My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with stand-up comic, comedy writer, and singer-songwriter Ariane Sherine!
My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with bestselling author Nat Russo!
My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with screenwriter and novelist Suzie Tullett!
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a talk at Inspire’d.
It was a really fun evening, and I had a great time both giving the talk – about the creative process – and watching the other speakers too.
Oh, and there was also wine, which is always a nice bonus.
Anyway, click the link above to take a look!
(And I don’t know why I look like I’m strangling someone in the video still either…)
I can sense it before it happens now.
Something about the look in their eye. A slightly quizzical glance, as though they’re weighing something up. This is normally the point in the evening just after the information that I write/perform has been introduced. Generally not by me, as I usually try to avoid having to answer the inevitable questio-
“So where do you get your ideas?”
A-a-and it’s all downhill from there – me stuttering away, and desperately trying not to a) bore everybody, b) sound pretentious, or c) both. I always do my ‘writer’ face too, mainly in an attempt to negate the utter nonsense spewing from my mouth as I try to answer such a difficult question.
Actually, no. That’s not true. It’s not actually a difficult question, in fact on one level (I’ll mention the other level later…) it’s an incredibly simple one.
Ideas are everywhere.
Pick up a newspaper, sit on a bus, go for a walk, do pretty much anything and you’ll be surrounded by ideas.
Think of any recent news story, for instance. Got one? OK, now imagine it’s not true. As in, the entire story as it was reported didn’t happen and it was all an elaborate set up. Given this as a starting point, what’s the story behind this lie? Who set it up, and why? Think about what it would take to orchestrate it – whatever it is – in such a convincing manner that it’s actually reported as news.
If it’s a murder, for instance, why would it be faked? Where is the supposed victim now? Were they in on it too? Probably, but in what specific capacity? And why would they essentially forfeit the rest of their current life by going to live in hiding? What are they gaining from it, or what were they threatened with if they didn’t go through with it?
It works with more mundane things too. Go for a walk in a local park and look around. See that couple sitting by the pond, snuggled into each other? Are they married? Engaged? Cheating? How did they meet? Did they like each other at first, if not then why not? And what changed their minds? Will they still be together in a year? Why/why not? Are their families happy they’re together? Are they happy they’re together?
We are totally bombarded with events and information all the time. On any given day, life can be busy, relaxing, noisy, quiet, emotional, calm, colourful, bland, confusing, straightforward, happy, sad, boring and fascinating. Sometimes all at the same time. I don’t know where you’re reading this – you could be using a computer, your phone, a tablet, who knows. But wherever you are, you’re not in a vacuum, there are other things going on around you, and other thoughts going on inside you. If you look at each one of these things as a potential idea or source of inspiration, then you’ll see what I mean when I say that ideas are everywhere.
I always feel that the real question – the second of the ‘levels’ I mentioned above – isn’t about where ideas come from, but more about why idea number 28 got chosen over idea 43. To me that’s a more interesting – and infinitely more complex – question.
Unfortunately, that makes it very difficult to answer.
And this isn’t a way of promoting some kind of bullshit mystique around being a writer by the way, where I walk the streets at 2am smoking a Gauloise cigarette and quoting Nietzsche until my ‘muse’ appears to guide me to the perfect idea through interpretive dance. Not at all. Writing is work. Hard, frustrating, why-do-I-not-just-go-do-fun-stuff-like-everybody-else work.
As a comparison, stand up is different. If I think it’s funny, I use it. If the audience then agree with me that its funny, then it stays in my set. If not, it goes. Simple.*
Writing fiction is much trickier, because the test isn’t ‘is it funny?’, as much as ‘does it resonate with me on some level?’. And your guess is as good as mine as to why some ideas ‘resonate’ and why some don’t. I recently wrote a blog post about a real-life crime case that I couldn’t get out of my head, and I still have no idea why, out of the hundreds of cases I’ve read, that this one in particular struck a chord in me.
Looking at the novels I’ve written, the first was based on my experiences as an actor/comedian, and the second based on various sleep disorders I have the hilariously good fortune to suffer from. But I’ve obviously experienced more than two things in my life, so what made me choose those two particular subjects to write about over every other idea I’ve ever had?
The honest – and probably quite unsatisfactory – answer is that those ideas resonated with me and made me want to explore them. Which is, of course, just a nice way of saying that the honest answer is that I have no idea.
See what I mean about the question being complicated…?
In saying all this, sometimes ideas do leap out of nowhere and present themselves. I remember being on holiday a while ago and seeing this kid sitting by himself on the beach. He was miming the act of cutting his wrists, then convulsing as though he’d been electrocuted, and would then laugh manically. He did this about three of four times, with a period of around a minute or so in between where he’d sit and stare at the sea. Eventually, he stood up and walked back towards the hotel.
