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The Unnecessary Strain of Originality In Filmmaking

The Unnecessary Strain of Originality In Filmmaking

As part of a creative church staff with no ties to Hollywood's connections or deep pockets, how can one replicate those famously memorable moments for our church?

I REMEMBER SITTING toward the front of a darkened theater, next to my grandmother, holding an oversized bag of popcorn when the lights dimmed and the screen was filled with the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" The speakers exploded with the theme music we now know so well and the opening crawl text came into view. I struggled to keep my then seven-yearold emotions in check.

Two hours later, the only coherent thought crossing my young mind was "Wow. That was groovy!" (after all, it was the '70s!).

Fast forward nearly 40 years. I find myself sitting in the middle of a darkened theater next to my daughter, again holding an oversized bag of popcorn as the lights dim and I am assaulted again by those familiar words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" This time, though, we are watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. We both absolutely loved it, and I think I even squealed with delight as I was taken back to my childhood countless times with the appearance of Han Solo and R2-D2. 138 minutes later, the only coherent thought crossing my now adult(ish) mind was "Wow. I want to do that!"

One problem. How?

Film as an art has a unique way of impacting the senses.

As part of a creative church staff with no ties to Hollywood's connections or deep pockets, though, I have to ask the question, "How?" If film can affect us in such a way, then the potential for the local church is incredibly promising.

Film as an art has a unique way of impacting the senses; It is able to do something words and music alone cannot.

Who can forget smiling as Rick in Casablanca walks into the fog saying, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," or shivering with Chief Brody in Jaws, as the barely audible words are spoken "We're going to need a bigger boat." Movies and video are able to transport us into the story.

In his excellent book, The Power of the Movies, Colin McGinn remembers sound designer Walter Murch who said, "With a theatrical film, particularly one in which the audience is fully engaged, the screen is not a surface, it is a magic window, sort of a looking glass through which your whole body passes and becomes engaged in the action with the characters on the screen."

Can you imagine the potential impact every time we use this medium to package the good news of God's love? Like Paul at the Areopagus, we bridge the culture to touch people's hearts with the message. And who are more effective in reaching people with stories than modern filmmakers? They sure do it well. Just one question, how do we do it?

Any writer, director, editor, filmmaker, preacher and worship design team starts in the same place: the blank page. Often I have seen creative types stare at the blank page and engage in a ritual of painful isolation as the story or the biblical text is coerced for resultsas if strapped to a chair and tortured for a confession.

It would be well for the modern filmmaker to let go of the unnecessary stress caused by the search for originality, and move in the tradition of those who've gone before us. It is good to tap into the wisdom of the great cloud of witnesses. In other words, when it comes to filmmaking, copying is not a sin. Or in the words of Jeffrey Fry, "To copy is human. To create is divine." While this is not great theology, Fry has a point.

Let me explain. A few years ago I came across a gem of a book: The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker by John Horowitz. John is a writer and TV producer who compiled a collection of interviews with today's up and coming young Hollywood directors. In this book, they speak about their upbringing, their journey as filmmakers, their successes, their flops, best practices and some of their advices for aspiring filmmakers. The book is worth its weight in gold for anyone who practices or studies the craft. John's quest was the same as ours: to learn the art by studying the very best. Isn't that what most artists are all about?

One often begins by copying, then imitating; then moves to simply being inspired as we develop our own voices. In reading the book, I ask myself, if Jon Favreau, the famous director of the wildly successful Avengers franchise, The Jungle Book and his exquisite movie entitled Chef, learned the craft from studying Kurosawa and enjoying Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles, why do we then think we can work in isolation simply waiting for inspiration? We have at our disposal the same tools and sources from Citizen Kane to Caddyshack. Shouldn't we also study, copy, learn from and get inspired by the very best?

Here's some practical advice as you put together the next project. Watch a movie with the sound off.

Try watching the movie in Portuguese, Italian or in a language other than your own. It's a completely different and fresh experience. Look for hidden gems in Blu-rays or digital downloads. Robert Rodriguez' Desperado includes as a featurette a video tour of his home production studio. It's pure eye-candy.

Or consider the original The Matrix DVD, which has a fascinating audio track that plays only the musical score leaving out all dialogue and audio fx. And of course, once in a while watch your favorite movie with only the director's commentary on. One can learn so much about the craft by being in virtual dialogue with those we admire. I do believe a disclaimer is in order.

When I say copy' I certainly do not mean plagiarize. It is a fine line between plagiarizing, copying and paying homage to someone's previous work. That said, sometime ago, the American Film Institute released a series of documentaries featuring the lives and work of several American directors. I believe it is a must-have collection for anyone involved in this craft.

In one of the documentaries, Jodie Foster was asked, "Who do you think is the greatest director alive?" She didn't skip a beat in her response. "Without a doubt it's Martin Scorsese." When asked to comment, Mr. Scorsese said, "I'm just copying good people." We could all learn from his example.

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