The Seed&Spark Blog

Finding Creativity Within Constraints with Mark Duplass

July 23, 2020

• Dani Thomas

There are plenty of expected struggles that creators face when the world isn’t in shambles around them, let alone the inevitable, understandable and very human hurdles encountered when attempting to explore creativity amidst current events.

On July 17th, we were joined by filmmaker, writer, actor and musician Mark Duplass for a Creative Sustainability Session digging into ways to get creative with what you have available. Mark broke down creative struggles into three main stages — the creatively crashed, the creatively frustrated, and the creatively excited (albeit a bit directionless) — before providing ideas on how to push through each stage, one hurdle at a time.



The Creatively Crashed

The first group in Mark’s analysis feels emotionally and spiritually exhausted, unable to bring themselves out of hopelessness and helplessness to begin their writing. Mark relates this to his experiences with anxiety and depression, and suggests starting with the basics:

  • Get your eight hours of sleep. It’s easy to ignore, but there’s no denying that a good night’s rest leaves you feeling refreshed the following morning.
  • Get at least an hour of exercise in. Exercise brings endorphins which help to combat depression.
  • Make sure you’re eating as healthy as you can. Mark isn’t suggesting you suddenly take up a strict diet, simply that it can be beneficial to our bodies and brains to eat healthy meals at regular intervals now and then.
  • If you’re alone and feeling lonely, get face time with others. Partaking in human interaction, even virtually, can help to fight feelings of helplessness.

If you’re feeling as though you’re unable to get yourself out of a dark place, these are essential steps to finding your way toward the light. “These are the keys to beginning to fill that river back up for yourself so you can get yourself afloat.”


The Creatively Frustrated

The next group is successful in getting to the desk to write but is unsure of what to write, if anything. “A good question [is], 'What is the art that matters right now?'” Whether you feel blocked, uncertain about what belongs in the world, or unclear on what stories you are authorized to tell, Mark stresses to “think about input first before output. What is the art that you’re taking in to inspire yourself?” Here are some enlightening ways to increase your artistic intake:

  • Take museum tours. Some of the best museums in the world offer virtual tours, so get online and “visit” as many as you can!
  • Read as much as possible. Part of becoming a stronger writer is being an avid reader.
  • Watch tons of different types of art. Step outside of your comfort zone and explore new and different genres, formats, mediums, styles, etc. The more diverse your inspiration, the more dynamic your art will be.
  • Create inspiration by “creative Robin Hood-ing.” “Steal from the creatively rich to give to the creatively poor (yourself)” by taking a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a hint of another thing, and “suddenly you’ve come up with this unique thing. And I think that you can only do that by taking in tons of art.”
  • Don’t worry about being derivative. “There are no new, truly original stories to be told. It’s only borrowing different ideas from so many wildly disparate sources that the product itself cannot be traced back to those things in any way, shape, or form.”

Mark also reflects on the concept of “covering” his favorite films in the way that up-and-coming musicians “cover” the music of their favorite or most influential artists before discovering and developing their unique sound. “Watch it over and over again so that your body starts to intrinsically understand the structure of it,” he elaborates. Write a cover version of your favorite scene, replace the characters, replace the location, and replace the dialogue, because “it’s a great exercise in figuring yourself out and getting your juices flowing again.”


The Creatively Excited

Sometimes the struggles faced by creators aren’t personal at all, but rather larger issues or roadblocks presented by the creative industry at large. “The industry is in trouble right now. They are buying [fewer] things. They are confused, and they are scared.” To those who are doing the work, who feel like they can write something but are concerned about the industry’s ability to take on new projects, Mark brings it back to a favorite bit of wisdom a la his Available Materials School of Filmmaking — “swing the sword that is in your hand” and make things with what you’ve got:

  • Think about narrative audio podcasting. There’s an entire ecosystem of people who believe podcasting will be the medium of the future — because people want to take in their content on the go. (It also happens to be one of the quickest and easiest things to produce in quarantine.)
  • If you have an idea and an outline but you feel paralyzed about writing the dialogue, get friends together over Zoom to start improvising it. Allow their improvisation to help you craft the dialogue.
  • Record a movie directly in Zoom. Use your computer’s built-in camera or internal recording software to get clean footage and make a “found footage”-style project out of the video call.

In nearly all of these suggestions, anyone who prefers to only write will notice that they would be forced to explore other areas of filmmaking to bring these projects to completion. If you just want to stick to pure writing alone, Mark evoked a phrase his mother would use in moments such as these: “tough toonies.” Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do, step outside of your comfort zone, and explore other avenues to get yourself out there.


At the end of the day, you don’t have to have all the answers to be able to get creative within limitations. You just have to know your strengths, know your weaknesses, and between the two you’ve got to be humble enough to ask people around you to help you fill in the gap. If you’re feeling pressured to be productive and make the perfect movie during a pandemic, Mark offers, “Your only goal when making something inside of quarantine like this is to make something inspired and interesting with a bunch of flaws, because you're inside of a pandemic and you worked within limits. If you do that, inspired and interesting with a bunch of flaws, you totally scored.”


Check out Mark’s full Creative Sustainability Session, complete with audience Q&A, for more ideas on finding creativity within constraints.


Dani Thomas

Dani Thomas is an actor, singer/songwriter and Seed&Spark's Digital Storyteller. She is a frequent collaborator with CongestedCat Productions, most recently acting in the short comedy Game Brunch. She is also a co-host of CongestedCat's monthly screening series, IndieWorks. When she's not live-tweeting episodes of BravoTV programming, she can be found practicing guitar and enjoying the best that lazy weekend days have to offer with her partner, Kelsey, and their pitbull pup, Tino.



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