Week 1 – Introduction

“I think that we have to find different ways to make films.“

Michelangelo Antonioni

There is a saying of the American Indians: “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn, tell me a truth and I’ll believe, but tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.“

From the beginning of all times, mankind has been asking questions, imagining stories of the origin, of how the world began and how we came to be in it: Why am I here? Who made me? Where am I going to? Where does the sun go at night? What is the meaning of thunder and lightening? And because the human mind is a pattern-recognizing, a meaning-making machine, when we have only partial information our mind usually tries to fill in the blanks – in order to create some plausibility, to construct a coherent, complete image or story.

As Jonathan Gottschall puts it: “If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them.“

So what is a story? It is the retelling of events. Some stories are stronger, some are weaker, that is the common believe. But some are not even stories in a traditional sense and nevertheless something is ringing … and afterwards you will never forget what you’ve seen or heard or felt.

So where do stories come from? We’re all stories, in the end, as Steven Moffat once said – which of course is true. We are surrounded by stories all the time, from the daily news, the films we watch, the books we read, to our conversations, interactions and interior monologues. And: We tell stories all the time; it is a human practice, which helps us to define ourselves, to see ourselves in relation to the world around us. We work up the experiences of our live in form of stories: how we once fell in love, the worst accident we’ve ever had, the story of our childhood, plus all the little funny stories of our everyday life. By telling these stories we not only give them shape, we although interpret them, we “frame“ them.

“Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized. And social psychologists point out that when we meet a friend, our conversation mostly consists of an exchange of gossipy stories. We ask our friend “What’s up?” or “What’s new?” and we begin to narrate our lives to one another, trading tales back and forth over cups of coffee or bottles of beer, unconsciously shaping and embellishing to make the tales hum.“ (Jonathan Gottschall)

At the same time these stories are often strongly related to feelings and emotions like happiness, anger, sadness, depression. Just talk to people on the street and they immediately will tell you a story – they will talk about their hopes, dreams, wishes, what they are worrying about, trouble with their friends, what happened the other day. And sometimes they will even tell you the story of their life!

Arthur Koestler already mentioned this ’urge to share’ in his book >The Act of Creation< from 1964:

“Literature begins with the telling of a tale. The tale represents events by means of auditory and visual signs. The events thus represented are mental events in the narrator’s mind. His motive is the urge to communicate these events to others, to make them relive his thoughts and emotions; the urge to share. The audience may be physically present, or an imagined one; the narrator may address himself to a single person or to his god alone, but his basic need remains the same: he must share his experiences, make others participate in them, and thus overcome the isolation of the self.“

But because this course is mainly meant to be for filmmakers, let’s ask the question in a different way: How and where do we find ideas for films?

Probably you’ve already read some books about scriptwriting. And you’ve found out, that the topic of finding ideas is generally not treated very well. One or two pages at the maximum and the advice is most of the time the same: You can find ideas everywhere, in historical events, newspapers, family stories, gossip, a new combination of already existing films or by putting unusual characters in an unusual place etc.

Furthermore all these strategies are always seen against the backdrop of traditional (Hollywood like) scriptwriting i.e. the dramatic line. And even more: Film is always seen as entertainment, not as an art, as a subjective medium!

Coper / Dancyger (Writing the Short Film) give us a pretty good summary of this kind of storytelling:

“All stories must engage the curiosity of an audience, whether that audience be one or a thousand. The storyteller must build on that curiosity, inviting our involvement in a character’s situation, and finally allow the viewer to identify with the character and the situation … If the character faces no barriers in achieving his or her goal, there is no story. This is the nature and the role of conflict in storytelling – to provide barriers to the characters and their goal.“

Sometimes this is also referred to as a “high-concept“ idea. The famous one sentence pitch in the elevator – “My office is on the 12th floor. You have 30 sec. to tell me what your film is about -, the one liner, that immediately catches your attention. Probably that is why most of the Hollywood films are so boring, i.e. bad entertainment: the buildings just have to few floors!

Ken Robinson once said: Creativity is the process of having originally ideas that have value! We should keep this in mind!

But here’s the warning: This is not really our starting point! I always thought that Michelangelo Antonioni was right when he said:

“What people ordinarily call the “dramatic line“ doesn’t interest me. One device is no better than another, a priori. And I don’t believe that the old laws of drama have validity any more. Today stories are what they are, with neither a beginning nor an end necessarily, without key scenes, without a dramatic arc, without catharsis. They can be made up of tatters, of fragments, as unbalanced as the lives we lead.“

This course is about how to find ideas. Mainly for films, but it also can be used for storytelling in general and other creative work. It is about learning how to train this muscle, which we call imagination, on a daily basis, as Jean-Claude Carrière once put it. In this course we are not yet talking about scriptwriting – that would be the next step.

Our course is divided into weeks, don’t proceed too fast. At the beginning of each chapter I will give you a short summary and at the end there will be some exercises and some films I would like you to watch – if you don’t know them yet.

Take your time, do the exercises, watch as many of the films mentioned as possible. The latter will broaden your horizon and show you, that there are as many possibilities to tell a story when it comes to film than stars in the sky. Without all of them, the exercises and the films, this course makes no sense!

But for this you don’t even have to write! You DON’T have to write! That may surprise you. But hey, this is the 21st century. You can pin down your ideas in whatever form you want: In a conversation with someone else, in music, photos, sketches, notes, objects etc. Writing is often the best way to communicate with others, to share your ideas easily and fast. But it is not the holy grail.

What may surprise you: We will not refer too much to Hollywood movies. That’s what generally is done in all the books about scriptwriting. In this course we will take up a more – let’s say – European-Asian perspective. The goal is – to put it bluntly – to give your ideas a chance to live and to survive beyond all the templates, rules and formulas used in all the traditional books about scriptwriting.

Here are two thoughts I do believe in:

Everything’s an idea! Because an idea is just a starting point.

And: Our brain is not like a computer. Can a computer smell? Sometimes a smell, a taste brings back some childhood memories, which immediately can lead to an idea. That’s why distractions, things not rational can lead to great results. You don’t have to understand it, and no one else has to understand it – but suddenly the creative light sparkles, surprising ourselves.

The films I chose for WEEK 1 shall show you the variety of filmmaking, what films can be, how different stories can be told.

Your turn!

1. Buy a notebook. It should be small, so you can carry it with you all the time.

2. Stop one of the films from the list after 10 minutes: How could the story proceed? (Find the end!)

3. Watch only the last 10 minutes of one of the other films from the list: What could have happened before? (Find the beginning!)

4. You still have some of your children books? Get three of them and read them again!

5. Talk to your grandma or granddad: Try to get three memories. Write them down in your book.

6. Turn your eyes and ears consciously outward to the world around you and write down the events that you observe on a daily basis. You might think that you will remember them later when you are at home, but often you will have forgotten not only some significant details but the whole event. A disrupting phone call in between sometimes is enough. Writing and typing in general helps you to remember better. Good ideas beget good ideas. Coming back to your notes after one or two weeks will stimulate your imagination further.

Films to watch

Roy Anderson

  • Songs from the 2nd Floor (2000) IMDB

Rémy Delvaux, André Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde

  • Man Bites Dog (1992) IMDB

Mike Figges

  • Timecode (2000) IMDB

Michael Haneke

Joris Ivens

  • A Tale of the Wind (1988) IMDB

Richard Lester

  • The Knack … and How to Get It (1965) IMDB

Mohsen Makhamalbaf

  • Kandahar (2001) IMDB

Tsai Ming-Liang

  • What Time is it there? (2001) IMDB

Carlos Reygadas