Developing style as an artist
Anyone facing a career in the arts, be it writing, filmmaking, or whatever, will face the issue of style: where it comes from and how to get it. A quick Google search brings up hundreds of articles on developing style as an artist. As someone who talks to a lot of artists, I hear the topic come up a lot. As someone who reads tons of screenplays, I can see that people aren’t quite getting it.
The articles all say the same things: don’t force it, let it come naturally, experiment, try imitating but don’t copy. It’s all fine advice but it’s not helpful to someone who feels like their work is lacking an identity.
Watching the rough cut of Hammer of the Gods, my third feature film, I realized I’ve been developing my own style. Some elements I can pinpoint to inspiration from other filmmakers, and some are of unknown origin. Yet somehow, it all works as a coherent unit, as if it’s just one style — because it is. Led Zeppelin’s music has a perfect synthesis to it but you can still hear the Celtic and blues inspirations.
Style doesn’t come naturally
There’s a myth that certain artists were born into their style, that Quentin Tarantino sat down for the first time at a typewriter and produced Pulp Fiction. People see The Grand Budapest Hotel and think Wes Anderson has always had that quirky style. It’s not true and it’s a harmful assumption to someone starting out with their art career. Even Led Zeppelin was actually Jimmy Page setting out to create a supergroup of already well-established musicians with distinct styles of their own. They weren’t school buddies who got together in their parents’ basements to write Stairway to Heaven.
Nomads vs Predator
I love the movie, Predator, John McTiernan’s second film. Until last night, I’d never seen his first film, Nomads. I was curious to see what McTiernan came up with before Predator and Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, so I checked it out.
Watching the film you can see lots of hints at what would become McTiernan’s masterful style, but it doesn’t seem like a McTiernan film. It’s flawed in many ways, and there is a good deal of experimenting. The film isn’t great. McTiernan is doing so much experimenting that it’s hard to follow. He was trying to push boundaries before he understood what boundaries he could push and the film suffered as a result. Luckily Schwarzenegger loved it, so McTiernan got the director’s seat for Predator.
McTiernan approaches Predator differently. The artsy experimentation of Nomads is gone. Now, he’s simply trying to tell a good story. He’s focussing on relaying information to the audience clearly and efficiently. He isn’t using the camera in an attempt to create style. He’s using it to create tension. He’s focussed on doing his job as a director: the job of a storyteller. Predator isn’t a stylized film, and neither is Die Hard, but you can tell a John McTiernan movie when you see one. Why is that?
Style doesn’t mean stylized
My film school classmates all wanted to be Wes Anderson. Half of the final projects were blatant Wes Anderson rip offs. I even heard one student tell her actor, “That was good but this time, be more like Bill Murray.” I can’t judge — meanwhile, I was busy being a Sam Raimi wannabe.
Stylization happens when you’ve mastered your craft and developed a style. Once you’re able to look at that style and see what makes it unique, what the audience enjoys the most, that’s when you can start exaggerating certain elements. But first you need to develop a style, which needs to happen naturally.
Focus on telling the best, most clear story you can, and then look at your finished product. Decide which elements you like most about it. Take those elements with you into your next project and leave the rest behind. Do this over and over enough and eventually a style will emerge. Everything you like about your own work is an element of your eventual style. Bottle Rocket isn’t anything like The Life Aquatic, but you can see the little things that will eventually become Wes Anderson.
Don’t worry about your work being ordinary. Your personality will show through your work once you stop forcing style in to cover it up.
You don’t get to choose your style
This is the hardest fact to grasp for the emerging artist: your style chooses you, not the other way around. You might obsess yourself with Sam Raimi and wish your style was filled with crash zooms and over-the-top performances, but if it’s not you, then it’s not you — though some of that influence may still creep in.
You need to be honest with yourself. Embrace the unexpected. You may be casting a film, looking for a certain performance, when someone comes in and does something you never thought of. Go with it. A light might burn out on set and you end up with an interesting lighting setup and you like it. If you like it and think it can work, go with it. Don’t try to analyze or define what you like about it, just trust your gut.
In my own experience
The long following shot of Jensen (Shane Twerdun) in Black Mountain Side wasn’t what I expected it to be, but during the camera rehearsal, the camera team went down the wrong path in the snow and the shot ended up being framed completely differently. I decided to go with it (it’s one of my favourite shots in the film), and I ended up doing a similar shot in Hammer of the Gods. Embrace the accidents. Had Black Mountain Side turned out exactly as I’d envisioned in my head before sitting down to write the script, it probably would have been a glorified Shining rip off, but as I wrote, ideas with seemingly no origin came to mind and I rolled with them. When we were casting, amazing actors came in that didn’t fit my original mental image, but I went with them. Budgetary restraints forced me to be creative on the day, and at times I put my trust in other people. Good things happened and I took those good things along with me to Hammer of the Gods.
Don’t feel like you need to force style into your project to be noticed or interesting. It’s hurting your work and it’s hurting your potential. Be excited to meet your style. Enjoy watching your style unfold from project to project. It’s one of the more satisfying parts of the job.