“That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you,” wrote Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. As any cat owner will know, this is not easy. Getting an idea is the easy part; so many people have great ideas that they would love to work on when they have the time. But time always seems so elusive that the idea will swiftly be forgotten about. How many people have created an opening of a screenplay, or the first few chapters of a novel, or a catchy chorus without a verse to go with it? Most people have done even less, but when at a party surrounded by people who are more creative and successful, will pipe up that they would love to write a book or direct a short film to save face, with the knowledge that this wish will probably never truly happen. Why will it never happen? Because it’s hard. Not just because of sheer laziness, although that is certainly part of it, but rather that creativity takes courage. Creation makes you vulnerable as you have to put something of yourself into your creation and then let it out in the world to be judged and criticised. If you keep your great idea to yourself then it can’t be used to hurt you.
But who am I to judge? Certainly, I am no paragon of virtue when it comes to creativity; even procrastination is something I’m willing to put off till tomorrow. But over the last few days the Muse team had a chance to talk to some of the creative talent present at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival that took place in York. It’s a festival showing a vast variety of hundreds of short films from directors of varying degrees of experience and in various stages of their careers; from filmmakers still in university to famous actors getting their start as directors. Regardless of their experience or even the quality, what they all had in common was that they created something. They had an idea and then they went through the long and laborious process of making it. They had an idea and made it physical… well, digital at the very least.
One of these filmmakers was Garry Crystal, the director of The Fox and the Rabbit. Discussing his new short film he said: “I think what the whole thing resembles is a commitment by people which is something that you just can’t take away; so whether your film is good or bad you made one and no one can take that away from you. And there are so many people out there who want to do these things but don’t do it, so the very fact you made a short film is an achievement in itself.” Throughout the festival I saw so many films of varying quality and it’s easy to judge them through the eyes of a critic, but talking to the filmmakers did make me realise how tough it can be to put your creative vision into the world to be consumed by ravenous crowds. I saw many films over the course of the festival that I didn’t particularly care for, but those directors created a short film which is more than I can say. To create something and present it to the world is an achievement, not just due to the practical aspects of filmmaking but also the courage to show your vision to the world.
Whether your film is good or bad, you made one and no one can take that away from you
When you create something you will put time, effort and often money into it but that’s not all you fear to lose. Intentional or not, you will place some of your own experiences and your own personality into whatever you create. Matty Crawford, who was at the festival with his film Addy (which also happened to be his second-year university film) remarked when discussing why he makes films, “It’s really personal to you but when people watch it they won’t judge you personally”. This detachment is almost necessary when creating something and is important to remember when overcoming mental barriers in creation. You will be emotionally invested in your project: as a writer or director you will draw on your own life experiences, so it will often be an incredibly introspective and personal process. So, when you draw this out onto the page or screen to be seen publicly, in many ways it can feel as if you yourself are the one being judged. But it’s not; the audience aren’t judging you. The author is dead, long live the audience.
Also, the audience don’t care how inevitably catastrophic the behind-the-scenes process is. The process of creation is often romanticised in films and TV shows: an idea will overtake a person and they will simply create their masterpiece, often during a montage with cheerful music playing in the background. The reality is often messy and confusing, with late-night coffee and existential questions of: “what’s the point of it all?” Creating is often less beautiful and romantic and more tiring and frustrating. It’s not a journey with a set destination, it’s instead like running on a treadmill – you feel exhausted but are getting nowhere.
The audience will only see your creation as an independent entity. The arduous process of getting there doesn’t matter. In fact in the film industry, the more disastrous the filming process the better the film. Hitchcock almost binned Psycho before it was edited together, when making Jaws, the animatronic shark broke constantly, meaning Spielberg had to start shooting without a finished script or a working shark; and in The Wizard of Oz cast members were poisoned and burnt over the course of production. It doesn’t matter to the audience though, since while Spielberg may watch Jaws and just see the countless mishaps and mistakes, most audiences will just see the masterpiece that it is. With all the Hollywood sheen it’s easy to forget the people that make these films. As Adam Price, director of Malefaction said: “I’ve always loved and appreciated film. I think the first time I thought I fancied making a film was when I saw one of those behind-the-scenes documentaries about the making of the film and I think at that point the penny dropped that people actually make these. Obviously, people actually did make films but it didn’t really register with me that people actually made them. So I thought, “well, if they can make it, why can’t I make it?” and I’ve always had big interests in the world, the people and I’m a very opinionated person and I want to bring people’s stories to the screen.”
