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Features / Film

Creative Types On The Silver Screen: A look at the varied ways the creative industries have been portrayed on film

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2013

Words by

Rob Alderson

Illustration by

Ping Zhu

The obsession began with Mad Men. In many ways it is the ultimate period drama, bringing the 1960s to life not just through the clothes, the furniture and the spaces the characters inhabit, but also thanks to the faithful study (and reproduction) of the social, sexual and cultural mores of the era. Mad Men also set a benchmark for the depiction of a creative industry on screen.

But what of other attempts at showcasing the creative world, particularly in the cinema? I was keen to track down instances where designers, illustrators, photographers and architects were portrayed in the movies, but wasn’t concerned with films which were about the creative industries directly – rather I wanted to see how they were shown when the focus was elsewhere. The more obscure the better. What, if anything, could we learn holding up Hollywood’s mirror?

Populating my list became something of an addiction. A tremendously fun afternoon on Twitter brought in more suggestions than I knew what to do with – plus some wonderfully esoteric showdowns (“no the guy in Shopgirl WANTS to design a typeface but he’s not a type designer…”). At dinner parties, show openings and family get-togethers I tried to steer the conversation in a relevant direction.

Once the shortlist was completed, it was all about the observation and analysis. In the film Knocked Up, Seth Rogen and his friends sit around all day watching films back-to-back and noting down the exact time viewers could enjoy anything slightly titillating, from a flash of side-boob to a full-on romp. I was the same, just with art and design. And so I present not an exhaustive study but a flavour of eight films where the creative industries play some part in proceedings, however bafflingly random…

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Beginners (2010)

The obvious place to start – Beginners was written and directed by one-time designer Mike Mills and is an autobiographical tale of his father coming out aged 75. The lead character (played by Ewan McGregor) seems to flit between design, illustration and some art direction; we see him sketching out a T-Shirt at one stage and some portraits of his ex-girlfriends. Occasionally his creative process reflects the wider story – so when he finds out his dad is dying he produces several macabre doodles. After his dad dies, his boss has to stop him using work as a refuge: “The pens are not your friends, the paper is not your friend…” The movie chops between past, present and future; clues to his artistic sensibility lie in a lovely graphic print of a pear in his childhood bedroom, and a kooky mother who gets them thrown out of private views by “interacting” with the sculptures.

Throughout the film, he’s working on an album cover for a band called The Sads. Initially he’s asked to do some portraits and muses: “You do something once and that is all people ever want.” But he goes on to suggest much more interesting treatments including an illustrated history of sadness he sees folding out as a concertina inlay for the album. The band is mystified; eventually the unimpressed manager cancels the commission.


First creative nod: 09:04 – Ewan McGregor’s character sketches out a T-Shirt design which reads “My personality was created by someone else and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt.”
Realism: Pretty good, as you’d expect from a former designer.
Major lesson: Bands are never as open-minded as you’d hope.

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Catwoman (2004)

At the start of Catwoman, Halle Berry’s character Patience Phillips is a graphic designer in the advertising department for Hedare Beauty. She describes it as: “A job that was the practical version of my passion. I was supposed to be an artist by now, instead I was designing ads for beauty cream.” In fact this is important; the whole thing about her later felinification is that she wants a life of freedom and choice. This isn’t the only film where inherent creativity limited in a big commercial context is used as a metaphor for a character’s dissatisfaction.

Anyway Patience is given a big job doing the ads for Hedare’s gamechanging new product but we see her initial efforts thrown back in her face by the head of the company: “This is not even close to what I wanted. Look at this red, it’s all wrong. I wanted it darker.”

There’s a timelapse of her working late into the night fixing the designs but the failure of a courier to come and collect her work becomes a major plot point. She ends up taking it to the company’s R&D base herself, overhears that the miracle cream is in fact very dangerous, gets killed, is brought back to life by magic cats and the rest is, well, nonsense.

Sadly we don’t get to see her do any more design, although we are told by the mystic cat lady that as a Catwoman, every colour would be heightened, presumably making a Pantone sampler a real headache.


First creative nod: 04:02 – The voiceover complaint about giving up her artistic dreams for designing ads.
Realism: Average. Apparently Berry studied cats in preparation for the role – there’s no evidence she studied a graphic designer though. Shame.
Major lesson: Get couriers to pick up your work no matter what…

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Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Six years after the triumphant first instalment took cinemas by storm, this ill-thought-out remake came along to transferthe action to New York. But luckily for our present considerations, in transplanting Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) to the Big Apple, he’s left his job at a bank (steady, well-paid etc) to follow his dream as an architectural illustrator (bad pay, no pension) for the mysterious Clamp Corporation.

