Where do movies come from? Before we go to the money people and say ‘I have an idea for a film,’ what causes the idea?

I thought about this again last night while flopped on my sofa watching a documentary about musician Keith Jarrett. He said, “Babies don’t come from babies.” This made me laugh, but also reminded me of the converse advice Martin Scorsese gives to filmmakers: Watch the old master directors. He means Hawks, Hitchcock, Fellini, etc. Doing so enriches your palette. Jarrett’s saying the opposite of Scorsese. His music comes from unmusical things. He drags experiences and feelings from outwith music into his musical software, thereby converting it into music.

Of course, as an altar boy in the church of cinema, I’m all for Scorsese’s advice, but I’m increasingly aware of how many unfilmic things beyond the movie pale are jump leads for me. For example, I was in my camper-van in St Andrews in Scotland a couple of years ago, reading a book about the great Scottish painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. I tweeted a picture of the cover of the book against a cornfield where she lived. Soon afterwards, the Barns-Graham Trust tweeted me, asking if I’d like to see more of her paintings. I jumped at the chance, visited the Trust, saw scores of her pictures and was… what’s the word when a new idea or enthusiasm seems to take you over? In these Covid times, I’ll say infected. And I knew I had to make a film about her.

There’s nothing unusual in this story, but hold it up against the conventional wisdom about creativity and you get a bit of a mismatch. In Europe, since the Romantic period, it’s been assumed that an artist has things inside her – experiences, a vision – which need to come out. Self-expression is a process so taken for granted (and the basis of lots of art education) that it seems truculent to reject it.

I’ve had a lot of formative experiences (a few days I spent in Naples in 1990 are a film in itself!) and, like you, I’m a work in progress, but I don’t think that I’ve accrued an increasingly complex inner life. It’s my outer life – my centrifugal imagination – that has been honed.

The Human Voice (2020), directed by Pedro Almodóvar

If I jump to other filmmakers it becomes clearer what I mean. Take one of the most distinctive, personal voices in movies: Pedro Almodóvar. Can we fully say that he’s ‘expressing himself ’ on screen in his female, colour-saturated worlds? Of course, many people had similar Spanish/countercultural/gender/visual experiences to him and there’s only one Pedro that we know of, but we can say that, like Keith Jarrett in music, it wasn’t cinema that made Almodóvar. A lot of it was Spain in the 60s and 70s, which he dragged into cinema.

Move from Pedro to Agnès Varda and my point becomes clearer. She’s seen as such a personal artist – and yes, her films are full of her friends, family, streets, travels – yet one of her signature films, The Gleaners and I (2000), reveals how outwardly directed she was. As you’ll know, a gleaner is a gatherer, someone with their eyes open, someone hungry. In the film we see how hungry Varda was for new places, discoveries, people, accidents, images. Her films came substantially from the outside.

I know this isn’t the conventional way of seeing her films, and I can feel you saying, “Yes, but what about David Lynch or Alfred Hitchcock or Ozu Yasujirō? Surely their remarkable worlds are great examples of self-expression?” And you are right, and they are superb. My point is that we need to dial down the ‘self-expression’ idea a bit and learn from Varda and Almodóvar (and Radu Jude, Samira Makhmalbaf, Andrea Arnold, Patricio Guzmán, Ben Sharrock, Céline Sciamma) who are receivers.

Receivers. Gertrude Stein understood this idea of a receiver (though she was terrible on some subjects). In her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) she says that creativity is observation plus construction. In other words, you start by seeing something remarkable in the world, drag it inwards (like Varda or Jarrett), then shape it. For years this has been my mantra. I saw something that excited me in Wilhelmina Barns-Graham – her unstoppability, her feel for form, her fascination with maths – and then filtered it through my sense of form, of imagery and of story.

Other practical things played a role: Twitter, the miniaturisation of film equipment so I can film on almost no budget, etc. These things made it easier to drag the idea inwards. What I’m saying is that, for me, the question isn’t really ‘What have I to express?’ It is ‘From what do I build the film’s world?’ Of course it’s relevant here that I make mostly nonfiction films, but my movies are very different from journalism and don’t use many of the standard doc techniques. And I think that the best filmmakers ask ‘From what do I build my world?’

In film schools, art colleges and everyday life, directors should hone their receptors. Which raises the question of whether ‘director’ is the right word for the job?