Creating is often less beautiful and romantic and more tiring and frustrating. It’s not a journey with a set destination
Now on the topic of masterpieces, the first thing you will make is not going to be one; you’ll be lucky if it’s even good. And confusingly, it’s not a bad thing that you’re not good. In every conversation I had with a filmmaker they talked about this reality and the contradiction. Matty Crawford, having already made multiple films after the one being shown at the festival, commented on the strangeness of looking back on his student film: “If you’re not cringing at your own work and you think it’s the best thing you’ve ever made, I’m really suspicious of those people. You always want to improve on yourself… if you don’t think that you can do better”, similarly Garry Crystal said “Don’t worry if you’re scared and you think ‘Oh my god. It’s shit.’ Because, okay, fine, it might be but you do it and you learn from it… The best way for you to improve is to just get experience and to learn from mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes then either people are lying to you or you’re deluding yourself.”
Often it’s easier to have the hypothetical perfect idea in your head than go through the process of creating it and mostly likely making a flawed product, because you will make mistakes: to live with the idea that ‘Maybe I am the next Stanley Kubrick or Shakespeare or Bill Gates’ than to create something that proves you are not. To quote Homer Simpson: ‘Trying is the first step towards failure”. But what is so bad about being bad? It seems the sooner that you accept that you will make mistakes the easier it will be when you inevitably make them. While talking to the directors the short film format seemed to be a good place to make those mistakes. Adam Price commented, “I think short films are a great way to experiment with ideas because with a feature film you are committed to one idea and it may take longer than a short film to make, so it’s a great way to experiment with ideas and make mistakes as well.”
There’s a pervasive feeling in our culture that if you’re not the best at something it’s not worth doing. Why sing if you’re not going to be the next Beyoncé? Why write poetry if you’re not the next Wordsworth? But you are allowed to be terrible because the fact is you’re probably not going to be the best in the world. So what? As cliché as it may sound, you create something out of the love of your craft and in a world that is so ready to market your creation as a product you also don’t need to compare your creation to every other thing ever made. You shouldn’t even think of your bad films as a stepping stone to becoming better; they have intrinsic value to you as their creator, as long as you love them in all their terribleness it should be seen as a job well done.
Obviously, people actually did make films but it didn’t really register with me that people actually made them
The conversation with the filmmakers almost inevitably drifted on to who we are as Nouse. As I talked about university there was almost an envious and wistful response. It is true that university is a training ground for up-coming talent. Firstly, the free time – many of you will probably have degrees with actual contact hours as opposed to the whistle-stop tour of campus that an English degree allows. But even so, university offers the freedom of adult-hood with fewer of the responsibilities. As recent graduate Matty Crawford said, “Take advantage of all the resources you have at university… Use university to build your team and your collaborators… Your industry is people your age on the same level as you…Build relationships to take on to the future”. As much as we’d like to imagine that one day, walking down the road, that one of the greats of the industry will somehow recognise your innate talent and take you under their wing, that’s not going to happen.
We like to romanticise the idea of the lone creator – the auteur. But the reality is that it does take a village to create something great. That community will be a support network through the creative process, at the end of the day it’s a creative passion not the Twelve Labours of Hercules, so university is a great way to find and build this community. The Aesthetica Film Festival itself acted as a great community for many filmmakers. Sam Jones, the director of Lifeline, said on the film industry in particular that “A community of like-minded people was both inspiring and daunting, challenging me to really up my game and engage more with filmmaking more seriously.” Adam Price also said that, in his experience of the film industry, it’s “A collection of individuals and groups of individuals. There is not like a big monolithic entity in which people are talking to each other all the time.”
