A Touch of the Madness, AI, and Mindfulness with Larry Kasanoff
“The audience doesn't want the middle. They want new and different. And to do that, to swim against the current, you need to be creative and to be creative, you need a touch of the madness.”
— Lawrence Kasanoff
I had the delight of speaking with Larry Kasanoff, a legendary movie producer. Larry has made movies such as Platoon, Terminator 2, True Lies, Dirty Dancing, and Mortal Kombat, alongside animated movies. He knows firsthand that massive success requires taking big risks.
- Finding success in unconventional ways
- Examples of embracing a touch of the madness in movie production
- The history of progress in film production and how AI fits in
Finding success in unconventional ways
There is comfort in the middle of the pack. Conventional paths are well-traveled and trampled for ease of travel. It is less risky to stay within the expected, and humans are all about avoiding risk. If that is what we want, all's well that ends well.
“The river of life will always try and pull you towards the middle,” Larry shares. “Everybody, every company, every creative process, every person. The current of the river of life will always pull you towards the middle.”
But what if we want more than the middle? What if we dare to step outside of convention?
“To swim against the current, you need to be creative and to be creative, you need a touch of the madness,” he continues. “You need that little spark of craziness—and not just in your idea—in the way you hang onto it, the way you never let it go, and in the face of everyone telling you you're nuts. You keep going and going and going. That's what you need. That will keep you away from the middle.”
He got the phrase “A touch of the madness,” from Platoon director Oliver Stone after Larry had greenlit the project against his boss’s advice, with the ultimatum that if “Platoon” failed, he would lose his job. That film was vastly different from any others Larry had produced at that time—where they had once backed romcoms and low-budget action movies, there was now this serious depiction of how the war in Vietnam affected those who served. By every account, it was unconventional.
And yet—it was a roaring success, and Larry has held tight to that touch of madness ever since.
Examples of embracing a touch of madness in movie production
There are a few main elements to creating adaptations. Whether from book to film, video game to film, or what have you, the important parts stay the same—what is the essence of the original piece, and how does that apply to the new vessel? That is the question Larry asked himself when turning Mortal Kombat into a movie.
“When I made Mortal Kombat into a movie, all video-game-to-movies had failed, and everyone told me I was crazy and it would fail, and my career would be over, too,” he says. “But I never thought I was making a Mortal Kombat video game into a movie. I thought I was making the essence of Mortal Kombat into a movie, and I thought the essence was empowerment.”
Once we grab hold of that essence, the next step is to not let go, because the stream will always try to rip it away again. Without the essence, we lose the purpose of the story.
If we look at another example in the form of “Dirty Dancing,” we find what sticking to an idea can look like. After production hit some road bumps, music and producing legend Jimmy Einer—who brought on Michael Loyd—came onto the set to oversee the music.
Imagine if “Time of My Life” was a high falsetto disco track. Well, that was almost the reality before Jimmy and Michael got their hands on it. They enlisted Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers to re-record the song and sent it out to stakeholders. No one liked it. They left countless notes about what needed to change. Jimmy and Michael took their criticism in stride.
They sent out “Version Two” of the track with a note that they had sent it to a few radio stations for promo. They received roaring approval.
The catch? They did not implement a single change from the initial feedback. It was the same re-recorded version re-labeled as “Version Two.” Because they stuck to their vision, staying true to their idea, that song went on to win Best Song of the Year at the Grammys.
The history of progress in film production and how AI fits in
We can’t get more unconventional than AI when it comes to movie production. It is about as far away from classic movie magic as possible. That said, there have been many waves of progress in film production for decades that have garnered similar fears that we hear today.
“AI is a fantastic tool, and that's all it is. It's just a great tool, the same way digital technology is a tool. 3D Steadicam is a tool. The motion control camera—which George Lucas invented—is a tool,” Larry says. “They're tools to tell better stories, and it works. It's fantastic. So we should embrace it like crazy, love it, be thankful for it, and stop being scared of this big, bad boogie man. Because what if we had been scared of other digital technologies?”
Larry is of the mind that the controversy around AI is no different than the fear surrounding colored television, talking pictures, television, and so on. Each one was a stepping stone of progress that led to better stories.
“I think you have to have a balance,” he continues. “And I think that the more you do things technologically, I would suggest the more you should do things mindfully and in nature. I think that's just a good balance of how to live. It doesn't mean one's better than the other or one's bad.”
The more we practice mindfulness in our everyday lives, the more we’re equipped to operate from a place of fulfillment instead of fear. And moving beyond fear is at the core of having the courage to be unconventional.
When have you embraced your touch of madness? How did that turn out for you?