Creativity and Compression

I spend a lot of time writing, and I’m constantly amazed — even after decades of this stuff — how much better things get when you say less. Take out words, and dull prose sits up. Take out sentences, and prose kicks up its heels. And take out paragraphs … well, let’s just say that’s you often need to clear the room — it can be that much more kinetic.

It is hard, of course. The expression "kill all your babies" is passed back and forth like contraband among writers for a reason: You have to learn to love killing the things in your writing (or coding/song-writing/etc.) you like best. Compression, compression, compression.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from Gene Wilder’s great memoir KIss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. In this excerpt Wilder writes about being in the editing room with director Mel Brooks, and being distraught about a scene in his classic film Young Frankenstein that didn’t work the way he hoped it would when writing it:

When we saw the ascension scene — where I rise with the Creature on an elevated platform and cry, "LIFE, DO YOU HEAR ME? GIVE MY CREATION LIFE!," my heart sank. I thought this was going to be one of the highlights of the film, and instead it was a boring blob. I put my head down. Mel didn’t vomit. Instead, he got up and started banging his head against the wall. He hit it three times, hard. Then turned his face to the rest of us and said, "Let not get excited! You have just witnessed a 14-minute disaster. In one week you’re going to see a 12-minute fairly rotten scene. In two weeks you’re going to see a 10-minute fairly good scene. And in three weeks, you’re going to see an 8-minute masterpiece."

That’s a cute speech, I thought, but you’re kidding yourself, or just trying to make us feel better. How much can you change without reshooting? I saw the scene. I don’t believe in miracles.

The next three weeks were my second lesson in directing: thousands of little pieces of film can be arranged in thousands of different ways. Almost three weeks to the day after Mel’s speech, the lights went out in the screening room, and I witnessed an 8-minute miracle.