Theater and Performance

tumblr_lrmiq2X7Zp1qdu5ijo1_1280 It’s no secret that the conscious imagination can be a powerful driver of creativity. But what about the unconscious? Can ideas born from dreams and other forms of subconscious sources be equally powerful drivers of creativity? During the 1920’s and 30’s one group of international artists and writers centered in Paris believed this to be the case. They thought true creative freedom came not from the ego of the artist but from those elements just under conscious control. These artists called themselves Surrealists after a word invented by French modernist poet Apollinaire signifying the strange place between the real and the unreal.

Poet André Breton was the founder and leader (often dubbed Pope) of the Surrealist movement. It was he who established its definition and mission and acted as arbiter of its rules. He was famous for excommunicating members for not being sufficiently ‘surreal’ or a million other reasons. It was Breton who made the Surrealist movement possible.

André Breton, 1924.

André Breton, 1924.


The Surrealist movement had a number of precursors and influences that it sought to co-opt into its philosophy and output. The first was Dada. Dada was started in Zurich in 1916 at the height of the First World War and was a reaction to the madness into which the continent had descended. To protest this irrationality they utilized irrationality in their art in order to force society out of its coma. From Zurich, it spread to Berlin, Paris, and New York among other cities.


Paris Dadaists including Breton in fake facial hair.


These artists began to create art that was so radical that it shunned all previous forms of artistic expression and all other movements and concentrated on those such as sound poetry, provocative performance, collage, radical typography and graphic design, photography and photo-montage, experimental film, and object making. During and just after the war it was notable for anarchic spirit, its hatred of authority,  and its bravery in standing up to reactionary forces during a time when societies were much more homogeneous in their beliefs in traditions and trust in authority.

A reenactment of one of Hugo Ball’s early Dadaist performances in Zurich from 1916:


Dadaist assemblage: Kurt Schwitters, Revolving, 1919.

An example of Dadaist sound poetry. Raoul Hausmann,  kp' erioUM, 1919.

Dadaist sound poetry and typography: Raoul Hausmann, kp’ erioUM, 1919.

An example of Dadaist photomontage. Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. 1919-1920

Dadaist photo-montage: Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. 1919-1920.

BPL228866  Credit: L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 (colour litho) by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) ©Private Collection/ Photo © Boltin Picture Library/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: French / in copyright until 2039 PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist's copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919.

By the early 1920’s, Dada was running out of steam and to some in the Parisian Avant-Garde its Nihilism had become counterproductive. Breton was first drawn into the Dada movement. But during the early 1920’s, he decided he wanted to move towards an idealistic vision and back to art from what the Dadaists had called ‘anti-art.’ He became interested in dreams and to believe that the only way to real freedom was through a revolution of the mind to free it from its conscious constraints.

Surrealist expression through manifestos, literature, and visual art was a method to make this possible. As opposed to the Dadaists who tried to work against art, culture, and taste, to destroy the remnants of the stuffy and nationalistic nineteenth century mentality once and for all, the Surrealists really were idealists and they thought they could change the world through art and literature through high-minded expression and radical politics. It was in a way a Romantic movement and though very different in almost every other way, recalled in its marriage of a sensuous and emotional art with socialism in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphealites of the previous century.

The Arts and Crafts movement: frontispiece to William Morris's News from Nowhere, designed by Charles March Gere in 1893.

The Arts and Crafts movement: frontispiece to William Morris’s News from Nowhere, designed by Charles March Gere in 1893.

A Pre-Raphealite painting: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.

A Pre-Raphealite painting: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.


The Surrealists in a dream state surrounding Hidden Woman (1929), painting by René Magritte, cover of Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1932. The text reads, ‘ I Do Not See the [Woman] Hidden in the Forest.’

Much of the forms of art invented or developed by Dadaists such as collage, assemblage and experimental film were co-opted by Surrealism. Additionally, many who had worked in the Dadaist mode such as Max Ernst, Man Ray, Jean Arp, Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard, and Francis Picabia became important members of the new movement.


Sigmund Freud.


Surrealism would not be possible without the insights and work of Sigmund Freud. Although Freud cared very little for Modernism or for Breton and his movement, the Surrealists worshiped him as the man who’s discovery of the unconscious and developments in the therapeutic benefits of dream analysis had made their art possible.

However, Freud’s belief that the unconscious could tell us a lot about ourselves yet it needed to be suppressed for the individual and civilization to function was lost on or ignored by the Surrealists. Instead they believed that the unconscious should be let loose from its moorings to free the individual from what they believed was the tyranny of civilization and consciousness that had made it possible.

They were anti-rationalists and stood in direct opposition to the philosophy of the Enlightenment with the importance it placed on an objective reality over the subjectivity of the inner mind. Freud was himself a rationalist and saw irrationality as a symptom of pathology not freedom from it. Nonetheless, Freud’s insights were very important to the Surrealists and formed the basis for a lot of their thinking.


Art of the mentally ill.

In their search for the irrational and the unconscious they also showed an interest in the art of children and the insane. Because neither group was locked up in the straitjacket of modern adulthood and its concentration on the rational, they were able to be completely free and express their unconscious as they wished. They of course did not take in to account  either the suffering of the mentally ill or the nascent science of childhood development. As with Freud, they idealized the parts of the unconscious they wanted to and discarded the rest.

Additionally, the Surrealists were interested in the work of amateur artists like Henri Rousseau who created magical worlds while being naïve and unpolished in their style. They thought the amateur was able to tap into something that was lost when an artist began to hone his or her skills. In this way, Surrealists wanted to get back to basics and even though much of their paintings in particular were polished and technically proficient, they admired art that seemed to go back to basics.


Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910.


One of the more perplexing influences on Surrealism was Communism. Many members of the Surrealist movement were avowed Communists. Breton himself was a Trotskyite and later became friends with Leon Trotsky in Mexico shortly before his assassination there. Trotsky himself, also had a hand in writing elements of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in the early 1930’s, the treatise that made the Communist influence explicit. Poet Max Jacob went even further, becoming a strident Stalinist during this time.


Breton with Trotsky and Communist mural painter Diego Rivera in Mexico, 1930’s.

The turn towards Communism was no doubt multifaceted in nature, however it seems strange looking back as Marxists were interested in a purely objective and materialist reality, while Surrealism embraced the opposite. Additionally, the Soviet Union, beginning during those early years of Stalinism in the 20’s, became increasingly hostile towards the Avant-Garde. Some artists were forced to change to new national propaganda style of Socialist Realism, which celebrated great Communists, national leaders, and the people in a traditional way. Others left, were jailed, or even killed.


An example of Social Realism, the state-mandated style of the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes. Alexander Gerasimov, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, 1938.

