Developing Your Brand As A Writer

Developing Your Brand As A Writer

By Jacob Krueger

I recently had a student ask me a pretty interesting question: “What do you do when you realize that even though you think you’re writing all these different projects, you’re really just writing the same script over and over again?”

And this made me think about a couple of different questions facing writers as they move into their professional careers.

The first is an artistic question: What do you do when you’re following the same cycle again and again and again? What do you do when all your scripts seem to be converging around the same idea or the same themes?

The second is a question about branding: How do you brand yourself as a writer? How do you figure out what box to put yourself in?  How do you figure out whether you should write a script that’s very different from the ones you’ve written before, or whether you should build a brand around scripts that are similar?

So I want to talk about what happens when you realize you are ripping yourself off. When you realize you are writing the same movie again, and again, and again.

There are a couple of possibilities as to why this happens. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad.

Sometimes, there are themes that we just have not finished dealing with, themes that we still have to get out of ourselves. And sometimes those themes actually occupy more than one screenplay worth of writing.

All writing is really just looking inside and wrestling with the stuff that we have going on inside. And, if we’re doing it right, we’re wrestling with the stuff we don’t totally understand yet, or we wouldn’t need to wrestle with it in the first place.

Sometimes, when the same stuff comes up again, and again, and again, it’s really just a sign that you haven’t totally figured it out yet: that there is something still a little broken in there, still a little confusing. Just some old stuff that you’re still cycling through and trying to figure out.

There are many, many examples of truly great writers who do this. And not just screenwriters.

Haruki MurakamiTake the great novelist Haruki Murakami. It seems like in nearly every novel he writes, there’s a well, and a moon, and a cat, and the cat runs away, and then his girlfriend disappears, and he ends up at the bottom of a well or looking at the moon. This happens again, and again, and again in his novels. There is also moon imagery in everything that he writes. It’s the same symbols, used in different ways.

And as you’re reading his novels, the truth of the matter is you don’t care at all! Every time you see a cat, you know the cat is going to run away, and his girlfriend is going to leave him. And the reason you don’t care, is that Murakami finds a way to push a little deeper on those symbols each time. He’s giving you the same symbols, he’s wrestling with the same symbols. But never in exactly the same way.

There was obviously a time in Murakami’s life when an animal left him and his girlfriend left him at the same time, or when something that felt like that happened to him. And there is obviously something for him about wells as a symbol of change and coming out a different person than when you went in. These are obviously things that mean something to him. The moon means something to Murakami. And like the moon, sometimes there are just phases that we go through as writers.

Another great example is Darren Aronofsky. Nearly every movie he has ever directed, has ended with some version of a death or a suicide that is also a moment of salvation. Pi, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan— all of these great movies have the exact same ending! And that ending isn’t new either. Remember Thelma and Louise?what-did-you-think-of-the-wrestler-392557

There is theme of death and transcendence occurring at the same time that is profound for Aronofsky, and that drives these movies. But, nobody would mistake The Fountain for Pi or Pi for Black Swan, right? They are completely different movies.

Aronofsky’s film The Fountain is one of my favorite bad movies. If there was ever a screenplay that I wish I’d been asked rewrite, it’s that screenplay. It has a beautiful premise and one of the great trick endings of all time. You’re watching three different stories, all in some way about the search for The Fountain of Youth.

In the past, you have a conquistador who is literally looking for the Fountain of Youth. In the present, you have a brain surgeon who is trying to find the cure to brain cancer before his wife dies. And, in some nebulous time, you have a monk floating in a bubble in space, trying to save the Tree of Life, which is dying.

MV5BMTU5OTczMTcxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDg3MTEzMw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_So, you have these three beautiful stories that all come together at this incredibly profound surprise ending. And the movie totally fails. And you can see why! He shot for the moon, and didn’t quite make it all the way there.

How do you tell the story of a monk floating in a bubble who has no one to interact with but a tree and make it work?  How do you weave that together with two other stories with different characters all played by the same actors? How do you deal with losing half of your budget (as Aronofsky did) in the process of making a film, and still get the nuanced performances and special effects you need to make it work?

