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November 20, 2018

Paul Schrader on the creative process

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With National Novel Writing Month reaching its final home stretch, now’s a good a time as any for some good old fashioned writing advice. Luckily, this discussion from Close Up with the Hollywood Reporter has some great nuggets of wisdom from Golden Globe nominee Paul Schrader. Here’s what he has to say about the writing process:

via Wikimedia Commons

1. Editing and writing come hand-in-hand. More specifically, you should prioritize the additive process of writing just as much as, if not more than, the subtractive process. “I feel strongly that the additive process is much more creative than the subtractive one,” Schrader argues. “If you can have a first draft that works at 70 pages, you know you’re going to have a draft that works at 90 pages, and it’s just going to get better.” Schrader further explains that editing and adding come hand in hand. “At some point you say to the editor, ‘Let’s make a cut of the film with just the stuff that’s good.’ See how long it is, maybe it’s 45 minutes long, 55 minutes long,” he continues. “Then see how much of the rest we have to put in. Now you’re thinking in an additive way, rather than in a subtractive way. When you’re always thinking subtractively, it’s not good for your creative process.” So for all you self-editors out there, don’t be afraid to mix up the editing process with some word sprints.

2. Treat writing like a Chinese buffet. No, seriously. When asked about what film he would consider remaking, Schrader countered the question with a claim:

“Well, that’s all we do. You’re picking and choosing, you don’t actually originate anything. You just go through this huge buffet of cinema and make your own plate. And even though all the elements are out there at this endless Chinese buffet, everybody’s plate is different.”

So the next time you find yourself stuck somewhere, don’t try too hard to reinvent the wheel. Consider plucking something out from the “buffet” of your favorite writers.

3. Consider what motivates you. This one may vary from person to person, but for Schrader, it works.Writing is a difficult job – especially if your paycheck depends on it. But for Schrader, the process of writing has always served as a “form of therapy,” separate from his paid work. “Of course you’re going to get into, ‘What are the things that are motivating you?’ And the first script, Taxi Driver, was loneliness. You find a metaphor — a taxicab — take a plot and run through the metaphor,” he said. Of course, channeling your feelings into a metaphor is a lot easier said than done, but the advice still stands. If you find yourself having a hard time connecting with your own story, consider putting a little bit of yourself into it.

Schrader is a director and screenwriter best known for his work on Taxi Driver  and Raging Bull, which were both nominated for Golden Globe awards, and First Reformed, which has been nominated for multiple indie film awards.

The discussion was part of an ongoing series on SundanceTV, where the Hollywood Reporter sits down with actors, writers, and directors for roundtable discussions. The full episode, featuring Paul Schrader, John Krasinski, and Bo Burnham, among others, will premiere on February 10.

Alyssa Monera is an intern at Melville House.

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