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Until last Saturday afternoon I was unfamiliar with the name Kate Whoriskey. By the time the afternoon turned to evening I was sure that everyone would eventually become familiar with the name Kate Whoriskey. Whoriskey directed Lynn Nottage’s  Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined which just finished its run in New York. She’s been called “one of the most admired directors in the American theatre today.”

Whoriskey comes with solid credentials with an ungraduate degree from NYU and an MFA from the American Repertory Theater at Harvard (A.R.T.). After graduating from A.R.T. in 1998 she soon directed Ibsen’s The Master Builder. She’s directed plays in in Louisville, Utah, Alaska, Chicago as well as various theaters in California and New York. 

She recently has been appointed as the artistic director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle beginning in 2011. She has said that one of the reason to move from New York to Seattle is to escape commercial pressures of the New York theater scene as well as for more aesthetic freedom. (Maybe I should start another blog—“Playwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside New York.”

Whorisky’s role was not simply directing Ruined but helping Nottage in her research including traveling with her to Uganda to interview women who had been raped and abused in the Congo. It was an experience that had a profound effect on Whoriskey and she later told NPR:

“They were all beautifully dressed, these 15 women, so colorful and beautiful. And then we heard these stories. And the stories were devastating, and to hear them back to back. … I didn’t actually recognize that rape had such physical consequences. I always thought of the psychological, but not the physical consequences. It was hard to hear, over and over, how ruined these woman’s bodies were.” 
                                 
To watch a short video with Kate Whoriskey and Lynn Nottage visit Charlie Rose “A conversation about the play Ruined.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood (Iowa painter, American Gothic)

 

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“The way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling
1901-1994
Nobel Prize Winning American Scientist

Where do creative ideas come from?

Katie Couric once asked Jerry Seinfeld where his funny ideas came from and he said, “That’s like asking where trees come from.”

 

I hate to disagree with Seinfeld, but I think a better answer is ideas come from everywhere.

Here’s the formula that I’ve come up with; A+B = C.  There doesn’t that help? (Can someone pass that along to Jerry?) This is how Seinfeld connects things: “Now why does moisture ruin leather? I don’t get this. Aren’t cows outside most of the time?” Basic, funny and original.

People that are a lot smarter than me call it dialectical logic. That’s when you connect two unrelated things. A+B= C is simply the result of something new after we’ve connect two unrelated things.

When I was a kid there was this commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups where a guy comes around the corner eating peanut butter from a jar (like we all walk around doing) and another guys from around the other corner eating chocolate and they run into each other. The one guys say, “Your chocolate is in my peanut butter” and the other guy says, “Your peanut butter is in my chocolate.” But they try the PB/Chocolate mix and both decide it’s good.

A (peanut butter) + B (chocolate) = Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. (By the way, that’s why these blogs are so long because I keep making connections.) My goal is make them shorter.

Illustrator Gary Kelley says, “Creativity is connecting influences.” If you go into his studio you’ll find a menagerie of art books and torn out photos from magazines that are there to inspire him. Sometimes he tapes them to his easel.

Creativity is not something that only a few mystical souls can tap into. (Granted the quality of the Seinfeld’s creative ideas is what sets him apart.) Nor is it just limited to the arts.

The story goes that back in the 60’s when a couple guys bolted a sail to a door and made the first windsurfer and became very wealthy from their new invention. Thomas Edison’s inventions were the results of lots of creativity–as well as a lot of trail and error.

Another story goes that the founder of the zillion selling “Dummies” books was in a bookstore and overheard a guy ask a salesperson, “Do you have a basic book on computers? Like computers for dummies.”

(This story has been disputed. As they say, success has many fathers.)

Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Many of us are guilty of saying, “if I could just head to the beach or the mountains and just get a little place without all the day-to-day distractions then I could really get some ideas down on paper. No kids, no work issues. No people problems. Just a place of nirvana were the my creativity would be free-flowing.”

There’s a word for that—fantasy. And being from Orlando originally I can tell you that’s not Fantasyland. Ask anyone who’s ever worked at Disney World about kids, work issues and people problems. (Speaking of Fantasyland, does anyone else miss Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?)

There was an episode on The Andy Griffith Show were Andy wants to be a writer and he get the typewriter and the cabin in the woods and he’s ready to go. As soon as he tidies up the place. It’s easy for writers to find reasons not to write.

After I go to this seminar…

When I get a new computer…

When I get that new software…

Then I’m really going to start writing. I’ve done all those things. I also used to buy pants a little tight because I was going to lose a few pounds. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

You need to go at inspiration with a club? Okay, but how do you do that?

