Great directors such as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan are under an enormous amount of pressure to innovate, yet much of their monumental success as directors rests equally upon imitation. Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; yet others say that life imitates art. Instead of being mutually exclusive, both can exist. Like all artists, great directors borrow and build upon each other’s techniques, allowing them to spend more time filmmaking and less time reinventing the wheel.
For the best proof that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants look no further than the enormous sphere of influence of Shakespeare. Many filmmakers have borrowed—some quite heavily—from the themes and character arcs that were originally penned so long ago. Shakespeare has influenced plotlines from some of the greatest films of our generation, from the Hamlet-inspired revenge tale of The Lion King to Kurosawa’s Ran, whose tale of feuding offspring is inspired by King Lear. Shakespeare’s reach is so vast that imagining a creative life without his themes of love, comedy and tragedy is as impossible as it is to count those his work has influenced.
Before embarking on a tale in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas learned what he could about story line from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book that analyzes thousands of years of motifs found in fairy tales, folklore and mythology. His findings prompted him to rewrite much of Star Wars in order to perfect the plot, character and narrative.
More tangibly, George Lucas also studied old war footage to map the actions of an aerial dogfight, which he mirrored to create his space battles. In addition to giving him the absolute realism he needed to keep viewers in the film, this technique helped him save time and money by using pre-shot formations to get it to look authentic. In Jonathan Rinzler’s book The Making of Star Wars, Lucas himself recounts his experience of using old stock footage to his advantage, “Every time there was a war movie on television, like ‘The Bridges at Toko-Ri‘, I would watch it — and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of ‘Star Wars’.”
Lucas’s influence on CGI in film is undeniable, however had he tried to do every little thing when creating Star Wars, the movie would never have been as good and his legacy would not have held the same weight.
Tarantino is also known to pilfer from film greats, unabashedly saying “good directors borrow, great directors steal.” Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and watching films for most of his youth, QT developed a large reservoir (pun intended) of film influences from which to draw, and many of his films contain homages to his favorite cinema moments, and once he became established, to his own films as well.
Tarantino’s directorial debut was heavily influenced by at least a half-dozen films, wherein he mixed and perfected certain elements from each, eventually producing the distilled and refined modern classic we have today. Remember the “Stuck in the Middle” torture scene? Who doesn’t. The torture in that scene was inspired by a film Kansas City Confidential, which came out 40 years prior. What about the characters all named after colors to protect their identity? That was a concept conveniently cherry-picked from The Taking of Pelham 123. Oh yeah, the entire plot of an undercover cop involved in a heist, who shoots an innocent person and was defended by a crook with an ending that escalates to a ‘Mexican standoff’ was lifted from a Hong Kong film 5 years previous called City on Fire. Tarantino cleverly used a creative combination of his favorite scenes and concepts as a jumping-off point, and by adding his unique dialogue, camera motions and characters he created a project which few can deny is as individual as it is amazing.
Influences for films don’t always have to come from films. On top of drawing heavily from German expressionism, Tim Burton has cited influences from the simplicity of Dr. Seuss and the horror of Edgar Allen Poe that helped him create his Gothic worlds and playfully terrifying films that appeal to both adults and children.
Burton certainly isn’t alone in this. Martin Scorsese has been known to be inspired by more than just other films. His love of The Rolling Stones is very apparent in his films, and aside from his documentary Shine a Light, he has used their music in four of his films, three of which feature “Gimme Shelter”: Casino, Goodfellas and The Departed, every time serving as a bed for a voice-over by a likeable anti-hero.
Scorsese has also been known to grab some concepts from other film sources and repurpose them for himself. The 2000s gave way to a captivating film in which an undercover cop within a gang and a mole in the police department play a cat-and-mouse game as they try their hardest to identify each other before they themselves are fingered. The film has remained on IMDb’s top ten and won several awards—in Hong Kong. Infernal Affairs offered the inspiration for Marty’s The Departed, and with the help of Alan Mak and Felix Chong, two of the three writers from the Hong Kong original, he was able to bring home four Oscars in 2006 for ‘Best Motion Picture of the Year’, ‘Best Achievement in Directing’, ‘Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay’ and ‘Best Achievement in Film Editing’.
Even Christopher Nolan isn’t above some creative lifting. The dreamy plot of 2010’s Inception was arguably lifted from the 2006 Japanese animation film Paprika, where the former’s concepts, and many of the scenes, are identical to that of the latter. To add to the layer of Nolan-esque mystic, Paprika could have been, for all intents and purposes, inspired by a 2004 Donald Duck comic book Uncle Scrooge: The Dream of a Lifetime where Donald Duck must enter Scrooge’s dream to prevent him from giving away the combination to his bank vault to the thieving Beagle Brothers. Impressed with a dream within a dream concept? Try inspiration within inspiration.
We love the work of a great artist because they find inspiration from everywhere and anywhere, and are able to produce amazing work out of an everyday subject. Considering the amount of inspiration out there, good artists should be as revered in their abilities to breathe new life into an old concept as they are when they create a fully “original” work. Great directors choose to use tried and true story lines, simple character arcs and sometimes even borrowed footage rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel each time. They are great because they acknowledge the greatness of others, and understand when it is time to innovate, and when they can rely on the proven work of others. George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan are monumental directors who are not afraid to rely on work before them.
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