Monday, November 13, 2006

The Artist’s Vision

“Why do you want to build an amusement park, they’re so dirty.” -- Walt Disney’s wife, on his idea for Disneyland

For those of us born after 1955 it is difficult to imagine a world without Disneyland. But for the people who were born the other side of that year, it was just as difficult to imagine a world with Disneyland in it. Mrs. Disney was correct: amusement parks were dirty places. She could not conceive of them being otherwise, and neither could anyone else. Except Walt.

In the late 1920s, Walt Disney had made his name making funny little cartoons about a mouse. It is almost impossible for us to understand the enormous popularity of Mickey Mouse in those days. Mickey Mouse was a bona fide movie star. Before the first Mickey Mouse cartoon hit the movie screens, Walt was told that it was a bad idea to try to “popularize a mouse.”

A few years later Walt had an idea to make a feature-length cartoon. Everyone thought it was a terrible idea. No one could imagine an audience sitting through a cartoon that long. In Hollywood his project was called Disney’s Folly. He was expected to lose his shirt. The film was Snow White and it was a smash. And just as with Disneyland, it became impossible to imagine a world without Disney’s version of Snow White. Going further, can one imagine a world without feature-length animated films?

One of the things that makes a person an artist is their ability to look at the world and see what is missing. They can visualize in their mind’s eye a brand new thing, or see an old thing in a completely different way than others around them. They have vision. And more often than not, people do not trust a visionary artist.

When Francis Ford Coppola was hired to adapt the novel The Godfather the studio began to worry if they had made a mistake. Coppola had a vision for the film in his head that did not match anyone else’s. Every decision he made was questioned. The studio did not want Marlon Brando in the cast. Nor did they want Al Pacino in the part of Michael -- they suggested Robert Redford. The director of photography, Gordon Willis, is now known as one of the best in the world, but the studio thought his photography was too dark. The studio even went as far as to hire another director to follow Coppola around so that when they fired him this new director could step right in.

Coppola’s The Godfather is now regarded as one of the best films of all time.

George Lucas’s film American Graffiti became a cultural phenomenon despite the fact that the studio expected to lose money. They could not see what Lucas saw. Following the success of American Graffiti, Lucas went to all of the studios with a new project called Star Wars. No one expected much of the film and everyone but 20th Century Fox turned it down. Even they didn’t think enough of the film to retain merchandising and sequel rights. Lucas kept those. After an early private screening of the film, all of George’s friends told him he had failed. Lucas’ wife Marcia purportedly cried because George had wasted so much time on this piece of garbage. In May 1977, Star Wars became the most popular film in the galaxy.

In the late 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock started work on a film about a transvestite murderer called Psycho. Long-time associates distanced themselves from the film and decided not to work with Hitchcock on this one. “You’ve gone too far, Hitch,” they said. Universal Studios also felt he had gone too far and gave the legendary director a minuscule budget. Hitchcock put up his own house as collateral to get the money to make the film, now a classic.

I wrote these stories down so that you artists out there will stick to your creative guns. I want you to realize that if you have a clear vision of something truly new it may not be recognized by the people in power or those around you. The world is full of naysayers who cannot see what you see until after it’s done. Sometimes the entire world is against you, but their power nor their numbers do not make them right.

“When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” -- Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)


Anonymous said...

good for you. you seem to be an artist. If you want to promote your name I'll run your ad free at PIXELS HOMEPAGE for one month in a 100x30=3000 pixels cell which would normaly rent for $30.

Emma said...

Inspiring, really...

It seems discouraging sometimes that 90% of people, even in the creative fields, are just trying to maintain the status quo - until someone comes up with something new, after which they'll all adapt THAT as the status quo, completely missing the point that what made the new and innovative thing so awesome was not the surface of it, but the vision and meaning behind it.

I wasn't around to see the world before Star Wars (as a kid I had a cat named Yoda who was older than I was), but that movie still blows me away, after seeing it five million times. The original and Empire have this weird real-ness to them that Jedi is short on and the prequels are lacking completely.

I would love to see another movie that made me feel the way Star Wars did - I would love to MAKE a movie that would make people feel the way Star Wars did. At least I know the way to do that isn't to make an epic set in outer space...

Brian McD said...