“In action, there is power, grace and magic.” Goethe

You simply start writing. It may just be notes on a paper, but it’s a start. (I like Vicki King’s book How to Write A Screenplay in 20 Days because she pushes you to write.) It may not be any good. It probably won’t sell. (Though Stallone says he wrote Rocky in less than a week.) But you will learn a ton about writing and yourself. And it will give you confidence for the next script.

Musician Jimmy Buffett said on a 60 Minutes interview, “I’m not an every note kind of guy, I’m a capture the magic kind of guy.”

When you start writing you are taking those first steps toward capturing the magic.

The creative process is hard to explain and hard to show on film. But the movie Pollack with Ed Harris has a wonderful scene where we see the spark of creativity that became Pollack’s signature style. He’s in the process of painting when he accidentally spills some paint on the canvas and he does it again and then again. He has an epiphany, and it happens not while he’s reading a book on painting, but while he’s painting.

Creativity is a messy process. You’re going to get paint on your shoes. But you will make discoveries in the process.

A great example in the photography world is Ansel Adams. Adams was a brilliant photographer though it took decades of photographs before the world came to understand that. He would often go into the mountains with a donkey carrying his large format cameras and would often camp out to watch what the light would do.

He is known particularly for his early photographs in Yosemite National Park, but one of his most famous photographs is called Moon Over Hernandez.  He captured that photograph late one afternoon while driving in New Mexico. By the time he pulled over and set up his 8X10 camera the light was fading fast and he couldn’t find his light meter so he had to guess on the exposure. His experience paid off but he was only able to take one shot before the light was gone on the cross that grabbed his eye. It is one of his most recognizable photographs.

He had a firm understand of his craft so he could recognize and opportunity when he saw it. He captured the magic.

Stephen King says that a writer he is like a paleontologist. He sees something interesting buried in the dirt and he goes over and brushes away the dirt. He’s unearthing stories.

What is important is to write down what you find. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was asked how he came up with so much material and he said that three funny things happen to everybody everyday, he just writes them down.

One real estate expert says the secret to his success is “Always be looking.” When you need to find a deal on a house over the weekend it’s difficult. But if you’re always looking there’s a good chance you’ll find a good investment.

You need to cultivate looking for ideas. It may come in an article you read, a person you meet, or seemingly out of nowhere. Think of it like filling a blender with things that interest you. You mix it all together and out of the overflow comes your original ideas.

It is all about discovery.  Recently I heard on the radio a fellow talk about what it’s like to re-enter the world after being in prison for years. He said when you first get out you’re in sensory overload. Colors are more vibrant; you hear sounds more clearly. He said when he first got out he wanted to run to people and say, “Do you see those colors?” His senses were alive.

Keeping your senses alive to the world around you heightens your experiences and makes you feel alive.  And when our senses are alive we are more likely to be creative (idea-prone) because we are making new connections.

“ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” James Webb Young

Or A + B = C

“An idea is a feat of association.” Poet Robert Frost

A + B = C

Arthur Koestler: wrote a whole book on the creative process and says this: “The Creative act…uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”

 

Stephen King writes, “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

The more you have in your brain to select and reshuffle, the more creative you will be. My favorite quote in regards to this comes from a creative giant of our day Apple & Pixar’s Steven Jobs:

“Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.”

Paul Schrader who wrote Taxidriver once thought he could write a screenplay with Bob Dylan but realized he couldn’t because while most people think in terms of one, two, three, A, B, C and Dylan thinks in terms of One, blue, banana. ( So in Dylan’s case it may be 1 + Blue + Banana = The Times They Are a-Changin’.)

Just a different way of connecting the dots. Like that fellow in A Beautiful Mind with his string connecting letters in newspapers. Although that’s a result where the mind goes into the realm of bizarre in making connections that aren’t healthy.

But I love the scene in Jerry Maguire after Jerry has been fired and he stands before the entire office and asked who is coming with him on his new venture. No one moves. His secretary says she’s close to another pay raise. Total embarrassment for the Tom Cruise character. He’s humiliated so what does he do? He turns to the fish tank and says “The fish are coming with me.”

And the fish becomes a motif throughout the film.

Chances are if you asked the screenwriter Cameron Crowe how he came up with that scene he wouldn’t know. But he captured the magic.

Pieces of April was written by Peter Hedges (who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa by the way) and is a story about a wayward young girl who wants to make amends with her family as her mother is dying of cancer and she wants to cook dinner for everyone at her small New York City apartment.

