LAURA DERN, Issue 09, Editor’s Letter

Over scrutinizing can kill any idea. The self-critic in all of us is our own worst enemy, and here is why: we have very little perspective when anything new is attempted. How many great ideas have gone into the dustbin before any kind of gestation period takes place? How many drawings were scribbled out or wadded up before they were seen by anyone besides the artist? How many first chapters, or first sentences for that matter, lie uncompleted and forgotten about on hard drives in landfills—never having the chance to be read by someone else? Yes, the dirty little secret is that artists kill their young all the time, with unscrupulous cruelty.
As a photographer and director, I have to wade through mounds of clutter in my mind as I search for an idea that feels original, possible, and worthwhile. In addition, I most often have to sell someone else on participating in this idea, because mine is a collaborative art. So the critical voice starts early: “Oh god, they’ll never go for that. Or “That is way too expensive and time consuming,” or “they won’t think it’s clever enough.” Or any other thousands of insecure thoughts that may stop an idea from ever reaching someone else’s ears. Now, that self-critic also plays a valuable role in filtering the good from the bad, and I have no doubt that I would not be as good of an artist without it. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that almost any idea can be good, and that I am usually a much more difficult audience than my actual audience is. In other words, if I wrote down fifteen potential ideas for a photograph, I would guess that I could make all fifteen of those ideas into interesting pictures, as long as I really committed to the idea. So the idea is only step one, not the whole enchilada.
So the whole enchilada is? I’m beginning to think it has a lot more to do with commitment. Commitment – to put your full heart into an idea, ignore your self-critic, and see the project through with a high level of enthusiasm, may just be the key to producing any art. And forget all about the words good and bad. Because you can find people on both sides of that argument, and that goes for any discipline. And, time changes everything. Something that seemed silly ten years ago may now strike me as poignant or innocent. Something that seemed important twenty years ago may now seem pretentious or one-dimensional.
Imagine if there had not been tape constantly running during that summer of 1967 when Bob Dylan and the band were hunkered down in West Saugerties, New York in a basement recording any and every idea that came their way. The Basement Tapes recordings represent to me, the most unclogged creative pipeline ever committed to recording tape, and the results are joyous, mysterious, and a hugely important piece of our American musical lineage. But those tapes were released nine years after being recorded, and could just as easily never have come out at all, if not for the invention of bootlegging. I don’t think it was ever Bob Dylan’s intention for anyone to hear those tapes. Imagine if we hadn’t.
So really, the only tragedies are the ideas that were never allowed out of the box: The song that was never recorded, or the book that was never finished, or the film that never got past the pitch stage. And it is funny to be making this statement in the day and age of instant global distribution of any form of media, because don’t we have enough books, and music, and pictures? But making art was always a solitary, narcissistic venture anyway, so who cares how much is out there? The question is, how do you make your best work? How do you ignore your self-critic, your potential audience, your parent’s voice, whatever it is, that stops creativity in its tracks, and let your idea have a chance to gestate?
In this interview, Laura Dern brings up very important aspect of her craft: How do you avoid judgment when you create a character? How do you populate or personify somebody without also judging him or her? And it speaks to how artists nurture an idea. I am not an actor, and to be honest, the entire art of acting has always sort of mystified me. Have you ever tried to stand in front of a mirror and play a character? Adopted a voice, some mannerisms, and tried to be someone else? I find it so mysterious and impossible. Within seconds I am judging my performance and questioning my believability. Remember the Seinfeld episode when Kramer is offered a small part in a Woody Allen movie, and he has to say the line, “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”? And the rest of the characters- Jerry, George, and Elaine all criticize his performance, and then all give their equally bad line readings? The level of commitment required to be an actor is off the charts. You have to completely distance yourself from that inner voice, and make thousands of interconnected decisions that reflect every level of human behavior, all in one of the most unnatural environments of all: the movie set.
So Laura talks about this idea of judgment of a character, and claims that you can’t really play a part if you sit in judgment of a character. And the same goes for the director of the film. Because if the director is judging the character, they are judging the actor, and the actor isn’t free to stretch out towards the furthest reaches of what is possible. Now, when that same director is editing the film, it is something else entirely. He should stand in ultimate judgment of which performance and which decisions help him tell the story he is trying to tell. But to make those judgments during filming limits the possibilities for the actor.
I am fascinated by this whole concept, because I feel like when we just get out of our own way, really original, human creation can take place. Laura Dern always finds ways to make her characters have great depth and humanity. She is a true artist and truly commits to her decisions, which is why she made a career working with such visionary directors as David Lynch, Alexander Payne, and Clint Eastwood. I find her mesmerizing, and I trust you will too.

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