Recently I had a brief conversation with a friend about the idea of ideas. He was interested in what I was working on next and whether there was an opportunity for us to collaborate. He declared his liking for my work, and noted that I had a new ‘voice’ – whatever that means, and I responded by saying: “I’m not sure where I get my ideas from. We just have to be thankful that we do”.
I have since drifted in and out of thoughts about ideas and how I get them, and what exactly separates the good ones from the bad – even now, when someone asks my how I got an idea for a script or story, my reply is always vague, but I know what I produce includes my best ideas. Admittedly, I’ve only produced eight or so short films to date (with numerous other projects in the pipeline), so I am no expert on the subject. But I do prompt ideas into being, so that counts, right?
Producing a film always seemed like an unobtainable achievement, and looking back on my younger years, I was definitely frustrated in my pursuit of filmmaking, because whilst I’ve always enjoyed watching films, obsessively so, I never thought it would be possible to ever make one. I got a job as an electrical apprentice at a local power station, and set about making money and investing in a pension rather than following my dream of being creative – much to my parents delight, I’m sure. But luckily for me, and unfortunately for them, that plan quickly crumbled and I gave myself no choice but to pursue filmmaking (I dread to think where I’d be or what I’d be like now if I kept on with that apprenticeship).
It’s never been enough to just say “I want to be a filmmaker.” It takes a lot of hard work and an empty wallet, and if you’re lucky, a dash of good ideas. It’s only then will you be rewarded with that label (and I assure you that just because your social media bio says you are, it doesn’t necessarily make it so). To be a filmmaker, or any other type of artist for that matter, you have to be aware of how you can explore an idea in your chosen medium, and for that you need a greater understand of the tools you have available and how they work, as without that knowledge or outlet, that idea is just that, an idea. You may have something to say, an observation, but you still have no mouth piece – and that’s where the frustration sets in. We all have a chattering voice in our head (I hope it’s not just me) telling us how we observe the outside world, and perhaps this is the voice my friend was talking about, because it is through that voice I get my ideas.
With no prior technical knowledge of the how to make films, I went to college (at 18..!) and then eventually on to University. There I began learning some of the basic skills I would need to start unleashing my ideas into a form other people could watch, understand and even judge. I made my first short film when I was about 21 (pretty old by industry standards), and it was called Nyetimber Hill. It involved a character waking up in the middle of a field, disoriented and not knowing how she got there, to then witness a man dragging a body up into the woods. She follows, and watches the man bury the body. She then decides to uncover the body once the man has gone to discover that she has just witnessed the man burying her – a nightmarish-dream-like, and rather simple, set up and twist type narrative. Now, I have since discovered that this ‘loop’ type structure is a very amateurish trope, and one that is easy to fall back on in the short film form because it enables you to tell a quick story, very much like a joke would. However, Nyetimber Hill and my University graduate film are no longer online, for various reason, so the first film I was happy to keep online was called Loop, go figure. So where did this idea come from? And why am I happier with it than my older attempts?
One of the problems with amateur films (and some not so amateur), is that they rely heavily on the ideas of others in the form of clichés, such as the zombie-flick or teen-suicide drama. I’ve also wanted to find ideas that I hadn’t seen before, and eight short films later, I’ve stuck to that ethos. Short films and especially, but not restricted to, students films, are spattered with clichés. I watched a film last night, and after thirty seconds I could guess what was going to happen scene to scene for the next nineteen and a half minutes. If you are watching something for what feels the thousandth time, then it won’t spark anything unique inside you, so therefore the ‘idea’ will be considered bad, even though it’s still an idea. So how do you find the way of spinning an idea to make it unique and feel like it’s never been done before? I’ve come to realise that the more knowledge you have of your chosen art, as well as other forms such as painting, music, television or theatre, as a creative person you’ll have a better understanding of how unique or clichéd your ideas are, or in other words, how good they are. I watch tonnes of films, at my most regimented, I was achieving on average three a day. This has allowed me to build a wider and deeper vocabulary of what’s out there. When I sit down, which is rarely the case, to think about an idea, my brain is able to scatter around in that vocabulary to judge whether I’ve seen that idea done before. The likelihood is that I have, so the idea gets thrown onto the idea-dump-heap. But every so often, a good idea will arrive. I don’t jump straight away, instead I make a mental note, and if it keeps regurgitating in my mind, then I must give it some attention. My latest short film, The Missing Hand, was based on a thought I had about five years ago, and it always stayed with me, regurgitating.
Mostly, I have absolutely no control over what the idea will be or when it arrives, but I now understand that those ideas are me, in a weird philosophically-metaphysical sense. Ideas tend to arrive when I am bored or day dreaming – typically at work or whilst watching a boring film. My mind will start to wander, and will start coming up with scenarios just as an attempt to keep myself occupied, and from there I start trying to form them into some sort of narrative, and whether I could use the scenario in a story. Could it have an interesting arc or ending, for example. All my films have started off like this, and from there they often develop into something else entirely. For example; That’s Not Me – a man being approached by a stranger who wants an autograph, Ring Ring – a phone that acts as a gateway to the unconscious, Cupid – two people who realise they are not right for each other but go along with it because they feel compelled. Rarely do I start off with character, but ideas will then start attaching themselves to this larger, core idea.
So you have to be open to that creative voice, and as your begin exploring your medium more and more, those ideas will naturally start forming into mini-presentations in your mind. Your ideas will gradually become more sophisticated, as you start to run dry or start becoming aware of how you’ve repeated yourself, you will be forced to keep exploring new and more interesting ways to show your ideas. What has happened to me is that I am now getting better at catching the good ideas as they shoot past, and knowing when to let the bad ones go. I believe that if you are a creative person, you will think this way naturally and it is not something you have to learn to do, but perhaps your awareness becomes greater. What you have to learn is how to turn those ideas into something watchable or readable, and this is where your technical toolset will step in. The fundamental basis of your idea will then try to escape from all these different hurdles that are designed to pull you away from what you wanted to say – money, bad acting, out of focus photography etc. So then the idea becomes about how well you can execute it. I’ve always believed that there was probably a better guitarist out there than Jimi Hendrix, but just didn’t have the know-how to give voice to his or her ideas.
Art has the ability to share our most intimate thoughts, so it also needs an audience for your idea to be fully realised, without it, then a crucial stage of your process will be lost. Art is the bridging of an abstract thought formed into an expression that others can understand and respond to. You need to be aware of your ideas, the tools you build to explore them, but also how it will be perceived by an audience – after all, we are a sociable creature. I want to encourage anyone who has managed to work their way through this rambling to find a way to express an idea creatively. Ideas are by nature very abstract as they don’t exist in any physical form until you will them to. We are all creators in our mind, but that isn’t enough. You need to be a doer. Whether it be through film, music, or wood carving, you have to have the desire and hard-work within you to put those ideas into being.