As her family drives in from the suburbs her oven breaks and her single goal in life is to find a way to get the turkey cooked so it doesn’t turn into another family disaster. It’s a wonderful film. Hedges said he heard a similar true story years ago and connected it with his mother dying of cancer.

So when you hear a story or have a thought that strikes your fancy write it down. Your own background and twist on life will give it originality. Juno was not the first unplanned pregnancy movie in history or even of 2007. But Diablo Cody’s slant gave it originality and that originality was what earned her an Academy Award. (Though I must add that just because your ideas is original don’t expect it to always be that well received.)

Cody has said in interviews that she doesn’t know where the idea for Juno came from. You can control the influences you put in your life, trying to force results is moving beyond the veil of mystery.

If Grant Wood really did get his best ideas while milking cows it could have been the regular, mundane, repetitive work that was the key.

Julia Cameron writes about this in The Artist’s Way. She quotes Einstein as having asked, “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” She said Steven Spielberg claims some of his best ideas come while driving on freeways. Many writers, (like Hemingway) have been regular swimmers and others (Stephen King) have been walkers. All activities that seem to stimulate creative ideas.

Musician Jack Johnson hits the waves as he told Rolling Stone magazine (March 8, 2008), “You’ve got to fill up your mind. When I get home from a tour, I put away the guitar and surf a lot. After a while, the songs just start comin’.”

One person who often tops many people’s “most creative” list is comedian Robin Williams who is an avid bicyclist. That is an artist brain activity that fills the brain with images. One of the things that makes Williams fun to watch as he does improv is the rapid-fire way his brain makes connections. (He is not only unusually gifted, but many people forget that he was trained at Julliard.)

An excellent book on ideas is How To Get Ideas by former advertising art director Jack Foster. And the documentary Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld shows the hard work of making funny connections as we watch him develop fresh comedy material.

Your creativity comes out of the overflow of the people, places, and things you pour into your life. So be curious and connected. Fill your blender with influences and the next time you need a creative surge remember the simple formula A+B=C.

If that doesn’t work try milking a cow.

Photo & Text Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith

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The Writers Guild of America strike has finally ended and now the “We Support” signs can come down and go on ebay. But I do have a couple of questions. Who is the “we” in the above photo? And why does Gary Kelley have it on his door at work? Kelley is not a screenwriter though he did spend time in Los Angeles on the picket line during the writer’s strike.  His daughter is a screenwriter and a member of the WGA, so that’s probably the reason the sign’s there.

Kelley is an artist who can be found most days (and often nights) working in his upstairs studio in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Yes, downtown Cedar Falls does resemble Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, it was snowing when I took the photo below last week, and yes, the Christmas lights are still up in mid February. (Talk about a long December….)

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If you don’t recognize the name Gary Kelley I’m sure you are familiar with his art work. As an illustrator his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Time, New Yorker Magazine, Newsweek and many other publications and national advertising campaigns. He has won over 25 medals from the Society of Illustrators and last year was elected into their Hall of Fame. He’s kind of the William Goldman of illustrators. But he is most known for the murals he’s done of writers that can be found in every Barnes & Noble Booksellers across the country. Including two 70 foot murals at the most recently renovated Barnes & Nobel on 5th and 48th street in Manhattan.

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When you walk into Kelley’s studio it’s like walking onto a movie set. It’s exactly what you’d expect a working artist’s studio to look like. During the day beautiful natural light spills into the loft like area and onto a large easel where he is often painting. What he’s usually not doing is sipping a glass of wine, waxing philosophically about art.

He can do that, but he’s got work to do most of the time. It was from Kelley that I learned the phrase “Art is work.” It originated from the book with that as the title by Milton Glaser, the designer of the ubiquitous “I (heart shape) NY” design.

It’s a book Kelley likes to recommend. “First off Glaser is a giant in my eyes,” Kelley told me in his studio, “He’s extremely articulate and he shares everything he knows in this book which is wonderful. It’s such an honest book. Art is Work that’s a pretty honest statement. The thing that makes it so great is that he’s not afraid to talk about inspiration and influence. Many artists are very secretive about that. They want you to think that ideas come from some kind of magical, middle-of-the-night revelation. Creativity is assembling influences. It’s not about having something totally original pop into you head all of a sudden.”

That explains why Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, who are basically film historians as well as filmmakers, are known for their original work. But even a director of Scorsese’s stature hits creative dry spots as he has talked about before he made Raging Bull. How does work fit into that predicament? (Or, say,  a financially drained screenwriter after a three-month strike? Or a mother of two trying to squeeze in a script writing at night?)

