‘…thinking about that small fragment, that little fish, will bring in more’
– David Lynch
In this lecture, we discussed where ideas come from when making a film; what environments they emerge from, and ways one can work out the nuances of your ideas and initial feelings about a project. We also discussed how to try and overcome creative blocks.
Film is all about ideas, as Lord Puttnam told us in this lecture. In this entry, I will reflect on my own experience making my thesis film this year, and how I drew from different sources and inspirations for my work, and cobbled ideas together.
Film is about having hunches, Lord Puttnam emphasized: acting on and developing a fleeting, vague thought, finding a small kernel of a plot or imagining a shot you want to capture, an old story you want to improve on, a line of dialogue you repeat to yourself. These smaller ideas can lead up to a grander idea, a near complete project. With our thesis film this year, there was an effort to merge the theoretical side of the degree with the practical side – we had to read and interpret texts relating to different themes. I chose the theme of gender and the horrific, as it would allow me to explore issues of body, femininity and the woman as monstrous/abject. I read the texts we were assigned, then delved further into other works surrounding horror, trauma and femininity/womanhood: . I began a complicated process of elimination – every idea I had I vetted using a stringent but often changing set of criteria; I went through about 60 initial ideas for the film , trying to evaluate how coherent possible storylines were, which works and ideas I wanted to reference, my aesthetic influences, the practicality of each possible film production, and most importantly and most pretentiously, what I wanted to say.
I thought about witches, and young girls’ connections to them as figures of fear and as villain/heroes and idols, about my own childhood fascination with witchcraft and stories of supernatural and mythical women and abject figures, omens of death and symbols of a sort of earthy, unapologetic power. I began compiling folders of colours, drawings, screenshots from Suspiria and The Witches of Eastwick, trying to condense my thoughts into a workable plotline and strip everything down to the bare bones. While preparing for pre-production and my pitch, I kept hyperfocusing on different elements of the literature I had read; I was interested in the body and disassociation, sisterhood and symbiosis in recovery, the multitude of ways we experience growing up and the joy and trauma of coming into womanhood, the ways in which we are taught to see ourselves as incomplete, an assemblage of parts, abject and trapped in our bodies and skins. I began to reassess my ideas shortly after my pitch, dissatisfied with my too big and too meta ideas about witches. I found myself torn between a number of smaller ideas – none of which seemed vital or important enough to base a whole film on. This wasn’t so much a creative block so much as a lack of belief in my ability to tell a story and do so well, and a constant second-guessing of my thoughts; to an extent, I still clung to the belief that when you create something and brainstorm possible story ideas, the process should be simple and instinctual. I learned over the course of making the film that this idealized idea of creative enlightenment and clarity was something I would never experience; film requires one to put in work, to think, to write and abandon ideas, to be frustrated and at times to repeat everything again, to join the dots and bring the small hunches together – to not be afraid to follow your gut and put something personal in your story (this may be unavoidable), but to also look at your own work from a distance and be appropriately critical.
A candid photo of me working on my film
I went back to the start again. During the process of making this film, I wasted many a notepad on vague words which I would cut out and assemble together. I revised my threadbare script multiple times, drew up tentative storyboards, visited the shooting locations to map out the rooms and tried to distill everything down to a simple story, to clearly express complicated theory in a legible and interesting way.
The process of filmmaking can be hugely complicated, full of last minute improvisations and sudden readjustments, usually impeded by having little equipment/crew and tight time constraints. Putting ideas into action proved to be challenging. I had a basic story I wanted to nail down – a story about the body being foreign and monstrous and alien to oneself, and an examination of the relationships formed between women/girls in recovery (and this recovery would be kept vague), but during shooting I would feel compelled to add in elements – cinematography reflecting the theory I had read (a lot of body horror and focus on skin and the fragility of the body), additional scenes that contextualized and explained the characters’ motivations, intercuts at funfairs and at the beach. Some of these ideas proved to be successful, but the process of changing and readjusting the plot of my film meant that shooting took longer than I had initially anticipated.
Filmmakers get their inspiration from many different places, but Lord Puttnam used this lecture to elaborate on some of his own personal influences – the framework of films like Chariots of Fire came from an amalgamation of childhood memories and formative heroes, as well as later influences. Filmmakers take inspiration from their own life and from filmic culture around them – this can be seen in the works of directors from Spielberg and his explorations of fatherhood/absent patriarchs, to Guillermo Del Toro’s ode to his childhood obsession with kaiju films, to Tarantino magpie tendencies, plucking from his Blockbuster-stocking and latenight-B-movies-watching early adulthood. I connected parts of my own history and obsessions – my childhood, my taste in films and television, my beliefs to a certain extent; my thesis became a film trying to capture and condense my own politics, attempting to say something and not everything, and making tangible my own sense of dissociation and trauma. It is an immensely revealing and sometimes painful process to make your film semi-autobiographical, but once I had settled on that approach, the hunches and smaller ideas I had began to coalesce into a larger and more workable story, and talking to my actresses and making the story more collaborative made the film come together relatively successfully.
Putting ideas into action is a difficult process: from coming up with a good idea, to fleshing it out, to seeing it through.Many films have their origins in disparate and unexpected places – as explored here in interviews with 2015’s best director nominees; Wes Anderson’s idea for The Grand Budapest Hotel emerged from combining the characteristics of an eccentric friend and of 1920s’ Swedish writer Stefan Zweig, and Richard Linklater’s idea for Boyhood came from a fascination with how people grow up and the narrative possibilities of cinema. Inspiration comes from unusual places, and ideas do not always strike like lightning – they require development and percolate over a period of time.