I’m in the Hollywood home of William Fraker, the six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer of such legendary movies as Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt, and WarGames. My crew is shooting our conversation for Old School New School, a documentary on the nature of creativity. During a tape change Mr. Fraker asks me pointedly, “Why are you doing this?”
Why am I exploring creativity? Good question. Old School New School is an extension of many coffee talks with artist friends over the years—dreamy afternoons in the local café discussing life, art, philosophy, and the mystery of creativity. These were stimulating discussions that ultimately segued to the obligatory question all serious artists eventually examine: How can we, as creative people, grow in the direction we want to grow?
Nursing our coffees, my friends and I pondered this endlessly, carefully studying the early assents of our cinematic heroes and of the new filmmakers, those struggling artists like ourselves who’d made it to "the big time."
A friend and I experimented with the idea of videotaping one of our high-minded conversations. The intrigue and universality of the recording showed promise, and I next brought a professional crew to the home of my mentor, acclaimed Irish playwright Sam McCready. “What is success?” I asked him. For Mr. McCready success has to do with realizing one’s potential, being happy, and feeling fulfilled. He poignantly added, “You are the one who determines success, not society.”
From his Beverly Hills home, the acclaimed poet James Ragan told me that early in his career he traveled west by car to try his hand as a Hollywood screenwriter. He decided to make an adventure of it, pulling off at random, pitching camp, cooking out, and enjoying the journey. While I admit that sounded fun, it also seemed scary. What about money? What about the unknown? It seemed risky.
It is risky, and taking risk is an inevitable part of one’s development, creatively or otherwise. “It’s the odyssey,” the Scottish actor Brian Cox said as we sat at a picnic table in his back garden. “I think that’s what I’ve been doing all my life—finding the place where I feel this is where I should be.” Finding your place in the world. “But then you realize that home is in the heart.”
But what we often do, mused dance artist Kirstie Simson, is “run for safety and security and lock ourselves into images of ourselves.” Because that may be what’s right for some of us, argued Mr. McCready. “Others may need security in order to do their best work.” He illustrated this point with a story of two actors he directed early in their careers: Kevin Spacey and Danny Boyle. He recalled Spacey as a struggling New York actor who refused to take any work that wasn’t acting, outright rejecting a bartending gig when friends offered to help him find employment. “No!” McCready heard him insist. “I’m an actor, and I will be an actor.” Danny Boyle on the other hand, eager to direct, took a steady job at the BBC and built up the skills that would later serve him so well on Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire.
Tomas Arana chimed in on the conversation from a loft in New York City. “The difference is how much you push yourself. If the person in some small town pushes himself to the max, he can push himself further than the kid trying to be the funky artist in New York.”
“You can’t be like everyone else,” Mr. Fraker advised. “You have to be an individual.”
What does it take to be an individual? Be honest with yourself.
A simple question about personal creative development over a cup of coffee led to a four-year journey of enlightenment, an exploration in which I uncovered insights about success, risk, individuality and so much more. Old School New School took me into the lives of some of America’s most illuminated artists, for which I am forever changed and forever grateful.
So, in answer to Mr. Fraker’s original question, I made the documentary because I wanted to learn.
If you want to listen in on more philosophical discussions about the nature of creativity, watch Old School New School for free on the SnagFilms website. In addition to the above-mentioned artists, other luminaries who so graciously contributed their time to explore the genesis of creativity are Tony Award-winning producer Emanuel Azenberg (Rent, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers); Grammy-winning jazz pianist McCoy Tyner (“Illuminations,” “The Turning Point,” “Journey,” “Infinity”); renowned cinematographer John Bailey, ASC (American Gigolo, Ordinary People, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, In the Line of Fire), and actor-turned-Congressman Ben Jones (Dukes of Hazzard). You can also attend a screening of Old School New School, followed by a discussion, on the following dates:
Jan. 8 – 1.30 p.m., Hip Circle Studio, Evanston, IL
Jan. 27 – 4 p.m. (Session Three), Cultural Impact Conference 2012
Feb. 8 – Avila University, Kansas City, MO
Feb. 13 – Greenhouse Theater Center, Lincoln Park
March 8 – Harrington School of Design, Chicago, IL
April 5 – 6.30 p.m., Chicago Cultural Center
Steven Fischer is a two-time Emmy nominated writer/producer whose work includes animation, fiction, and non-fiction programs for Nextel, Maryland Public Television/PBS, TV Asia, Romanian Television Network, AmeriCorps, and National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. He has taught storytelling at the college level and spoken nationally on creativity at Script DC, St. Thomas University, American University, Hollywood Shorts, Maryland Film Festival, Show off Your Shorts Film Festival, and The Creative Alliance. His documentary and docudrama credits include This is CLEARCorps (1996), Carl Clark: Life at 1/125 of a Second (2000), Now & Forever Yours (2007), Belvoir (2008), Francis Scott Key: Legacy of a Life in Service (2008), and Cryptology at War (2009). Freedom Dance (2007) is a multi award-winning animated documentary about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, narrated by Mariska Hargitay. In 2008 it won the coveted CINE Master Series Award. In 2011, Snag Films released Old School New School, Steven’s personal study on creativity.
Written in Fall 2011.