The Paradox Of Originality In Filmmaking

Arguably the most misleading piece of advice given to emerging filmmakers is to be “original” with their work.  To break new ground, and do something never done before…

While this advice may sound good on the surface – and is usually well intentioned – it also completely misses the mark.

When someone tells you to be original, they are placing the entire emphasis on the outcome. And not at all on the process that it takes to get there.

The inference is that to produce something truly original, you must avoid inspiration from other films or works that you may be drawn to.

But avoiding the work of great filmmakers and artists is not how you become great yourself. 

As C.S. Lewis famously said:

“In literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Imagine walking into a museum and seeing a beautiful painting you had never seen before. You get home, and decide to sketch it out on paper using just your memory.

No matter your skill as an artist, your version of that painting will look vastly different from the piece that inspired it.

It will take on a life of its own, because it was seen through your specific creative brain, and then recreated through your hand.

It will be original.

Had you just sat down to draw with no inspiration, you might end up with a stick figure. Or a generic portrait. Or a post card style sketch of a landscape.

Inspiration (and imitation) is mandatory to spark truly innovative work.

In film, so much has already been done. Nearly every theme, story, and character archetype has been put up on the screen hundreds of times.

So if your goal is to avoid anything that came before, there will be little creative terrain worth exploring. You will wind up making something so obscure, that even you will have a hard time connecting to it. 

The point of originality isn’t to avoid all sources of inspiration. But rather to repackage them in a novel way. To create something new from a series of parts that were already in existence.

Poet Billy Collins has said:

“You can take intimacy from Whitman, you can learn the dash from Emily Dickinson…you can pick a little bit from every writer and you combine them. This allows you to be authentic.”

Tarantino finds inspiration in classic films – borrowing, stealing, and blending them together until new sub genres emerge.

He’s a more obvious example, but everyone does it. Whether intentionally or not. 

And while it may seem illogical that the path to originality is through imitation, that doesn’t make it untrue. Both components are necessary to your unique creative output.

A certain degree of input (inspiration) is needed to steer your ideas in a cohesive direction. But only your unique fingerprint can transform old ideas into something never before seen.

When Jean-Luc Godard set out to make his masterpiece Breathless, he didn’t imagine changing the world of cinema. He didn’t know that 60+ years later, we would recognize it as one of the most original and important pieces of film history.

At the time, he just wanted to imitate American gangster films.

He specifically pays homage to The Harder They Fall (1956) through casting choices, direction, and set design. You can even find a movie poster for the 1956 classic as set dressing in one of the scenes.

But despite his intention to imitate, Breathless is nothing like an American gangster film.

What it’s remembered for – at least in part –  is its innovative use of jump cuts, handheld camera work, and improvisation. All of which broke new stylistic ground, without being engineered to do so.

That is how great art emerges.

So take it as some food for thought next time you sit down to develop a concept or write a screenplay.

Having a singular goal of doing something that has never been done before will leave you chasing your tail.

It’s much more effective to lean into your influences, consciously draw from them, and allow yourself to transcend beyond.

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

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