Thomas Joshua Cooper: “Preparation is all you can do”
Mr. Cooper, you’ve risked your life to photograph the natural world in some of its most foreboding and dangerous locations. How do you reckon with this possibility of death?
I'm usually not scared almost ever, even though I'm not a trained explorer — I'm an artist. When I decided to circumnavigate the Atlantic Basin, from both poles and both polar circles, and all five continents, that required me to enter into very difficult terrain that even experienced explorers would have have had difficulties in doing so. I was engaging in situations that were as likely to kill me as anything that I could think of: falling in sinkholes, drowning, quicksand, being crushed by ice, being bitten by snakes… And in all kinds of weather! There were times where I would fall in the ice covered sea or into quicksand and I was on my own and it was improbable that I would get out, and I did.
How is it that you came to survive?
You know, after a while, I started asking myself the same question, "Well, God damn, how did I manage to do that? No one else so far has ever done this… How come I survived?" I got lucky! You come back from these things and you realize how lucky you are, and at a certain point, you realize that luck runs out, no matter how well you prepare, so you learn not to be scared of that. Everybody's scared of something at some point, you can cross the street and almost get hit by a bus. That'll scare you — but that's not what I'm talking about. It's about deep-seated fearfulness, when things go so wrong that there's no way, necessarily, that you can imagine that they can go right.
- “My whole purpose in life is to communicate what I’m doing. I see myself as a modern nomad and a soldier at the same time. Being mainstream won’t change me because once I have something to perform, a task, then I’m a soldier. And I’ve always been a soldier.”
- “I was a soldier in Korea and I got into a situation where I knew I was going to die. The rest of my life I have lived every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep.”
- “I learned by doing. The rest is doing experiments and testing and not giving up. If something is not satisfying start again, turn everything upside down and find a new formula for printing. Everything is learning by doing.”
- “I really lacked confidence at the very beginning. At first I was quite intimidated! I wasn’t accepted in the kitchen initially, I wasn’t part of the system; the other chefs didn’t welcome me. But in the end, those experiences made all the difference. It freed me.”
- “Writing itself should be so extreme, so wild, and so much fun that it doesn’t matter whether or not you ever sell the book.”
- “If you have to defend something that you like, it makes you to like it even more. My parents hated the comic strips, they hated rock ‘n’ roll, and when they found out what movies I was going to they also were against that. So everything I loved I had to defend.”
- “There is a thing called discipline. If you really want to do it, you’ve got to put in the work. Work, work, work, work. Practice, practice, practice, practice.”
- “As I began to take risks, leaving my very comfortable and secure job and taking this first leap into fashion, every subsequent risk became easier to take because I began to see the kind of opportunity and excitement that risk-taking offered.”
- “I think when you’re an artist who’s been around for a while like I have you understand that it’s almost impossible to make work that is unanimously loved or understood! You can’t please everyone, and that is a great realization.”
- “I feel very lucky. There is luck behind me, there’s luck in front of me, there’s luck ahead of me. But that is a perspective that requires a lot of work. It doesn’t come naturally.”
- “I think the key to having a successful career is to find the thing you do well and do it again and again for the rest of your life. But I’m interested in expanding my language as an artist and as a composer. And I try to expand it with every project.”
- “Belief is very important. It’s like when you are riding a horse and you want it to go to the left, you look to the left first and then pull the horse’s head. As a human being it is the same thing: wherever you put your attention is probably where you are going to find yourself.”
- “The journey of an artist is a journey of discovery and some engagement with the nature of material, with bodily things and all that has led me to this place. I’m really interested in that as a process because the process moves you in directions that you couldn’t rationally put there.”
- “I wouldn’t ever compromise on the essential, on the essence of a project, the ideas or the themes.”
- “I have the freedom to express myself. And it doesn’t matter if somebody’s going to pay me or pat me on the back for it. I chose to do things that I embrace, that I feel passionate about for whatever reason and I create my freedom around that.”
- “I have an irrational fear of boredom. That’s why I now have this tattoo that says “Carpe Diem.” That’s what we should live by!”
- “To be an artist, you must start with a considerable drive; in my case it was a fierce madness, a wildness. I think that’s the mark of an artist, actually, that they are rebellious, unruly… And I was one of them myself.”
- “I’m trying to not play it safe. I learn more when I fail than when I succeed, so if I push myself to do something that’s really difficult, I could fail and I’ll learn a lot. But if I don’t fail, then I’ll be in a great movie. I hope to be the kind of actor that isn’t always great.”
- “The only thing that you have to be very sure of is that nothing can go wrong. You can’t get in the way of the whole thing by messing it up with great ideas or smart moves. Absolute trust is, I think, the crucial ingredient.”
