The Enduring Interruption: How Do We Express Doubts in an Environment that Requires Confidence?

 Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

'As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you've prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I'm just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you've prepared it.'

Reynolds Woodcock, ‘Phantom Thread’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film ‘Phantom Thread’ stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a society couturier in 1950s London, and Vicky Krieps as Alma, his model and muse.

The House of Woodcock is a place of elegance and deference, taste and restraint; a realm of black lace, silk organza and sheer sleeves; a world of silent seamstresses and secrets. Woodcock himself is intense and neurotic, fastidious and fragile; a man of repressed emotion and voracious appetite.

When we first encounter Alma, she is shy and awestruck. But gradually she is revealed to be just as strong-willed and obsessive as Reynolds.

Alma: ‘I don’t like the fabric.’
Woodcock: ‘Maybe one day you’ll change your taste.’
Alma: ‘Maybe I like my own taste.’
Woodcock: ‘Just enough to get you into trouble.’
Alma: ‘Perhaps I’m looking for trouble.’

At the centre of the film is a power struggle between the controlling Woodcock and the determined Alma. In one scene Woodcock chastises Alma for bringing him a pot of his favourite lapsang souchong – at an unaccustomed hour, while he is working. She retreats. He angrily complains:

‘The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me.’

Reynolds is a loathsome character, the very worst example of a creative egotist. But in this particular interaction I had just a scintilla of sympathy.

Confidence can be frail. Concentration can be fragile. It doesn’t take much to derail a train of thought; to shatter an illusion.  It’s very easy to create an enduring interruption.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
WB Yeats

In the sphere of commercial communications, we go to great lengths to protect ourselves from interruptions and distractions. We resort to headphones and home-working, diary-blockers, off-sites and coffee shops. Who can forget the Yellow Team's adoption of the colour-coded traffic-light triangles? ('Can't you see I'm in Red mode right now?')

The creative review in particular has its own conventions and rituals. It is a place of unconfined imagination and extravagant fancies; a time to think the unthinkable; an environment for enthusiasm and encouragement, not cynicism and scepticism.

And yet I have often witnessed a mood of collective creative fervour shattered by an ill-considered observation or thoughtless remark; a dissenting voice or doubtful interjection. The conviction evaporates. The passion dissipates. The moment passes.

‘The opposite of creativity is cynicism.’
John Bartle

This can put Planners in a difficult position. We want to be positive and supportive. We want to encourage lateral leaps. But we have a responsibility to the brief; a duty to challenge and question. Sometimes we are cursed with a nagging apprehension, with a suspicion that the idea - however original, charming and fun - will simply not work as intended.

How do we express our doubts in an environment that requires our confidence?

In my experience it is critical to understand how and when to voice concerns. If you have an issue, don’t go too early; preface it with a positive; caveat it with a caution; frame it as a question; support it with some data; propose an alternative path; be prepared to back off and return later.

This may sound weak and mealy-mouthed. But persuasion is an art, not a science. And it therefore requires a certain amount of respect, discretion and sensitivity.

As Alma herself suggests at the outset of her relationship with Woodcock:

‘Whatever you do, do it carefully.’

No. 189