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Creativity in Hollywood: Film Visionaries On Creative Process And Inspiration

Unlike most films and television shows, inspiration is not available on-demand. In the highly creative realm of movie-making, a good idea can catapult careers, spark motion picture franchises, and make cinematic history.

Inventing the next film can mean laying the groundwork for brilliant movies and television, from Inception, Taxi Driver, The Master, or Edward Scissorhands.

Of course, caveats abound. Coming up with brilliant ideas isn’t exactly a science and oftentimes, the search for the next big plot requires hours of behind-the-scenes brainstorming, paper doodling, daydreaming, and even an epic cross-country road trip or two.

For many of Hollywood’s most iconic filmmakers, exceptional ideas come from unusual places.  Here, we take a look at how top-billed artists in film and television got their legendary storylines and how they continue to mine their imaginations for creative ideas:

On Creative Process

  • Christopher Nolan has said that he that he came up with the idea for Inception 10 years before he attempted to write the script. Nolan wrote the screenplay using a combination of diagrams, plotting, and immersing himself within the imaginary realm of Inception. But for the mind-bending director, the final connective thread came when he delved into the emotional components of the characters. He told Deadline, “What I realized after banging my head into a wall for 10 years trying to finish it is that when you’re dealing with the world of dreams, the psyche, and potential of a human mind, there has to be emotional stakes.”
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  • Steven Soderbergh mulled over the plot to sex, lies and videotape for about a year before he penned the entire script in eight days, during a cross-country road trip, on a rather nondescript yellow legal pad.
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  • Quentin Tarantino’s career has been marked by a proliferation of genre-sweeping original scripts. The director handwrites each one of his films and likes to let music drive his creative process. A Hollywood Reporter article quotes him as saying, “Seeing the movie in my head and playing the music cuts through a lot of the creative process." And he said that while listening, "I imagine people who know me — who dig on me — cheering it." For the director, genre is a trope that keeps him on task: "If I didn't write in genre, all of my movies would be five hours long. Genre keeps me disciplined," he said.
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  • School of Rock and Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater famously said, “Daydreaming is a productive activity. Where do you get your ideas from?” To organize all of his musings, the director puts his ideas onto notecards – memories, visions, scenes – and then pulls a script together from there. He told Idler magazine that Dazed and Confused was five years in the making before he sat down to write the script. “Superlong gestation period. That’s important because by the time I’m actually doing it I’ve thought about it so much and I’m so much a part of it that I trust my instincts,” he said.
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  • Steven Spielberg certainly suffers no shortage of brilliant ideas. The director, after all, invented the term ‘blockbuster’ after the wild success of Jaws. Spielberg is often particularly elusive about where he gets his ideas from, but he told Business Week that his dinner table is a treasure trove of story material.  A dinnertime ritual, Spielberg will often present an idea to his kids, who create plots and stories – line by line – composing an entire collaborative 20-minute tale.
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  • Guillermo del Toro may be our modern day master of horror, but to get creative, the director keeps sketchbooks handy, in which he draws macabre images (and with a fountain pen filled with blood-red ink, no less). His notebooks serve as the catalyst for the horrifying creatures the filmmaker brings to life in his movies. In a prolific The New Yorker profile, del Toro quips, “I love the creation of these things—I love the sculpting, I love the coloring. Half the joy is fabricating the world, the creatures.”
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  • Gus Van Sant incorporated several experimental creative devices while creating My Own Private Idaho. The director originally wrote Idaho as a short story, but soon thereafter read John Rechy’s novel City of Night, which the filmmaker thought made for a better tale than his own. Van Sant incorporated characteristics of real world street kids he met as inspiration for the film’s leads. In doing so, he came up with two ‘scenarios’ for the story, one that was more modern, to tell Mike’s story, and one that adapted Henry IV plays to tell Scott’s story. To combine these scenarios, Van Sant borrowed the ‘cut up’ technique from William S. Burroughs, which literally takes distinct stories and blends them together for a dream-like, scene-based narrative. (Fun fact: In the original script, Shakespearean dialogue was much more pronounced, but Van Sant toned it down per studio suggestion.)
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On Inspiration

  • We all have Paul Schrader to thank for gifting the world with the script of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Inspired by traumatic personal events – from a divorce, to a stint living in his car, the screenwriter wrote the film in a month while crashing at his then-girlfriend’s apartment. (Bonus: be sure to check out Scorsese’s incredible hand-drawn storyboards – which he’s cited as his own means of inspiration – for Taxi Driver here.)
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  • Sofia Coppola came up with Lost In Translation not while meditating on a prolific cinematic classic, but rather, when she witnessed her Japanese friend sing karaoke to the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen,” and just had to have the scene in a movie. But once Coppola delved deeper into the story, she cited Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s relationship from The Big Sleep as an instructive case study.
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  • The Hurt Locker took the world by storm when it debuted, thanks in large part to Kathryn Bigelow’s fascination with freelance journalist Mark Boal’s accounts of the war in Iraq. The journalist, who had been embedded with an American bomb squad, leant his first-hand reports to Bigelow, who kept in touch with Boal via email during his tour. Of the script, Boal’s told Vulture: "In writing the screenplay, I was trying to show the logistical futility of the war, despite the fact that it’s decent people trying to do their best in horribly screwed-up circumstances…my motivation was that we might make a movie that will hopefully be around for a while, and will help people learn about this war."
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  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was inspired by the infamous auditing sessions sponsored by Scientologist centers across the world. And it started as a mere writing exercise. PTA told NPR, “Forget any implications of making a film or story about this — it was really just writer's block and sitting around. The best way for me to start writing a story is to get two characters talking to each other. And if you got questions from one, you're gonna have to get answers from the other, and you can start to find out who is coming out of you when you're writing, if you know what I mean.”
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  • For some directors, teenage angst is excellent creative fodder. Edward Scissorhands is a legendary work of cinema – but the inspiration for the film came from Tim Burton’s rather average upbringing in suburban Burbank, California.  Of his teenage years, he famously said: “I get the feeling people just got this urge to want to leave me alone for some reason, I don’t know exactly why.” He commissioned short story author Caroline Thompson to translate his great idea to the page.
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  • Woody Allen is so legendary and prolific, you'd assume he has a drawer full of ideas that he can simply draw from. And he does. PBS's American Masters series filmed Allen pulling ideas from an actual 'idea' drawer. You can watch the moment here, provided by Vulture, or, better yet, watch the whole thing on PBS.
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Featured image: Bobby Canavale and Woody Allen. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. 

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