Looking for perfection
After Defining Creativity, I am doing research for a second book on creativity – about how to manage the creative process. Part of this research is interviewing creative professionals about their ways of working. One of the first creative minds I’ve interviewed is director Mischa Rozema, who I have been following for a while now – and interviewed before on Amsterdam Ad Blog.
Rozema recently sold his sci-fi movie Sundays to Warner Bros in an unusual way. Together with his production company PostPanic Pictures he crowdfunded a short film, which was shot in Mexico and digitally post produced in Amsterdam. The short was made to raise awareness and served as a proof of concept for the big studios in Hollywood.
Her are some of the highlights of the interview in which Rozema explains – among other things – how he gets to his ideas, how the people around him help him execute his ideas, the meaning of success and the influence of an audience.
Do you remember when you first had the idea for Sundays?
It was in 2004, when I had my first child and with her a completely new set of emotions. I really had to redefine my personal meaning of very basic feelings like love and fear. For me it was the perfect moment to test the new perspectives of these emotions in little scripts. I found that my ideas became much more layered and more meaningful, in a sense. One of these first scribblings turned into Sundays.
What is left of that initial idea?
Well, I have to say that after years of re-writing it the current script doesn’t bear much resemblance with the initial idea.
I guess ideas come to me when I’m not connected to anything that needs direct attention, such as my office.
When do you generally get your ideas?
When I’m on a plane, stuck in a shitty little seat. At such times the only place where I can go is inward. I put my headphones on with a soundscape that helps me to get into a zone… Or I do walks. I guess ideas come to me when I’m not connected to anything that needs direct attention, such as my office. These are the moments when the ideas start to flow.
So when you have an idea for a film, what comes next?
Already in my head I can develop it into a film. I can shoot it, edit it, and even make a soundtrack. I can close my eyes and then the thing is finished.
Well, sometimes it flows. There’s no better feeling. It’s like having sex. But sometimes the flow isn’t there, but then the idea is. It then might take weeks or even years before I can elaborate on it, but I still know there’s a good idea. This was the case with the idea for Sundays.
Do you test ideas on others to find out whether it has potential?
No, never. Because that would mean it’s a weak idea. If I’m confident about the idea I can develop it on my own and nobody can tear it down. So in the beginning of the process I’m very much alone. It’s as if I’m creating a new world in which I want to be God. And God doesn’t work together, he just knows. So I just want to be the guy that knows.
Is the conceptual phase your favourite part of the creative process?
Yes. And that’s because anything goes. In the executional phase there are a lot of no’s you walk into.
But at some point, inevitable, you need to get to the executional phase…
Of course. Once I’m done thinking then it’s really nice to have characters like Jules [Tervoort, Head of Production – WB], Ania [Markham, Executive Producer – WB] and Ivor [Goldberg, Head of VFX – WB] next to me, who can actually make it happen.
Does it help you in the executional phase to have a different kind of personality next to you? One, for example, that often tells you ‘no’.
Yes, Jules and I are very complementary. We’re opposites in almost everything. He makes sense of my ideas. And I have a hard time making sense. What I do well is to come up with these great schemes. He brings me down to earth and asks himself how are we going to make this happen?
For Sundays you created a lot of sketches and mood boards. Do you leave room for the others to change the initial idea in your head?
No rarely. I have a very clear vision. I know exactly what I want. That’s why I do so much research, make storyboards and animatics. Every shot is known, even the lenses that we use. We thus try to get as close to the idea in my head as possible.
I spent a year driving through Google Maps and scouting locations, but when Mexico starts to talk to you, you experience it differently.
No room for coincidences?
I guess there is about 15 to 20% margin of things that I want to deal with when I’m on the shoot. In the case of Sundays, when in Mexico. All the raw footage, the real stuff you see in Sundays [as opposed to the post produced CGI – WB] is stuff that happened there. I spent a year driving through Google Maps and scouting locations, but when Mexico starts to talk to you, you experience it differently and you ask yourself, how can I use these new elements. So, yes, there is definitely room for coincidences.
Except for Jules, Ania and Ivor, you have a lot of different specialists around you that help to execute your idea. How do you choose all these people? Do they need to think the same way as you do?
Yeah, that’s what you do in live anyway. You choose the friends with whom you communicate well. On a set you need to agree on lots of things. And even though it’s good to have a creative struggle once in a while, there needs to be some sort of positive chemistry.
And how do you align all these specialists, so that they know what you’re aiming at?
I love writing, I love sketching, I love loads of research. So I can overwhelm people with my research and explanations of why this is happening, why that is happening. I have all the answers ready to possible questions on the set.
Is that typically you, doing so much research?
I don’t know. The directors I feel connected with are similar in that way. So I’m not unique in that sense. But I don’t really know how other directors work because I’m an auto-didactic. I never went to film school, so I still probably make some beginner mistakes. On the other hand; I know how to shoot and I know how to tell my story.
If you would start all over, would you go to film school?