The film industry in particular appears daunting with perceived Illuminati levels of exclusivity, but many of the filmmakers and actors that we now consider part of the Hollywood elite met each other in much more lowly settings. Phil Lord and Chris Miller met at college, The Coen Brothers are, surprisingly, brothers and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon met at school. The next generation of the industry are forming now at universities and festivals, and while surrounding yourself with creative talent can make you feel inferior, it can only better your own work. As Sam Jones commented, “The freshest, most innovative voices in film are all first heard at film festivals, making them the perfect environment to reflect back on yourself, and develop your own voice. And when you’ve enveloped yourself in such a variety of voices, you can be sure that yours will be innovative”.
The idea of prioritising your own creative voice is a theme that came up often. In a talk with Anne Edyvean, the head of the BBC Writersroom which aims to find and refine upcoming writing talent, one of the tips she emphasised was to write in your own voice and with your own ideas. Every year the BBC Writersroom gets thousands of scripts from writers of varying experience and talents. She said that so many are designed solely with the reader in mind, written because it was marketable and safe: but that is not what they want.
Create something that you yourself love most of all and there will be other people out there who share your insanity
Too many people think that to be successful you have to pander to your audience, but setting out with the goal of pleasing the vague and elusive ‘general public’ is nigh impossible and will most likely create something bland and uninspired – angering nobody, but pleasing nobody either. Create something that you yourself love most of all, and that your team loves, and most likely there will be other people out there who share your insanity and also love it. As Matty Crawford said, “If you’re making a project you don’t care about, the dp’s not going to care about it, the editor’s not going to care about it. Everyone wants to make the best that they can”.
Anne Edyvean said that during her time at the BBC people would often start pitching for a TV show that was fairly dull and when this was shot down they would move on to their next idea. Normally it was the last idea they pitched, the one they thought would be just too weird for the BBC, that ended up being the best. This was reiterated by Garry Crystal: ‘Take risks. Don’t play it safe. People who play it safe don’t get anywhere… Don’t be scared, if you’ve got an idea, that you’d like to do, just go for it… Don’t play it safe. Go for the more risky one”. Media and creative industries are moving at a faster rate than ever before. With the internet, anyone can create and the market is much more saturated. Don’t try and play catch-up but rather be original.
Though, Garry Crystal also advised on second guessing the audience, adding, “Don’t try and be clever because people will see straight away that you’re trying to be clever. If you think you’ve got a story, think about ‘how can I tell that story the best…how is it going to engage with the viewer the most… how is the viewer going to enjoy that story and are they going to understand that story?’ Don’t try to do a clever way of doing it, ‘I’ve got to do this in reverse’ and that kind of stuff.” Figure out what’s at the heart of what you’re trying to say and why you are the one saying it – that should be at the core of what you’re trying to create.”
When asked about the mistakes he made as a director Garry Crystal commented, ‘The mistake was I stopped making short films’. The creative process is tough, it’s an upward battle but it’s not a question of win or lose. If you’re in a creative industry just to make money you may be in the wrong place. I can’t end this better than with Garry Crystal himself: “Just do it. Stop thinking about it. Set yourself a target of when you’re going to do it. Don’t put things off… Never have regrets. All your experiences shape you and make you into who you are. That might sound like a happy crappy hippy thing but it’s true you are a product of your experiences so there’s no such thing as a bad experience. It’s amazing how much easier it is to sit in your digs, getting stoned and watching Netflix as opposed to going out and making short films. Just make it.”
So do something. Get your laptop. Write something. Delete it because you hate it. Write some more. Eventually it may be ok. Grab your phone. Find some talented friends or at the very least willing friends. Make a film. Edit the film. Watch the film. Cringe at watching the film. Destroy all copies of the film. Learn from your mistakes. Do it all again but better.
Interviews conducted by Jessica Jenkinson, Jasmine Onstad, Emily Taylor, and Andrew Young