I was griping on the social media a while back about my brand recognition fatigue and how, in this Age of the Franchise, I was desperate for something new. My mind, prone to wandering, soon began wandering to something I learned long ago from an old friend: the Blue Duck Philosophy.
It refers to a throwaway line of dialogue in the 1995 Adam Sandler comedy Billy Madison. In the film, Sandler plays a twentysomething slacker forced to return to grade school, for reasons about as ridiculous as you’d expect. In one scene, it’s arts and crafts time, and Billy works on a crayon sketch of a blue duck. He explains his unusual choice:
“I drew the duck blue because I’ve never seen a blue duck before, and to be honest with you, I wanted to see a blue duck.”
My pal and occasional artistic collaborator Shane Chaney first used this quote when describing his songwriting process. His punk band Swear Jar, he explained, makes blue duck music – sounds they’d never heard before, sounds they wanted to hear.
I realized then how in tune that idea was to my own creative process. I’ve come to crave fresh ideas from storytelling in general and cinema in specific – the stranger, the better. To me, a bold, new failure is far more interesting than a tame, familiar success. That, then, informed how I make my own art: I aim to write only stories that couldn’t be told by anyone else. And if I demand inventiveness from other filmmakers, then surely I should demand the same from myself.
It’s more than just making something unseen before. The Blue Duck Philosophy isn’t about breaking new ground. It’s about grabbing control and running with it, making things the way you want, no matter how unusual or unorthodox. It’s about not waiting for permission to break the rules. It’s about being true to your creative self.
(This does not mean you must be daring and original. If sticking to a formula or working within a specific genre floats your boat, go for it! It’s your duck, color it however you want.)
Of course, film, music, and several other collaborative artforms are ultimately team efforts built on compromise, which often curves away from the absurd and toward the familiar. Sometimes you’re a hired gun working on someone else’s vision, and that’s perfectly OK. But whenever any amount of creative control, no matter how small, falls into your hands, why not make the absolute most of it?
When Shane and I were among those producing the local TV series Friday Night Fu, we were granted an insane amount of creative leeway, and we weren’t about to let it go to waste. While a simple “movie host” show at its core, the Fu ultimately became indefinable, a show that, when all its various elements were slammed together, was unlike anything we’d ever seen on television, nor was it like anything we’ve seen since. It became our dumping ground for anything and everything we wanted to try. Guest interviews, rock bands, puppet comedy… if we wanted it, we made it. “That’s not how it’s done” was never considered. We drew the duck blue.
Later projects, both on television and on film, retained that spirit. Even when locked into a well-worn format, we took advantage of any freedoms we could find. Because, hey, you never know when such freedoms will return.
With independent art, the freedom is almost always there. The most vital piece of advice any writer, musician, painter, etc. can receive is this: while you should definitely consider your audience, your first concern is to an audience of one. You. Don’t hold yourself back just because you think your work might not be commercially viable. Don’t worry if anyone else will “get” it. Don’t bother trying to fit what you’re making with what’s been made before.
If you want to see a blue duck, just draw the duck blue.