No way, in hindsight the way I came here is a blessing. Today there’s a generation of directors that has not been taught in the classroom how to make films. That’s a good thing, cause it generates more diversity. People who go to the same film school make films that look alike.
But there’s a theory that says that in order to change the rules, you first have to know them.
I am very aware of that, and I do the same thing with film, but the way I got there is completely different.
Just a longer road?
Yes, and I’ve made many mistakes at the beginning. But by now I know how to make a good movie. I have directed films for 14 years. But if you’re self-taught you automatically have a different way of looking at making film than when you start in a classroom with 20 other people.
We’ve changed as a species, as filmmakers, we were brought up with MTV!
And you all get the same classic film examples engrained in your brain…
Especially in the Netherlands I think there’s weakness… I’m getting on dangerous territory here… scriptwriting and directing is taught by people who have been doing the same kind of thing for years and years. Everything goes back to Hitchcock, Eisenstein and these kinds of classic film makers. All very valuable and usable, but we’ve changed as a species, as filmmakers, we were brought up with MTV! The way we perceive and process information has developed tremendously since the invention of film, and will continue to do so.
But a film school cannot constantly change its curriculum, can it?
I disagree, we live in a day and age that this is completely possible. I really think it’s a shame that I’ve never been asked by any Dutch film school to share our knowledge. Nobody knows that we exist. And here we are, making films in Hollywood!
They probably read about you in the newspapers…
Yeah, but before that, we haven’t been hiding, we’ve been asking for grants [from the Filmfonds – WB] and never got anything. I’m not even going to give you the reasons, cause they were too absurd. Our interns get the grants, but we never got a dime. Nobody takes us seriously.
So what are the requirements to get a grant?
You need to fill out a lot of forms with questions about how Dutch your production is. Is the crew Dutch? Does the film play in the Netherlands? Does it have to do with the Second World War. No, it doesn’t! I am a world citizen; my references are from all over the world. Why does it have to be so Dutch?
It makes Holland so small…
It makes it tiny! But the irony is that the worldwide publicity of our movie serves the Netherlands well.
The Dutch film industry is an old boys network that supports the typical mediocre films.
Is this typical for the domain of film?
Yes. Take the design industry. It’s internationally well respected because it thinks beyond the Dutch borders. The Dutch film industry is an old boys network that supports the typical mediocre films. You know the movies, things like Het Bombardement. The old boys club just hands over the grants to each other. There’s no way to get in if you’re making something completely new. That’s why we went to Hollywood.
So how important is the Dutch film industry internationally?
We really don’t matter in the world. The Dutch filmmakers that are internationally acclaimed, like Anton Corbijn and Alex van Warmerdam, make movies outside of the Netherlands or crowdfund their movies. Our smaller neighbours Denmark and Belgium have a much more vibrant, stronger film culture. And they matter; they are taken seriously in England and the US.
Funding your film is obviously an essential part of the creative process. How do you generally experience the restrictions in the creative process, such as budgets and deadlines. Some people fear the blank slate, they say that in restrictions exists creativity…
I’m not like that. I don’t fear the blank slate, I crave it. Creative restrictions will narrow your playing field, and I love to be all over the place, certainly in the beginning of a project. But productional restrictions such as limited time and budget can actually be fun. These restrictions put the pressure on things. And pressure sometimes generates creativity, I guess.
You can’t open up the floodgates when there is a specific problem that needs to be solved.
Do you see a difference between these two types of creativity; creating from a blank slate and being creative in finding a solution to deal with a restriction?
The second one is a very pragmatic; something needs to be done instantly to solve a problem. This is obviously different from opening up the floodgates – which happens with me on a plane. You can’t open up the floodgates when there is a specific problem that needs to be solved. Like a shot that doesn’t work, and you have only two more days, and you still need to shoot a ton of other footage. Restrictions in the ‘open-the-floodgates’ phase are not very stimulating.
How do you create room for yourself to open the floodgates when you are at work, busy with all sorts of things?
I need to block time in my agenda. This is what I did when I needed to finish the script for Sundays. I couldn’t finish it. Then Jules said; you really need to. I went to a hut in the middle of the woods and spent 6 days completely on my own. I only went outside for walks in the woods. That was the most creative experience I ever had. I wrote for 6 days straight. Everything got so focused. I felt like a Japanese monk. My days were extremely regular; breakfast, writing, walks, etc. Your vision gets so much clearer, because there’s no email, etc. It was a really nice experience, can’t wait to do it again.
I’m very good at that continuously perfecting my work. I could edit for years.
In his book Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull (co-founder of Pixar) explains that it’s easy to get lost in details and that you need deadlines – or in your case Jules telling you to finish the script – otherwise you are endlessly perfecting your work. What do you think of that?
I’m very good at that continuously perfecting my work. I could edit for years. I could make an edit, then a re-edit and another re-edit and then throw everything away and do it again and again.
Doesn’t that at some point become frustrating? That you’re glad that someone is at some point busting your balls?