In the wake of The Fountain’s financial failure at the box office, Aronofsky, who for a period was one of the hottest young directors out there, suddenly sees his quote fall to virtually nothing. He can’t get hired. So, he directs this little movie called The Wrestlerthe_wrestler03

For Aronofsky, The Wrestler is an extraordinarily simple movie. It’s the simplest movie he’s ever done. There is no magical, spiritual quality, no monks, no floating bubbles. There is no fragmentation of worlds. There is no numerology. There are no multiple main characters. It’s about one dude: an aging wrestler who wants to feel the way he used to feel in the ring.

He gets an opportunity for the rematch he’s always dreamed of with his old rival The Sheik, only to have a heart attack that means he can never wrestle again– that he has to readapt to real life. The Wrestler was a total success. It revived Mickey Rourke’s career, and it put Darren Aronofsky back on the map as the director that everyone wanted to work with.

But he’s not done with this story, because he hasn’t done it in the Darren Aronofsky way. So, he makes the same darn movie again. Only this time, he calls it Black Swan.

Aronofsky has spoken frankly about Black Swan being built on the bones of The Wrestler. There was just something about that piece that wasn’t done yet for him. And you can see what happened. He fell short on The Fountain— he hadn’t totally figured out how to tell that story yet. On The Wrestler he went safe, and he did a better job than most people could ever do. But with Black Swan it all came together.vlcsnap-2011-01-13-20h04m11s138

Because he had directed The Wrestler and understood those bones, he and his writer didn’t have to figure out that structure again. He was able to go deeper, to riff on top of it, to subvert it to undermine it, to wrestle with it, and say “what would this be like if it was fully a Darren Aronofsky movie.” The truth is, in many ways, The Wrestler was not.

Sometimes it’s a good thing when a certain theme is coming up for you again, and again, in your writing.

The first movie I ever attempted to write (and attempted is generous way of saying it) is a screenplay called The Tree of Life. Not The Tree of Life that you have seen, not the beautiful Terrence Malik project. This screenplay is based on a book by Hugh Nissenson, which is essentially an unadaptable novel.

It is unadaptable because it is an epistolary novel, and it is structured like a man’s ledger, so some of the entries are essentially “paid thirty cents for cheese.” It’s set in the War of 1812. There are two communities– one is a Native American community, one is a white settlement, and they are living at peace. But, as the War of 1812 starts heating up, another war starts between these two communities who have been living in peace together. And we come to understand that war as we read these completely un-dramatic entries in the main character’s ledger.

But underneath that non-dramatic form was some really interesting stuff! I was so interested in this story, in which you have two protagonists, and they’re both good guys, and they’re on opposite sides of the same war. I was interested in the idea of two main characters, both just trying to find their guardian spirits (whatever that means), and do right by their people. And I was really excited about adapting this novel.

The other thing that makes the story essentially unadaptable is that it’s based on the philosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was very popular with the Native Americans, and with Johnny Appleseed, who’s a character in the story. Swedenborg believed that on this planet, we only see the effects of our actions, and that only after death do we get to see the causes.

So the way the book is written, you don’t see any of the causes. You only see the effects reported in the ledger. And you have to figure out what the heck happened that caused all of these events to occur. You have to piece it together. And in that way, you become G-d.

Now, this is an unbelievably complicated novel. This is a piece of literature, and it is not an easy adaptation. I am a twenty year old kid! And I’m trying to figure out how to honor this attempt in the book to show the causes in my screenplay, without showing the effects. I’m going to have two main characters, on different sides of the same war, that barely interact and yet change each other’s lives.  And they’re both the good guy, and it’s set in 1812 in Ohio, in a place I’ve never visited and a time I’ve never known.History_Andrew_Jackson_Defends_New_Orleans_1812_rev_SF_HD_still_624x352

To say that I failed on this script does not even begin to explain what happened. There are some really beautiful moments that I found, and this is without a doubt my favorite script that I will never rewrite, and that will never get made. It has a very special place in my heart, even though the actual execution of that piece is a total failure. And it’s a total failure because I didn’t know how to do all that yet. It was just too darn hard.