Thomas Moore writes in Dark Nights of the Soul, “Don’t work only when the mood is right. Let the dark night come and go, but keep doing your work. Igor Stravinsky said, ‘Even when I do not feel like work I sit down to it just the same. I cannot wait for inspiration.’ He liked to quote Tchaikovsky who said that composing was like making shoes. In that sense, it was a job.”

Screenwriting is a job. It’s work. Just show up and ply your trade.  Do that whether you get paid or not and even if you live in Memphis, Des Moines or Fairbank. These things take time.  Steve Martin in his book Born Standing Up, recounts how he did thousands of performances over a 10 year period getting his act down and then another four years fine tuning it before he found wild success for four years. It took a lot of work to discover how to be a wild and crazy guy.

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There is an old saying that writers don’t like writing but they like having written. And the only way to have written is to write. If you look at the lives of writers you will find all kinds of styles. But the one thing many successful ones have in common is a discipline (desire, obsession?) to write on a regular basis.

John Grisham is one of the most financially successful writers in history. But before he made a name for himself as a writer he was a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. Lawyers aren’t known for having a lot of free time so on top of his 60-80 hour days as a State Representative he would wake up at five 5 AM to fit in an hour of writing on his first novel.  After he did that for three years, he could not find anyone interested in publishing the book. So he continued to wake up early and write the next novel that eventually got published and went on to make him a very wealthy man.

Ron Bass & Stephen King are also known for their dedicated daily writing schedules.

Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) was a struggling novelist for ten years before he found success with his first screenplay The Client based on Grisham’s novel.

I grew up with laid back musician Jimmy Buffett as one of my heroes, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized Buffett didn’t spend much time in Margaritaville because he is a workaholic who’s usually on the road or in the studio. That’s why he’s had a 30+ year career and why he made around $30 million back in 2006. Don’t let those flip-flops fool you – it takes a lot of work to be that carefree.

A few years ago I was producing a TV program in LA with director of photography Peter Biagi who shot on the first HBO Project Greenlight movie. On our last day of shooting a group of us had dinner with Stolen Summer writer/director Peter Jones. The HBO Greenlight show projected Jones as merely an insurance salesman from Chicago which was partially true. I asked him how many screenplays he had written before Stolen Summer and he said six. This wasn’t a guy who went from writing insurance claims to screenplays overnight. It was a process where he worked on his writing.

“For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.” Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)

“My average UCLA student who’s been successful wrote at least six complete, polished screenplays before finally selling one.” William Froug

“I wrote maybe 10 screenplays before I was able to sell one.” Nicolas Kazan, At Close Range

“We wrote six scripts before anything was produced.” Jack Epps, Jr., Top Gun

“Before I got adept at it, I had to write about ten scripts.” Brian Helgeland, L.A. Confidential

Those are encouraging quotes when you’ve written seven unproduced feature scripts, and help keep you sane when you see Diablo Cody knock her first script out of the park with her Oscar nominated Juno. (Congrats once again to Cody for winning the Writers Guild of America best original screenplay award.) For those of you who haven’t read The Juno-Iowa Connection on this site, Cody is a graduate of the University of Iowa.

But Cody is not a freak of nature.While her first screenplay won an Oscar, Cody mentions writing everyday sice she was 12. That’s fifteen years of writing before she wrote Juno.  Oliver Stone wrote 12 screenplays before he sold one. Are you getting the picture? Screenwriting is work. But let’s get more specific and look at work on a day-to-day basis.

Joe Eszterhas’ (Basic Instinct) advice in his screenwriting book The Devils Guide to Hollywood is; “Write six pages of script a day. Stick to this schedule no matter what. You’ll have a finished first draft in roughly twenty days. Then go back and edit what you’ve written. Spend no more than five days on this edit.”

Any way you look at it it comes down to work.

Gary Kelley’s work made it to the big screen this past November when I photographed and produced an HD production of his artwork for Holst’s The Planets performed by the Waterloo-Ceder Falls Symphony under the direction of conductor Jason Wienberger. Viewed on a 20 foot screen it received a triple standing ovation from the 1,300 in attendance. (Newspaper Review.) I took this photo at rehearsals.

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I don’t think Kelley has any desire to make the feature film leap as Julian Schnabel’s (The Diving Bell and Butterfly) has done, but it was fitting for him to walk the picket line during the Writer’s strike because he did get his first paid gig though the movies–sort of…”In eighth grade I did a drawing of Gary Cooper for the local newspaper,” Kelley said.  “I got a free pass to the movies for a year.” So it makes sense that he would come full circle and illustrate his picket line experience with a piece of work that will appear on a future cover of the North American Review.

Welcome back to work.

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© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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