Of course. But I’m grown up enough that I can bust my own balls. At some point I can tell myself; I really want to finish this now.
Do you sometimes tell yourself; don’t be such a perfectionist, people are not going to see these last details?
For me it’s different, for me it’s these last details that makes the difference. These details make it tip from ‘it really sucks’ to ‘it’s really good’. I just know people will rate the movie so-so when it’s done in a lesser grading because they have a bit of a lesser experience. It’s not like; that one last pixel in the back is gonna matter. Nobody really notices, but if you treat all those pixels like that people will start to know, start to feel these things.
Which of your personality traits do you think help you in the creative process?
You have people that can be creative all by themselves and you have people that need tons of people around them to be creative. You can design a poster by yourself, but you cannot make a film by yourself. So to me, the designer doesn’t need to have great people skills. Not that I have these, but I have to motivate people, I have to make stuff presentable, for the people that pay me, the people that work with me. So I need to have some kind of people skills.
You also said, you need to be like a God…
Just in the beginning. And if you consider yourself a God you’re an asshole.
To get the best out of people you shouldn’t be an asshole, but sometimes you simply have to be an asshole.
So maybe that’s the difference, in the conceptual phase you need to be God-like, and once you start executing you should be down to earth and become more social.
In the end you’re working with people, to get the best out of people you shouldn’t be an asshole, but sometimes you simply have to be an asshole.
Like Stanley Kubrick – one of your heroes…
I do not believe he started out as a completely anti-social guy, because the moment you’re an entity like Stanley you can do whatever you want, you can walk in a set butt naked and people still bring you coffee and listen to you. He was at such a level that nobody cared.
So that’s what will happen to you?
I’ll become really reclusive [he laughs – WB]. No that’s the whole thing, I can only be myself. That’s the one thing I could recommend; there are so many people trying to push and pull you, they try to tell you what to do. Just be yourself.
I want to look back and to look down. And I want to look up when I go forward.
Other personality traits that help you?
You also need to be some sort of dreamer, you need to set the goals high, way higher than the people around you, with whom you’re building whatever you’re building, and even way higher than you think you can achieve yourself. Because that’s the only way you’ll creatively develop; never do the same thing over and over again. I want to look back and to look down. And I want to look up when I go forward. That’s the only way you can get better and surprise yourself. Never be in your comfort zone. There are a lot of creative people that once they’ve found something, they think, wow I’m really good at this. And they do it over and over again. But that’s not being creative…
What is your definition of success – in the context of creativity?
Creating a situation where you are able to be more creative than the last time you created something. So you’re improving, and while you’re improving you’re being left alone more and more. In the beginning I had to really pitch hard, I had to work my way in. Now, it’s sometimes the other way around, people want to work with me because I do certain stuff in a certain way. This gives me a lot of … well, it’s never freedom, there’s always people paying for what I make, but it becomes easier.
Are there other ways to look at success?
You should end up as close as possible to your initial idea. And yes, sometimes things change, because the sun in Mexico is not as good as I hoped for. And things also change for the better. But you’ll never make a 100%. It doesn’t exist in nature, it doesn’t exist in creativity. If I find it; I want to die. Cause basically I’m successful then. I think that’s what a creative life is basically about; looking for perfection.
You said; the best films ever suck at the box office. That’s what happened to Stanley Kubrick many times. But the audience is also your mirror; I guess you’re always curious what an audience thinks of what you make. Is this true for you? How important is an audience in having success?
I used to think; I really don’t give a fuck. But I do. Of course I do. But I think it also depends on the quality of the audience. Or who is liking it, instead of how many are liking it. Because sometimes the more people like it the less qualitative the product is.
I always feel very sure of myself in the creative process, but right at the end when I give birth I’m most vulnerable.
But don’t you need an audience for feedback?
I always feel very sure of myself in the creative process, but right at the end when I give birth I’m most vulnerable; I get all those ‘what if’-scenarios in my head, what if I’m the only one that really likes this stuff. And then when I start reading what the audience thinks, it sometimes really hits hard… There’s all these haters out there. And it’s really easy to hate on the internet. So I’ve trained myself not to read anymore…
Only the positive reviews…
Not even, cause it doesn’t change what I make. Nobody changes what I make. I do love communicating with people about my work, as long as I can say something back. With reviews there’s no communication.
But a good review tickles your ego…
Of course. Every artist needs some kind of narcissism, because that helps you to want to prove that you’re good… [Whispers] …because I really don’t know if I’m good. There’s always this insecurity within yourself.
So luckily the press is now giving you the confirmation…
It’s nice to hear that you’re right to some degree. Because it’s easy, especially when you’re self taught, to think to yourself I’ve been faking it my whole life, I’m just acting like I’m a director. I’m not really a director…
Fake it till you make it…
Yeah! When I’m there, I think wow! And it’s nice when on that level they say you’ve done a good job.
Photo credit: Matthijs Joor.