Zen Filmmaking and What is a Zen Film?

By Scott Shaw

Ever since I created Zen Filmmaking, I have frequently been asked the question, "Just what is a Zen Film?" Numerous people have contacted me regarding this question and I have read a number of attempts by people to write a formalized definition. Some have been good while others have placed far too much analysis into the process. But to answer, I think, first-and-foremost, it is essential to note that the ultimate understanding of Zen is that there is no absolute definition — no one truth. This is the first clue into what is or is not a Zen Film.

But, to provide a more detailed explanation...

At the root of a Zen Film and Zen Filmmaking is the understanding that, "The stories have all been told." I say this over and over again but people still don't get it. So, let me explain…

Think about it, every story throughout humanity has previously either been written about or filmed. Certainly, there are some very specific variants of life-stories that may seem a bit more unique than others, but these minor variations are not the only time that these life events have occurred.

Take a look at the bible. Every storyline is in that ancient text — from romance to horror, onto science fiction. It is very hard to find any story of humanity that is not alluded to in the bible.

But, why does this matter? And, how does this help to define a Zen Film?

Filmmakers, from the dawning of the craft foreword, have attempted to tell a story. Many become very adamant about how elementally important the story is to their film. They equally believe that it is very important that their film's particular story must be told. So, they go and make a movie. Maybe it is good, maybe it is bad. But, ultimately, it is certainly not a story that has never been told before.

You may ask, "Why is this important in defining a Zen Film?" Because Zen Filmmaking is about freedom. A Zen Film is about freeing yourself from as many constraints as possible. And certainly, the story or the script is one of the most limiting factors in any film's production.

Why is freedom essential in making a Zen Film? Because then the filmmaking process becomes much more spontaneous, natural, and artistic. And, when freedom is allow to exist, then true art is embraced.

Which brings me to the concept of Art.

There are beautiful paintings that have been created since the dawning evolution of humanity where the artists has studied for years, refined their techniques, and then spent weeks, months, even years creating a singular piece of art. Are these pieces of art beautiful? Well, if you like that style of art, then yes they are.

Now, here arises one of the key concepts in defining a Zen Film. Just like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder.

To some, classic art is the only art. But, to others, this style of art has all been seen before. It has become old and expected.

In regard to filmmaking, the same understanding applies. So many filmmakers, especially on the independent level, attempt to create a film that looks much bigger than its budget — they attempt to mimic what has been done before. Though they most probably believe that they have a unique story that deserves telling, what they are doing is no more than retelling the same story that was most probably better told in a previous film that had a much higher budget.

Let's think about this. What if you release yourself from this whole process? What if you remove the obstacle of a highly developed story that took you months or years to write? What if you remove the need for training and simply step into the arena of filmmaking and create? What occurs? Art is what occurs.

Now, I am not saying that everybody will appreciate a film created in this style — created from a mindset of freedom. But, you can find mistakes in even the most expensive films if you look for them and certainly those films are criticized, as well. So, a Zen Film, as it is created with art as its core, can be expected to find criticism. But, the Zen Filmmaker maintains the mindset that this is all part of the package and welcomes it as it simply reveals the limited understanding of those individuals applying said criticism.

A Zen Film embraces art at its most elemental level. Is everybody going to like it? No. Does everybody like the paintings of the abstractionists or the neo-expressionists? No, they don't. Art is in the eye of the beholder! So, to make art, you will find your critics. But, who are these people that are criticizing the filmmaking of others? Are they artists? Are they making films? Most probably not.

From a personal perspective, as an artist, someone who paints, I can tell you that no painting ever turns out exactly like you expected. This is the same with film. Yet, many filmmakers have a concept locked firmly into their mind and they write and rewrite, film and refilm, attempting to get an exact mental image on the screen. But, it will never happen. What will happen from following this process of filmmaking, however, is a lot of anxiety, frustration, and discontentment. Each of these things can cause a filmmaker to toss in the towel and never complete their film. So, stop it! Allow your mistakes to become part of your film. Because, in fact, there is no such thing as a mistake, it is simply the perfection of the way it turned out. Remove expectation from your life and your film and you become free.

This brings me to the next point in detailing a Zen Film, "Trust the Zen."

What is the Zen? The Zen is allowing things to happen that are unexpected. The Zen is allowing the greater good of art and the positive forces of the universe to bring you things that were never expected: be these people, locations, or ideas to help you make your film the most perfect and complete that it can be.

Remove yourself and your desired outcome from the equitation. Turn off your controlling ego. Let your actors act. Let your crew do what they do. And, be open to new inspiration and change and you will encounter elements in your filmmaking process that will astonish you. This is a Zen Film.

Finally, as alluded to in the beginning, there is no absolute definition as to what is or is not a Zen Film. A Zen Film is based in freedom, not definition. A Zen Film is based in art, not structure. It is simply what comes out at the end of a particular film's evolution when you allow the natural process of creativity to take its course and you allow your film to be.

Freedom is Art. Art is Zen.
 

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