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Creative Boxes Can Help Inspire Screenwriting: Musician Jack White Discusses Purposeful Obstacles

08.19.12 @ 4:30PM Tags : , , ,

Ideas don’t always just come to artists out of thin air, contrary to popular belief. A lot of what happens between the mind and the page (or screen) is just pushing through and making things happen even when you’re not feeling inspired creatively. While this clip from Jack White speaking in the documentary The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights is about music, it can certainly be applied to filmmaking, and more specifically, screenwriting.

Thanks to Scott Myers and Jeff Kirschner for the link (this isn’t my video but the incorrect aspect ratio was driving me insane):

While doing some of the things described in the video are specific to live performing and music, putting yourself in a creative box is still relevant to filmmakers — and more specifically screenwriters. Having more freedom can actually be a burden, because with unlimited possibilities it can be difficult to narrow down an idea or the starting and ending points. If you’re feeling creatively stifled, putting yourself in a creative box may actually be the best thing for you. His thoughts on deadlines are absolutely spot-on. Having all of the time in the world can let you put things off indefinitely, but when you’ve got deadlines, it forces you to sit down and get work done.

I know personally that there is a creative freedom in constricting myself, even though it seems counter-intuitive. Whether this constriction is related to a deadline or with a specific idea, having a specific obstacle to overcome forces me to be creative, even if I’m not feeling particularly inspired. As far as general filmmaking is concerned, participating in 48-hour or specific time period festivals might seem like the worst idea in the world to some people (and it might very well be), but often these kinds of high-pressure and deadline specific events force us to be creative and search harder for answers to problems.

If you want to watch the whole documentary you can find it from the link below. I had seen a good portion of this a while ago and since most of it was shot on film it has quite an interesting look. It calls to mind all of the great music documentaries from 60s and 70s.

Has this process worked for any of you? What kinds of purposeful creative boxes do you use?

Link: The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights – Amazon

[via Go Into The Story]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • I always tell myself that i will do something over the summer, write a script, make an animation project or something,
    but i never achieve anything during this season.

  • It’s an old saw that constraints are good for creativity, but options can also be very good for creativity, as the introduction of something new (say a new guitar rather than using the same ones for 10 years) can often afford completely different avenues that are fruitful.

    Of course there is also a transition cost to changing anything in your workflow and this can be stunting for a while.

    I think this gentleman’s making his own life difficult on stage has nothing whatsoever to do with creativity and much more to do with his intense ADHD personality which is very visible in the interview. Some people need to strain to perform, exhausting their constrictive nerves, others need to relax and be in a comfort zone to open up and explore.

    • His performing on stage does not translate to filmmaking, only him challenging himself creatively by giving himself deadlines as well as limiting the scope of the work he’s doing.

      Looking at Hollywood vs Independent films, it’s clear that limits can be a good thing. If you’re screenwriting, you’re always starting from an unlimited place, and only through restrictions can you realistically solve problems in your script and move the story forward.

      Jack White’s own quirks don’t have to be applicable to filmmakers and trying to apply his more masochistic tendencies would be a waste of time, but often limiting the scope of your ideas can actually make you work harder, find better ways to solve problems, and help you produce better work in the end.

      Look at all of the biggest directors who arguably made much better work when they had less money.

      • Less can be more, and more can be more. I’m glad James Cameron isn’t stuck with Super 8 and stop-motion animation, but maybe a certain set would find it heroic for him to manage to tell a great story even with all his limbs tied behind his back.

        The filmmaking mantra we hear on this site and others over and over is that the camera doesn’t matter, the script and the talent are what matters most…bah humbug I say. You can win and lose points at every stage of the process, and mediocre scripts have been turned into great films by great talent, mediocre talent can be made to look and sound captivating by phenomenal direction and production capability, a truly great camera can turn an ordinary living room into an immersive environment as we just saw.

        It all matters, and it’s all able to be compensated for by enough talent elsewhere. Whatever works for whatever your strengths and interests are. Sorry if that’s unsatisfying in its undeniable accuracy. =)

        • Well, speaking of James Cameron, I think he’s far too focused on his technology and should focus a little more on writing, as his dialogue is often questionable these days (speaking solely about Avatar).