But, I got obsessed with this idea of writing these movies that had two main characters on opposite sides of the same war– two parallel storylines happening across space and time, that spoke to each other in some way. See why I like Aronofsky? It speaks directly to the themes that I’m wrestling with in my own writing.

I got obsessed with this idea, thinking “How do I do it? How do I do it?” It was the failure that made me want to do it. And I failed, and failed, and failed. I wrote multiple movies, trying to tell the story of two main characters. I wanted it to feel like a musical composition, like a melody and a harmony. I wanted there to be a counterpoint between the two stories. I wanted it to be like a dance. I knew what I wanted it to be, but I didn’t ha ve the physical skill yet, the craft in my writing or the practice to do it yet!

What’s interesting is that several years later, I ended up getting hired to write this movie called The Matthew Shepard Story. And The Matthew Shepard Story was the story of two main characters in almost exactly the same way. One story was Matthew’s story, and the other story was his parents, Denis and Judy’s, story. And, these two stories were actually happening separately from each other across time, but they came together in the end.

Now, you don’t have to build The Matthew Shepard Story like that. But I was able to build on the bones of all those abandoned screenplays. I was able to build on all of those failures. And, it came together for me for the first time on Matthew Shepard. That was the first time I was able to make that structure work for myself.

The fact of the matter is, I’m not done with that structure yet. There is still more for me to mine there. I still have an interest in what you can do with that structure, just like Darren Aronofsky still had an interest in that The Wrestler structure even after directing the film. So, sometimes, finding the same pattern, finding yourself in the same structure or a similar structure, isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes it’s simply a way of deepening where you’re going.

Eventually I’ll probably figure out what the broken thing in me is that needs to look at these fragmented worlds– what that thing is that I’m trying to resolve in myself. And at some point, that will probably get resolved, because writing is therapeutic. Through the process of writing, if you’re doing it for real, and putting your truth on the page, and really looking inside and making yourself vulnerable, you can’t look at this stuff honestly again, and again, and again, without eventually healing it.

So, through the process of writing these things, we do heal those broken things in ourselves. And then, one day, you wake up and you think “I have no interest in telling the story of two main characters speaking to each other across fractured worlds.” You lose interest, because you have dealt with it.

So, it may be that we judge ourselves, feeling like we’re ripping ourselves off. And what we really need to say to ourselves is: “You know what, I’m doing a Krueger. I’m doing an Aronofsky, I’m doing a Me, in my own way, until I figure this out. This is just where I’m at right now. I’m not done with this theme, and I’m not done with this structure.”

All you need to do is make sure that you’re building on what came before, not just mimicking it. Actually get deeper, get below the surface. So, that is the positive possibility, and oftentimes, it’s likely that is exactly what is going on if you’re feeling that feeling of “Oh no! I’m pretty sure I’ve been here before.”

There is also another side of this that is worth exploring, which might not be a problem for your career, but can be for your development as an artist, for your continued growth into your own voice, and your own potential as a writer. Sometimes, what’s happening when you’re writing the same script again, and again, and again is not that you’re looking honestly at the themes that matter to you. Sometimes, what’s happening is you’ve finally found a pattern that works, and you’re afraid to look at other possibilities.

Al_Pacino_-_HummelYou can see this with actors sometimes. Look at Al Pacino. Early in his career, he gave some of the most complicated, nuanced, gorgeous performances. And then, at some point, he learned that he could do this thing that people just frickin’ loved. They loved to hear Al Pacino yell. And it turned out that Al Pacino could yell better than anybody else in the world. It didn’t matter how many times he yelled, nobody ever got bored of it.

