Every year they make the same mistake. They rinse off the pot, give it a quick dry, pop it on the burner and twist the heat to high. The prep work takes precedent, chopping the onions and slicing thin the meat, letting the pot heat all the while. Then the time comes for them to brown the meat and they pour in a few tablespoons of oil, which smokes for a moment, and then, with a sudden and heavy breath, pfoof! – fire.
38 percent of all catastrophic home-fires (the ones that burned the house to the ground) in the United States in 2007 were started from grease/oil fires. Something that starts from a small pot can expand with fierce terror to literally burn your life away.
The moment of ignition, the pfoof!, is important because humans have been programmed with an Oh Shit trigger that comes in the face of immediate and terrifying uncertainty (like accidentally creating a fire). But this trigger often makes us forego what could be the simplest fix for self-preservation. And the simplest fix for a grease fire? Lids. Cover the pot, remove from heat, and wait.
I’m just as guilty as the rest because a few days ago I did create a grease fire and didn’t take the simplest fix (nor, thankfully, did I burn my small apartment, with my girlfriend and I still inside, as well as the entire apartment building, into ash). I hit the Oh Shit Trigger and somehow my mind flew back to 6th Grade science and I poured an entire bag of flour over the pot.
Did it put out the fire? Yes. Did it stop the flames from engulfing my home? Yes. Did it cause an extra twenty minutes of clean up before I could restart the process of cooking the beef stew? Yes.
The very existence of the lid, the singular device to put out the fire, is at once both comforting and disconcerting. We’re hardwired with survivalist instincts with quick, healthy dashes of adrenaline and panic to force us to regress back into the neolithic cerebellum region and, simply, survive. The lid in the grease fire is something different, something more evolved.
Lids are everywhere, especially in filmmaking. But in the long road of learning to make films, a director tends to either forgo or forget them entirely. More often than not the kitchen becomes covered in flour and you acutely forget what you set out to cook in the first place.
I’m not talking about actors arriving late on set, running out of time on a shoot, low lighting, bad sound, or any of the common problems in filmmaking. No, I’m speaking of the Big Kahunas — the frightening possibilities that can break a director’s spine in seven places. Running out of film on a shoot. Losing an actor the day before filming begins. Forgetting developed film in a taxi. Breaking a hard drive with the sole copy of the data within. Directors get panicked easily. Becoming a skilled director is all about is learning to (quickly) dissect the problems before reacting to them; to think to reach for the lid. Cover, wait, and move on.
A short film usually takes about a year to make, start to finish; a feature takes perhaps three from script to final cut. That’s a large window for some fires to pop up in. And they will. Learning to remember the lids saves a film from the abyss of rash decisions and pathetic compromises. Never become the director crying on the curb. I’ve seen this happen twice. (None of them have been Company directors, thankfully.) But knowing where you keep the lids . . . now that’s the real challenge, isn’t it?