Here here. I always say that. Everything that has made a lasting impact has something different about it. I’m with you on the realness of Star Wars, no one does that anymore. I learned a lot from the tone of that film and use it as a guide in my own work to this day.

Too bad you missed Star Wars because you weren’t born. I mean I know you’ve seen it, but I can tell you that it had an impact that you cannot imagine if you weren’t there. I was lucky because I was 12 years old. I already wanted to be a filmmaker so I had seen a lot of films, but Star Wars was so different. The impact of Star Wars is still being felt. Before Star Wars the belief was that sci-fi didn’t make money. After Star Wars (and CE3K) came Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator and countless others. They even brought back Star Trek because of it.

I have a screenplay now that people dig, but think is too different. This is even after saying that they love it and get caught up in the story.

You are right, they want more of the same.

Geoff Thorne said...


This blog is AWESOME!

I'm totally linking you to my site.

(it's geoff thorne)

Brian McD said...

Thanks, Geoff. Nice to hear from you. Send me an e-mail:
And we'll talk.

jean said...

“When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” -- Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

John Kennedy Toole's A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES was rejected over and over by publishing houses. The author committed suicide, years later his book was published by his mother and went on to win the Pulitizer Prize. This is one of my favorite books, I cannot imagine others not falling for its outlandish characters and lunatic humor. How could such shining genius be so repeatedly overlooked? The book prevailed in the end, with time, as it does so well, revealing truth.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jean,

Thanks again for reading to blog.

Yeah, it seems like much of the good stuff is often rejected.

My guess is that when a writer really does have a strong voice that the work feels so different that many assume it must be wrong.

jean said...

I hadn't thought of it in that light, but it makes perfect sense. You have a talent for getting to the heart of the matter. Conformity means safety and acceptance, stepping out of the crowd makes one vulnerable, open to criticism and attack.
This is a bit off the subject, but from reading your blog and book, The Golden Theme, I know you feel many contemporary films are more spectacle than substance. Which makes me wonder, what is your take on reality shows? I don't get it. What is their appeal, other than seeming to take a perverse delight is showing people at their worst. Do you see any kind of "story" in them?
Robert McKee, in STORY, says: When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out,pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, "...the centre can not hold."

Brian McD said...

Hey Jean,

I think that McKee quote is a version of an Aristotle quote that I can’t find at the moment.

About your question regarding reality shows, I should mention that I was a writer on the show Hoarders and so I know a little about how the sausage is made.

But here’s my take on reality shows – they are no better or worse than anything else. There was a time when science fiction was seen as trash literature. This was never true, just like anything some of it was brilliant and some of it was awful.

I’m old enough to remember when all comics were considered juvenile. The concept of a “Graphic Novel” had not hit the mainstream. Comic books were for kids and had no real value in the eyes of most people. Now Art Spiegelman’s Maus has won a Pulitzer and is required reading in many schools.

Television is a medium that has often been written off and sometimes still is even though many great things have been made for TV. Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Tad Mosel and Gore Vidal all worked in television and wrote classics.

There are trash books and great books, but you can’t judge all books as bad because there are bad books.

My point is no medium or genre can be written off because it is just another way to tell stories.

As for reality TV there has always been some version of it as long as there has been television. Early on there was Kids say the Darndest Things and Candid Camera. This is not a new idea at all.

Now one reason that the networks like the shows is that they are relatively inexpensive to produce.

But why do people tune in? Well you wondered if people liked seeing people at their worst. Yes, they do. Aristotle noticed that people liked to see the best people and the worst people. This is what we humans find compelling.

There is an idea out there that reality shows are scripted – if you have ever worked with actors you would know that the reactions you see on these shows are real. Everything may be set up, but the reactions people have are real. At least they were on the show I was on.

I think that the scripted shows that are on now make little to no attempt to be real in any way. I never believe a thing I see on most scripted shows. The writers on these shows seem to learn to write from watching television shows rather than observing life.

In the old days of television the writers made real observations about human beings. I rarely see that anymore. Freaks and Geeks made real observations and so did Men of a Certain Age. I know other people think that there be more shows that are real and they may be right, but I personally don’t feel that way about much.

I think people are attracted to real human reactions and if nothing else the reality shows have real people reacting to real things. And just like anything else some of the shows are trashier than others.

Here’s the thing, there are two ways to ask “why”. You can ask, “why are reality shows so popular?” But the “why” can really mean this is stupid, people should watch this.

