Wednesday, February 10, 2016


As much as we hope for an original thought, flash forward across time and you start to see reverberating patterns.

In 2012, I was listening to screenwriter, Charles Randolph, speak about his career. In response to a question he stated, very plainly, that he didn't buy into all the 'how you must structure your screenplay OR ELSE' voodoo that is swirling around the industry. In his words, good writing is good writing.

In 2013, a colleague of mine who met a TV producer in L.A. was told, again quite clearly, that scripts which follow structural principles too precisely (e.g. this must happen exactly on page twenty-five), tend to be boring and predictable. Paint by numbers.

And then, at a recent event I attended in Sydney, British script consultant and former BBC drama executive, John Yorke, repeated a similar mantra. His variation was that, while slavish devotion to the traditional three, or five, act structure of screen stories is lazy thinking, humans across the ages naturally structure our stories a particular way; because it reflects how we perceive the world around us. In his view, three act structure of a story is just a natural extension of how we comprehend our reality, so you shouldn't become obsessive with the idea of structure beyond good storytelling, generally.

And you thought filmmaking was sexy.

The irony, of course, is that in trying to form an innovative opinion, so many people end up saying the same thing. In John Yorke's case, he has completed a huge amount of theoretical research and analysis on the subject. He even wrote a book.

So, what is it that these deep thinkers are striving for with all their words and palaver? What are they really getting at?


It's the creatives' unicorn.

The holy grail. A wholly original idea.

Like most things, there are differing schools of thought on the merits of this pursuit of perfection.

The first is that true genius can extract a pure and unspoiled concept from the ever-changing world. The universe is so dynamic, that the ingenious mind can find new forms and modes of expression within it.

That's a tough sell.

Essentially, no matter how clever our phones become, we are still just animals. High-functioning animals, but animals all the same.

The second school of thought is that there are no truly original ideas in art. All art is an expression of it's time, and all experiences of time are an accumulation of what has come before. No clean slates in the human experience, I'm afraid.

Given the risk I now face, of lurching into an excessively dull analysis of the concept of artistic merit, I instead offer you this very funny short animation, screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which says everything you need to know on the subject. It's called 'Allergy to Originality'.

Theory lessons aside, the real issue is that this addiction to the siren call of originality has a very real effect on people and careers.

It's the top cliche, for example, at pitch meetings:

"We're looking for an original concept, but done in way that is familiar to audiences, so they don't get scared off."

Come again?

Rubik couldn't work that sentence out.

Or take the example of American artist, Richard Prince. His 'Untitled Cowboy' photograph sold at Sothebys for just over $3 million. In 2008, his rastafarian photograph series sold for roughly $10 million, including one photo alone which sold for $2.5 million.
But here's the twist.

Mr Prince's modus operandi is to take existing art, and rework it as his own.

The rastafarian series was created from thirty-five images he appropriated from Patrick Cariou's original work, and then amended. Cariou sued Mr Prince and won. Then lost on appeal, based on the infamous 'Fair Use' provisions for creative works.

What about the 'Untitled Cowboy'? Turns out, it was a reworked version of Sam Abell's famous Marlboro Man cowboy photographs. Mr Prince literally photographed the existing photograph, and made it his own.

And for these perceived violations of the artistic code, Richard Prince is both loved and hated.

Even his latest exhibition attracted derision.

'...he was a thief when he brazenly stole 38 images from other people’s Instagram feeds and sold them for upwards of $100,000 each.'
Vitriol. Scorn. Contempt.

Except from, ironically, fellow artist Cara Stricker, who's Instagram picture he acquired for the work. She loved it, actually. Or at least said so in her open letter regarding the exhibition.

So, where are we?

Stuck in this bizarro world of past influences, infinite google-ability, yet with the shiniest diamond deemed to be 'originality'.

Why are we flagellating ourselves with this unrealistic standard of creativity?

What could be possible if we simply focused on the merits of the story you're creating? Forget whether it seems similar to something else on a satellite level. Does the detail of the characters, and the execution of the story premise make it unique and special? Shouldn't that be enough?

Or should we all just quit because Shakespeare has done it all before? Cancel all music concerts, unless they're Pachelbel's Canon in D?

How much taller are we making that creative wall, with our confused obsession over the flawless pearl of a 'true original'?

I don't have the answer, I'm afraid.

But I know this.

Creating something good is hard enough

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