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American Masters: Creative Spark

Author: American Masters | PBS

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How do today’s masters create their art? American Masters: Creative Spark presents narrative interviews that go in-depth with an iconic artist about the creation of a single work. Each episode offers a unique window into the world of art and the creative process of artists and cultural icons across a wide range of disciplines, from music and comedy to poetry and film.

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77 Episodes
We're back! Our first new episode drops Thursday, July 25th, and every other Thursday after that. First up: Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks with us about his creative process as an actor who is able to mold himself to any and all film genres, including this month's new film, Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F. How do the world’s finest artists – from actors to musicians and beyond – create work that moves audiences? What challenges do they overcome in their creative process? American Masters: Creative Spark explores what makes a master by interviewing artists and cultural icons from the worlds of music, comedy, poetry, film, and more about their work. Featured guests this season include actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, singer-songwriter Jewel, playwright turned filmmaker Annie Baker, singer-songwriter Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and more.
We’re sharing a bonus episode from our friends at The Plot Thickens, a podcast from TCM about movies and the people who make them. Their new season is all about John Ford, the most influential filmmaker in cinema history. In this episode, we’re exploring Ford’s early days, when he rose to fame by being one of the most reckless, independent directors in Hollywood.
Novelist Ling Ma doesn’t shy away from taking risks with her writing. Her 2018 debut novel, “Severance,” is an apocalyptic satire that won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction and squarely put her on the map as an exciting, off-beat new writer.  With her newest collection, “Bliss Montage,” Ma has turned her attention to the short story format. The collection is described as “eight wildly different tales of people making their way through the madness and reality of our collective delusions: love and loneliness, connection and possession, friendship, motherhood, the idea of home.” In this episode, Ling Ma breaks down her creative process and inspiration behind “Peking Duck,” a short story from the collection. She details how she attempted to complicate and “implode” the immigrant narrative through her unique approach to this mother-daughter story. After listening to the episode, you can read “Peking Duck” here:
We think you’ll really enjoy this podcast from our friends over at Young and Indigenous, which amplifies indigenous knowledge, storytelling and history. In this episode of Young and Indigenous, Washington State Poet Laureate and award-winning author Rena Priest explores the beauty of childhood and the nurturing element of culture. Priest also recites some of her poems! Rena Priest encourages future writers, especially fellow Lummi Nation members, to take the creative leap. In her words, “the world needs your voice, needs your story. You never know who is going to encounter it and whose life [your story] is going to change.” Learn more about Young and Indigenous here:
It’s been announced! Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer” (2015) is now getting the prestige TV treatment on HBO’s newly rebranded Max streaming service. To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we revisit our interview with Nguyen. In it, he talks about not just “The Sympathizer,” but about growing up in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam, and how writing and reading helped him cope with its many challenges. He breaks down how his work takes on issues of cultural representation in American pop culture and literature. “The Sympathizer” stars Hoa Xuande (“Cowboy Bebop”) as a spy for North Vietnam who becomes embedded in L.A.’s refugee community. The miniseries adaptation is described as “an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire about the struggles of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the Vietnam War and his resulting exile in the United States.” The cast includes executive producer Robert Downey, Jr., Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Vy Le, Alan Trong, Vy Le, Ky Duyen and Sandra Oh.
Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is one of the busiest people in Hollywood. His recent films include “Aquaman,” “The Matrix Resurrections,” “Ambulance,” and “Candyman.” But most recently, he made his Broadway debut in "Topdog/Underdog."  In this episode, Abdul-Mateen II gives a masterclass on his acting process. The graduate of the Yale School of Drama describes how he prepared for his critically acclaimed performance in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play. He reveals the physical and mental challenges of this work, which are ultimately in service of his pursuit of “absolute truth.”
In her eighth feature film, “Showing Up,” Kelly Reichardt takes pleasure in thinking about “life on the level outside of commerce.” Her films often explore working-class characters living life on the margins. Movies like “First Cow,” “Certain Women,” “Wendy and Lucy,” and “Old Joy” have established Reichardt as one of the most fiercely independent filmmakers working today.  In this episode, Reichardt discusses how inherently collaborative filmmaking can be, the pleasure she takes in documenting processes, the importance of art schools, and just how frequently André 3000 was playing the flute during production. She also shares some surprising thoughts about where her next film might take place (and it isn’t the Pacific Northwest). “Showing Up” is in theaters this Friday, April 7th.
A compelling novel can transport us into worlds unknown. Novelist Jennifer Egan has mastered this inventiveness of fiction with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Visit from the Goon Squad," and in her newest book,"The Candy House." In this episode, Egan breaks down her writing process behind "Lulu the Spy, 2032," a chapter from "The Candy House." She pulls from life experiences to deftly forge playful and imaginative stories that bend the formal limits of the novel. Ultimately, she reminds us why writing still matters, maybe more than ever before.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is filled with booming jet engines and layered sonic storytelling. Since this publication, it won the award for Best Sound at the Oscars, largely due to the work of Al Nelson, sound designer and supervising sound editor at Skywalker Sound. Hear how he and his team spent time on aircraft carriers to capture the film’s iconic sounds. Al Nelson may be known affectionately by some as the “dinosaurs and jets” guy for his work on “Jurassic World” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” but his 27-year body of work has touched all genres, including films like “Knives Out,” “Toy Story 2,” “20 Feet From Stardom,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and more. We visit Al Nelson at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch to hear how he makes his art. Nelson discusses the influence of past sound designers on his creative process and the journey he has taken climbing the ranks at Skywalker Sound. He gives insight into the meticulous choices that are made in the edit room, choices that play a critical role in the storytelling process.