The state and realistic content in art were what Surrealism was rebelling against, so what accounts for this contradiction? Like with the Freud influence, it is clear that the Surrealists cherry-picked those elements of the Communist doctrine that fit their own philosophy, but intentionally ignored those that didn’t. For instance, the Surrealists embraced the fact that Communism like Surrealism was intended to be an international revolutionary movement while ignoring its censorship (or worse) of artists and writers within the Soviet Union.

Both saw the Bourgeoisie and Capitalism as being responsible for World War I and Communism for helping to end it through the 1917 revolution that took Russia out of the war. They  also were perhaps influenced by the Communist revolts that occurred in Germany around 1919 after the German defeat and the overthrow of the Kaiser. There is also the fact that many on the far-left during the early twentieth century embraced Communism as a new and exciting form of government. They also saw Capitalism as the status quo which they wished to overthrow and Communism provided seemingly the best mechanism to do this.

The Spartacist Uprising, a Communist revolt following the fall of the Kaiser, 1919.

The Spartacist Uprising, a Communist revolt in Berlin following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1919.

Not all Surrealists were Communists, however. Salvador Dali for instance, embraced his strong Catholic roots and Fascism, in particular the Franco regime in his home country of Spain who the Communists backed by Stalin had fought in a bloody civil war.


Avowed fascist Salvador Dali meeting with the dictator of Spain, Generalisimo Francisco Franco.

Forms of Expression:

Surrealist Games and Literature:

Surrealism was like Dada in that it was playful in spirit yet deadly serious about that playfulness. The most notable form of this was the Surrealist games that various members of the movement, most notably Breton, devised as ways of inserting the unconscious into everyday experience. These games came in various forms and involved different ways of tapping into the unconscious from passing a paper around adding elements to a story or picture without seeing what came before it (known popularly as ‘Exquisite Corpse’) to The Dadaist Poem, ie: putting pieces of cut up newsprint text in a bag and writing poetry by pulling the words out in a random order, to automatic writing. They allowed a new way into the creative process that avoided the conscious mind and decision making. They were also interested in seances and the occult, as the realm of spirits did not behave in a rational manner and therefore could be another point of unconscious contact.

An early example of the exquisite corpse created by some of the Surrealists, 1920.

An early example of the exquisite corpse created by some of the Surrealists, 1920.

Surrealist literature came out of several previous literary movements in France and elsewhere including Symbolism, the absurdest poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont, the dreamlike visions of Arthur Rimbaud, the modernist poetry collages of Apollinaire, the extremity and violence of Antonin Artaud’s plays and the works of the Marquis De Sade, the irrationality and energy of Futurist and Dadaist sound poetry, and the wild plays and poetry of Jean Cocteau. All these influences combined along with an interest in chance in the work of poets and writers such as Breton, Paul Eluard, and Max Jacob. They created in words something very similar to what Surrealists artists later created in images.

Artist Max Ernst proved that you didn’t need words to create works of Surrealist literature. Ernst constructed elaborate, bizarre, and uncanny ‘novels’ made out of collages of nineteenth century book and magazine illustrations that he created by cutting and reassembling and then printing from this hybrid of the original plates on which they were printed creating bizarre and frightening worlds.

Max Ernst, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, 1930.

Max Ernst, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, 1930.


There were two main strands of Surrealist painting. One was to create a vision of a dreamworld through the combination of a realistic painting style and juxtapositions of strange objects. This strand saw its precedents in the strange meeting of objects in The Comte De Lautremont’s prose poem Maldoror and in the ‘metaphysical’ paintings of Giorgio Di Chirico.

Giorgio De Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914.

Giorgio De Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914.

The two most famous artists of this style were René Magritte and Salvador Dali. Magritte’s art was as much about language as it was about images. His paintings seemed real but always made you question what you saw. A giant apple would take up an entire room, dark buildings lit like it was nighttime would sit below a blue daylight sky, hundreds of business men would fall from the sky like rain, and a miniature steam-powered train would come flying out of a fireplace. A pipe would be labeled with the statement “This is not a pipe.”


René Magritte, The Empire of Lights, 1950-54.

Rene Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952.

René Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952.

Rene Magritte, Infinite Gratitude, 1963.

René Magritte, Infinite Gratitude, 1963.

Rene Magritte, The Invention of Life, 1928.

René Magritte, The Invention of Life, 1928.

Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1948.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe), 1928-29.

Magritte’s paintings were of the slippery place were reality meets fantasy and language loses its meaning. Magritte is one of the most famous and beloved of the Surrealists because his art was fun (though sometimes violent or scary) and it was either easily understood or wonderfully enigmatic as a visual pun or joke or as a mysterious moment where the world began to stop making sense.

The smoothness and realism of his Flemish-influenced Belgian style meant that his art took on an extra surreal quality. What you were seeing didn’t seem possible yet looked as real as anything you could encounter in life.

Salvador Dali is the most famous of the Surrealists. His images are immensely popular because even in their strangeness and dark character they seem to somehow relate to us directly through our own dreams and nightmares.

The famous image of the melting clock in The Persistence of Memory is one of the iconic images of modern art precisely because it seems at once funny and unsettling. Dali’s paintings depict what seem to be realistic worlds, strange as they may be but also appear to be slightly out of control. Like the melting watches they are full of references to time slipping away, to disillusion and decay, to mortality.

Dali’s works also evoke feelings of shame, violence, lust, paranoia, and nightmares. They speak to us because they are universal in a way. Unlike Magritte’s straightforward yet highly intellectual dreamscapes, Dali’s images seem to come directly out of the Id. They are the remnants of the reptile brain bubbling to the surface like out of a fever dream.  Despite Dali’s ego, atrocious political beliefs, and extreme pretension his art still speaks to us because it taps into our own unconscious desires and fears in a way few artists besides perhaps Goya were able to before.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War, 1936.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War, 1936.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator, 1929.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator, 1929.

Salvador Dali, The Face of War, 1940.

Salvador Dali, The Face of War, 1940.

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcisssus,

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcisssus, 1937.

The other strand in painting was one of abstraction. It was interested in chance and in the lack of premeditation in the painted subject or in the juxtaposition of abstraction and realistic imagery. The most famous artist of this trajectory of Surrealism was Joan Miró. Like Dali, Miró was a Spaniard (more precisely a Catalan) and his early work is injected with the spirit of his native country. The yellow plains and blue skies, the rich soil, the heat. They combined a somewhat abstracted world with a completely abstract one in the same image.

Juan Miro, Carnaval de Arlequín, 1924-1925.

Joan Miró, Carnaval de Arlequín, 1924-1925.

Joan Miro, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), 1923-24.

Joan Miró, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), 1923-24.

Later Miró would go on to move to towards total abstraction, using elements that might allude to reality yet were hard to decipher. He painted on the backs of canvases adding new and interesting textures to his images. They seem childlike and playful and do not have the kind of dread or violence found in either Magritte or Dali’s work. They also come from an even more elemental place that evoke the curiosity of children’s drawings or the mystery of the cosmos. Miró was one of the few artists who was actually able to transcend Surrealism because his vision was so inclusive. It was fun, unlike the work of many of the Surrealists that could be so serious that they verged on self-parody.

