In one of the most popular TED Talks of all time, Simon Sinek implores business owners to “start with why.” As filmmakers and storytellers focused on crafting meaningful, impactful work, it’s imperative that we do the exact same thing.
To briefly summarize Sinek’s talk: People don’t care what you do, they care why you do it.
In spite of this, he argues, most businesses start with “what.” They start with the product, a service, or a solution.
Exemplary businesses, on the other hand — the ones changing the world for the better and making money hand over fist — these businesses always start with why.
Then they use that singular purpose as the guiding light in everything they do. That why becomes ingrained not only in the products they create, but more importantly, in the people who use those products.
At this point, you’re probably asking what any of this has to do with filmmaking.
Well, look at all your favorite films, the ones that have moved you, made you think, made you feel. I don't think it's too much of a wager to say that each example will have a strong why, some overarching purpose that it, and the filmmakers behind it, are trying to convey.
Sometimes that purpose is simply to entertain. Other times it’s to elicit a series of emotions from the audience. Or maybe it’s an exploration of a complex question, or even a reflection of the filmmaker’s personal or political beliefs.
And that’s the crux of this. We all have something to say, something that we care about, and something we want to share with the world. The trick is to just go and make a film about it.
It seems like the simplest thing, doesn't it? And for some, it might very well be. For the rest of us, however, it can be a real struggle to actually pinpoint why we want to make a film and then go do it.
But I can guarantee you that once you do pinpoint that reason, the filmmaking process itself becomes a breeze.
The danger of making films without a strong why
Unfortunately, there’s a real risk to filmmaking without understanding your purpose. For starters, it can lead to directionless filmmaking, where you as the director are unsure of every little decision that needs to be made in prep, on set, and in post.
Directionless filmmaking, of course, leads to directionless films.
Worse than that, this lack of clear direction can lead to not only wasting your own time, but also the time of the people who help you with your film.
When people feel that their time has been wasted, they won’t be keen to work with you again. In a collaborative medium such as narrative filmmaking, having dedicated, passionate cast and crew is essential. Don’t lose them.
Perhaps worst of all, starting without a why can lead you to creating something that you never really cared about to begin with. That thought terrifies me. If we’re not passionate about what we’re making, why are we making anything at all?
In one of my first attempts at telling a story, I had an image in my head. It was a hooded figure rising from the salmon tones of a sand dune. I was young, maybe 12.
For what seemed like years, I agonized and obsessed over the ensuing story that formed around that vivid image. I tried to construct detailed characters, engaging plot points and twists, and turn it into something I would be proud of.
I finally put the story to bed one day when I realized that there was never any story there to begin with. More importantly, there was no why.
This sobering “aha” moment was the inevitable result of self reflection. You can try to push that desire to see something become real, but if it's not built on a foundation of a strong and clear vision, it will crumble.
The importance of finding your why
Having a strong visual or an eloquent piece of dialogue in your head can certainly be a good thing when making a film, but if you’re trying to build a whole story around that single element, your film will be hollow at best.
When you start with why, however, that singular purpose will act as the foundation for everything to come.
Your why will act as a guiding light for you throughout the entire process of making your film. Any time you’re feeling frustrated, or like you’ve lost the thread of a character, you can go back to your why.
When you feel unsure about what should come next in your script, or you’re wondering the best way to move the camera, or contemplating how to pace a sequence in the edit, just return to the reason you started telling it in the first place.
It will serve as motivation, as guidance, and as a strong influence throughout the process.
And perhaps most importantly, connecting everything back to that central purpose will result in a cohesive, expressive, and hopefully compelling film. And that, my friends, is how you win the hearts and minds of your audience.
Find your why right now
Maybe you already have a vague sense of why you want to make your next film. A thought that floats around in the back of your mind that you know would make a good story, but you haven’t really taken the time to verbalize it to yourself.
Sit down and do it right now.
It’s not enough to let that idea just slip through your thoughts passively as you move ahead with your project. You need to really capture it. Sit down, define it.
Then start giving it shape by verbalizing why it’s important for you in particular to tell that story.
See, that’s the beautiful thing about finding your why. It’s all about you, your past experiences, your worldview, your relationships, your passions. It’s about channeling something that you care about and using it as the foundation for your vision.
There are plenty of places to look to for insight and inspiration. Take a gander at the news, read about history and philosophy and culture, hang out friends, marvel at the absurdity of politics. Hell, just start by going for a walk and observing the world around you.
Here are some other questions that can help guide you towards finding something unique and personal to say through film:
What was the last thing you wrote passionately about on social media or a blog? Expand on it.
Is there something in your past that defines you, like a death, birth, achievement, break-up? Channel that experience, those emotions, into something compelling.
Do you think the world, or even just your community, is headed in the right direction? Why or why not?
Have you had any sobering experiences with your friends or family lately? What did you learn?
These questions should help you define your why, but in truth, you really don’t need them. The most important piece of finding your why is to simply ask yourself, “what’s important to me, and what do I want to say about it?”
If you’re honest with yourself, those answers should come easily and freely. You’ve found your why.
A brief example of a “why” that I’ve used
My first short film, On Such A Winter’s Day, was the story of a mother, a son, and their tumultuous relationship.
Though I’m not a fan of spoilers, that film ended with the two of them walking out of their decrepit old house after a hateful argument, only to find that the world had been destroyed around them.
As they stare out at the burning Denver skyline, they grab one another’s hands. The film cuts to black. None of those petty arguments mattered anymore. And maybe, they never mattered to begin with.
My “why” for that film can be summarized simply as, “family is the most important thing, no matter what.”
In reality, finding your why might seem like a relatively small step, but it’s easily the single most important thing we can do to start the creative process.
It took me the longest time to understand this whole concept. But when I started getting it, my writing and filmmaking took off. It gave me a sense of direction and purpose like I had never known before.
When it’s all said and done, the why is the glue that holds the story together. It informs a unique expression of your voice and vision.
When you find that larger purpose, you can go deeper to where the fire is. You stoke that creative furnace with passion and individual expression.
With that purpose firmly rooted in your process, every step forward has the weight of the last. Every creative decision has heft. You have cohesion, theme, and message.
It may be a lot of mental strain to be constantly testing our own resolve, but everyone out there has what it takes to meet this challenge every time it comes.
Ultimately, you already have your why, even if it's still waiting to be discovered. So go forth, find it, and turn it into something amazing.
This article was co-written by Joseph Dasteel, Tyler Jones, and Robert Hardy
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