K-pop is a genre full of catchy music and elaborate choreography. It’s a natural fit for the Broadway stage. As a lifelong fan of K-pop, writer Jason Kim (“Girls,” “Barry,” and “Divorce”) was interested in the personal lives of the global superstars from Korean pop bands like BTS and BLACKPINK. How do these artists deal with the pressure of making music that represents not just your industry but your entire country?  In this episode, Jason Kim breaks down the creative process behind “KPOP The Musical.” He explains how he went from wearing out his K-pop cassette tapes as a kid growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, to staging the very first Broadway musical that tells a Korean story made by Korean American creators.
What does it mean to create futuristic costumes from the past? Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s Afrofuturistic designs imagine the fictional African nation of Wakanda without the influence of colonialism. In “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” she takes this theory to another imagined world that draws on Mesoamerican history. In this episode, Carter breaks down the creative process behind her unique approach to costume design. Since this publication, Ruth E. Carter has won the award for Best Costume Design at the 95th Academy Awards for her work on “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Watch and listen to more from American Masters.
John Waters loves to break the rules and make you laugh along the way. The iconoclast has been doing just that over the past six decades with provocative and perverse films like “Pink Flamingos,” “Hairspray,” and “Female Trouble.” Now enshrined as the king of transgressive cinema, Waters is taking on new challenges with his talents. In this episode, he breaks down the creative process behind his first novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.”   Watch and listen to more from American Masters. This episode includes derogatory epithets used in an artistic context. Listener discretion advised.
Actor John David Washington loves to talk about his craft. The star of films like “BlacKkKlansman,” “Tenet” and “Amsterdam” has now set his sights on Broadway with August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” Performing for the stage requires a different skill set from acting for film, and in this episode, Washington describes the intensive process he undertook for this new challenge. To add more layers to his performance, Washington explores the time he spent as a youth in North Carolina with his family, talks to a modern-day farmer, and applies skills from his days as a professional football player to meet the demands of an intense Broadway run. Watch and listen to more from American Masters.
How do the world’s finest artists – from actors to musicians and beyond – create work that moves audiences? What challenges do they overcome in their creative process? American Masters: Creative Spark explores what makes a master by interviewing diverse artists and cultural icons from the worlds of music, comedy, poetry, film, and more in a new season premiering January 12th, 2023. Each episode in the new season presents an interview that goes in-depth with a thought-provoking artist about the creation of a single work. Featured luminaries this season include actor John David Washington on his work preparing for his role in The Piano Lesson on Broadway; filmmaker John Waters on his debut novel, Liarmouth; filmmaker Kelly Reichardt on her next film, Showing Up; Pulitzer-winning writer Jennifer Egan on her crafting her most recent novel, The Candy House; and many more.  New episodes come out every other Thursday beginning January 12th, 2023.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of the past century. For 60 years her music has quietly reverberated throughout pop culture, and provided a touchstone for Indigenous resistance. Buffy is a five-part series from CBC Podcasts hosted by Mohawk and Tuscarora writer Falen Johnson and explores how Buffy’s life and legacy is essential to understanding Indigenous resilience. We are proud to share this excerpt from that five-part series, which gives a glimpse into Buffy’s young life with tape from her first boyfriend. Thanks! More episodes are available at:
Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree musician, artist and activist, has always been ahead of the pack. For six decades, she has fought for Indigenous rights and visibility through her work. She spoke out against the Vietnam War with her song “Universal Soldier,” foresaw the opioid crisis with the eerily prescient “Cod’ine,” and wrote iconic love songs like “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” Her music is always doing something new and bending the limits of the form. In this episode, we talk with Sainte-Marie to learn more about her story and the creative process and inspiration behind her song, “Carry It On.” Watch and listen to more from American Masters.
Comedian Jo Firestone was leading a weekly remote comedy workshop with a group of senior citizens from New York’s Greenwich House when something magical happened. Through in-person sessions, one-on-one interviews and a live public performance, a documentary special emerged called "Good Timing." Join Firestone and her crew of funny seniors as they find joy in the creative act and show how important it is to “make each other laugh in a really scary time.”
Two-time Oscar-nominated animator, writer and filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt is considered one of the most influential figures in animation. In his first-ever formal podcast interview, he breaks down the long journey that went into making his 2012 feature film, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.” The existential story at the heart of the film often mirrors many of the challenges Hertzfeldt faces as a fiercely independent animator with a do-it-yourself approach. His process is arduous, to say the least. The legacy of “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” and Hertzfeldt’s iconoclastic filmmaking technique continue to influence a whole new generation of animators to this day.
Comedian Atsuko Okatsuka does everything. The touring comic, actress, writer, dancehall dancer and podcast host is everywhere and works tirelessly. She even famously performed a stand-up set in the middle of an earthquake — and got lots of laughs. Okatsuka also just made her late night debut on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” proving to a national audience that she is a rising star with her quick wit and off-kilter approach. Here she talks about what drives her to create and “nerds out” on how she writes jokes. Watch and Listen to more from American Masters.
Musician and artist Kim Gordon is known for being the coolest person in the room. She is one of the co-founders of Sonic Youth, the band that pioneered alternative rock for 30 years with albums like “Daydream Nation” (1988) and “Goo” (1990). Today, Gordon is focused on her solo work as well as new noisy and avant-garde collaborations. Here the music icon breaks down how she made the satirical song “Air BnB,” a single from her debut solo album “No Home Record,” in this rare glimpse into her creative process.  Watch and Listen to more from American Masters.