Write, Teach, Laugh

AdobeMAX: ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Director Baz Luhrmann on Creativity

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

Three very different speakers, but each one inspirational, discussed creativity during the second keynote session at AdobeMAX entitled “Community Inspires Creativity.” Taking place in Los Angeles this year,AdobeMAX brought together users of Adobe programs, such as Photoshop, InDesign, Premiere Pro, and Acrobat, with the engineers, developers and other people at Adobe Software responsible for improving and supporting the software.

Speakers addressing the packed house in the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live included writer-artist Maira Kalman, photo-blogger Brandon Stanton, and director Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge!,Strictly Ballroom).

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Maira Kalman said it was her job to wander the world with an empty head and fill it with things to share.

Maira Kalman

Kalman led off, sharing a story about her mother. She admired her mom as a strong and inspirational woman. One day, as an experiment, she asked her mom to draw a map of the United States from memory. “She got Canada in the right place,” Kalman said in defense of the map she projected on the screen. “Information was not a strong point in our family,” she explained. “We adored culture, but not knowledge. It was about growing and being yourself.”

Kalman described what she saw as her commission as an artist.

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Maira Kalman used her mother’s sketch of a U.S. map to provide insight into creativity.

“It’s my job,” she said, “to wander around in a kind of stupor with an empty brain and collect interesting, useful things I find and share them with you. I collect those static moments that infuse some sense of passion and love into life.”

Kalman gave several examples of her eclectic works. She once produced an illustrated version of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, with paintings for the strange example sentences that populate the volume. Even the copyright page of the book carries her unique stamp: All the type is on its side or upside-down and every which way. “Why should a copyright page have to be boring?” she asked.

Brandon Stanton

Five years ago, Stanton was fired from his job as a bond trader. Today, he is the author of the Humans of New York blog and has 15 million followers on Facebook.

His art? He walks around New York, stops people, takes their picture, talks to them, and then writes about them.

Stanton explained his journey to the AdobeMAX audience.

“I lived in Chicago and had a good job,” he said, “but then something started to go wrong. I would spend all day long worrying, so deathly afraid of getting fired. Then one day it happened. I lost my job and somehow I thought it was a great day. Then I lost it.”

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Five years ago, Stanton was fired from his job as a bond trader. Today, he has 15 million followers on Facebook.

Stanton explained that he started to wander around the city. “I realized that all those thoughts I was putting into that job, I could now put towards anything I wanted to. I had this narrative in my head. Many of you probably have, too. ‘Make my money first and then do what I want.’ I spent two years thinking about money and that was two years lost. I decided that for the foreseeable future [I would] spend my time exactly as I wanted to spend it; to make just enough money so I could own my time.”

For a couple of months before losing his job, Stanton had been taking pictures after work and on weekends.

“I photographed whatever I saw,” he said. “I took thousands of photos. I loved taking photos. One day on the subway, I took a photo of two moms and their kids. I was afraid to take it at first. When I did, I felt such a sense of accomplishment. I had overcome my fear.”

Stanton sold photos to his friends. “I knew who could afford them,” he said. This gave him enough money to move to New York.

He began taking pictures of people. “Suddenly I realized, now that I’ve already approached these people, why not find out a little more?” he recalled.

Stanton began talking to his subjects for five to 10 minutes, but sometimes longer. “I tried to find something that makes them unique,” he said. “Never an opinion or belief, but a story. I went from being terrified of approaching strangers to expecting them to share things with me they wouldn’t even tell their spouse.

“Everything I ask has to do with a strong emotion. Given any person on the street, if you listen to them with the same attention and compassion that we give to famous people, they can captivate 20 to 30 million people every night. Recently I was able to meet and take a picture of the president. This happened in only five years, all because I was able to get over the fear of doing something new. I encourage you all to do the same thing.”

Baz Luhrmann

For the finale of the AdobeMAX keynote, award-winning filmmaker Baz Luhrmann was interviewed by Adobe Senior VP and Chief Marketing Officer Ann Lewness.

Before Lewness could ask her first question, Luhrmann roamed the stage and shared his observation of how much some people had gone through to get to this event. “I want to be as useful as I can,” he said.

Lewness asked, “You’re known as a director but you’ve done so many things – theatre, television; how do you choose your projects?”

Luhrmann added some things that Lewness left out. “I’ve run an election campaign for the prime minister of Australia, I’ve edited magazines, but, I don’t think of myself as any one of those things. I guess what I really know is true is that it is not work, it’s a life choice and it really chooses you.”

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Baz Luhrmann shared observations on what it means to be creative.

Luhrmann continued, “I’m quite old, Annie. I’ve been around.”

Lewness interrupted, “You look good, though.”

Luhrmann countered with, “You’re not bad yourself.” He paused, then commented, “You know Annie, we’ll always have the Microsoft Theater.” He walked slightly away from Lewness and continued with the next line from Casablanca.

After the laughter, Luhrmann explained the stage motion he had just executed (down and right), and then said, “I’m sure someone is going to ask what the difference is between theater and film. I’m going to have to say ‘none.’ Because, what I did was to use the stage to make a close-up.”

Luhrmann sat back down to allow Lewness to continue with the interview, after apologizing: “I do tend to jump around a little bit. Well, you’ve seen my films, haven’t you?”

Then he continued to answer the previous question: “This life choice; the only thing I’ve ever done since I was a little kid in a small town in Australia is to live in the world of ideas and storytelling. I’m stuck in it.”

Lewness asked, “You have so much in that head of yours. How do you decide what to work on next?”

Luhrmann replied, “Ultimately, the question you have to ask yourself is not, ‘Do I want to do this?’ but, ‘Do I need to do this?’ Meaning, ‘Will this particular story feed my own life?’ Once you get over that hurdle then you get into the research and try to understand how you can make an audience understand the big idea. Then you find collaborators, people who believe in it, and then you go on this journey. And once it starts, you can’t get off it.”

Lewness asked Luhrmann about critical reaction to his films.

“I never start out to hurt anybody, particularly critics,” he said. “That’s a job, too. But what you need to understand is that never in history can you do anything that is anywhere out of the box, that isn’t polarizing.”

The interview ended with questions from the audience. The last question was, “I’d like to know if you think that creativity is self-inflicted.”

That question struck home with Luhrmann. He said, “You know what? I think you struggle with that question all of your life. Where I am on my journey now, I think you begin in childhood and what you’re fundamentally doing is to assuage some kind of mental problem. And I don’t mean it like a bad mental problem.

“Everyone has an imagination, but the need to create is the need to get something out. The need to do it and you can’t control it, and that’s the high end of creativity. It’s a sickness and I can’t control it, only curate it. All I can say to everyone, if you’re compelled to get something out, of course listen to everyone, of course go to seminars like this, but, in the end, listen to yourself. The one or two times I’ve gone off course is when I began to believe that there was only one right way to create art, and there isn’t.”

Luhrmann concluded, “Don’t wait for permission to go out and create.”

 

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