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Jasper Fforde on the Importance of Vanity Projects in Creative Work

Posted on 7th February 2024 by Anna Orhanen

Jasper Fforde's Red Side Story, the long-awaited sequel to his bestselling Shades of Grey, leads the reader back into the world where social hierarchy is determined by people's perception of colour. To celebrate the arrival of Red Side Story, we are delighted to share an exclusive piece from Fforde, discussing creative work and the importance of 'vanity projects' within it. 

Two days ago I went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s SF cinematic event of the 60’s. I’ve seen it umpteen times on the small screen, but this was the third time I’ve seen it on the big screen, and each time I notice something new. Whether it’s the oddly banal dialogue, the increased level of prescience or simply the awesome quality of the in-camera special effects (I was a film technician; it never leaves you). But this time it was about how 2001 could quite possibly be the greatest exemplar of the Vanity Project in cinema history, and if I’m straying away from the nominally writery aspect of this blog, stick with me – storytelling is a universal, irrespective of whether in sound, light, sound and light – or even just random squiggles on a page.

Firstly, let’s get away from the notion that a ‘Vanity Project’ is a pejorative term – it’s not. It’s the film the director wants to make, and not the one they can make, as the two are entirely separate, due to all sorts of financial, practical, and diplomatic constraints. Who is in the cast? Is the budget large enough? (invariably, no) Can we get/go to the location we want?  Has a typhoon destroyed the set? Has the leading man/lady just had a massive poody and vanished into their Winnebago? Did that last rewrite destroy the script? (invariably, yes) Do the producers want more close-ups of the leading man/lady they spent £2M on?  That sort of thing. In movies or the telly which are the preeminent storytelling medium on the planet, it’s sometimes tricky to get a tenth of one’s vision onto the screen. Now you know why directors always look furrowed and frustrated. It’s because they are. The vision always falls short of the reality.

Vanity Projects are the projects that for whatever reason film makers were allowed free rein to do what they wanted. A blank cheque, an open invitation to dance their own steps, a low budget do-what-you-want, fair and just payback for good fiscal work in the past. Sometimes it’s a screaming disaster, sometimes it’s neither here not there, but sometimes everything just slots together and it works - and the results are astonishing and move everything forward. Going back to Kubrick, everything after Spartacus was more or less a vanity project as he had by then established himself as a respected and generally untouchable auteur. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the ultimate vanity project. No let or hindrance, just him and Arthur C. Clarke doing their thing. Would the Stargate sequence at the end featuring an utterly avant-garde light show have been permitted by a studio? Doubtful. Would spending a tenth of the budget on a 30’ centrifuge be allowed? Unlikely. Would the ending with Dave Bowman reborn as a Starchild have been permitted by studio heads? Not in a billion years. If you’re still wondering about that ending, you are in good company: Kubrick himself said that there was no label on the Mona Lisa explaining why she was smiling – and that is the delight. The enigma endures. 

Other notable Vanity Projects are Rango by Gore Verbinski, a project given the green light after the fabulous box office returns of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I is included here because he was left alone once he swearily berated the producers for coming on set and asking why ‘this comedy isn’t funny’; Actor Steve McQueen’s 1968 Le Mans is him - as a racer – trying to explain the intangible lure of going very very fast around an asphalt circuit; Schindler’s List, made by Spielberg on a low budget once he had agreed to do Jurassic Park first. Yes, there are duds, too – Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Eyes Wide Shut and Dunkirk, but when they work, they really really work, and it is these projects that show what could and should be done because they are projects undertaken without risk, and crucially, what can be achieved with absolute freedom of expression. 

And this leads me to novels. Fantasy novels. Those squiggles on the page we spoke of earlier. Sure, we often play second fiddle to movies and TV, but, and this is a very big but - all our projects in the Fantasy/Speculative writery world are Vanity Projects. Everything we write, we do unconstrained by convention and often, the market. We tell these stories, we push these envelopes, not just because we want to, but because we can. Our limit is the limit of our imagination, and if you want to see where freedom of expression without constraint can take you, then go to Fantasy, go to SF, go to anything odd and off kilter and unusual. Because it will be there if you look for it - and the best of them, the ones that hit the mark with new and exciting ideas – will become touchstones. It’s a storytelling future you can be part of, and you can be part of it now.

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