Check out Part II of this article coming next week, featuring other forms of Surrealist expression including photography and film and more great images and video.

Joan Miró, Morning Star, 1940.

Salvador Dali, Woman and Bird in the Night, 1971-75.

Joan Miró, Woman and Bird in the Night, 1971-75.

Joan Miro's Studio, Mallorca, Spain.

Miró’s Studio, Mallorca, Spain.


Orson Welles has a varied reputation depending on who you ask. He lived many lives. Some cite his egotism and success as a Broadway theater director during the Depression. Others mention his War of the Worlds broadcast which, according to legend, scared the living daylights out of the American people and convinced many of them they were being attacked by aliens. Some cite his genius directorship of the ‘greatest movie ever made,’ Citizen Kane. Finally, others mention his uneven and difficult later years; his battles with studios, his ads for California wine and weight gain, and his lack of finished projects.

All these Welles existed.  They are all a part of the story, although somewhat skewed by outside perspectives. Nonetheless, we can learn a lot about the creative process from all of the different versions of Welles throughout his career.

Here are 4 things we can learn from Orson Welles’ life and work:


1.  Learn by doing

Welles always believed that if you could express yourself in one art form you could likely do so in several. With this ethos he became an actor, a theater director, a radio performer, and finally a director.

Welles started his career in a Dublin theater by lying about his age and experience, telling those in charge that he had worked on Broadway. It is up for debate whether they believed him or not but his sheer confidence and potential talent led them to hire him for the job either way. He tumbled into the acting profession and learned how to act by doing it.

When Welles got an unprecedented contract to write, direct, produce, and star in Citizen Kane, he had never directed a film and knew nothing about how to make a movie. He hired Gregg Toland, a veteran director of photography in the film industry who was told Welles that he was tired of working with people who knew (or thought they knew) the limits of the medium and didn’t want to push it in new directions. The idea of working with someone as fresh and inventive as Welles attracted him.


The first day of shooting, Welles went around fixing all the lights because he thought it was the job of the director. Little did he know that this was actually Tolland’s job. However, Tolland quietly balanced the lights and told everybody on set not to tell Welles and to let him continue. Welles set the lights for several days before someone informed him. When Tolland found out, he became quite angry because he wanted Welles to do things his own way.

Welles went on to wildly experiment in order to create a whole new kind of cinematic experience. He used lighting in inventive ways, shot certain scenes from wholly different angles and points of view, brought in montage techniques which had been used rarely in Hollywood before, and also used radio techniques of overlapping dialogue in new ways.

In the end, he had created what many think of as the greatest movie ever made. He always claimed that he was interested in jumping straight into things because this was the best way to learn.

orson-welles-directing on CBS

2.  Take Risks

Welles was most definitely a risk-taker. One need only look through his catalog to realize that he was constantly pushing the limits of whatever he was working on. Early on in the theater, he put on an all-black production of Macbeth. This was during the depression, in a time of racial segregation and institutionalized racism. Not only was Welles reacting against these elements (he was a dyed in the wool liberal) but also against the traditions of Shakespeare performances. But this risk ended up paying off and is remembered as a landmark in the history of Shakespearean productions.

Other times his attempts to push boundaries backfired, at least at first. The infamous War of the Worlds broadcast was reported at the time and later to have caused a national panic because Welles had produced a radio drama about aliens attacking her with convincing news bulletins that reportedly tricked people into believing in their veracity.

The reality of this oft-repeated claim has been recently challenged as a-historical but nonetheless Welles did get in trouble for the daringness of the broadcast and its effect. Since, as he has often mentioned himself, it was a revolutionary moment in the history of media, it would not have happened if Welles had not taken a leap of faith to create something truly daring.

Citizen Kane drew a lot of attention, not only from those who were quick to praise the film but from those who became the enemies of Welles. He long refused to admit that the figure of Kane was based on the controversial newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. But many of Hearst’s associates saw the connection all too clearly and tried to find all manners of methods to stop release of the film and blacken Welles’ reputation, going so far as to try to have the negative destroyed and frame Welles by trapping him in a hotel room with an underage girl. In the end their plots failed but Welles’ reputation with the studios was badly damaged nonetheless. He would never again have such ease in making a film as he did on Citizen Kane.

3.  Have a vision and don’t compromise it

One fact that is often cited about Welles was just how difficult and hard-headed he could be. He had a reputation for yelling at actors and throwing tantrums on set and causing major headaches for the studio heads.  It is almost not possible to imagine Welles any other way. The difficulty of his personality, which he later regretted using with such ferocity, was as central to his personality as his genius because in many instances it facilitated his ability to create the kinds of work he was eventually most famous and known for.

Not only that but it allowed him to get his projects done in the ways he envisioned them. When one thinks of films such as Citizen Kane, The Trial, The Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil, The Trial, or F for Fake, it is impossible to think of those films being directed by any other person other than Welles. Even though these films are disparate in many ways, they all share his undeniable touch.

Welles had very strong specific visions which he want to share with his audience in a precise and specific way. In order to make sure that happened he needed to go to the mattresses with the studios, his actors and crew, and the film itself. Many times this too backfired and studio heads cut versions of two of his films (The Lady from Shanghai and The Magnificent Ambersons) without his permission and behind his back. He never would forgive them for this and was never able to get the kind of control he had on Kane again. Nonetheless, he was still able to make some visionary films and it was only because he fought against those who would compromise his vision so consistently and so fiercely.

4.  Never Give Up

There was of course a downside to Welles’s incredible ambition and difficulty as a person. He made a lot of enemies which contributed to problems especially later in his career.  The third act of Welles life has often been talked about in terms of failure, at least partial failure. Although he made some of his most classic films during this time, many look at Welles’ final twenty or so years with pity or even derision. This seems to me to be entirely the wrong impression.

Although it is true that Welles had much less success in the later part of his life spending much of his time in bit parts, doing narration, and even performing in commercials, he never gave up trying make new film projects. He spent much of his time hustling in order to get the next film made. That kind of tenacity was what helped him to create some of his greatest projects. In the end, we should praise Orson Welles for the great work he did and see his strength of character in the face of adversity as an example to follow.


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Comedian, writer, filmmaker, TV show creator, and actor Louis C.K. has been getting an increasing amount of attention lately and for very good reason. He is incredibly hard working and talented. Not only is he a comedian who sells out practically everywhere he is booked and appears regularly on late night talk shows like the Tonight Show, Late Night, and Conan, he has a popular television show, simply called Louie that he has complete control over, has appeared in award winning films by directors such as Woody Allen and David O. Russell, and has revolutionized the way comedians distribute their content and sell tickets. Therefore it is easy to say that he has a lot to teach creative professionals who want to achieve the same levels of success and freedom that he has had.

Here are six things that we can learn from Louis C.K.:

  1. Skill only comes with time and experience

Like many arts, comedy is not something that you can’t be great at right away. A good comparison would be music. You need to take years to become a virtuoso musician. Years of practicing, of performing in front of audience, of honing your style and your technique. Louis says that comedy takes at least ten years of being really bad, of building the skills, of generating the jokes to become any good. You have to fail on stage, a lot in order to know the difference between good and bad material. And to become great takes even more time. You also need to constantly be watching other comedians and learning from them. He says that he was constantly doing this when he started out allowing him to think critically about the artform.

Part of the knowledge that he had to be great came from having kids. He now had no excuse in not taking his work seriously. He now had to make plans and see them through, and stop being immature. Additionally to be able to make observations about life, you’ve had to live it. To really get good, you need to have more and more experiences that you can draw on for comedy. This only really comes from getting older. As you get better and better you are able to understand the audience better, predict how they’re going to react to certain things, and basically (as Louis puts it) play them like an instrument.

  1. Get outside your comfort zone:

Louis C.K. does not believe in reusing material because he thinks its lazy. Part of this is because he says his material gets better as he gets older and since he is always talking about his own life, much of his old material is no longer relevant.  He also wants to give himself a challenge, a reason to be excited about his work and wants to create a better show every time he gets up on stage. He also thinks it’s unfair to the audience to keep reusing the same material over and over. They likely won’t come see him again.

Therefore, he comes up with a new hour of comedy every year. He goes to small clubs and tries out jokes on a smaller audience. He is then able to carefully craft his specials and theater shows so that only the best jokes are included. He compares the process to how Samurai swords were constructed. When making these swords, craftsmen would bang and fold the metal as it was being made until they achieved a flawless surface. Louis does a similar thing with his jokes by taking his best joke, often called the ‘closer’ in comedy because it comes at the end, and moving it to the beginning. This means he is now putting himself at a disadvantage in that he has to create an even better joke to fill the void left by the now absent closer. He keeps doing this over and over. The goal is to have an entire set of just closing bits, of material that is so strong that any of it could stand on its own.

His argument for why he does it is that feeling uncomfortable allows him to learn things. He is able to figure out better ways to work through his material or to push his television show in new directions by doing things that haven’t been done before and by forcing himself into a corner so that he was to find a creative way out.

  1. Use failure to your advantage:

Louis is not afraid to fail. In fact, as he Is quick to admit, he has failed many times. He has had his comedy career come crashing to a halt when the comedy boom ended at the end of the 1980’s and many comedy clubs started closing. He has seen the critical and commercial failure of one of his major pet projects, the film Pootie Tang. And he saw his first major attempt at a television show, Lucky Louie, get cancelled by HBO. But through all of it he has persevered. He realized after the failure of Pootie Tang that he felt bad for a little while but eventually he got over it and was able to move on and use the what he learned in the experience to his advantage.

  1. Don’t worry about what is deemed acceptable:

There are many forms of comedy and some are safer than others. Louis likes going to and past the edge of acceptability. This is where he feels he gets some of his best comedy. He thinks it is good to take people to a place where they are often uncomfortable. He likes the excitement of the high stakes that come in when you bring in difficult or bleak material. He figures that if you say one thing that will make the audience uncomfortable, you have to work to get them back. As a comic, at least a veteran comic, you control the future. He likes that challenge.

  1. Push the boundaries of what is possible:

Apart from being a great comedian, Louis C.K. is also a clever businessman. He has revolutionized the way that comedy is distributed to audiences by making tickets available on his website directly for a reduced price, selling his specials there as well for $5 apiece and asking people to pay the small fee instead of stealing. Not only has he made a nice profit from this experiment, he has allowed his fans to see his comedy more easily, either live or over the internet.

He also has a seemingly unbelievable amount of freedom on his FX TV show Louie. Not only has the show been critically acclaimed and loved by fans, as its creator, he has basically complete control over the show: over the stories he gets to tell, the jokes that go on the air, the people he gets to cast, the editing. He doesn’t turn in scripts or take notes from producers. This is unheard of in television. It is partially because his show is so cheap to produce and it is on at a time when cheaper advertisers, who are less sensitive to content, are paying for spots.

He is quick to stress that just because he has all this freedom doesn’t mean his employers don’t have a right to shut him down or reject and episode if they don’t like it. But he has been lucky enough to have bosses who think he’s talented and trust him. Before his most recent season, he took a year off to devote extra time to making the show as good as possible.

He has also done some unorthodox things on the show including switching the actors who play his daughters mid episode without anybody noticing, introducing characters and then not bringing them back for several seasons or at all, and using the same actress to play different characters. He’s not afraid to get surreal, mixing fantasy sequences with realistic action. He is willing to play with time and duration in ways that are unusual in television. For instance, while the first few seasons relied on a convention of self-contained episodes, the last couple have brought in multiple episode story arcs and are setting up longer narratives. He says that he has done this because the way people watch TV has changed, with many people waiting until a whole season has been broadcast and watching episodes all at once. This means the pacing that was traditional to television is no longer really relevant.

  1. Be Modest:

If you’ve ever watched or heard an interview with Louis C.K. than you would know he is probably the most modest man in show business. He doesn’t like it when people compliment him too much. He also doesn’t like the idea of fame. While he performs what he sees as a kind of art, he doesn’t see himself as an artist. He also sees himself as a regular guy and not as a celebrity. When he is out and about with his daughters he wants to be left alone. He doesn’t like taking pictures with fans but not because of any malice. He sees it as an intrusion and would rather talk to fans on a one-to-one level.

He also doesn’t like wearing suits. There are many occasions, such as performing at Carnegie Hall or on David Letterman where there is a certain level of dress code is expected. But Louis has never felt comfortable in a suit and doesn’t think it’s really him. Therefore he avoids at all costs doing so. In a recent episode of his shown, he lampoons his own modest stance on this issue but turning up to a gala in the Hamptons in a black t-shirt and jeans, his usual uniform, to the annoyance of Jerry Seinfeld, who he is opening for.

Louis C.K. is an unusual and important figure in modern entertainment. Some might call him a genius, although he is unlikely to appreciate that much and more likely to be embarrassed. It may be better to call him a lucky guy with some talent and perseverance who has been given some amazing opportunities and taken them head on. Thanks to him the landscape of comedy and television has changed forever, and is most definitely better off.


Recently, I decided to revisit one of the books that made me want to write about creativity, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. I wasn’t disappointed.

Daily Rituals delves into the process and lifestyles of many important figures, not just in visual art but in literature, music, choreography, film and even philosophy. The book takes each of these artists and thinkers and then goes into great and fascinating detail about their daily routines: how they structured their day, when and how they ate, worked, and played.  As the author puts it, “All of them found the time to get their work done. But there is an infinite variation on how they structured their lives to do so.” The book proves that there are many ways to success in creative disciplines and is captivating as well as inspiring.

