Herzog on creativity

Here’s an excellent article on Werner Herzog and his approach to creativity.

Some highlights:

The bad films have taught me most about filmmaking. Seek out the negative definition. Sit in front of a film and ask yourself, “Given the chance, is this how I would do it?” It’s a never-ending educational experience, a way of discovering in which direction you need to take your own work and ideas.

I find that quite interesting because I often wonder about the effect ‘good’ or ‘bad’ influences can have on your work. Should you only experience excellence so that the best ingredients are going into your cake, or, as Werner suggests, is there something beneficial about watching crap because it helps you work out what mistakes to avoid? In addition, the very best work can leave one intimidated and disheartened, while watching/reading rubbish can make you think ‘I can do better than that’ or ‘If shit like that can get made I should really finish my book as it’s much better’.

Prepare yourself: there is never a day without a sucker punch. At the same time, be pragmatic and learn how to develop an understanding of when to abandon an idea. Follow your dreams no matter what, but reconsider if they can’t be realized in certain situations. A project can become a cul-de-sac and your life might slip through your fingers in pursuit of something that can never be realized. Know when to walk away.

To what extent should you follow your dreams? At what point does a compromise become the straw that breaks the camel’s back, where your ‘dream’ has become something else? So if you want a number one single is it OK that it happens by dressing up as a cabbage and singing the Tweenies theme song? Is a number two single OK? What if your dream changes along the way? Is that compromise or a realistic reappraisal of the situation?

What makes me rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere. I can show up with my films and am offered hospitality, something you could never achieve with money alone… For years I have struggled harder than you can imagine for true liberty, and today am privileged in the way the boss of a huge corporation never will be.

So what is the definition of success? I look at the recent example of Jose Mourinho calling Arsene Wenger a ‘specialist in failure’: by one definition Mourinho is right because he defines success as the winning of trophies. But someone else might say that the building of an entire club and culture, moving into a massive new stadium in financial health and playing attractive football might be another definition of success. Equally, one might say that joining a rich excellent club and spending many millions making it even better, then winning tournaments against much poorer clubs would not come under many people’s definitions of success; whereas taking a poor, unfancied club to a trophy against a very rich one (Wigan v Man City in last year’s FA Cup, for example) might be a proper definition of success. Set your own goalposts.

The problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it is how to contain the invasion. My ideas are like uninvited guests. They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the windows like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge. I don’t sit and ponder which one I should deal with first. The one to be wrestled to the floor before all others is the one coming at me with the most vehemence. I have, over the years, developed methods to deal with the invaders as quickly and efficiently as possible, though the burglars never stop coming. You invite a handful of friends for dinner, but the door bursts open and a hundred people are pushing in. You might manage to get rid of them, but from around the corner another fifty appear almost immediately… Finishing a film is like having a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s relief, not necessarily happiness. But you relish dealing with these “burglars.” I am glad to be rid of them after making a film or writing a book. The ideas are uninvited guests, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome.

The first point, about the onslaught of ideas, is a great one. Someone once said to me, ‘A lot of trains come into the station. You don’t have to get on all of them’. But how do you decide which ones are worthy of your attention? And what happens if you get it wrong? I love Werner’s analogy of wrestling them all to the ground so they become manageable, but that can be a different and difficult process every time. The other point, that the end of this process is a relief rather than a cause for celebration, was echoed by Alphoso Cuaron when I asked him what it was like to finish making Gravity. To me this backs up the idea that it’s not the end of the rainbow that’s the cause for happiness, it’s the beginning. Then again, anything can be a cause for happiness if you choose to look at it in the right way.

When I write, I sit in front of the computer and pound the keys. I start at the beginning and write fast, leaving out anything that isn’t necessary, aiming at all times for the hard core of the narrative. I can’t write without that urgency. Something is wrong if it takes more than five days to finish a screenplay. A story created this way will always be full of life.

That reminds me of a quote I heard about writing: if your first draft isn’t shit you’re not writing fast enough.

It would never occur to me… I work steadily and methodically, with great focus. There is never anything frantic about how I do my job; I’m no workaholic. A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.

Confucius: ‘Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’.