But if you watch some of his later work, he starts to become a caricature of himself. And you’re sitting around waiting for Al Pacino to yell. And how you deal with that dilemma in yourself, when you find that thing that you already know how to do, that people love no matter how many times you do it, is an artistic question. It’s about who you want to be as an artist.

There are writers who find a similar pattern. Blake Snyder, who wrote Save The Cat, also figured out a formula for a script. It doesn’t work so well now that he shared it with everybody, and everybody is copying the formula. But, when it was only Blake Snyder doing the Blake Snyder formula, it worked. Producers weren’t seeing it all of the time; they were only seeing it from Blake Snyder. So it still felt fresh and new to them, even though it was really just the same thing, over and over again.

So, sometimes, what happens is you figure out a formula, and if you keep on executing that formula again and again, it may even serve your career. But it will not serve your art. And that, I say with no judgment at all.

Danielle Steel has made more money on writing than most people in the universe. She has a formula. It’s the same formula every time. But her fans never get tired of it. And, in fact, if she started to divert from the formula she would actually lose fans. She would make less money. Ken Follett had a spy thriller formula. And then he did this book called Pillars of the Earth, and even though his fans loved it, he got savaged by the critics. How dare this pulpy writer try to write an historical epic?

So, when we create a formula, what ends up happening is we end up creating a brand that our audiences want. And, when I say audience, I mean not just the people who go to see your movies, but also your agent, manager, producer. Once they see that brand, what they want is exactly the same experience, but different.

You ignore that desire at your peril. But, you also follow it at your peril.

These become the difficult decisions we have to make as artists. But when you have an audience that is demanding a kind of script from you, this is called a high class problem!

Let me give you an example: Charlie Kaufman. He didn’t create a formula, but he created a style for himself. And, more importantly, he created a tonality that we expect in his films. When you go to see a Charlie Kaufman movie, you expect it to be really weird. You expect to laugh, and at the end of the day, you expect some kind of romantic comedy feeling. Maybe you cry a little bit, but by the end you’re going to feel like love is possible. What he is doing is his own twist on romantic comedies.

He built a whole career doing his own twist on romantic comedies, and the truth is everything he wrote was some form of a romantic comedy.

Then he does a movie called Synecdoche, New York, and this one he does without his director Spike Jonze. He directs it himself. And though the movie succeeds in so many ways creatively, it was a failure at the box office. It didn’t deliver what the audience expected when they came to see a Charlie Kaufman movie. You went to see that movie, and you did not laugh. It was weird, but mostly what you experience is not the feeling that “love is possible.” What you experienced during that movie was “I don’t want to be a human being any more. The world is pain and darkness…”

MV5BMTY4NzcwODg3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTEwOTMyMw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Now what’s interesting is, Synechdoche, NY is still in many ways exploring the same ideas as Charlie Kaufman’s other movies, meaning he takes an idea and he builds it in a magical realist way. The way it feels on the inside gets externalized on the outside. That’s really the formula of Charlie Kaufman. You take an event, and you make the way it feels on the inside become the thing that happens on the outside. “I wish I could erase this girl from my memory”— Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “I wish I could sell out and adapt this novel… like all those writers who just follow the formula and have nothing but success”—Adaptation. That’s right, even Charlie Kaufman is writing the same movie again and again. He’s just writing it in different ways.

Synecdoche, New York is built around the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious. That all people are in some way the same, that we all share a collective experience, acting at the same patterns again, and again, and again. Kaufman externalizes that idea, and it turns into these repeated sequences, with everybody becoming everybody else.

It’s actually the exact same theme as many of his other movies (remember the way he blurred the line between Donald Kaufman and Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation?) He’s wrestling with the same kinds of ideas. And he’s wrestling with them in a new tone that was probably very artistically satisfying for him. Essentially saying, “you know what I’m tired of this feel good shit, I want to look at it through a darker window.” He is still doing a Charlie Kaufman movie, but without the tone we’ve come to expect from Charlie Kaufman.