When to Work and How Much:

While it is the variety of the experiences recounted in Daily Rituals that really engages the reader, there are some practices that these creators have in common. The majority of them started work in the morning, mostly between the hours of eight and ten and then worked until lunch. W.H. Auden went so far to state that “Only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.” The novelist Günter Grass also believes only writing during the day was the only way to go because as he says “it comes too easily.”

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

This is not true of everyone of course. The short story writer Ann Beattie can only write between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 AM. The playwright Tom Stoppard says, “I never work in the mornings unless I’m in real trouble.”

There is of course another issue that many creative people have to deal with. How do you do your thing if you also have a 9-5 job? Toni Morrison, for instance, worked at first in the evening after each day at her job in publishing, but had switched to early mornings by the 1990’s saying she lacked intelligence and wit after dark.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The poet Wallace Stevens balanced a successful career as an insurance lawyer with his poetry, which he would compose while walking to work. Currey quotes him as saying that a job, “introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and have nothing to worry about money.”

One aspect of routine that varies drastically among all the figures in this book is how much to work. Some kept long hours, like Voltaire who worked eighteen to twenty hours a day or Karl Marx who labored from when the British Library opened in the morning at 9:00 until well into the night.  Most worked between two and five hours a day, the limit it seems for the intensity it takes to concentrate on creative projects. Gertrude Stein put in as little as ½ hour, explaining that even that little work every day would add up to a lot after a year.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The Importance of Routine:

One writer who really understood the value of routine was the German author Thomas Mann. As Currey reports it, he was up and ready to go by 9:00 AM. Then he would steal himself away in his study, completely shutting himself off from everyone including his family. He would limit himself to composing his fiction until noon which would force him to take his work slowly and carefully. Then he could attend to other matters in the afternoon. This kind of regimented schedule worked well for him and allowed him to progress at a relatively consistent rate.


Thomas Mann

Others were able to get work done despite their relaxed attitudes. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, reportedly lay in bed and chatted with his mother well into the morning. His writing took him a long time as well. During the writing of Bovary, Flaubert only wrote two pages week, taking nearly five years to complete the novel.

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Urge to Create:

Patricia Highsmith, author of such classics as The Talented Mr. Ripley (one of my favorite film adaptations) and Strangers on a Train, saw writing as a compulsion. Not working led to unhappiness.“’There is no real life except for working, that is to say in the imagination,’ she wrote in her journal. Fortunately she was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms.”

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith wasn’t the only person to need to work to be happy. As Freud put it, “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable.” But he also understood the value of relaxation. He would take three month vacations with his family during the summer.

Environment and Distraction:

Freud’s onetime friend and later bitter rival in the psychoanalytic community, Carl Jung, also is described by Currey as being a ‘workaholic.’ At the same time Jung demanded something else that is important for the creative disposition: the right kind of environment. He built a home for himself called Bollingen Tower, which contained only the essentials needed to do his work: no electricity, phone, or even running water. This allowed Jung a simple existence, one that he could fill with his psychoanalytic writing, but also with physical labor which he loved.

Carl Jung in his study room _cropped

Carl Jung

Not everyone can work in a conventional environment. As Anne Rice mentions in the book, for some limiting distractions is essential if you want to get anything done. For others, like illustrator and author Maira Kalman, just the ‘right amount’ of distraction, cleaning, ironing, taking a walk.


Anne Rice

It is interesting to note just how many creative people discussed in this book took long walks and napped during the day. Apparently these activities, considered time-wasting and frivolous by many over-worked Americans, are quite beneficial to the creative mind.

The Struggle for Discipline:

The urge to create, that drive to express is something that comes up again and again in Currey’s book. Not everybody works that way however. Many struggle to find the work ethic to keep a routine going. Sometimes attempts at a rigid and defined discipline could falter even for the most productive of figures. Take the case of Benjamin Franklin who worked out a very calculated and considered routine for himself.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

“The plan worked, up to a point. After following the course several times in a row, he found it necessary to go through the course just one in a year, and then one every few years. But the virtue of order—‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time”—appears to have eluded his grasp.”

What’s great about this passage is that it acknowledges a struggle that many of us have with creative projects: that of staying focused, staying on track, seeing our work through. Many of us (myself included) are great at coming up with a plan but when it comes to accomplishing our goals we have trouble. We falter, sometimes we even fail.

Another great example of someone who constantly struggled with a consistent work ethic was William James. The philosopher who was obsessed with the ideas of routines and believed, whole-heartedly, that one needed to regiment time, focus, and be decisive, was an epic procrastinator.

As Currey relates, “James kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive and lived a disorderly, unsettled life.” He was obsessed with routines but was not able to enact the sorts of routines he recommended to others.


William James

Another famous example of a terminal procrastinator was the creator of the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson. He had a great deal of difficulty rising in the morning and mostly worked at night after returning from taverns.

Bad Habits:

Rituals can be detrimental as well as beneficial in life as in creation. A constant theme in the book is that of the ritual of drink. It is something that has been tied to both the act of creativity and the social life of creative types for centuries. Sometimes it is a positive force. Some writers, for instance, see it as a way to loosen up their minds, to get ideas flowing. But it can be taken too far.

The Post-Impressionist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec basically drank himself to death. His hard-hitting lifestyle which allowed him to depict the Paris cabarets and brothels which he loved, along with the late nights and constant alcohol consumption that came with them, would kill him at the age of only thirty-six.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Fiction writer John Cheever too had a drinking problem managing to hide it for much of his adult life, eventually spending more time drinking than writing. He also, during the early part of his career, had quite a famously unconventional way of working, getting dressed like he was going to the office and then riding the apartment elevator down to the basement, undressing, and beginning to write.

Jackson Pollock too was notorious for his self-destructive habits, including drinking, that would eventually kill him in a drunk driving accident. It is interesting then that his most productive period occurred when he moved with his wife to Long Island, far from the New York alcohol-soaked art world.


Jackson Pollock

Why Creatives Have Routines:

There are many myths about creative people: that they are undisciplined, that what they do takes little skill or effort, that they are lazy. The most important success of Currey’s book is to prove that these are indeed untrue. Though many creative people have unconventional lifestyles, most need a strong work ethic to get anything done at all. Writing a book, painting, directing a film: these all take a great deal of work and so one needs to manage ones time wisely.

Most creatives eat, sleep, work, and play at regular times. Many work during the day. Some who live crazy bohemian lifestyles burn out quickly and get little done, and many of those who have difficulty with creative discipline struggle in order enact routines in their life and work. But even those things that may seem like procrastination can be helpful. Naps, walks, and drinking that may come across as luxuries to some are often beneficial in creative work.

