Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Birth of Ideas

"Some men look at things as they are and ask 'why?'; others dream of things that never were and ask 'why not?'". - George Bernard Shaw

Then again, some filmmakers look at things as we've seen them a bezillion times and ask, "why do I have to come up with something different"?

I get truly disheartened going to films and being fed the same old stale piece of bread. Sometimes it has butter on it, sometimes cheese, sometimes peanut butter, sometimes jam (even various kinds of jam)....but underneath it all is still a stale old piece of bread. I sort of expect it with studio films, which are, for the most part, the Wonder Bread of cinema. But now, I see it with so-called indies.


And that lack of freshness and lack of inspiriation can often be found not just in the story and various hackneyed "plot points" - but also in the characters, the dynamics between them, the composition, the lighting, color, camera moves, etc.

Unfortunately too many filmmakers steal their ideas from other films. Don't get me wrong. I think steeping yourself in great filmmaking is essential to understanding the possibilities of cinema. It's said (apocryphally, I'm sure) that Orson Welles watched John Ford's "Stagecoach" something like 35 times before he made "Citizen Kane". But I doubt you'll ever confuse the two films. Cinema is like any other language. You learn it so you can express yourself in your own unique voice. At least, that is the idea, from my perspective. Yet, too many filmmakers utilize only small portions of the languange and repeat it ad nauseum - becoming nothing more than parrots, sitting in their gilded cages spitting out films that say "Polly wants a cracker" (actually, your money) until you are numb and, ultimately, compliant.

Sure, anybody can bitch about mediocrity. But how easy is it to come up with new ideas and points of view? Where do we find them? Well, our imaginations, of course. And if you don't have imagination, you shouldn't be making films. Or creating anything new, really. Of course, if this were true, we'd be putting an entire "industry" out of work. But it's not enough to have an imagination. Something needs to spring forth from it and be translated into a film. This is where maternal instincts are important for developing fresh ideas. Because they are like babies. They can be born or adopted. But they need to be nurtured and made your own. So, when ideas, thoughts, fantasies, possiblities or anything of the sort spring into your head, apply some basic principals of motherhood to them.

- Any father is a good father. In the wild, if a male of the species reaches the point where he can impregnate a female, he has already proven his evolutionary worthiness. If an idea has made it to your consciousness, it has already proven its worth. Don't question where ideas come from. Just be thankful they exist.

- Do not use contraception. Meaning, allow for your thoughts to become fertilized. Don't stop yourself from thinking...well, anything. It doesn't mean you're a pervert or a freak. Well, maybe you are, but that can work to your advantage if you express that energy cinematically as opposed to in any other way.

- Allow them to come full term. Don't censor your ideas and thoughts. Let them develop fully. Let them shape themselves. Let them mutate, if necessary. The good thing about ideas (as opposed to real babies) is that the more twisted and fucked up they are, the better.

- Nourish them. When you get a germ of an idea, feed it with possibilities. Add other elements to it. Put it in different contexts. Color, shade, and shape it. See it in reverse. Imagine its opposite.

- Do not judge them. Whether you are birthing or adopting an idea, do not judge it. You must love your ideas unconditionally in their formative moments. No idea is a bad idea. Let yourself nurture its potential so that you can appreciate it in a fully realized state.

- Protect them until they can protect themselves. Although it is important to share ideas and open them up to feedback/criticism, avoid doing it too early. Make sure the idea is clear in your head - that it is fully what it needs to be - before allowing it to experience the vicissitudes of creative evolution.

- Allow them to define themselves. Let them grow into the unique and distinct ideas that they can become. Too much controlling influence will homogenize and sterilize them. If an idea seems to be taking you down an unanticipated road, go along for the ride for awhile. There's always the chance you may wind up in an unexpectedly better place than the one you had pre-determined for yourself.

- Know when to kill your babies. Harsh metaphor, I know. But a popular one in the writing world and sickeningly appropriate for this post. But it is important to accept that when all is said and done, your idea may not work for you. Don't let it go too early, but don't hang on too long, either. There's no hard and fast rule for knowing when you reach the right point. You just have to be aware that you are banging your head against the wall and, eventually, you will organically know when it is time to put the idea up for adoption. Or snuff it out completely.

But before that ugly decision faces you, open yourself up to new ideas and fresh perspectives, then embrace, love and nurture them no matter how odd they may feel to you. In fact, especially if they feel odd to you. Because any great film has, at its core, a crucial oddity....and uses cinema to express that oddity as art.


  1. I'm reading David Lynch's book on creativity called "Catching the Big Fish." He's a better filmmaker than he is a writer, but there are some interesting bits.

    "Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below. If you can expand the container you're fishing in - your consciousness - you can catch bigger fish."

    He also warns against the "Big Rubber Clown Suit" of negativity.

    Ultimately, he shrouds his cryptic creative process in the language of Transcendental Meditation, but his practical steps are pretty much the same as those more clearly outlined here by Jacques.

  2. Also, Jacques... you should repost these last two blogs on Cinema Enthusiasts.