What does cancer research have in common with sculpting or writing or dancing? When it comes to the creative process, a lot. From committing to an idea and following passion at all costs, to finding inspiration in unexpected places and being undeterred by critics, many traits are universal among those who create.
These themes are explored in a new feature documentary, From Nothing, Something, which profiles creative thinkers from different disciplines to find common mindsets and neuroses that help bring breakthrough ideas into being.
Created and directed by Tim Cawley, an award-winning group creative director at Boston agency Hill Holliday, you might expect the inspiration for such a film to come from his life as a creative professional. Instead, Cawley says the idea for a documentary exploring the creative process came from his dad, a chemical salesman. Over lunch one day, he says his dad was telling him of a major sales deal he’d just put together. “He said it’s just like the stuff you do with your songwriting and your filmmaking and your advertising. I bristled at that for a second but then I thought it was interesting and talked more about it,” Cawley says. “He was like, I had to conceive of it, I had to revise it, sell people on it, I had to keep people from messing it up in execution and all of those things. I thought, wow, he’s right!”
This lunch sparked an idea that was crystallized in a theater in Vancouver several months later. A short filmmaker in his spare time, Cawley was at the Vancouver Film Fest with one of his films. After seeing a number of dark festival films, he watched the music documentary It Might Get Loud. At that moment he knew he wanted his first feature to be a documentary that evoked the same excitement and energy around creativity and the creative process. “I’d mentally committed from the time I’d gone from my seat to the lobby of the theatre in Vancouver,” he says.
The film, which was produced by Brickyard Filmworks and premiered last weekend at the Boston International Film Festival, features 16 accomplished creators that Cawley admires, including novelist Tom Perrotta, Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara, creature designer Neville Page, architect Preston Scott Cohen, and artist Huma Bhabha, as well as MIT cancer researchers Moungi Bawendi and W. David Lee, who serve to retain the spirit of Cawley’s original inspiration for the film.
Structured around chapters on topics ranging from inspiration, working under pressure, maintaining confidence in one’s ideas, managing critics, and internal drive, the film exists at a high level in order to illustrate the similar ways in which great ideas are born.
“The film is about making stuff,” says Cawley, who admits the motivation for this film was in part to reinvigorate his own creative process. “And it’s about fear and confidence and motivation and wanting to pass through this world without being unnoticed. I think those are pretty universal truths. The amazing thing about this film is that every time I got bogged down or lost confidence or lost my way, the answers are in the film.”
Here we present five of the most inspiring and motivating lessons found in From Nothing, Something.
If you think a lilac tree, a prolapsed anus, a cancer victim, and that “Don’t Tase Me Bro” YouTube video have no common thread, you’d be wrong. They were all points of inspiration to various people in the film, underlining the fact that you have to be prepared to accept that your muse may come from anywhere.
For architect Preston Scott Cohen, a striking view of a beautiful lilac tree caused him to completely rethink architectural plans, resulting in an inspired living space. For game designer Jason Rohrer, “Don’t Tase Me Bro” was more than an online funny; it became the basis for his game exploring the social-political complexities of police brutality. For researcher David Lee, the death of his wife to cancer led him to dedicate his life to finding revolutionary treatments. And for creature designer Neville Page, images of a prolapsed anus quite literally served as inspiration for a gruesome creature in Star Trek after the director requested a design based on “disgusting orifices.”
At one point in the film, novelist Tom Perrotta (best known for his novels Election and Little Children) makes a poignant statement: “There comes a point when every artist has to go all in. You think, ‘I’m doing this to save my life right now.'” This passion and willingness to fully commit to what others might think is crazy is common to each of the film’s subjects. For Perrotta, that meant abandoning his backup plan to go to law school and commit to writing, despite his father’s misgivings. A subsequent shot shows Perrotta showing off his Academy Award class picture from when Little Children was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Cawley himself had an all-in moment in the making of the film. On the eve of heading to L.A. to shoot part of the film, news that his agency was in peril of losing one of its biggest accounts nearly derailed the project. “It sounds corny but I was like, I’m going to believe in myself and I’m not going to cancel the shoot and we’re going to do this thing.” While in L.A. shooting at chef Mary Sue Milligan’s house, Cawley got word that the agency won a new account it had been pitching on. “My belief in myself was justified,” he says.
“The people who seem to be winning took some kind of leap. When people abandoned their plan B’s and decided to go all in, that’s when the good things happened.”
Criticism sucks. It saps confidence, leads to self-doubt, and is often merely the opinion of someone with too many opinions. But for those in the film, overcoming negative feedback and not succumbing to fear lead to the greatest breakthroughs.
As Sara Quin says in the film, “There’s nothing less creative than being terrified.” For her and her twin sister, Tegan, conquering their fear and following their gut, despite polarizing feedback on their song “Walking with a Ghost,” led to their breakout success.
As for other views on criticism, choreographer Keith Young says he always advises young dancers to consider it simply one person’s opinion, while artist Huma Bhabha says one should never base their work on what others think, otherwise you become a careerist.
But the best advice of all comes from Jay Greenberg, an eccentric savant composer who entered Juilliard age 11. “I have no interest in writing for critics,” he says. “They’re not my target audience.”
Some of the most telling moments of From Nothing, Something come when Cawley goes behind the scenes to reveal intimate workspaces, which is why he made a conscious decision to only cast doers and makers in the film. At fashion studio Ohne Titel he turns the camera on the designer’s worn-out floor, and he visits the bedroom studio of composer Jay Greenberg.
“You can’t think that you’re hot shit,” says Cawley. “You have to treat it like a manufacturing process, which is something that I believe. Brick by brick and across the board people were like, you’ve got to treat it as blue collar work and not get too heady about it.”
In this respect, cancer researchers Moungi Bawendi and David Lee are more pragmatic. While the two highly accomplished doctors hold 60 patents between them and have developed a groundbreaking, cancer-detecting surgical tool, they have an extremely levelheaded approach. “They seem to have the most on the line because if you are successful, people’s lives will be saved,” say Cawley. “And we talked about that but they said they couldn’t think about it like that. They had to look at it the same way that everyone else did, from a manufacturing standpoint of I’m going to show up, do the work, and do the best I can. The only pressure they can feel is the pressure they put on themselves or else things break down.”
When Cawley talked to people about this film as he was making it, the response, he says, was “Cool, but why are you doing this?” His response was always, “Because I have to.”
When asked why they do what they do, everyone profiled in the film had a similar answer: because they’re driven to. For editorial cartoonist Steve Breen, his mind is always working, and composer Jay Greenberg says he can’t turn making music off. Game designer Jason Rohrer, a self-professed monomaniac, says sleep is death, while researcher Moungi Bawendi admits that it’s hard to sleep, “but that’s often when solutions come.”
If From Nothing, Something reveals a singular neurosis that all share, it’s the compulsion to create. Or as chef Mary Sue Milligan says, “You might as well put your OCD to work for you.”