In the end,  Daily Rituals is essential reading for anyone who is interested in creativity. It is an revealing and enlightening account of what it is to be a creative person and can act as a kind of blueprint for creatives to get some stability in order to do their best work.

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Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_2011Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this month of a heroin overdose. Many critics have said that he was perhaps the greatest actor of his generation and one of the greatest who ever lived. What made Hoffman so beloved by so many was his mixture of pure skill, drive to work, and humility. The ambition of his acting and his ability to rise to any occasion allowed him to become famous but also are evidence of his ability to submerge himself deep into a role.  It was his honesty in his many performances that set them apart and made them memorable.

Hoffman was able to totally inhabit characters, to bring them to life in such a vivid and totally realized way that we forgot who we were watching, a skill that few of his more famous co-stars were ever quite able to achieve. He has often been referred to as a ‘character actor,’ an American term of art meaning an actor who does small bit parts but makes those characters three-dimensional and real.

Some of his best performances on screen (Capote, Happiness, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Master, Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War, Almost Famous, and many more) and in theater (Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Othello and more) demonstrate his great ability brining his characters to life. He appeared in over 60 films and numerous stage productions. He also directed a film and several theatrical productions.

He never understood why he was designated the character actor label. Maybe it was because he didn’t look like a traditional star, messy-haired, overweight, and usually in frumpy casual clothes. Appearance was never very important to him. He just wanted to act, plain and simple.

Hoffman often noted that one of his greatest motivators was fear. He said that acting was ‘a lot of terror,’ but that it was also a thrill. When playing characters such as Iago from Othello or Willy Loman from Death of A Salesmen, roles that were each very demanding, he realized he needed to let go of the final outcome, to embrace the fear and ride it out. He would often work himself into a state of distress and said that when he wasn’t doing a good job he was an extremely unpleasant person to be around. At the same time he knew that on days when he did do well that it couldn’t get any better.

During the years Hoffman was sober, work became his drug. He even called it an opiate. Like many actors, his approach to acting in films and in theater was vastly different. Since theater relies on a constant level of performance and since each performance is a test unto itself, Hoffman knew he needed to always be on his toes. All that mattered was what was happening right then. Past successes or failures were irrelevant. For this reason, he found theater very difficult and often struggled with it.

Trust was very important to Hoffman. He believed that it was crucial to work in conjunction with other actors and the director in order to create a performance that added to the overall ensemble. For him, you needed to be giving. You needed to create a bond between yourself, your fellow actors, and the audience. He felt very lucky that he was able to work on his various projects because it allowed him the chance to work with talented people. He liked it when his fellow actors gave him a kind of acceptance and support which allowed him to act from the place of openness that was most beneficial to the performance.

Preparation was hugely important to Hoffman’s process and was often unrelenting. He went to a place where he could feel as vulnerable as possible to allow the character to come out of that openness. Expunging as much of one’s own baggage as possible was very important. As he put it, “You don’t want to dirty the waters too much with your own crap.” Nonetheless, it is impossible to be a totally empty vessel. One cannot totally avoid one’s self showing up in the work, both the best and the worst qualities.

Hoffman’s approach to creating characters involved delving deep inside them trying to find what he called their ‘engine, or their prime motivation. Figuring out what drove them emotionally and what their motivations were allowed all the other elements of their personality to fall into place. He knew that he couldn’t always find the engine but he was constantly searching for it.

Hoffman used himself as a means of comparison with the character. He thought about similarities and differences from himself, how he and the character would react differently in different situations because of their particular drives. He might imitate the character to a certain extent, Truman Capote for instance, but imitation was the least important part of the performance. Motivation was the foundation with which he built the character from the ground up.

He never cared about making a character likable because it was untruthful.  Instead, it was important to create an honest portrayal, to feel the person depicted as three-dimensional and fully realized. Even if we could not identify with them we could at least understand them and imagine them to be real. We all are complicated and that complexity was what made Hoffman’s acting seem so honest.

He wanted to create risks for himself and give himself the room to accept failure if it came. This extended to his overall life. He stated that he always had to give up plans, that life was too unpredictable for that kind of thinking. He often worried that his career was going to be over soon, that he was a fraud.

Hoffman’s own self-doubt was often a problem but he tried to use it to his advantage, incorporating it into his acting with the same searching quality he gave to his preparation. He realized that in life you can’t control things, no matter how hard you try. Therefore, he wanted to work in an out of control state that had a structure around it. You could push the performance in pretty much any direction but at the same time you needed a basic plan which you could follow.

His performances were organic and often ignored the conventions of film acting. He would often play away from the camera when acting, not worrying about finding the light or making his marks. He was able to use his extreme sensitivity to tune his performance to just the right note at any moment in a scene.

His advice to young actors was to act, wherever and whenever possible. Go on auditions constantly. Accept anything that is thrown at you. When you act, act as well as you can because then the impression you give will be unforgettable. He said that you needed to be focused and strong-willed. Actors should pursue difficulty. The easy path is not worth following.

Hoffman’s greatest gift was his ability to give us a huge quantity of work to enjoy of the best quality he could. He proved that it was possible to not sacrifice one for the other. His death is a tragic loss. He could have contributed so much more amazing work to the history of film and theater. Despite his obvious weaknesses as a person, Hoffman showed an incredible work ethic and proved what someone who totally devotes themselves to their craft can do. For that reason, he is an extremely creative and skilled individual who other creative people should seek to emulate.



Peter O’Toole, one of the great figures of stage and screen died in December at the age of 81. Most famous for his turn in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, as well as his strong performances in such classics as Beckett and The Lion in Winter, O’Toole has often been called one of the greatest actors of his generation.

O’Toole came to acting via journalism and the British Navy. He had loved watching The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers as a child and became interested in acting while watching Kurosawa films starring Toshiro Mifune. Mifune such a charismatic presence on screen that it immediately drew O’Toole  to acting as a profession. He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1954. He played in more than 50 roles after graduation. This was the best training an actor could have in his opinion. It allowed him  to test himself against the great parts of theatrical history, a kind of trial by fire.


Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

Referred to as “the next Laurence Olivier,” O’Toole took his acting extremely seriously and was respected by his friends, colleagues, and critics. He performed such classic Shakespearean roles such as Henry II, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Shylock. Richard Burton called him “the most original actor to come out of Britain since the War.” He never liked the way that Hollywood fetishized the fashionable naturalistic ‘method’ acting of Marlon Brando and and preferred to act in a more traditionally theatrical style.

Not everyone appreciated this, however. Some thought of O’Toole’s acting as over the top, boarding on overwrought at times. Other times he seemed incapable of rising to the occasion, most famously during an Olivier production of Hamlet starring O’Toole, where critics left feeling pretty unenthusiastic about the performance. In 1980, he directed and performed in Macbeth, a production which was universally panned by critics, so much so that people came in droves just to see how bad it was. Many of his film roles were equally disparaged.