His slightly garish renderings of the company’s proposed developments are nitpicked over by his line manager but fawned over by Clamp himself who thinks he really “captures the essence” of his plans. But again here Billy is a creative cog in an uncreative space – the drawing of his hometown is removed as only “eye-pleasing, colour-coordinated, authorised” art work is allowed in the office.

Billy’s own creative sensibilities contrast with the corporation’s obsession with technology –they are hellbent on dehumanising everyday life to an absurd degree and science too is given a going over.

In the end though when the gremlins are defeated – and Clamp renounces his previous worldview – he asks if Billy has some paper on which he can take notes. Billy pulls out the illustration of his hometown and Clamp is won over, promising to build it straight away. The old values have triumphed over the new!

First creative nod: 08:22 – Billy talks about his frustration at lack of progression since leaving the bank.

Realism: Billy’s drawings look absurdly unreal. So yeah, it’s pretty realistic.

Major lesson: Drawing boards can, in the right circumstances, make perfect contraptions for getting water onto the head of a mogwai, with terrible consequences – here it runs down the sheet and along the pencil shelf. What are the odds?

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Closer (2004)

Patrick Marber’s brutal deconstruction of relationship politics should really come with an emotional health warning, but it does feature Julia Roberts as a freelance photographer.

We first see her in her studio taking Dan’s (Jude Law) picture for the cover of his upcoming novel. With Mozart playing in the background, Anna (Roberts) has a wry line of patter and a bossy demeanour – at one point she goes up to her subject and loosens his tie. We learn that these kind of commissions are really her way of financing her own artistic pursuits – predominantly black and white portraits of strangers.

When Dan’s girlfriend Alice (Natalie Portman) arrives, she persuades Anna to shoot her, leading to the somewhat bizarre line: “You have a great face.” However Alice’s (justified) accusations that Dan and Anna have been enjoying more than a professional relationship leave her in tears, which Anna has no compunction photographing.

Fast forward a year and it’s the night of Anna’s show. A glimpse of the invite suggests that it takes place in Bayswater in west London and (oddly) finishes at 7pm. Imaginatively, the show is called Strangers and the portraits – including that of Alice – are displayed on giant light boxes. One picture features a naked pregnant woman, another shows an old man looking sad. Everyone at the previews is wearing black. Anna’s boyfriend Larry (Clive Owen) and Alice excoriate the work as a “big fat lie” which “the glittering arseholes who appreciate art say is beautiful because that’s what they want to see.”

First creative nod: 10:00 – We cut to Anna’s studio.

Realism: High – everyone seems to leave the private view when the booze runs out.

Major lesson: All love is a sham. Oh right, creativity wise? Portrait photographers should really try harder to avoid cliché.

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Cape Fear (1991)

If you’ve watched as much of The Simpsons as me, you’ll be familiar with the feeling part-way through a film when you realise it’s been pitch-perfectly parodied by the show . Such is the case with Cape Fear, although unlike its Simpsons homage there is no scene where Max (Robert De Niro) – taking the Sideshow Bob role – stands on loads of rakes. Why Cape Fear, a 1991 Martin Scorsese remake of a 1962 classic, concerns us here though is because Jessica Lange’s character Leigh is a graphic designer .

When we first see her she is sat at a drawing board explaining to her daughter (a young Juliette Lewis) the complexities of her craft. “The idea is to resolve the tension. I need to find a motif that is about movement,” she says. “Not the most mind-blowing concept for a travel agency maybe, but what the hell…” Her daughter suggests an arrow (she may or may not be being facetious). “Yeah like an arrow maybe,” Leigh goes on, “but you see the other aspect is stability. A company that you can trust. If you can balance those ideas in a way that is pleasing to the eye then you’ve got a logo.” And there ends this little meditation on logo design.

At the time she is surrounded by drawings of red triangles, later we see her sketching out a curved black arrow while an alternative design depicting a double straight arrow is pinned above her desk. But that’s really it for design aficionados as far as Cape Fear is concerned (although at one stage the terrifying De Niro refers to her “finishing off those pesky sketches.”) We’ll never know which arrow she went for…

First creative nod: 05.27 – Leigh’s spiel on logos.

Realism: Short but sweet; Scorsese’s writers may even have looked into some very fundamental ideas behind graphic design.