Or you can really try to figure out why people are responding. What are these shows giving them that scripted shows are not?

Try asking why without judgment and you will learn things you couldn’t otherwise learn.

Anyway, that’s what I try to do. It’s taught me a lot. It may help you too.

Candid Camera:

Kids Say the Darndest Things:

jean said...

I used to love Candid Camera, and still read comic books—I think the humor in old Little Lulus is more sophisticated than many of the TV shows I see today. But you're right—I made a judgment of reality shows based on the partial episodes I've see—I've never actually watched one from beginning to end. What I saw was people attacking each other, using offensive language, and being overly dramatic. Very unpleasant. I've watched some of the Hoarders program and my main question about that was why would people put their personal struggles out there for the entertainment of others? Not that they are terrible people or are even dealing with unusual issues—as you've said, we are all the same. But is there any value in willingly revealing our darker sides or our struggles? Maybe so—I remember one woman on the Hoarders in particular because her home was one of the worst the crew had ever seen, and it was obvious that she had become oblivious to her surroundings—something she had to do to survive day to day. Her outer life—living in abject disorder and filth—revealed her inner struggles and I felt sympathy for her. I suppose reality shows show us who we are, whether that is something we want to see, or would prefer not to admit lurks inside…
But thanks for your comments—I would never have thought of myself as judgmental, but I see that that was exactly how I was responding.

Brian McD said...


I do not think your were being anymore judgmental than most people, so please forgive me if it felt like that. But I do find that as a teacher I often here the term why and the question asked is not really question at all but declaration that the student does not agree with what I’m saying: “Why do stories have to work that way?” “Why do we need story structure?”

But if you genuinely ask why it reveals all kinds of things to you – things you may have overlooked.

As for Hoarders I was just a hired hand there. I was a writer. That meant I looked through the 40 hours of footage to find a story thread that could be cut down to 22 minutes. Two such shows are combined to make a show.

Another writer and I thought that most subjects deserved to be hour shows. 22 min. made it hard to get inside the people and pull out their humanity. When you sifted through all of the footage you really got a sense of the inner struggle of these people that moved beyond the exploitive nature of the show. But there are remnants on the show of the real struggles people have.

And yes there is a real value in revealing the darker parts of ourselves – it can be the most valuable thing of all. It is one of the hardest and most powerful things about writing.

Playwright August Wilson said, “To live it [life] as an
artist is to be willing to face the deepest parts of yourself.
To wrestle with your demons until your spirit becomes
larger and larger and your demons smaller and smaller.”

Hoarders is about people holding onto things that are holding them back. Each of the objects they have has a memory or some emotional importance – but their attachments are killing them. This is a problem all of us can have at one time or another – holding on to a past that we should let go of. Sometimes it’s a wrong that was done to us; sometimes it’s an old relationship. Hoarding is something we all do in some way, it just isn’t always physical, but it can be just as damaging to be confined by memories one can’t get rid of.

I can tell you that everyone who worked on the show took a real look at himself or herself. Most of the time it meant you’d go home and clean out your closet, but sometimes you looked deeper.

I also know that the show revealed to people and the families of people suffering from this disorder that this was an actual condition and not just a family secret. I can tell you that this did help people.

The same things will happen for viewers or readers of stories you make up – that is if you are willing to reveal the deepest parts of yourself.

jean said...

You've got me thinking a lot about how easy it is for people to fall into the habit of judging those we don't agree with. Today I was reading an article on Lynda Barry where she talks about her feelings about a certain author. An excerpt:

"I hate Jonathan Franzen so much. I hate that guy.” To her, turning down Oprah Winfrey revealed a disdain for viewers who look to Winfrey for advice. “When I saw him, I felt sick.” But then, she said, she realized there’s no difference between what she viewed as Franzen’s dismissal of lowbrow readers and her dismissal of highbrow Franzen. “It’s just I’m doing it from below, and he’s doing it from above.”

Once we stop and think about what we are doing, we, once again, realize how much we are the same.

And about that--I was thinking that it is not so much that we are all the same that connects us, but the fact that we are all connected to a higher power/being --that singularity you mentioned. But no, you had it right. It is that very connection that takes us to the next step, the realization that when you look at another, you are looking at yourself.