But when O’Toole was good, he was really good. His turns in both straight drama (Lawrence of Arabia, Beckett, The Lion in Winter with co-star Kate Hepburn) and comedies (The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year) earned him wide acclaim, Oscar nominations, and became firmly established in the canon of great film roles.


Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in “Beckett,” 1964.

One of the most famous speeches from The Lion in Winter, 1968:

O’Toole’s demented performance in The Ruling Class, 1972:

O’Toole’s portrayal of a star past his prime in My Favorite Year, 1982:

O’Toole’s skill didn’t come out of nowhere. He understood the value of studying lines, of getting deep into a role, and working hard  through the process of developing a performance. At the same time he recognized that spontaneity was important, but that this was only possible after one had rehearsed and practiced rigorously. Discipline was therefore most important for an actor to possess.

It was impossible to act without this outside preparation, but it was also impossible to get anything out of the role if there wasn’t something there with which to work. Therefore, the role needed to be good enough for an actor to inhabit it. Towards the end of his life, O’Toole stated had been around long enough to know which roles were good and which weren’t. He also was trained at a time when actors were expected to be versatile in the roles they chose. O’Toole took this to heart, performing in everything from heavy Shakespearean tragedy to light comedy. He never shied away for acting in cameos for the sake of fun, to the chagrin of many critics.

Lawrence of Arabia is an excellent case-in-point and is the role for which O’Toole is probably most famous. The David Lean epic story of a real-life British military commander who helped to command the Arabian tribes against the Ottomans undoubtedly made his film career. The film took an arduous two years to film, during which O’Toole learned to ride a camel, educated himself on the life of T.E. Lawrence, on the culture of Bedouin tribes and language, and traveled into the middle of the desert and stayed overnight to feel what it was like to be in that environment all alone for an extended period of time.

He said it was one of the hardest parts he had ever done. When O’Toole worried about how he would perform, Lean told him that he needed to get excited, that this was the beginning of a “great adventure.” Suddenly the character of Lawrence clicked for O’Toole. This is proof of the importance of preparation to O’Toole’s process and also an immense ability to extrapolate a performance from one key aspect of his personality. With that simple insight into the character and his world view, O’Toole was able to construct the cocky but troubled T.E. Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962:

Preparation wasn’t everything for O’Toole. For an actor to be really good, he thought, he needed to have natural talent. Not everybody was capable of this from his point of view. He became very opinionated about the quality of theater productions, especially in later life, when he stated that touring companies had become a thing of the past and that the quality of theatrical productions had become thoroughly disappointing. He also became disillusioned from his seeming inability to win an Oscar after being nominated an impressive eight times without winning. After being offered an honorary award from the academy, O’Toole turned it down at first stating that he wanted to earn it. Finally, he accepted it after his children told him it was rude to refuse.

O’Toole also had a reputation as a bit of a hell-raiser, along with his famous Irish and British actor friends including Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Frances Bacon, Laurence Harvey, and Michael Caine among others. They had a propensity to drink, carouse, smoke, gamble, and sometimes fight as well. He famously gambled much of his pay away in Beirut with Omar Shariff during the shooting of Lawrence of Arabia. His idea of heaven was walking from one smoke-filled room into another.

His hell-raising did not usually interfere with his acting. He knew when to stop and focus on his work. In a grand demonstration of self-control for an alcoholic, O’Toole and Shariff (who also liked a drink) agreed to only drink on their weekend escapades and focus on acting during the week. Work came first, fun second.

Despite his excessive consumption which may have led to various health complications and a rocky period career-wise and personally, O’Toole had no regrets about any of the choices in his life. Some thought that he threw away his career, that he had so much talent and wasted it on small roles and disappointing films and theatrical productions. He never cared. When he looked back at his early years he realized he was a bit loud and drank too much but was ultimately a good guy.

O’Toole returned to the stage for the last time in 1999, playing the enthusiastic drinker and columnist Jeffrey Bernard in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. At the final performance, during a standing ovation by the audience, he knew it was time to quit. He was smart enough to know when to exit gracefully.

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, 1999:

O’Toole admitted he was incredibly lucky. Being given the gift of acting was the biggest gift of his life, besides his children. He always seemed so sure of himself (even when he faltered), sometimes  cocky to a fault. This came from a good place though, one of confidence born out of tireless dedication.

O’Toole knew what he wanted on his tombstone. After receiving one of his favorite jackets back from a dry cleaners, a note was included which read, “It distresses us to return work which is not perfect.” This is a perfect embodiment of O’Toole’s view of acting. To do it well meant working hard on it, ceaselessly and tirelessly. He made an unwavering commitment to his trade throughout his career. Despite the perception by some that he did not live up to his potential, he still managed to create some of the great performances of the history of theater and film.


woody-allen-2Woody Allen loves the writing process. He says he can get up in the morning and go write in his room. He is a workaholic. As soon as he has finished a script he cannot relax until he begins working on the next one.  He doesn’t believe in taking any time off, averaging one movie every year or so. As a director, comedian, screenwriter of his own films, playwright, and writer of New Yorker articles, even a clarinetist in a jazz band, he has made waves in every creative direction he has delved into. His films have incredible range, going from the broadest of comedies to the most serious of dramas and every shade in between.

Despite his critical and increasingly commercial success he is in no way arrogant in his rare interviews. He always plays himself down, is always self-deprecating, stating that his movies are for the few people that like him and that they don’t make money.  As he puts it, “Nobody comes to my films but I make any movie I want to make.” At the same time his films have been becoming increasingly popular among general audiences over the last ten years. Even in less successful days he has always had complete control over his own production. The studios learned early on that they needed to leave him alone, to let him do the projects he wanted in the way he wanted. He admits he has had an incredible amount of luck throughout his career. Despite this, he says that he makes his films for himself and those who enjoy them, not critics or wider audiences.


Critically acclaimed “Annie Hall” is a prime example of Allen’s distinctive mix of comedy and drama.

Woody Allen started his career as an incredibly successful standup comic and television personality. When he began making films during the 1960’s, he worked solely in the realm of farce and broad comedy. He has said that if you have a comic take on life it’s hard to see things except from a comical standpoint. It is also medicinal in a way. It helps you to cope with pain. During the 70’s however, be began to inject elements of drama into his comedies in order to create a richer and deeper cinematic experience. This culminated in what many people think is still his best film, Annie Hall, in which he decided to make human relationships the center of the film as opposed to jokes. This really shook up the industry, especially in how it viewed comedy as a genre.

He also began to show the influence of dramatic cinema, such as the work of important European directors. The most crucial of these were Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Allen outright copied elements of their films while using similar editing and lighting techniques, or even the simple idea of working in black and white. These allusions to the works of the great directors didn’t usually feel like pastiche, in fact they tended to add depth and a push towards something new in American filmmaking, something more introspective, high minded, even intellectual at times. To be fair to these giants of cinema, he is quick to mention that he also copied from Groucho Marx and Bob Hope.


