In Praise of Pulling Back

On constraints and trying to do things at the right scale.

In the creative process, constraints are often seen as burdens. Budgets are too small, locations inaccessible, resources unavailable. Sometimes, though, the opposite is true. Sometimes, a multiplicity of options can be the burden.

“In my experience,” writes Brian Eno, “the instruments and tools that endure… have limited options.” Working with less forces us to find better, more creative ways to accomplish our goals. As sprawling and sometimes unwieldy as movies can be, low-budget and purposefully limited projects provide excellent examples of doing more with less.

Like many of us, the filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell started off with no money. The two recent film-school graduates wrote their Saw (2004) script to take place mostly in one room. Inspired by the simplicity of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the pair set out not to write the torture-porn the Saw franchise is known for, but a mystery thriller, a one-room puzzle box. Interestingly, like concentric circles, the seven subsequent movies all revolve around the events that happen in that first room. They’re less a sequence and more ripples right from that first rock. And let’s not forget that the original Saw is still one of the most profitable horror movies of all time, bettered by the twig-thin budget of The Blair Witch Project and the house-bound Paranormal Activity (2007), two further studies in constraint.

James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence (2013) is also the product of pulling back. After working on big-budget movies (e.g., Rango, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, etc.), Byrkit wanted to strip the process down to as few pieces as possible. Instead of a traditional screenplay, he spent a year writing a 12-page treatment. Filmed over five nights in his own house, Coherence documents a dinner party gone astray as a comet flies by setting off all sorts of quantum weirdness. The story is small enough to tell among friends over dinner but big enough to disrupt their beliefs about reality. With the dialog unscripted, the film unfolds like a game. Each actor was fed notecards with short paragraphs about their character’s moves and motivations. Like a version of Clue written by Erwin Schrödinger, Coherence works because of its limited initial conditions, not in spite of them.

When the producer David W. Higgins was developing the film Hard Candy (2005), he knew the story should play out in the tight space of a single room or a small house, so he hired playwright Brian Nelson to write the script. Not as cosmic as CoherenceHard Candy nonetheless tells a big story in as small a space and with fewer people. The budget was intentionally kept below $1 million to keep the studio from asking for changes to the controversial final product — another self-imposed constraint in the service of freedom. Tellingly, Nelson also wrote the screenplay for Devil (2010), which transpires almost entirely in the confines of an elevator.

The first time I saw Laurie Anderson was on Saturday Night Live. I was 15. I will never forget that night, standing in my parents’ living room aghast. I was as intrigued as I was terrified. Her pitch-shifted voice and the stories she told… She performed the songs “Beautiful Red Dress” and “The Day the Devil.” When her next record, Strange Angels, came out in 1989, I got it on cassette, CD, and LP. I don’t know why. I just had to have it on all available formats. She has been one of my all-time favorite people ever since. “Try to do something on the right scale – something that you can do yourself,” she explains in the interview above, acknowledging another aspect of external constraints: We have to stop thinking that access to the Big Equipment is going to solve all of our problems. If we look, we quite often have everything we need.

Suga Free is one of my favorite West Coast rappers. In the live, house-arrest version of “Do It Like I’m Used to It” below, he illustrates how a lack of resources can’t hold back a great artist. As Anderson says in the clip above, “Very dangerous art can be made with a pencil.” In this case from 1995, Suga Free uses a ballpoint pen, a nickel, and a dining-room table to put together a whole-ass song: “pen and nickel, in the Nine-Nickel.”

In a much less-impressive house-bound version, sometime during the lockdown I did a virtual reading of my short story “Not a Day Goes By” for The Sager Group (Don’t worry, my hair has long since been cut). The story is about a guy stuck in a Groundhog Day-like time-loop, so it should feel familiar to those adhering even marginally to quarantine rules. If you’d rather read the story than listen to me mumble through it, it was published on Close to the Bone today.

Narratives have personalities we have relationships with. An audience can’t get to know something that continually evolves into something else. Eno concludes, “A personality is something with which you can have a relationship. Which is why people return to pencils, violins, and the same three guitar chords.” Personalities have limits. Intimacy requires constraints. Don’t let lack of resources stop you from pursuing a project. The end result might be better anyway.

I know I lied about the next one being the year-end book list, but it is coming. I promise.

Thank you for reading, responding, and sharing. I appreciate your attention.

Let’s make stuff,