          I never say the camera doesn’t matter, the camera matters a lot, but the final look has a lot more to do with your DP and his skills (and your vision), rather than just the capabilities of the specific camera system. It all really depends on the specific position you are. If you’re a director, you should be worrying about your script and your acting because assuming you’re working with the right person, your DP should be selecting the right camera for your budget that will help tell your story the best way possible. If you’re a DP only, then the camera and lighting is all that matters.

          I disagree about turning a mediocre script into a good movie unless you mostly disregard the script in general. I your story is lacking at the script stage and there are major problems, it’s going to be very, very difficult to fix them by the time you shoot.

          As far as acting – is the actor mediocre or do they just have a limited range? You can be a great actor within a limited scope and as soon as you try to do something that doesn’t fit your own personal style, it can come off stilted an wrong.

          Of course all of the pieces matter, but part of the script is the decisions you make on set while you’re shooting. You can change things the day of shooting and the script is now not what was written before – and in my opinion that’s really the only way to take a mediocre script and make a great movie.

          When we talk about the camera “not mattering,” we mean that people often don’t focus enough on their story. Let’s be honest, pretty much any camera that shoots HD at 24p will give a satisfactory image that will not be distracting. Learn how to use whatever you can afford (or hire the right person), and then move on to the other aspects.

          I think the idea about putting yourself in a creative box will not apply to everyone, and it really varies person to person – that I’m sure we can agree on.

          • I’m sure with Avatar returning only $2.78 billion at the box office James Cameron is nervously taking screenwriting night classes as we speak. Imagine if he only had a better script, the production may have had a chance to break even. =p

            I think all of these chestnuts are things to try, and things to make you feel better about yourself regardless of your circumstance. But what rings the bell for an audience vs. what doesn’t can’t be reduced to a series of chestnuts. You can do everything right and fail and do everything wrong and make bank. I post these critiques of creativity advice because there isn’t a workable formula that fits everyone and whatever feels natural for the people reading is not something they should be worried about. Unorthodox processes may yield novel results, and novel results are something we might appreciate.

          • Cameron looks like he wants to go the way of D.W. Griffith with his ever increasing budgets.

        • It’s a very green thing when someone defers to jackpot box office earnings as this bona fide signifier inseparable from paramount talent.

  • Use a work already in the public domain as your foundation. I was able to use a certain work and put a modern spin on it.

  • Tyler Larson on 08.20.12 @ 1:04AM

    I know this isn’t piece doesn’t relate to everyone, but it does to me. I personally have to have some limits or deadlines to be properly productive. It’s not from a lack of motivation, but infinite possibilities cause me and MANY people I know to delay things infinitely because “it will never be good enough.”

    I think more of Joe’s point is, people today love to focus on the limitations we have in front of us and use them as an excuse. Of course, even today with cheap, high quality camera’s, fast cheap computers, and the internet, the limitations are vast, but this doesn’t have to be have to be a bad thing.

    Leave it at that. I understand the frustration of people always over generalizing, but sometimes things just hit home to a particular person or group.



    • Yes, I am that way, which is why I posted this. Instead of using limitations as an excuse, embrace them to force you to be more creative. I would rather not use the excuse that I didn’t have the proper resources to make a successful film, I would rather say that I didn’t push myself enough or wasn’t creative enough to make all of the pieces I did have fit together successfully.

      I think not having limitations hurts screenwriting the most, because before you put something down on a page, the possibilities are limitless. It’s only through the obstacles you create that a story progresses.

      Either way, people have to find their own paths and figure out what works for them.

  • Totally agree. Limitations are what create good scripts. Writing a script is so much easier with known boundaries from the beginning. While writing I have the opportunity to turn them in positives throughout the script…I think it also makes the work more satisfying in the end. Set down and start with a set of limitations first. Thanks for an interesting post and follow up comments, Joe.

    • Glad you liked it – it’s an interesting concept and it works for a lot of people I know (including me).

  • Kristie Rounkles on 01.20.13 @ 10:42AM

    musicians are great since they can create new melodies which can touch our emotions.”

    Our own blog

  • It’s a very green thing when someone defers to jackpot box office earnings as this bona fide signifier inseparable from paramount talent.