6 Hollywood insights that can inspire the creative process

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From J.J. Abrams to Kathleen Kennedy, the most creative people in film embrace fear, failure and ego in order to get to greatness, writes Mono's group account director.

Ever wonder what makes great creative makers great?

For many, Sunday night's Academy Awards is the highlight of the year. Will the big winner be the painfully poignant "Manchester by the Sea"? The incredibly inspirational "Hidden Figures"? Or perhaps the wonderfully fresh breath of air, "La La Land"? The world watches as Hollywood royalty gather to show their finest side and reveal who is most admired for their work this year.

What is most fascinating is the journey Hollywood A-listers took to get there. I obsess over the process of creativity and have found it wonderfully useful to study how Hollywood’s greatest writers, producers, directors and performers create what they create. Here are some of their most thought-provoking tips. 

"With more limitations you are actually more free." – Robert Rodriguez

In 1991, Robert Rodriguez was an aspiring director with the simple idea that to get better at making movies the best thing to do would be, to make movies. So he scraped together $8,000 and made "El Mariachi." With that budget, he was limited. So Rodriguez chose a very simple storyline. He chose to shoot on a handheld and edit in camera. But Rodriguez managed to reveal his creativity by using unique camera movements, playing with volume and pace, delivering unexpected dialogue and breaking virtually all clichés of the modern action film.

When we find ourselves with assignments that are "boxed in," we can embrace those forced choices and focus our creativity where we can control things. What unique story can we tell? What unexpected technique can we use? How can we catch people by surprise?

"Let it suck for a second." – J.J. Abrams

Abrams uses this phrase frequently with his teams. Too often we gravitate to ideas that feel familiar. Remember in our line of work it’s all about disruption. Being different is a good thing. Give that unusual idea a second. Play with it. See where things go before you move on.

"We can always find the right story when we ask ourselves what feels true." – Peter Del Vecho

The billion-dollar "Frozen" franchise almost didn’t happen. Eighteen months before release the production stalled. At that time, the team had a story of a family, a princess, a prince, a love story and a story about an evil snow queen. The team was lost.

Del Vecho asked his team for the one idea that was most important in the movie. He quickly found a huge passion for a sisterhood story. Then, everything fell into place. They reframed co-lead character Elsa from villain to sister. They knew the story was about the complicated but powerful relationship of two sisters as they go through life. And the songwriters had a foundation to inspire the hit song "Let It Go."

The next time you are stuck creatively, ask the simple question, what’s the one thing in your story, or idea, that’s relatable and true. You’ll find not only a more powerful idea, but also a filter to guide everything else on the project that you need to do.  

"Own the risk." – Kathleen Kennedy

Kennedy talked about how you have to put your neck on the line for the creative idea you believe in. Six months into making "Back to the Future," Robert Zemeckis and his team realized they had the wrong Marty McFly. Kennedy begged, pleaded and demanded that the studio let them reshoot everything. Eventually, the studio caved in but told Kennedy that everything was on her. Kennedy and the team believed passionately that they were right. And boy did they, and Michael J. Fox, deliver.

It’s easy to play it safe or to follow the status quo. But we must remember that creativity is powerful. In movies, it grips us, entertains us and enlightens us. It makes us feel things. In business, it makes our company or product stand out and feel interesting or different. The pursuit of creativity means sometimes following an uncertain path, but the business results are worth that risk.

"Make your actors feel divine." – Angela Bassett

Angela Bassett used her perspective as an actor to inform her directorial style. Bassett, the first female director for "American Horror Story," knew that as a director she was only as good as the performances she could get from her actors. So she knew that one of her biggest jobs was to make her actors feel divine.

It’s the same in the constantly fragile state of creative development. If everyone feels they are making a maximum contribution, if everyone feels good, they will achieve more. And then the team achieves more. The leaders in a creative process need to allow each member of their teams to play a meaningful role—and do whatever they can to make them feel amazing about doing it.  

"There’s always the movie you set out to make, the one you shoot and the one you discover in the edit suite." – Mel Brooks

"Creative development" should not simply be a step at the beginning of the creative process. We need to be open to the added work and risk of continuing to explore throughout the process. What about that unexpected amazing moment that happened between the two lead actors on set? What about the idea in the edit room to change the ending of the film? What about the idea to change the media plan to launch the campaign in a different way? Don’t settle for the current plan. Always keep pushing.

We all love watching what these makers make. If we take some cues from how they do it, we can get a little closer to greatness in what we create.

—Joe King is a group account director at Mono.