Which means there is probably still a way for that movie to be successful. If the marketing team got together and they marketed the movie like ‘Charlie Kaufman as you’ve never seen him before…” or “Welcome to the dark side of Charlie Kaufman.” The audience would’ve shown up not expecting to laugh. They would have shown up expecting to be disturbed. And they probably would have been pleasantly

If you set an audience’s expectations for what you do, or what you are about to do, from the beginning, they will accept almost anything.  But if you train your audience to expect one thing from us, and then deliver something else, they’re going to get mad. They’re going to feel like you baited and switched them. And that’s also true of your agent, manager or producer.

Which means you’ve got to give them a way of thinking about you that they can easily understand. You have to brand yourself in some way.  And that means at some point in your career, you’re going to have to make a choice.

At the beginning of your career, the truth is it doesn’t much matter what you write. If you keep writing truthfully, building both your art, and your craft even as you build your library, your voice is going to emerge. The themes that matter to you are going to weave through all of your writing, even if you never think about branding at all.  And, eventually, you’ll figure out a way to talk about those themes that helps people understand how to think about you as a writer.

But unless your agent or manager or producer understands that brand, you’re always going to find yourself fighting upstream, because the business people on your team have different priorities than you. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. If they are not pushing you to do the thing that’s going to bring in more cash or sustain your career, then they’re not doing their job. You should have conflict with them, just like you should have conflict with your line producer when you’re in production. You should be pissed off about what’s being cut, and they should be cutting things you love and want to keep.

But that conflict doesn’t have to lock you in a box.

I like to think I need to do enough work for my agent, manager or producer that they know what to say when they talk about me, or when they talk about my project. If I’m not telling them what to say then I am dependent on them being brilliant. And that’s not always going to be the case.

I was talking recently to one of the top agents at UTA about what it means for him to sign a young writer. And he explained that the most important thing for him is not a “commercial idea” he can sell right away.  What he’s looking for is a truly unique voice. And sometimes, if he sees a voice like that, he will sign a writer, even knowing it may be 5 years before he makes any real money on them.

uta-logoI wish everyone had an agent like this!

He’s risen to the top of the top. And, the reason he’s gotten there is that he has the unique ability to think in the long term, rather than just going for the next sale.

Your agent might not be able to think this way for you. Which means you have to think this way for them.

He told the story of the writer/director of Diary of a Teenage Girl coming to him with this unlikely book she wanted to adapt. The main character is a 13 year old girl, who’s having sex with her mother’s boyfriend. Not exactly the easiest sale in the world!

But instead of telling his client “no,” what he said to her was this: This project is going to be really hard. And I will do it, but I need to know that you’re going to work even harder than I am. Because that’s how hard it’s going to be to get this made.

She said OK, and they got it made together.

If you’re lucky enough to have a guy like this as your agent, they will make miracles happen for you that you could never imagine.

But most of us don’t get that agent. We get an agent that’s average at their job. Statistically, most people are average at their jobs—and there’s a good chance that the first person who signs you is going to be right where you’d expect them to be on the bell curve.

That means you can’t depend on a brilliant agent to come up with the sales pitch for your project, or for your career. You have to play the long game, know what you’re building, and how you want it. And that’s never about one script. That’s about your voice as a writer—something you develop over many scripts, and over many twists and turns in your career.

Sometimes you don’t have a choice about who to sign with. If you don’t have a choice—if there’s only one person that wants you– sign with them. But if you have a choice, let them lay out their strategy for you. What’s the short term plan, what’s the long term plan. How are we going to do it? Who are your connections? What kinds of things do you sell well? What have you sold recently? What kind of things do you struggle at selling? What’s the path you see for my writing, and the kinds of projects you’d submit me for?

You want them to lay out their strategy for you. And you also want to lay out a strategy for them. You have to be willing to say to the agent, “I have no interest in writing this kind of movie, so I need to know how quickly we can get me out of writing this, and into writing that.”  If you’re famous for comedies and really want to write dramas, you need to strike the deal where you tell them: “I’m going to give you two more comedies, and then I’m going to write a little indie drama that’s going to cost a million dollars to shoot and I’m going to want the kind of support on that that you give me on a forty million dollar comedy.” Pre negotiate with them. Help them understand your brand. Otherwise they’re going to feel baited and switched, and they’re not going to know how to represent you.

