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  • 12.30.16

Essential Creative Advice From James L. Brooks, Sharon Horgan, De La Soul, And 9 Others

Enjoy sage advice from some top talent Co.Create interviewed this year, including timely tips from Tegan and Sara, Jesse Eisenberg, and more.

Essential Creative Advice From James L. Brooks, Sharon Horgan, De La Soul, And 9 Others

What can Pamela Adlon or Steve Aoki teach you if you don’t make movies or you aren’t a TV show creator? You might be surprised.

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Over the past admittedly difficult year, Co.Create has talked to some of the most prolific creatives around—filmmakers, musicians, showrunners, and other content creators of all stripes. Getting insight into their creative process sometimes changes the way we consider the results, but their words of wisdom are also remarkable for how applicable they are across disciplines.

Anyone who read all of these interviews certainly learned something about turning a web series into a TV show, telling a story, and connecting with audiences, but these discussions with creative leaders also yielded useful, actionable clues into being creative in whatever realm you work in.

Co.Create has combed through this year’s most interesting interviews and cherry-picked some of the essential advice that’s applicable no matter what your creative calling. Have a look at advice from the 10 badasses below and get ready to blow some minds in 2017.

Reggie Watts on getting into a flow state:

“I don’t want the audience to ever feel bored, or to see that I’m panicking in a moment,” Watts says, which is why he defaults to relaxed when he is on stage. “The demeanor is always to stay relaxed because that’s what keeps the audience relaxed, and that gives me time to receive the next inspired subject or action.” Are there moments in his new Netflix special, Spatial, when Watts is internally celebrating a joke that goes over well? “I mean, yeah, sometimes there is that. The best thing that can happen for me on stage is I’m performing, and suddenly something starts to resonate, and it starts to flow so well that I feel like I’m listening to it, that I’m watching it. I’m like, ‘Oh this, I like this!’ And it doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m responsible for it. It’s happening so easily that now I can almost step outside of myself. I can just feel like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s cool. I really like that. It’s a good show!'”

OK Go’s Damian Kulash on finding the big idea to hold many little ideas:

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“If there’s one thing we’ve managed to kind of systematize across the process of making all the videos is that first we think of a sandbox that seems promising, but then we have to play in it for a long time before we figure out a vocabulary of 10 to 30 cool ideas—and those are almost never things we could fully imagine sitting at a desk.”

James L. Brooks on the benefit of conducting interviews as authenticity research:

“It does so many different things for you. You’re not staring at a screen–you’re dealing with human beings and letting it go through you,” he says. “When I wrote a gay character, I spent six months asking questions I’ve never asked a gay friend, the questions you don’t ask just because you don’t have the right to do it. Dustin Hoffman took a part once in a romantic comedy and he said he did it because you don’t have to research it—I disagree with that principle. I think you do, and I think if you don’t, you’re not into specificity.”

Pamela Adlon on coming at your message sideways:

“When I pitched the series [Better Things] to [FX president] John Landgraf,” Adlon says, “honestly depicting women and aging was a big part of it. I said, ‘This is an important part of my show. I want this to be part of the conversation. I want to see people like me and my friends represented on television in a realistic portrayal.’ The way I like to do it is not say, ‘This whole episode is about aging and being in your 40s,’ or whatever. You make it about something else and then you have that be a part of it; that can be a detail. The scene at my gyno, for instance, when Sam then goes and talks to her friends, and her friends are like, ‘Why the fuck are you telling me about your fresh, young eggs?’ It’s a very subtle way of telling that story about how everybody has their own feelings about each other’s situations, you know? So not just hitting people over the head with it, like, ‘look, Sam went to the gynecologist!’ Otherwise, it’s a very nothing thing. What I’m happy about is how people are responding to the subtlety.”

De La Soul’s Kelvin Mercer on taking time between projects:

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“I just think that a lot of the cats today, they are just constantly churning out stuff and it just winds up being the same thing you’ve heard over and over again from them or any other artist out at the moment,” he says. “I wouldn’t say take off for 13 years the way De La has done, but take off at least two years and take in life and tour and do everything else. Take in enough stories and information to create a project, you know?”