Major lesson: If you’re a graphic designer, marry a lawyer and you’ll live in a really amazing house. Oh, and don’t escape from a revenge-hungry psychopath to a place called Cape Fear (obviously).

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500 Days of Summer (2009)

It’s not surprising that this film touches on creativity as it’s a hipster overload from start to finish; non-linear and starring both Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who are so kooky they have cutesy improv play in Ikea). Tom (Gordon-Levitt) works writing messages in greeting cards but we soon learn that he trained as an architect and turned his back on it – symbolically spelled out for us when he sketches a skyline before crumpling it up in frustration. Here again is our old friend stifled creativity.

Tom comes alive when he takes Summer (Deschanel) on an architectural tour of LA, noting Walker and Eisner buildings (he means Eisen) and explaining the decorative touches in various doorways (all soundtracked to Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition). It ends on a bench, in front of his favourite vista in the city, where he talks about how the buildings should be “integrated better” to “maximise light capacity.” He ends up sketching out the skyline he would build on her arm.

As the relationship breaks down, we learn this unwillingness to follow his creative passion is something of an issue for Summer. When it all falls apart and he gets depressed and drinks loads and quits his job, his redemption comes through architecture – a montage of sketching and going to interviews and reading big books that say “Architecture” on them. Even the final uplifting dénouement plays out in an architects’ office.

First creative nod: 11:04 – Tom explains how he wanted to be an architect in a pseudo flirty way.

Realism: There’s some top terminology but lose five points for the Eisen/Eisner debacle.

Major lesson: Be true to yourself and the rest takes care of itself. Also don’t work for a greetings card company. Ever.

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40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)

It is quite baffling why Josh Hartnett’s character Matt in 40 Days and 40 Nights is a web designer (at the wonderfully-named bigwindow.com). Presumably by setting their pseudo-religious slapstick tale of sexual abstinence in a San Francisco tech start-up, the creators were keen to make it very early 2000s zeitgeisty. Also they get to have a little fun with the fact that people who work with computers are a bit geeky (hahahahaha).

Either way we are left in no doubt – the first time we see Matt at work he is literally reminded “This is an internet company,” later he is sneeringly dismissed as “working for one of those dot-coms.” The office rocks a certain Nathan Barley vibe; all exposed brickwork, bikes indoors, free bagels and zany characters.

Sadly we get to see little of his process – at one point a flirty co-worker congratulates his layouts; at another he presents his boss with some “web design” of awful lurid purple and yellow with weirdly Photoshopped people. It’s genuinely horrific. There’s also a client meeting at one stage but he has to leave because he is, um, tumescent.

First creative nod: 10:50 – Technically here when he gets to work, although at 03:01 he is wearing a beanie indoors so we do suspect.

Realism: Laughable. Perhaps the prime example of a nonsensical creative industries role in film.

Major lesson: He is praised by his web design boss for doing good web design a few days into his celibacy. So if you want to get better at web design…

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What Women Want (2000)

This turn-of-the-millennium tale of a man who gets the power to hear women’s thoughts is arguably the one for which a creative industry connection makes the most sense. Nick (Mel Gibson) is an advertising hotshot with his heart set on the creative director role at Sloane Curtis, but he is gazumped by Darcy (Helen Hunt).

The office is swamped in some ad-land stereotypes including smooth-talking wideboys, pinball machines and stress-relieving toys. But the company owner (Alan Alda) wins some credibility with a speech based around the “transformation” of the American ad industry and the emergence of females aged 18-24 as “the fastest growing consumer group in the country.” Of course the conceit is that Nick has to get into the mindset of this new consumer group at the same time as he has unprecedented access (although on occasion he just nicks ideas out of their heads).

An ongoing plotline involves attempts to win the Nike womenswear account. We are treated to Hunt getting into the psyche of a jogger (complete with hallucinatory visions) which the pair then work up into a campaign based around the strapline “No games, just sports.” At the client presentation, Nick wows the Nike team with lines like “The road doesn’t notice if you are not wearing lipstick.” In truth, it’s cheesy as hell but not too bad. Oh, and there’s a great scene where Hunt and Gibson reject some visuals as “too parochial.”

First creative nod: 01:28 – Nick’s assistant shows someone round his office and tells her: “He’s the king of all the T&A ads we do. You want babes in bikinis – he’s your man.”

Realism: The ideas pertaining to women’s share of the market etc. sound plausible, and there is a mention of BBDO.

Major lesson: Supernatural powers enhance creative thinking.