Freedom Is Overrated: On limitation as a catalyst for creativity

the-exorcist-pea-soupA couple months ago, I walked out of my local movie theater and into a dusky night, chatting with my friend about the movie we’d just seen, when I noticed a man walking behind us. A little thrill danced up my spine. The next morning, I would discover that my friend had noticed the guy, too, and had the same two thoughts I’d had:  He’s following me and I wonder if anyone else can see him? The movie we’d just seen was It Follows, and our sudden paranoia came from the film’s plot—a simple concept that finds the protagonist followed by a ghoul that can take the form of anyone (living, dead, strangers, people she knows). That’s it. It’s just a ghost, and it follows her around—and it’s the most unnerving horror movie I’ve seen in a good handful of years.

In a lot of ways, It Follows is a throwback to the movies made during a period I think of as horror film history’s “sweet spot”:  from 1968, when Rosemary’s Baby hit theaters, to about 1982, when John Carpenter gave us The Thing and Stephen Spielberg teamed up with Tobe Hooper for Poltergeist. The movies made during this period have a lived-in, authentic feel that modern movies don’t quite deliver. Even with ghosts invading The Fog’s Antonio Bay and John Hurt giving birth to an eyeless, silver-toothed squid in Alien, movies from that era manage to feel realer to me than anything studios have come out with in the last twenty-odd years.

In his excellent book on this period of horror movie-making, Shock Value, Jason Zinoman provides a clue to why I find the scary movies of the 1970s and ’80s so effective. “[Special] effects back in the seventies were expensive and what was possible was limited,” he writes. “[…] There was an element of innocence about the business in the low-budget films of the seventies that allowed the directors to do things differently, to take chances and try crazy ideas.”

Or to put it another way:  Cool shit happens when you’re faced with limitations.

In the horror movies of the ’70s and ’80s, limitations of budget, technology, and the experience of young filmmakers led to both authenticity and creativity. The special effects back then weren’t always so special. The pea soup that demon-Regan vomits in The Exorcist, for example, flowed through a tube attached to Linda Blair’s mouth, whereas nowadays, FX teams would digitally add green spew in post-production. But the hands-on, jury-rigged, soup-out-of-a-tube method allowed for an in-the-room realness CGI could never conjure:  When the pea soup shot across the room and hit actor Jason Miller (as Father Karras) in the face (instead of the chest, like it was supposed to), his disgusted, shocked reaction is 100% genuine. The honesty of his surprise reverberates from the screen and becomes a way of drawing the viewer into the scene more deeply.

Zinoman also points out that limitation can be a catalyst for outside-the-box thinking. In some ways, the young filmmakers behind Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were tumblr_m7wqe0PEri1ql8mddo1_500limited by their own inexperience. But, as Zinoman points out, the fact that Wes Craven didn’t know what a dolly was or how to use one meant that he used a handheld camera, instead, to film The Last House on the Left, giving the film a documentary feel that made it one of the most gut-wrenching films audiences had ever seen. Steven Spielberg didn’t initially set out to keep the shark in Jaws hidden for most of the movie, but when the mechanical shark created for the film kept malfunctioning, the director was forced to shoot scenes without it. Not only did not seeing the shark intensify a sense of dread and suspense in the audience, but it forced Spielberg to figure out how to use his camera to convey movement and point of view in a way that’s now studied by film scholars.

This is the advantage of limitation:  When you’ve got an obstacle, you’ve got to find a way around it. A lot of times, the solution ends up being more interesting than anything you’d planned on doing before you discovered something standing in your way.

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Robbie Pickering: You get creative with what you actually have. Limitations are actually great.

David Huntsberger: But do you limit yourself in script writing? Like, “I want to write one where it takes place way out in space…” Or I know I have no money, so I’ll cram a guy into his apartment, there’s no location changes, not a big cast.

Pickering: …I think it’s good to do that…I think sometimes putting those limitations on yourself in writing can help.

- From Professor Blastoff, episode 206

In theory, writing should be the easiest thing in the world. All you need is a piece of paper, a pen, and an idea. But the apparent ease of writing doesn’t account for the fear that 99% of people feel when faced with the dreaded Blank Page. I feel it. Every time I sit down to write something new—be it a short story, a book, the chapter of a book, the first sentence on a new page—I stare at the vast expanse of blankness and think, Why is this so hard? Just write words, dummy!

But Zinoman’s got the answer to this mystery, too:  “A little freedom can be a good thing, but too much can paralyze.”

If you can do anything, how do you know where to start? When micro-budget filmmaker Robbie Pickering recently visited the hatch on the Professor Blastoff podcast, he talked about how small budgets and limited access to equipment often result in better or more creative filmmaking. “I hate having that much freedom…I actually think all the bells and whistles, it gets to a point where, if you can have everything you want, it’s actually not as good—you don’t get as creative.”

Limitation: Not only does it foster creativity; it can lessen the fear and paralysis of unlimited possibility.

But the difference between filmmaking and fiction writing, as Professor Blastoff’s David Huntsberger alluded to, is that when you’re making a movie, the parameters are usually set for you by an outside source. The era you live in hasn’t developed CGI yet, or you’ve got a set budget, or you have to get all your principle shooting done in so many weeks. When you write a story or a novel, though, no one’s setting limitations on you. So you’ve got to create your own.

Another way of thinking about limitations is in terms of rules—and people who write science fiction and fantasy, in particular, are probably acutely familiar with the importance of establishing the rules of how things work when building a world. But even if you’re writing a realistic drama set in the modern-day real word, you have to establish certain rules—and, in doing so, you begin to place limitations on your characters, and yourself, that can create obstacles, advance the plot, and lead to ideas that end up surprising you.

improve-my-writing-skills-bear-attackSometimes, the very circumstances of your initial idea create their own limitations. When I started writing my first novel, I knew the main character would be a thirteen-year-old girl who lived in rural Alaska. This established several limitations immediately:  My protagonist couldn’t run to a neighbor’s house for help if someone was coming after her. The setting and climate meant she faced obstacles (intense cold; wild animals) anytime she stepped foot outside. Even her age created difficulty: one major hurdle she faces throughout the book is how often her own actions result in her father grounding her or the local school threatening to suspend or expel her.

Setting limitations isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of plot, though. It can foster creativity in prose, too. Another limitation I gave my protagonist—who also happens to be the narrator of her own story—was her voice. She has a very particular way of speaking and of seeing things. Nearly everything she cares about is related to the natural world; nearly everything she’s learned has come directly from the time she’s spent outdoors. Having established this, I knew there were certain references she’d never make, certain modes of description she wouldn’t have access to. This meant that there were a lot of things I couldn’t write, and a lot of old writing tricks I couldn’t rely upon. But it also forced me to really think about how my protagonist would interpret the world—the comparisons she would make, the metaphors she would come up with. Limitation, as a result, forced me to break free of certain tics I’d developed over time and helped enliven my writing.

So this is what I do now when I’m confronted with a blank page:  I take something away. I say no. I take a look at the idea I have and I ask myself, “How can I make circumstances more limited for this character?” Another way of phrasing the question might be:  “How can I make things worse?” Because if you ever seen a horror movie, you know things are going to get worse before someone figures out how to escape the serial killer, how to exorcise the demon, how to banish the poltergeist. The phone is going to go dead. The killer is going to turn out to still be alive. Every room is going to be locked, and ever road is going to be a dead end. All the options will be taken away, and that’s when things will start to get interesting. That’s when the cool shit happens.