Jon Favreau on the power of vulnerability in storytelling:

“I know a flawed character in the beginning of a story is the way to go, just for the mono-myth, the hero’s journey,” Favreau says. “You want somebody who needs growth, and the more difficult the world is starting off the more exciting and significant the arc of the character is. If I look at my lead characters, I’m pretty tough on them. Their life isn’t easy. Buddy the Elf, as positive as he is, he’s not having a good time. Certainly Mike in Swingers is not having a good time. Everybody. The first shot of Made is Bobby getting punched right in the face in a slow-motion close-up. There is something about throwing some heavy-duty obstacles at a character to contextualize them. I know there are other styles where the lead is awesome right off the bat. Everybody loves watching James Bond, but he can kinda do no wrong. I kind of relate more to the characters that have a rough road. And then you don’t need them to have such a magnificent climax just to feel like they’ve really beat all the odds. The scale of that kind of character story is what I connect most with as an audience member and that therefore as a filmmaker as well.”

Steve Aoki on DIY creativity:

“I was never traditionally taught in anything. I was never traditionally taught in how to start a business. I was never traditionally taught how to DJ. I was never traditionally taught how to play guitar or sing or produce electronic music. I have it in front of me and I figure out this does that and that does this, and I do it over and over again,” Aoki says. “That fluidity to be able to pick something up, that concept is very much a DIY philosophy. You have to do with what you have in front of you and there’s no instruction manual. And you don’t need to do it the way every one else has done it—you do it in whatever way is suitable to you.”

DJ Shadow on how emotional exhaustion is part of the creative process:

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“You need to prepare yourself for the fact that there’s going to be frustration. There are going to be wasted days,” he says. “It can often feel immensely satisfying, and then there are days that feel totally ungratifying because you maybe went down the wrong path, or you didn’t do your best work. I need to be aware that I’m going to experience all of those emotions, and I need time to prepare for that. But you have to sometimes go too far in the wrong direction to know what the right direction is. The title of the album itself—The Mountain Will Fall—refers to the creative process it took to make it.”

Jesse Eisenberg on the power of empathy in the creative process:

“If you can think of the worst person you know and completely empathize with them and try to understand where they’re coming from, and not just understand them but actually feel for them—that’s what I do as an actor,” Eisenberg says. “I’m trying to actually feel for these people that I play. You’re literally putting your own emotions onto people who are oftentimes doing despicable things, especially in the case of playing a villain in a superhero movie. I’m trying to put my own emotions onto that guy, and so I do that in my personal life. I’ve done that since I was young. It’s just what I’m interested in or what I’m wired to do. I don’t know where that comes from. So if I can put myself in that person’s feelings then I feel very free to write from that perspective.”

Tegan and Sara on working the creative muscle every day:

The sisters are fastidious about grinding it out—being purposeful about writing, about collaborating, about regularity in their hours and their surroundings. It’s an approach they say has been pretty consistent, up through their new album, Love You to Death. “It’s a muscle, and you have to work it every day,” Tegan Rain Quin says. “I feel that way about music—whether I’m playing guitar, or working on new music, I participate in music almost every single day of the week. I think the ability to keep it going this long came from an almost sort of—I don’t want to say that it’s, it’s not discipline, but it kind of is. Sit down every day and do it. Talk about it. Feel it. Play, write, create, tour. I feel like it’s work, and you have to just put your 10,000 hours into it.”

Andrew Kevin Walker on why if you’re having fun, you’re doing something wrong:

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“Personally, a lot of my writing is driven by neuroses and worry. My motto is ‘Your disappointment destroys me,'” Walker says. “I’m so afraid to hand in scripts and have people go, ‘God, you really fucked this up.’ But if you’re a good writer, you feel like that’s what you’re doing every moment you’re sitting there writing. Another cliché that I love is, ‘If you’re having fun writing, you’re doing something wrong.’ Which is just to say, writing is rewriting. It’s just a matter of what’s a project I feel like I’m bringing a lot to? You have to be prepared to not be taking your original script out on the spec market but to be going around and trying to find a director yourself and go the independent route if you’re passionate about it.”

Sharon Horgan on why it takes three people to know whether an idea is funny:

“Writing with someone else is 100% the best way, and in some ways the only way, to start because otherwise it is really hard to know if something’s funny or not,” she says. “The material kind of sings a bit more when you’re with someone because you’ve got two sensibilities, and it tends to have more of a fluid conversational tone—because when you’re writing with another person, it is a bit more of a conversation. But when [Dennis Kelly] and I started writing, we were told you need three people to know whether something is funny or not. That meant that if [Kelly] and I plus one other person laughed, we knew it was good. Now that’s been reduced to two people. I don’t know who makes these rules.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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