Monday, February 27, 2012

"Circus, spaghetti, sex and cinema"

Tonight I’m inspired by the artistic process of the people who write and direct movies.

The Academy Awards are on, and my Sunday reading has included magazine and newspaper interviews with a number of screenwriters and directors describing their craft, work methods and challenges.

These are no Hollywood hacks or flash-in-the-pan hit-makers – all are well-established storytellers whose names – or whose movies – you will probably recognize.

I decided to pull the thought that struck me most out of each of the articles I read today and see what I could learn. So here goes:

Speaking about her movie In Darkness, an Oscar-nominated Polish film about the Holocaust, director Agnieszka Holland (The Washington Post, February 24) “lists many potential dangers of addressing the Holocaust in a fictionalized feature: ‘Being moralistic, being sentimental, looking for some good-feeling lesson coming from this experience, because I think it’s impossible to have one. Making all the Jewish characters some kind of faceless angels. To make it black and white. To make it accusatory. To recreate clich├ęs that have already been told many times.”

Holland did extensive research for the film, which was set in the sewer systems of Lvov, visiting “at least 10 sewer systems in different cities.” She also had the original screenplay, which was in English, translated into several languages to convey authenticity. “Only a small part of the audience can appreciate it,” she tells the Post's Mark Jenkins. “But I think it’s like music. If the music is different, you feel the movie differently.”

Screenwriter John Logan, interviewed by John Heilpern in the March 2012 Vanity Fair, describes his work:

“I love what I do, but the screenplays don’t happen in the white heat of inspiration. It’s the oldest trick in the book. I get up at five o’clock in the morning and I work flat out until I’m exhausted. I may not be the smartest guy on the block, but goddammit, I am the most tenacious! … It’s like the salt flats. The sun rises – I write. The sun goes down – I’m done.”

Later in the same issue, Charlotte Chandler writes about master filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini: “Fellini told me, “I feel my inheritance as a film director is from art, and Michelangelo’s is from literature. My films, like my life, are summed up in circus, spaghetti, sex, and cinema.”

The Washington Post’s February 26 business section examines the leadership style of three leading directors – Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg. A few thoughts from each:

Allen “displays a remarkable sense of calm when at work, a confidence and security that are the antithesis of his public image, and both the crew and actors take their cue from him.”

He trusts the actors to do their job [“hire the best actors, shut up and get out of their way”] runs a set that lacks “preciousness,” remains accessible and keeps things simple -- he works “mainly in single master shots and doesn't bother shooting coverage from numerous angles.”

“Spielberg’s obsessive-compulsive nature helps account for his intense concentration on his craft, his unrivaled technical skills and his insistence on perfection from his crews. But he has learned how to surround himself with a small comfort zone of longtime collaborators he trusts implicitly, …”

Learning to delegate was an important early lesson for Spielberg, the article notes. But his “ability to do it all himself, if need be, serves him well.”

Scorsese is singled out for the way he marries passion and discipline; structure and improvisation.

He is quoted saying: “I was raised with gangsters and priests, that’s it, nothing in between. I wanted to be a cleric. I guess the passion I had for religion wound up mixed with film. And now as an artist, in a way, I’m both gangster and priest.”

Hard work and discipline, authenticity and careful research, confidence in their own vision coupled with a willingness to bend and to let others shine through -- that's what it takes to create a great story, according to these screenwriters and directors. That, plus passion: the risk-taking of gangsters and the faith of priests.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Inspiration in a dry time

Anyone who works in a creative field knows that sometimes inspiration just dries up.

Words fail. The muse snoozes.

And whatever medium you work in – be it words or music or film or photographs or paint – sometimes you just aren’t feeling it. The mojo is missing.

In journalism this can happen when the excitement of covering a murder trial is followed by an assignment to report on the ongoing discussion about the jurisdiction’s sewer system expansion.

Writing about it is important, necessary, and your job depends on it. You try to find a new angle, make it interesting, but guess what… it’s still shit.

Does it matter, you ask? Well yes, yes it does. Writers who have found a “fresh way to tell a routine story” are praised for their ability to spin straw into gold. And this knowledge creates a special kind of angst among writers, who will turn a story every which way to find a new way in.

Like an overzealous hairdresser, once you have messed with a story for too long, it is ruined beyond repair. There’s nothing to do but file it, and move on. Except that in the process, you’ve also damaged your self esteem.

Unfortunately, despondency does not nurture creativity.

So where do you turn when inspiration fails? I turn to my friends, and warm myself on the embers of their creativity while I wait for my own winter to end.

This week I’ve been inspired by friends Ariel Watson (artist, musician), Jehovah Jones (writer), Leta Dunham (photographer) and Jesse Kopp, (the talented brother of a high school friend). I’ve also been inspired by fellow Third Culture Kid Dave Herrling, an artist who paints sound – how cool is that?!

Who do you turn to for inspiration in a dry time?