Film still from Federico Fellini’s surreal “8 1/2,” a film about filmmaking.

Stardust Memories 4

Allen’s “Stardust Memories” took on the style, feel, and some of the themes of Fellini’s “8 1/2”.


Film still from Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” Allen’s favorite director and film.

hannah and (1)

Allen cited the work of Bergman as a major influence on “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

Though he would come back to comedy as a genre, he also investigated serious drama as a subject. In the case of an early experimentation, Interiors, he eliminated comedy altogether from the final film. He has always put more stock in tragedy than comedy because tragedy looks at the realities of life and death head on while comedy puts a spin on it to make it seem less harsh. All the same he feels that he has to often fall back on comedy as he does not have the skills to do straight tragedy. His films often deal directly with tragic issues, most notably with the inevitability of death. This seems like a fairly heavy theme but it has found its way into many of his films, even the straight comedies.


“Interiors” was Allen’s first pure drama.

Allen’s process has never really changed over the years. He likes to get to work right after getting up because he says it keeps him distracted from blue moods and thinking about his own mortality and the banal difficulties of life. “Busy fingers are happy fingers,” he says. He writes ideas all over legal pads or any pieces of paper he can find. He can come up with them anywhere and doesn’t require isolation to do his work. After he comes up with a few he goes through them slowly and arduously thinking about whether they excite him at all.

Choosing can be somewhat difficult. He says he has an embarrassment of riches and is always indecisive about which project to work on next. When he finally decides he gets right down to writing. He states that as a writer you don’t have to worry about coming up with anything good. It can be amazing in your head. The hard work comes when you have to make it into a movie. He still works in an analog process for writing using the same typewriter he’s had since he was sixteen years old. If he makes a mistake or wants to edit what he’s written, he cuts and staples corrections on top of the original. While he is working he will notate his scripts thoroughly. Writing never takes him long. He has spent as little as forty minutes on some New Yorker pieces for instance.

Manhattan 3

“Manhattan” was loved by critics and audiences but loathed by the director himself.

The fact that he works so fast and that he claims he never gets writer’s block doesn’t mean that working is always effortless for him. Sometimes he will need a change of location to get ideas moving. He used to go on walks and think about his work but he is pretty much always recognized now, which distracts him, and instead paces around the terrace of his apartment. Other times he needs to get away from his typewriter and go take a shower or even multiple showers in order to get his mind working. He will stand there and try to figure out where to move his story. After he finishes he will lie down on his bed and continue to think. There are no idle moments. The process can also be tough with other types of writing. He finds writing prose far more difficult than writing for a film. Unlike a film script, a work of prose is its own end product. But in a film, at least in Allen’s case, the final product bears little resemblance to the original script. He is disappointed with it more often than not and only considers a handful of his films to have been successful enactments of his vision.

Allen is often seen as unconventional or even eccentric in how he views his film’s production after the writing process is over. He never rereads a script after he is finished with it. It becomes too boring for him. He doesn’t like the casting process and often tries to hire actors he thinks are perfect for certain roles without auditioning them first. He doesn’t send the script to the actor’s agent but instead directly to the actors themselves. The process is secret and time sensitive. The actors must return the scripts promptly, usually within twenty-four hours. He writes them personal letters or emails asking them to take the role.

Although the letters have this personal touch to them (they are sometimes hand written or typed distinctively on his typewriter), he doesn’t like meeting with actors before filming. When picking actors for his parts he will often meet with them for as little as thirty seconds, look them over, and then decide if he thinks they would be good fit for the part. If he decides they are, he will say so and then leave, claiming that he doesn’t want to waste their time. He does sometimes make mistakes. He can be pretty brutal about re-casting in the middle of a project replacing actors or even whole casts if he feels they are not working out in the way he wants.


Woody Allen on the set of “Vicky Christina Barcelona” with actress Penelope Cruz.

Allen’s directing style is something that people always point out as being quite unique. Although he has a reputation for not directing at all in the sense of telling actors what to do, many actors have stated that he’s an excellent actor’s director. It is true that he is fairly hands off with them and doesn’t expend much energy trying to tell them how to play a character. He will give them certain suggestions to nudge them in the right direction but doesn’t push them too hard.  He doesn’t believe in too much improvisation despite his interest in jazz as he is a writer and thus tends to want actors to respect and stick to the script. He will make an exception if he thinks an actor can do it in a way that will still emphasizes the spirit of the original lines.  He figures that if the director hires the right people for the part, then they can make the right decisions about the character.

He doesn’t believe in rehearsing. Actors show up on the day and do the scenes. He doesn’t do much preparation himself either. He doesn’t even know what scene is being shot before he arrives to begin directing most of the time. He gets there, gets the script pages for that day, and then figures out what he has to do.

Shooting is also quick. When he gets a take he likes he moves on. He only shoots a few. His films are straightforward. They are simple. He doesn’t like special effects or playing around with new technology. Nonetheless, he has a very strong grasp on the technical aspects of filmmaking. He knows about lighting, about camera placement, about framing. He has a very great understanding of the visual aspects of a film and is often cited as an important visual director. He hires great cinematographers such as Gordon Willis on Annie Hall and Manhattan, who had previously worked as the cinematographer for The Godfather movies. And like many other things in his life, film has been a totally self-taught process for him. The post-production and editing process of his films is more complicated than the actual filming and he often cuts and then totally recuts a movie. In Annie Hall, for instance, he cut as much material as appears in the final film and he went back five times to do reshoots of scenes.

Despite the differing levels of work Allen puts into projects, he has noticed that there is no direct correlation between the amount of work he has done on a particular project and critical or audience reception to it. Not all his films have much success overall. They can be too new or difficult for audiences or they can just not quite work. These are the films that Allen often likes the most. He is happy when he can pull something difficult off as opposed to just giving people what they want. Being popular doesn’t interest him. The artists he liked most never had much wide popularity or success. Nonetheless people have always been drawn to them. The humanity that is imbued into his films, that mix of comedy and tragedy that can be found in most of them, are what he believes make people attracted to them. They feel like life in some ways, even when they’re a bit surreal.


Oscar winning “Midnight in Paris” garnered applause from critics and audiences alike.

Allen’s tireless work ethic and incredible volume of production are paired with his incredible knack at combining genres and at moving  film in new and interesting directions even when the result is not viewed as a success either critically or commercially. This is becoming less and less the case anyway as the mainstream is beginning to recognize the tremendous quality of his films. He is no longer only the favorite filmmaker of the New York and European intelligentsia, of critics, and of independent film buffs because of groundbreaking recent works like Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and, most recently, Blue Jasmine. In his late seventies, he is finally gaining wide appeal and deservedly so.