a few more risks in our work and personal lives when an opportunity “feels right.”

  3. And here I always thought Harrison Ford had malaria and wasn’t up to the scene.
    What this is really about was looking at your limited resources, in this case time, understanding your goal well (the story) and determining the best way to serve your goal with the resources available.

  4. The beauty of it is, in going simpler and changing his intent (from exciting action to humor), it really is a genius change.

    That said, if he’d changed his mind and it had tanked, it wouldn’t be the urban legend that it is. It’s not like genius moments have “HEY I’M GENIUS!” written on them in Sharpie, and we’re too scared to grab it. It takes discernment as well as guts… and the ability to keep your chin up with failure if you guessed wrong.

  5. What a great story. The funny thing is you can’t imagine the scene any other way. It’s so funny because it’s completely unexpected.

    Now, I think this can be applied easily to business – make processes simpler.

  6. Marie Davis says:

    People frequently tell me I’m brilliant. Frankly, I don’t see it, I’m just too busy moving along keeping my ears and eyes open for things that make my work better. And often I must say, brilliant ideas come from off handed comments others make. So, I think brilliance is working with talented people.

  7. Al Pittampalli says:

    That’s hallmark leadership. Sometimes it’s nice to politely, include others…sometimes, you need to grab the steering wheel and just drive.

  8. John Sherry says:

    Which just goes to prove that keeping it simple is often the most successful and powerful way of doing things as it will appeal to more people. You don’t have to look outside the box or push any envelopes merely write down in one sentence the most basic approach you can think of and stick close to that (please read all customer services departments!).

  9. Way to go!

    That scene makes total sense now. It’s one of those “full circle” moments.

    Iconic moments can arise as a result of time constraints and tested patience. Who knew!

  10. Jodi Barnes says:

    Brilliant! Thanks for the real backstory.

  11. Hi Jonathan/Erik!

    Short but sweet! These things I really like about the message of the post:

    1. focus and determination – once Spielberg has set his mind on something, it’s set in stone regardless of all the obstacles that come his way.
    2. broad-minded, open to ideas – once Spielberg is presented with an option, he sees it for its value and decides on it immediately.

    Now I’m curious to watch the movie! 🙂

  12. […] Update: By a coincidence, while I was finishing this post, Jonathan Fields posted this one: […]