What Top Movie Directors Teach Us About Sharpening Our Creative Process

Posted by Nadia Darwesh on

The Oscars are almost here.

Set to air on February 9th, this most prestigious celebration of the Hollywood film industry will also mark the official end of awards season for the 2019-2020 period.

However, before that happens, let’s first turn our attention to a specific group of stakeholders in the silver screen business: the directors.

Boasting big names to rival those of any movie star – think Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Greta Gerwig and the like – great directors are usually at the core of any outstanding film to have ever been successfully produced.

The reasons for this are multi-layered, but when it comes down to it, directors who distinguish themselves are usually the ones that triumph in juggling a passion for storytelling with the less amusing tasks of translating their rendered visions into critical and commercial successes.

Still, this is all contingent on an outstanding creative point of view. It’s why come awards season, directors are subjected to a barrage of why, how, when and where questions regarding their creative processes.

Below are a few recurring tips for how to refine our creative strategies as mentioned by directors who have been nominated this year. While it’s not exactly learning at the feet of the masters, rest assured that these little tidbits will serve you just as well.

Narrow Down your Motivation

The hardest part of pursuing any idea usually comes at the beginning. What’s the story? What’s the angle? What is that you want to say? And why is it so hard to identify, anyway?

A good way to circumvent feeling stuck at this juncture would be to pinpoint what's driving your need to create.

This tends to be something vaguer and less defined than a well-thought-out objective. It could come down to a fleeting emotion you want to explore, a hazy memory you need to understand, a question whose answer you are desperately searching for, or even a unique technique that you wish to perfect.

For instance, Sam Mendes’s idea for epic war movie 1917 (which earned several nominations this year) was sparked by a desire to write and direct a screenplay that would somehow incorporate an immersive continuous long shot from beginning to end.

What burning need is driving your idea? Note that down now.

Get Personal, Get Real

Once your motivation is understood, incubate on it for a while as you work out how to relate it to the bigger story that you want to express through your creative undertaking. (Note that this could be either a strictly artistic endeavor or something that’s more business-led.)

For Lulu Wang, who wrote and directed The Farewell, her motivation hinged on the discombobulation she felt growing up in America as a member of the Chinese diaspora. The need to articulate this confusion eventually grew into an inter-cultural and inter-generational Chinese-American family drama that not only resonated with her, but with thousands of other Asian immigrants who could relate to the same issues.

Channel your motivation and use it to come up with a personalized and real solution that you believe would work for yourself, first, then other people. Have you got anything yet?

Don’t Skimp on Research

After you know what it is that you want to say, research is the next crucial step. Unfortunately, it also involves what can be a mind-numbing slog as you try to parse the facts and figures that you gather into your narrative. 

However, don’t let the hard work get you down: research not only helps with gaining new knowledge, but it also inspires you to move beyond what is seen and understood, and hopefully stumble upon an untold story that the world still needs to hear.

Kasi Lemmons, co-writer and director of biopic Harriet, has said that her research amounted to seven months of trawling biographies, historical accounts, and academic papers. She did this to come to an even truer understanding of Harriet Tubman, the American abolitionist icon whose life and legacy had, to that point, been shrouded in a lot of misconception and mystery. Lemmons then carried all that she found out into the film, showcasing her learnings to the rest of the world.

Thorough directors are great examples of why doing your due diligence will always be appreciated, especially when it feels both ardent and authentic. On the other hand, terrible research these days is instantly called out by a discerning audience; that it should even occur leaves people cold.

It’s OK to Be Vulnerable

Film, like all other art, works best when what’s being depicted feels personal to the viewer, and invested directors, for the most part, are not averse to bringing in their own life experiences as long as it can help ensure that every nuanced emotion is brought to life on screen.

A recent good example is Noah Baumbach and Marriage Story. What started as a quiet and unassuming Netflix movie turned out to be a bittersweet tear-jerker. A lot of people were moved by its true-to-life depiction of a couple going through a divorce, especially if they had gone through something similar.

Although Baumbach has denied claims that the drama is a true reflection of his own real-life experience going through divorce, it still stands to reason that what he went through imprinted on him enough to inspire what he directed on screen.

Executing an idea that you hope will move others often means exposing your vulnerable side too. The more you bare your weaknesses like this, the more people see and respect you, and the more they empathize with your cause.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Finally, directors, despite the heaviness of the crowns upon their heads, are also well aware of the benefit of not taking things too seriously all the time. While we’re all excited about creating the next best thing to ever exist, it’s OK to step outside of ourselves every so often and have a good laugh about things, even if it means doing so at our own expense.

Jordan Peele liked to joke around on the set of horror film Us whenever the atmosphere threatened to get too spooky. As for renowned funnyman Taika Waititi, he had to call on all of his comedic prowess to help him cope with directing and starring in Jojo Rabbit, a Nazi satire tale in which he played Hitler.

Crack a joke to loosen up, pull a prank, have some fun. Laughter is a good reminder that come rain or shine, it doesn’t always have to be that serious.

Now, go forth and create.

Photo Credit: Pinterest/AP.

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