Storytelling advice from Akira Kurosawa
September 15, 2016
Akira Kurosawa was one of the masters of cinema. Below is a six-minute interview where Kurosawa offers advice to aspiring filmmakers, but the advice can be applied more widely to other creative disciplines as well.
If you want to make a film today, you don't need expensive equipment necessarily. Even a smartphone and a good microphone will do the trick. But before equipment and camera techniques comes knowing how to create a story. If you want to be a director, says Kurosawa, learn to write screen plays first. For a story, all you need is a pen and paper (or a cheap computer). When Kurosawa laments in the interview that most aspiring filmmakers want to get immediately to directing without first spending a lot of time learning the craft of story through the difficult task of writing, this is something that could be applied to other professional endeavors. Learning an art — any art — is not glamorous; it's tedious and difficult. Writing is hard and can be lonely. The most important quality to have, says Kurosawa, is to have "the forbearance to face the dull task of writing one word at a time." To have the patience to write one word at a time is key. Most people lack the patience to do this for very long, so they quit. But if you stick with it, Kurosawa says, over time the writing process will become second nature to you.
Kurosawa says the many younger people want to get to the end quickly rather than spending the long, tedious time in first preparing. Creating a film is an enormous task Kursosawa says, but the important thing is to not let yourself get overwhelmed by the size of the task. His advice is not just for filmmakers but for writers or anyone else who has a big, creative job to do in front of them. As he says, when you climb a high mountain you must not look up to the peak so often but instead focus on the ground just a head of you. Step by step you make progress. But if you keep looking up at how far you have to go to finish it will be discouraging and also distracts you from the moment at hand. When I got my first book contract ten years ago, I wondered how I could finish the book in time. Dan Pink recommended I read the book Bird by Bird, a book about how to get through large tasks by taking one step at a time, as the author's father once advised her 10-year-old brother, who was worried sick over the scale of a book report on birds. His advice: "Just take it bird by bird." Kurosawa here is giving similar advice.
"Don't ever quit."
Kurosawa says that he encouraged his Assistant Directors to never give up on the script halfway through, but to go all the way through and finish it. Even if it is not the best (yet) it's important to develop the habit of perseverance and fighting through until the end. Otherwise, Kurosawa suggests, people will get in the habit of quitting when things get difficult or do not go well. Kurosawa also talks about the importance of reading books in order to become a better writer and a better storyteller. Reading a wide array of subjects over a lifetime gives one knowledge and perspectives in a kind of reserve which they may use in unforeseen ways in future. "Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can't create anything," Kurosawa says. "That's why I often say creating comes from memory. Memory is the source of your creation. You can't create something from nothing." As Kurosawa says, whether it is from reading or your real-life experience, "you can't create unless you have something inside yourself."
I highly suggest you read this great book by Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography