Want a look into a conversation on inspiration between filmmakers from Guillermo del Toro to Ava DuVernay? Thanks to Twitter, you can.
On Sunday, regular Tom Cruise-collaborator Christopher McQuarrie sent out a Tweet to fellow well-established directors Ava DuVernay (Selma), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), James Mangold (Logan), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and William Friedkin (The Exorcist).
To begin the conversation, McQuarrie asked the filmmakers to share an “image – any image – that inspires you.” What followed was an illuminating conversation on what it means to be a director (and, in a broader sense, an artist), where inspiration comes from, and the importance of telling stories.
Listed below, under the name of each director, are the images they shared, along with their key points brought up in the conversation.
The filmmaker who began the conversation, McQuarrie offered an interesting look into the complexity of portraying emotion on film. When talking about recreating inspiring images, McQuarrie said, “I find the more I reach for a specific feeling, the more likely I am to miss the mark.” This is interesting as, in reply to Johnson’s observation that he thinks “chasing an image [and, in essence, a feeling] will always be chasing what that image means to you, which will always end up being personal and unique,” McQuarrie says, for him, it feels “forced.” There’s clearly a difference in outcome when an artist portrays an image or emotion intentionally versus when it is created unconsciously.
Calling it her “Golden Rule,” DuVernay agrees with del Toro in that “you have only ONE audience available to you: Yourself.” Choosing the above still from Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, DuVernay’s inspiration clearly stems from emotion and realism that speak to her soul and/or spirit rather than intentionally aimed at her experiences, connoting film’s ability to represent at once something that has always been in front of its audience, as well as transforming it (life/a city/a person) into something new. The image symbolises DuVernay’s path in turning film’s often overlooked depictions of reality and harshness of life into immortalised stories. The director expanded on the image’s influence as she described she had found the film in college: “It moved me. So unexpected. Yet familiar to me. Then and still.”
Taking Salvador Dalí’s surrealist piece ‘Lobster Telephone’ (1936), Wright’s choice differed from most in the conversation in that he did not choose a film still. Despite its departure from the film choices, the piece says a lot for the post-production process in filmmaking, particularly editing. The object — a telephone with a lobster on top — puts things together that should not (at least, shouldn’t according to our worldview) go together. However, as the Tate notes, Dalí believed that these juxtaposing objects could “reveal the secret desires of the unconscious.” Clearly there’s a link to be made between the contrasting of objects to the cutting and editing of a series of moving images, each representing and transporting the viewer into some kind of unconscious state and/or world. For Dalí and his telephones and lobsters, this came in the form of a sexual connotations. (Again, from the Tate, “in Lobster Telephone, the crustacean’s tail, where its sexual parts are located, is placed directly over the mouthpiece”). For Wright, perhaps there’s something to be said for his use of swans and Cornettos.
Mangold shared two inspiring images. Interestingly, both depicts scenes of flying, with the still from Albert Lamorisse’s Le Ballon Rouge showing the protagonist held in the air by balloons and Quentin Blake’s illustration for Roal Dahl’s novel “James and the Giant Peach”, the balloon imagery reimagined through a giant peach and birds attached to string. McQuarie asked Mangold if the image has “ever been manifested – even obliquely – in one of your films?”, to which Mangold replied: “Obliquely. Unconsciously. Perhaps. Its also invariably & obviously connected 2 another favorite image in a great work of children’s fiction.” The unconscious come up in these filmmakers’ conversation once again, with Mangold tying his choice of inspiring image with images of childhood, with both depicting what is (or once was) the impossible. Film allows us to realise the impossible.
On chasing or recreating an image, Mangold suggested that “it can be a good departure point, I think. As long as I am chasing a feeling or memory and not commiting outright mimicry.” Following this, an interesting discussion between Mangold and McQuarrie continued, with the latter finding that the more “I reach for a specific feeling, the more likely I am to miss the mark. The most effective emotional moments are ones I discovered in pursuit of something else,” talking once again about allowing the emotional unconsciousness to seep in rather than attempting to consciously retract something from it. To this, Mangold posed: “1) But you knew when you discovered the “effective emotional moment” to redirect your attention and efforts toward it. 2) In order to embrace the new moment, you had to have the ability and humility to recognize it, and to recognize it, by definition,– I figure you the need the audacity to have a place to start and the humility to adjust to what happens after you do. 3) you must’ve had something like this in the recesses of your cognition already, although the technique or tactic might’ve been surprising.”
Guillermo del Toro
del Toro offered lots of advice and insight to the conversation, which deserves to be put together in a paragraph rather than living on threaded segments on Twitter. Read below for your pleasure [alterations are my own for clarity]:
“I have spent most of my life chasing images. The other half chasing emotions and about a decade realizing that they are one and the same. The importance of images is for them to derive not only from Pop media but from life and art (paintings, engravings, sculpture, etc), I think, and from tales and literature, because words form different specific images in each of our brains. You have only ONE audience available to you: Yourself. You can only use your insticts (right or wrong) don’t you think?”
[This next paragraph comes after McQuirrie asks whether del Toro creates an expression of inner fear or the love of fearful things].
“I am kinda broken. I find beauty in horror and horror in what people think is beauty. So, yes. I want to tell people to love the imperfect and fear the impossible demands of perfection. Eastern mentality is more coherent- there is a fusion between the terrible and the sublime. It’s a flow and a continuum and all we can be is agents of life or agents of death by the stories (parables) we peddle… I am going to badly paraphrase the Tao by saying that when we declare something beautiful we are (by implication) declaring something else ugly. See? this values are false. They only promote outrage and proselytism. The world accommodates more than a dichotomy and that’s why images, like songs, resonate inside us with stuff beyond words- the inexplicable emotion. The power of an image goes beyond moral value. That Otomo image from DOMU is powerful and balletic and perfect and iconic and yet some would dismiss it as “terrible” or horrifying. To me it is sublime. Otomo is sublime.”
McQuarrie asked the group of filmmakers “What scene/shot/moment in any of your films most surprised you? What wasn’t part of the plan?” Mangold replied with “the more I think about it, the more I think there should be a surprise every day, every scene.” To this, Johnson observed that “it took me a while to start seeing those surprises as the real inner life of the movie and not as obstructions to getting what I wanted.” The director continued by pointing out “all my favorite filmmakers do brilliant oners, they’re inspiring. Maybe I just don’t have the confidence yet. Or maybe I just like cutting,” as well as contributing to the idea of chasing an image and/or emotion. Johnson said: “I think chasing an image will always be chasing what that image means to you, which will always end up being personal and unique.”
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