A lot about this scene unnerved me (and, I assume, anybody else who’d seen him). Why was this kid miming slitting his wrists? Had he seen it on TV? And why was he laughing about it? People on TV generally don’t commit suicide then laugh manically about it. Maybe it was based in reality then? Maybe he’d just witnessed his parents execute some kind of blood-drenched murder-suicide in their hotel room, didn’t know how to comprehend what he’d seen, and strolled downstairs in a trance. In his shock, he then went through the motions trying to make sense of them, then finally felt prepared enough to go back upstairs to join his dead/dying parents. Although I don’t even want to contemplate what that might have looked like…
So, why did this weird scene inspire me to write the short story Child’s Play (from The Walk)?
Let’s be honest here, why wouldn’t it…?
That is an exception though. Most of the time there’s just some elusive quality about an idea that grabs you and makes you want to explore it creatively. It’s not even a necessarily intellectual decision, it’s just something that feels like it’d be interesting to explore, or funny to use on stage, or entertaining to write about, and – for others – to read about.
And I guess that’s the point here. Why do we choose one idea over another? Because it feels right.
Maybe the answer is pretty simple after all.
*This is obviously oversimplifying how much tweaking, trial-and-error, and embarrassed silences go into successful stand up, but I guess that’s a post for another day.
I’ve just spent 90 minutes watching Tom Hardy fight everybody, act like a pantomime character, pretend to be two people having a conversation with each other, and break the fourth wall by ranting down the camera at me.
And I thought it was incredible.
After watching Tom Hardy in Bronson, I started thinking about other performances that I’ve loved over the years, and realised that – generally speaking – the best, most daring work is done by actors early on in their careers. I’m talking about Gary Oldman in The Firm, Tim Roth in Made in Britain, Ray Winstone in Scum, Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park/anything in the 70s, Robert De Niro in Mean Streets/anything in the 70s, Angelina Jolie in Gia, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Carlisle in Trainspotting, and Leonardo Di Caprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape…. The list goes on and on.
The more I think about it the less incidental it all seems to be – a disproportionate amount of performances that have stayed with me long after the film has ended have come from the beginning of an actor’s career, rather than the middle or end.
And this isn’t an insult to any of the actors I’ve mentioned above by the way, I’m not saying that any of these actors are past their prime (let’s just not mention the word ‘Focker’ at this point, yeah?), but why do so many actors do such great work – and as such extreme characters – when they start out?
I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, and probably most obviously, young actors are hungry to prove themselves and make a name. They want to show what they can do and how far they can go, and what better way to do that than by playing an incredibly complex character and make them believable?
Secondly, they’ve got nothing to lose. If you’re an established star with a persona to damage, you probably won’t really want to take the chance of playing a violent criminal who takes a hostage and forces him to smear Vaseline on his naked body. But if you’re a relative unknown, there’s no persona to damage.
Another point related to this is the ability of the audience buying into you as a completely different character, especially if you’re known in one particular genre. Some people can make the switch (Tom Hanks for instance), but others might have trouble because audiences want them to do what they’ve always done and don’t want to accept anything else (six words: Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy). So unknown actors are more likely to choose roles that would be considered too risky by more established performers. Twenty years of audience baggage will also make it that much more difficult for you as an actor to convince the current audience that you are that particular character (although this will always be a problem to an extent, and not just when playing ‘extreme’ roles).
Younger actors also don’t have the luxury of being able to phone a performance in if they feel like it, they’ve got dues to pay and a body of work to build. If you knew you could sleepwalk through a film and get paid £20 million for it, or knock yourself out reliving some childhood trauma in a small indie movie for equity minimum, which would you choose? Artistic integrity is all very well, but if you ‘went there and did that’ twenty years ago, you could be forgiven for wanting an easier, more lucrative deal in later years. And a huge star doing a small movie isn’t generally the ‘done’ thing either, audiences will think you’ve either fallen from grace or lost your mind. People generally don’t skip up and down the ladder of success and get away with it (although some do – Steve Buscemi, I’m looking at you…)
An interesting aside would be to look at comeback roles that people have had where they’ve been applauded for being ‘daring’. Although, if your career is in the toilet what have you got to lose, really? You’re at the same level as an unknown actor – in fact in some cases, regarded as even worse off – so you’ve only really got something to gain.
I don’t know the reason, and I’m not pretending to. But what I do know is that some of the most incredible, memorable performances that I’ve enjoyed time and again have been from actors who are young, hungry and – most importantly – talented.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and burn every copy of ‘Meet the Fockers’ that I can find.