Friday, November 7, 2008

Creative Cross Pollination

One of the frustrating things about movie development is the way executives, producers, and directors constantly reference their favorite movies. “This part should be like the bathtub scene in The Shining!” said one enthusiastic note-giver the other day. The danger in thinking this way is that your movie becomes a pastiche of images, characters, and story beats lifted from previous movies – and the viewer experiences not the excitement and shock of the original, but only the dull mediocrity of the copycat.

It’s natural for filmmakers to be inspired by their favorite films, but it can also be a creative dead end. This is a particular problem for the genre filmmaker struggling with dusty genre conventions. That’s why I advise Genre Hacks to look for ideas outside of the cineplex.

Try going to an art opening - there’s always free drinks and the people-watching can be just as creatively inspiring as the art. Just last night, I went to Gallery 1988 on Melrose Boulevard in Los Angeles, and had my mind bent by the surreal juxtapositions in paintings by Greg Simkins. Sure enough, driving home buzzing with seeming unrelated ideas for action sequences.

Try reading more novels, not with the intension of adapting them, but simply with the goal of entering a universe and encountering characters that are unlike anything you’ve seen on film. This week I began reading Per Petersons Out Stealing Horses, and I can think of nothing else but the glow of white-blonde hair in Norwegian twilight. It's spooky.

Try going to plays. Fetching young actors and actresses will be grateful you came and will feed you wine and cheese. Try attending an acting class, and bring along some of the scenes you are working on. Try listening to live music with your eyes closed and see what images bubble up from your subconscious. Eat in offbeat exotic restaurants and doodle caricatures on the napkins.

And when you do go to a movie, go the road less traveled. Instead of going to Saw V, see Let The Right One In. Instead of renting Iron Man, rent some obscure Japanese Animation. Writing a psychological thriller? Don’t reference Hitchcock yet again; try watching documentaries on factory workers – all those industrial machines could be a nifty place for a nightmare sequence or a murder.

At the end of the day, you will have to go back to your producers and executives and speak the language of common-movie-clich├ęs. They don’t have to know that your sea monster was inspired by a found-object sculpture, that a scene on a spaceship was inspired by a 19th century poem, or that the actress you’re thinking of when you write is not Elizabeth Banks or Angelina Jolie, but a redhead you saw little theater in NoHo.

They will just notice that you’re writing is alive, engaging and unexpectedly clever… just like their favorite movies.


Cunningham said...

I like it when a producer tells me a movie he's thinking about for a scene.

I don't disagree with you at all here, Sean -- it's just nice to know where the bar is set sometimes in terms of expectations. That way you can take what "they" have in mind and come up with a new twist on it.

I also often find that what they are referencing is not a specific incident or scene, but tone. That is an invaluable signpost in terms of delivering a script that a producer or director can get behind.

But yes, you CAN run the risk of cannibalizing all that's come before, and not creating anything new.

Don Roff said...

Sean, thanks for posting this. Currently, I am experiencing this now with a script assignment that I am working on.

For the story, 8/10 of it occurs in Tokyo. Since I haven't been to the city (hoping that happens with any production rewrites), it would be easy to crib elements from say LOST IN TRANSLATION or BLACK RAIN. However, I want to experience a Tokyo that I haven't seen in a film yet.

So in lieu of hands-on experience, I've been YouTubing it for videos that people shot in the city and reading some Haruki Murakami novels.

It's not much, but it beats incestuous cinematic sex with somebody else's vision.

affablechap said...

The "it's ______ meets ______" or "it's _______ in a _____" approach is really just a short hand for agents and executives. The assumption being that both parties have seen a large number of films and this "short cuts" going into detail about the tone or storyline.

While it's helpful in many situations, it's problematic for many reasons, including the fact that many of the people using it, haven't seen the movies to which they are referring. I also find the deplorable state of the studio film business (sequels, remakes and remakes of sequels) to add to the questionable use of this approach.

My personal favorite experience with this was an agent who pitched me "Die Hard in a skyscraper!" When I pointed out that the original Die Hard took place in a skyscraper, the agent said "yeah, but this is in the Empire State Building!"

Well, duh, why didn't he say so? That angle changed everything!