- “Failure is more interesting. Success only comes in one form. It doesn’t teach you anything. Failure kind of comes in all sorts of ways, and teaches you all sorts of things. You learn by failing.”
- “I would say that a strong work ethic is a vital ingredient for success. That’s something I was born with, I’m convinced of it; it was nothing that I acquired. If you take on anything, you try to do it your best.”
- “I give my best performances when I am almost snapping. It is like tuning a violin. You want that note from a string so you tune it until it almost breaks – but then you get that note. It is dangerous, but it is also sublime.”
- “One day I realized that it didn’t matter whether people loved me or not. I was released of all that insecurity when I released myself from that fantasy and came to the conclusion that I could be happy making music regardless of whether I was successful or not.”
- “Just about anything is possible if you can find the map or the blueprint to get there. I think you’re only limited by your imagination.”
- “I think my photographic career has been one of growing, learning, experimenting and trying different things. That was a big journey for me! It’s always a progression, it’s about challenging the idea of what photography is.”
- “I like the accidents, the things that happen by chance. I let the life come to the picture and the creativity flow.”
- “I’ve been through some incredibly tough times in my career but I persevered and came out the other side. And that teaches you strength, how to handle being put under pressure. Experience is a big thing — just knowing that you can pull yourself back up again.”
- “For me it’s a lot about physicality, about how I feel. When you have these hardships or when you see someone you love in pain or you struggle, all the petty shit goes away. You are like, “I can’t believe I was worried about this other thing,” when you see what really matters.”
- “I work till the breath goes out of me, and that might be at one or two or even four or five (in the afternoon). The point is that you must work every day if you ever expect to let the vision take hold of you.”
- “Right now we are 40 people working in Osteria Francescana, for 28 or 30 covers a night. So, it’s totally the opposite of a business. You cannot survive with that. But we believe in those kinds of dreams and so I keep investing, and reinvesting, and reinvesting.”
- “The more experience you have, the more time you’ve spent on this earth, the more regrets you accumulate. It’s normal. You can’t do everything right, nobody’s perfect. But if you think too much about that, you’re not here. You have to make some efforts to stay open-minded.”
- “I think you always have to have risk when you’re creating a piece of art. Without that, I don’t understand really what the drive is to succeed. It’s the risk factor that, weirdly, keeps you feeling safe. It keeps you on your toes.”
- “I think as you are growing up, deciding what you want to do is really the process of elimination rather than gravitating towards something until you land on what really makes you happy.”
- “It’s important to say no – especially earlier in your career – because life is short and you want to be proud of things that you have done, not ashamed of them.”
- “You have to open yourself. Just as in life you have to be open to other people, to other perspectives — it’s the same thing when you write. That’s what religion’s about, that’s what literature’s about, it’s what life’s about: the stories that you build.”
- “I am tireless, I’m relatively fearless. It’s hard to hear “no” all the time. It can be tough; you have to have the stomach for it.”
- “Art is something about everyday life. Art is about finding creativity in the normal gutter next to you. To see the potential in something where there is no potential is often where art or creativity is a great tool. It’s about making the impossible possible.”
- “It’s a huge peace to allow yourself to be vulnerable. You gain a sense of freedom and understanding and forgiveness for being human. Instead of trying to control things and make it the way you want them, you have to be more open.”
- “When I was training as a ballet dancer, I know that I was often tired or in pain, but you just work through it. You go home crying and your parents almost want you to quit but then you just do it. And I use that stamina now as an actress because it’s normally quite uncomfortable to make films.”
- “If you are ambitious, you are running in a tunnel that never ends. You will always find something new to go after.”
Sam Mendes: “No one is owed anything”
Mr. Mendes, how do you know when you’re ready to start working on a new film?
It’s like a kind of boiling kettle, you know: you don’t want to make your tea until the kettle’s boiled and it’s the same thing, you don’t want to make your movie until you’re boiling with something you need to say. And theater, for instance, has always given me the opportunity to wait for that moment. It’s the same with film actually — film has given me an opportunity to wait until I’m ready to do a play. One fuels the other. Even the decision to write and make 1917, weirdly, came out of doing the Bond movies.
Because two things happened, one is that I got used to being in the writers’ room and working on a script from nothing. I’d never done that before, I’d always inherited a script or been sent a script. By nature, I’m not a writer, I’m not a solo flyer — if you put me in a room on my own, I get bored, I look out the window, I like being with other people, that’s what gives me the inspiration to work. But suddenly I was creating something from the beginning and that was exciting! I began to think, “Maybe I could write my own.” And then, the other thing that happened was on Spectre where I did an eight-minute continuous shot, which was fantastic.