Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Chaplin’


Unless you’ve studied Charlie Chaplin’s films, you may not immediately see what I’m getting at.  If you can find it, there is an amazing documentary in three parts from 1983 called Unknown Chaplin, which breaks down his creative process and shows for the first time lots of his unused film.

But failing that, let me give it to you in a nutshell: Chaplin worked to his own schedule, refusing to let studio execs tell him what to create or how long it should take.  He often puzzled over a single “gag” for months without shooting a second of film, while all of the cast and crew sat around and waited.  He once re-shot almost an entire movie after recasting the leading lady. He never threw away an idea. And once he was satisfied with something, the finished product always looked utterly effortless.

That’s the key.  When you write make it look effortless, no matter how long or how hard or how many reams of paper you went through to get there.  One mistake writers make is to show how clever they are and make it obvious how hard they worked to get their story on paper — pages of in-depth backstory, obtuse and lengthy set-ups, flowery, purple descriptions of scenery or weather or location — all there to demonstrate the writer’s dedication to research and the richness of their invented world.  Chaplin’s best work was silent, with almost no dialogue, and in back and white.

There’s a scene in City Lights, in which the Tramp buys a flower from a blind girl, and she mistakes him for a rich man.  How did he do it?  No long set-up or clever dialogue. To avoid a cop while crossing the street, the Tramp climbs into a parked car and gets out at the curb.  When the transaction is done, the car’s owner gets in and drives off, leaving the Tramp standing there waiting for his change, which he never gets.  Smooth, natural, completely organic. Effortless.

Chaplin spent weeks filming that one 2-minute scene.

If you take this kind of no-excuses approach, and strive for these kinds of simple-but-sublime results, you should go far as a writer. Pick every word carefully. Make every word count. Rather than “a picture worth a thousand words,”  try to find those words that are worth a thousand pictures.



Just so you know, this week’s post is not strictly about writing. It’s actually not about writing at all. But it is about creativity and making progress on one’s creative projects.

And there’s free stuff.

I’ve had this idea for a music video to go with Billy Joel’s song, “Running On Ice,” for about 25 years.  Half my life.

Thanks to YouTube and iMovie I have finally been able to actually make it.

About the time this song came out in the late 80s the PBS series American Masters aired three documentaries about silent film era greats Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  I recorded all 8 hours of these (you know, on VHS tape) and watched them over and over all through my college years until I had them practically memorized.  And at that time Billy Joel was a big part of my personal play list (you know, on my Walkman).  At some point these two things collided in my brain, and thereafter every time I head the song “Running On Ice” — for the next 25 years — I pictured these silent film geniuses going through their paces, choreographed to the music. I had the whole thing worked out in my head. Only I had no way the actually edit the thing together and get the timing just right.

If you’re not familiar with the song, it is very frenetic, angsty, and full of cymbal crashes and drum rolls — the perfect soundtrack for the classic pratfall.  The song is about how difficult our fast-paced life can be, with all of our modern pressures and conveniences, and that pretty much sums up the films of these silent greats (only about 80 years less modern in their cases).

I think the video speaks for itself (here’s the free stuff I mentioned earlier).  Enjoy.

Now, if I can only get a couple of million dollars together, build a western town set with a bank and a saloon and hire a couple of dozen actors and a whole film production crew, I can start working on my other video idea … “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.”