Creative thinking... With Vicky Howell!

People are used to consuming creative products in all their different forms: be they Instagram photos, music or the latest Netflix binge-fest. What isn’t put under the spotlight in quite the same way is the creative process behind those things. At Simply Thrilled, we’re wicked into creative thinking and in this series we dig into the creative processes and techniques which help a bunch of entrepreneurs and creatives of all backgrounds do what they do best. All images © Systir Productions

Whatever you create? How do you create it?
We’ve been making short films and web series, but we are now also working on a couple of feature ideas and a TV series.

Writing-wise, it usually goes that Amy has an idea, we outline the story together then I write it, she reads it, we work through any tricky bits, I rewrite then rinse and repeat till done! Once we have a reasonable draft, we will send it out to industry friends for feedback, then it’s more rewrites - and on it goes! When we’re in production, Amy will production manage while I direct.

The mafia just rang you and wanted ideas on your area of speciality for 9 am tomorrow, sharpish, how do you go about coming up with them?
For the mafia?! We’d probably run away, hahaha! Although we’ve seen the movies and that never ends well…

I’ve done a fair amount of writing on other people’s projects where I’ve needed to work to tight deadlines or write/rewrite scenes instantly because something has changed last minute, so it wouldn’t phase me to have to come up with something at short notice - I actually work much better with a deadline. I guess adrenalin would see us through!

Do you follow a process/set of processes or a particular approach or do you freestyle it?
There are lots of screenwriting books that will tell you the importance of beat sheets and outlines etc, and their method is always the best one. We don’t subscribe to this. There’s no one best method - cherry-pick what works for you and do that. Having said that, we do always plan a story before scripting. Not always as thoroughly as we should do, and sometimes that turns out ok and sometimes it doesn’t(!) - at which point we will usually have to go back and do the prep work we should have done in the first place - but we do always work out the basics of the story before starting the script. We make a map, so we know where we’re going. Although we don’t always stick to it - which I think is important to be able to do because the characters often have their ideas and you’ll find them taking over the story and heading in directions you didn’t expect. Which usually makes it better. There’s nothing nicer than being able to just sit back and transcribe what your characters do and say - that’s when you know it’s working. Of course, this doesn't always happen…! This is when you need your map. That way you can jump to another part of the story, write that bit and join things up later.

I always find myself walking in a circle counterclockwise. What patterns of behaviour do you do around creative thinking?
Procrastination, hahaha! Really world-class procrastinator. Social media, snacks, naps, that invoice you’ve been meaning to send, cleaning the kitchen, Netflix (grrrr to that pesky auto next episode thingy!) I have been known to pace though and I talk to myself. I tell myself the story, out loud. Very handy for spotting the cracks and talking through the tricky bits. Even though it’s only yourself answering, the act of verbalising it, rather than staring at a document, can often shake things loose.

Does the idea emerge fully formed or do you develop it?
It’s always development. Even when you think it’s fully formed, it’s not. There’s always something that can be mined to make it better.

If you develop it - how does that work?
As I’ve said before - outlining together, writing and rewriting, getting feedback, snacks, naps and distractions. Seriously, don’t underestimate the impact of time away from the project! Finish a draft - or don’t finish it, if you’re stuck on something - put it away and do something else. Go for a walk, have a zoom chat, tidy something, or even work on a different script. It can be more productive to let a project rest for a while and go back to it than to keep pushing through. You’ll often find that whatever problem you were having will magically work itself out because you now have perspective on it and can see what needs to be done.

Where do you find the seed of an idea?
Usually in Amy’s brain. She’s the one with the ideas. Although I have been known to come up with things.

Problem-solving, do you approach it as an art or a science?
As a fact of life! Projects are a series of problems to be solved. You just have to dive in and get on with it - there’s always a solution. And if you can’t find it, that means it’s time for snacks and naps again - take a step back and look at the problem anew.

State of flow - how do you get there?
Not entirely sure what a state of flow is… I guess if you mean that point where everything’s running along nice and smoothly, ideas are coming, and Shakespeare couldn’t write it any better(!) that’s maps and snacks and naps. A combination of all of the above answers. And trust your characters - they know their own story.

What’s the last creative problem you solved- talk us through it? Is that what you always do?
The last creative problem… hmmm… Does this question count…?

There is the feature script with the big hole in the middle - we have the map, it’s just tricky finding the right road for the second act. We solved that by writing an excellent beginning and ending and procrastinating over the middle. It’s now being written from both ends and hopefully, it will meet in the middle. We also have a project in post which is quite VFX heavy - long story! - and to get the VFX work finished we had to recut the footage to work with sound rather than visual effects. Which actually improved some parts, so that was handy!

I guess what we always do is allow things to stay flexible. If you get caught up on one idea and that doesn’t work, it’s very hard to see past it for a solution to the problem. Flexibility and not being precious about anything is the key. 

How do you get inspiration?
It can come from anywhere. Which sounds like a cop-out(!) but it is actually true. Although it does need to have some space around it. It’s harder to have ideas if your brain is crowded with the day today. For us, that is. Our stories are always character-driven, but they’re genre-based - horror, sci-fi, fantasy - and other worlds can be hard to access when this one is getting in the way! 

Thank you Vicky! Why not check out some of Systir's awesome work linked below:


(interview lightly edited for clarity and brevity)


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