If they say no, at least you’ll know where you are. And then you can decide if this is the right person to sign with at this point in your career.

No matter who you’re talking to, it’s important to know that you need to have a way of talking about yourself that makes them easy to brand you, and easy to talk about you to other people in the industry. Your agent’s got a whole roster of clients, many of whom bring in a lot more money than you do, and they don’t have the time to put the kind of thought into your career that you have. The producer you’re talking to is meeting with a whole lot of writers, and she’s got to be able to remember who you are, so she can come back to you when the right project comes along. Even your dry cleaner just might also have your dream producer as a client, and they need to know how to talk about you, so that person will actually want to meet you.

Give them a simple way of talking about you, so that you can be branded in a way you’re excited about being branded.

There’s a brilliant acting teacher here in New York, who helps actors with this kind of branding. If you’re an actor, you should look him up at But if you’re a writer, there are ways that you can apply these ideas to your writing as well. John is a genius at identifying patterns. And he uses those patterns to help actors understand, and talk about, the themes that drive their best performances. This means they can not only target the roles they are most likely to actually get, but talk about themselves in ways that distinguish them from the competition, and prick the ears of producers, directors and casting directors who are interested in the same themes.

We try to do the same for our writers.

Your agent or manager is going to need to put you in a box. But at least this way it can be your box! One that’s connected to the themes that drive your life and your writing, whether you’re working on a romantic comedy, a thriller, or an experimental art film.

That doesn’t mean you have to explore the same theme for the rest of your life. But it may mean that you’re going to be exploring that theme for this act of your life. For this phase of your career. So it better be something you actually care about.

The good news is, if you focus on telling the stories you want to tell, in the ways you want to tell them, rather than following someone else’s formula or doing what you think is commercial, the kinds of themes that matter to you will already be in your writing. All you’ll need is to learn how to talk about them.

Your agent doesn’t really care if you do this or not. Your agent, your manager, your producer will never get tired of receiving the same old shit over and over again. They will never get tired of it, because really what the audience wants is to have the same experience in a different way. That’s why every Disney movie feels the same. It’s the same experience, just in a different way.

Now, it’s not like there is an invisible audience that wants homogeneity. It’s just that they had a good experience and they miss that experience and they want it again. So, if we’re going to talk from a purely commercial perspective, this is why it’s so important to make your first movie something you care about. If you explore a theme that matters to you, there are infinite variations you can do on that theme, and you’ll at least be able to get enough of those movies out to build your career and get people to trust you.

grid-cell-29211-1407846389-5Look at the career of Robin Williams. For years people only wanted to hire him to play Mork: some version of the coked up comic who could speak at a hundred miles an hour. He built his career on being able to do that exact same thing in different ways and different movies. Then he started to transition. He was able to make that leap because he’d gotten people to trust him. And he started to transition into dramas.

What was interesting was, those dramas and comedies were also tied by a common theme. A theme about loss. Think about all of the movies he’s made and how many had a dead wife in them. He had a dead wife in almost every movie. And even Mork has lost his home. Even Mrs. Doubtfire had lost his children. There is a theme of loss that was present in almost everything that Williams did. He just found different ways to wrestle with that.good-will-hunting-robin-williams_©-1997-Miramax-Pictures-all-rights-reservedIt would have been easier for him to just make the same comic movie again and again and again. But would it have been fulfilling?

We have to make the decision eventually. As long as you’re not bored of exploring the same theme, keep exploring it. It allows you to build a brand and for people to get it. People will say “Oh yeah I get what she does. I get what this is about.”

At the point you get bored, you have to start making tough decisions. You have to say to yourself, “Okay, I’m bored of this, what do I want to do?” Sometimes, what happens is, we end up in these patterns and we start to limit our range, like the actor who always cries, or the actor who always yells, and we forget that there is an entire different range of what we can do.

