My documentary Old School New School explores the nature of creativity, all within the context of storytelling through various crafts, including acting, cinematography, music, theater, dance and poetry. The film is an extension of many conversations I’ve had over the years with my artist friends. We’d meet in a café to talk about life, art and philosophy. They were stimulating discussions that ultimately segued to the obligatory question all serious artists eventually examine: How can we, as creative people, grow in the direction we want to grow?
A simple question about personal creative development pondered on over numerous cups of coffee led me on a four-year journey of enlightenment, in which I criss-crossed the United States to uncover insights about success, risk, individuality and so much more.
The search for answers took me into the lives and homes of some of America’s most illuminated artists. It took me to Hollywood, to the home of William Fraker, ASC, BSC, the six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer of such legendary movies as Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt and WarGames. During a tape change, Fraker asked me pointedly, “Why are you doing this?”
Why am I exploring creativity? It was a fair question. The genesis began when a friend and I experimented with the idea of videotaping one of our high-minded coffee conversations. The intrigue and universality of the discussion showed promise. So I brought a professional crew to the home of my mentor, acclaimed Irish playwright and professor Sam McCready, and I asked him: “What is success?” For McCready, success has to do with realizing one’s potential, being happy and feeling fulfilled. “You are the one who determines success, not society,” he declared poignantly.
In a subsequent interview, poet James Ragan (Womb-Weary) told me how, early in his career, he traveled west by car to try his hand as a Hollywood screenwriter. He made an adventure of it—pulling off at random, pitching camp, cooking out and enjoying the journey. While I admitted that sounded fun, it also seemed scary and dangerous. What about money? What about the unknown? It seemed… risky.
“It’s the odyssey,” offered Emmy-winning actor Brian Cox (Nuremberg, Braveheart, L.I.E.) as we sat down at a picnic table in his back garden. “I think that’s what I’ve been doing all my life, finding the place where I feel this is where I should be. Then you realize that home is in the heart.”
In my conversation with Kirstie Simson, the improvisational dance artist sagely pointed out that what artists often do, instead of embracing that odyssey, is “run for safety and security and lock ourselves into images of ourselves.” Security. Like having a full-time job to pay the bills while pursuing an artistic dream? “Others may need security in order to do their best work,” McCready argued. He illustrated his point with a story of two actors he directed early on in their careers: Kevin Spacey and Danny Boyle. Spacey, he recalled, was a struggling New York actor who refused to take any work that wasn’t acting, outright refusing to wait tables or tend bar when friends offered to help him find employment. McCready recalls Spacey’s rejection: “‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m an actor, and I will be an actor.’” Boyle, on the other hand, was eager to direct. He took a steady job at the BBC and built up the skills that would later serve him so well on Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. Thus, the path does involve risk, but we each have a path that’s right for us. And being honest with oneself is a crucial part of creative and personal development.
Actor Tomas Arana (Gladiator, “24”, The Bourne Supremacy) had this advice to offer: “The difference is how much you push yourself. If the person in some small town pushes himself to the max, he can push himself further than the kid trying to be the funky artist in New York.”
“You can’t be like everyone else,” Fraker advised. “You have to be an individual…. Be honest with yourself.”
I made Old School New School because I wanted to learn. If you want to hear more philosophical notions about the nature of creativity, you can watch Old School New School for free on SnagFilms. In addition to the above-mentioned artists, other luminaries who so graciously contributed their time to explore the genesis of creativity are Tony Award-winning producer Emanuel Azenberg (Biloxi Blues, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers), Grammy-winning jazz pianist McCoy Tyner (Illuminations, The Turning Point, Journey, Infinity), renowned cinematographer John Bailey, ASC (American Gigolo, Ordinary People, The Big Chill) and actor-turned-Congressman Ben Jones (“The Dukes of Hazzard”).
Steven Fischer is a two-time Emmy-nominated writer/producer who also shoots and edits. He is noted for artistic and socially conscious storytelling that pays strict attention to character, the human condition and the emotional development of relationships. In 2007, Steven directed Mariska Hargitay in the documentary short Freedom Dance, and in 2010 he appeared on-camera with actor Brian Cox, jazz legend McCoy Tyner, cinematographer William Fraker and many other internationally acclaimed artists as the host of Old School New School, his personal study on creativity. For more on Fischer and his work, visit www.StevenFischer.net.