One of my favorite Pacino performances, was at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA. He was doing a little known Eugene O’Neill play called Hughie.

Hughie is a character that is the opposite of the character you usually see Pacino play. They stick him in a suit that’s way too big for him, and he plays it from a place of weakness rather than strength, as a guy who doesn’t have a personal center, rather than the powerful man we always see.

It was one of the most profound performances I’ve seen on stage. It made me wish Pacino had bumped into a film director later in his career who had pushed him that way. Who had said, “Hey, Al, what happens if you don’t yell at all in this movie?”pacinoyelling.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeSometimes exploring the same theme brings you deeper,and other times, it limits your potential. So if you see yourself doing the same pattern in one movie, cool. You do it in two movies, cool. You do it in five movies? You have to start to ask: “Okay, this is a pattern that is now etched in my mind as the only possibility, what are the other possibilities that are also true?”

Mostly, today we’ve talked about artists that I think are successfully exploring the same themes, the same patterns, and the same structures again and again. But there are also artists, sometimes great artists, that are limited by their patterns.

One of the artists that I think gets limited like this is Lars Von Trier. I think Von Trier has the potential to become one of the greatest writer/directors of all time, but I don’t believe he is yet. I believe he is limited by a belief that ultimately nothing can ever change, that ultimately he is always going to be a slave to his depression and his self destructive tendencies, that the universe will always unravel on him. What’s starting to happen for me when I see a Von Trier film, even though he’s extraordinary in his execution, is that it always bumps in the same place for me. There’s always going to be a point where we start devolving into Nihilism.

So, think about what would happen if one day Lars Von Trier said to himself “Okay, even if I don’t believe in the possibility of overcoming my depression, or that the universe could change, if I did believe it was possible… what would that look like?

When we start to do that, neurologically we start to build new patterns in our brains through which our creative minds start to believe in other possibilities. And one of the cool things about the subconscious mind is that it’s like a child. Anything you tell it is true, it will start to believe is true, especially if you tell it repeatedly and powerfully with images and sound and feeling, like we do when we write screenplays.

So, sometimes, what happens is we’re doing the same thing again and again, but we’re giving ourselves a window into our own neurological pathways. And that gives you an opportunity to stand back and say, “Hey is this actually as wide as my mind can go? Or are there other pathways that I would like to explore? Are there other possibilities I haven’t fully looked at yet?”

MV5BMTY5NzUyNjYxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMDM1NDg0._V1_UY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_I would like to suggest that if you need to write a few movies to explore one neurological pathway, so you can really understand at least one aspect of where you are and who you are, it might actually be a good thing. Sometimes fully exploring that one path can actually lead you to the next one. You wrote the movie about the most selfish person ever, what would happen if you wrote a movie about the most generous one. Sometimes, looking at once piece of the world can actually allow you to see the rest of it, just like in a Charlie Kaufman movie.

Other times you start to think “Oh, isn’t that interesting. I can actually see my pattern in this piece. I can already see my belief systems play out in my writing again and again.”

It may not always be best for your career, but it is certainly best for your art, to take a moment to pause when this happens. If you see the same paths playing out again and again, take a breath, and ask yourself “What happens if he doesn’t yell? What if he doesn’t make the most destructive choice? What happens if the worst thing doesn’t happen?”

What happens if you could actually do exactly what you wanted to do right now.

What happens then, is you start to see not just one possibility, but the rainbow of them, to take your audience, your characters, and yourself to places neither you, nor they, could ever have imagined they could go.  

And that’s what it really means to be a writer.


1 Comment

  1. Hannes Kivilaht 8 years ago

    Thank you for this profound, emotionally moving article. Among all the very necessary nuts-and-bolts advice one reads, it is wonderfully refreshing and inspiring to get those that speak to the art of it all – easy to lose track of when canvassing for a sale – not only for film makers but for anyone touched by the wonder of storytelling.

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