My blog has moved!

You will be automatically redirected to the new address. If that does not occur, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Fresh Idea Race

A Rouge Waver wrote in with a two-part question:

One of the many problems I'm encountering as a novice is coming up with a good story idea. I imagine it's one that plagues screenwriters at every level, but as a novice it looms large, that's for sure.

Join the crowd. Coming up with fresh ideas is, in my opinion, the only REAL challenge of being an aspiring screenwriter. All the other stuff - execution, i.e. what I talk about on TRW almost every day in one form or another - is something that screenwriters eventually get right through practice and repetition. Writing great character and dialogue, nailing structure, understanding theme and tone, developing voice, writing cinematic, kinetic action lines. That's all accessible for most aspirants. Of course, there's that ineffable innate talent thing and that's just god-given but still, you get my point. Execution and craft can, for the most part, be learned.

But fresh ideas - that's tough. In this week's New Yorker, there is a really great article about Tony Gilroy (MICHAEL CLAYTON, DUPLICITY, etc.) and here is a section I thought fascinating and depressing:

Gilroy believes that the writer and the moviegoing public are engaged in a cognitive arms race. As the audience grows savvier, the screenwriter has to invent new reversals - madder music and stronger wine. Perhaps the most famous reversal in film was written by William MARATHON MAN. Laurence Olivier, a sadistic Nazi dentist, is drilling into Dustin Hoffman's mouth, trying to force him to disclose the location of a stash of diamonds. "Is it safe?" he keeps asking. Suddenly, William Devane sweeps in to rescue him and spirits Hoffman away. In the subsequent car ride, Devane starts asking questions; he wants to know where the diamonds are. After a few minutes, Hoffman's eyes grow wide: Devane and Olivier are in league! "Thirty years ago when Goldman wrote it, the reversal in MARATHON MAN was fresh," Gilroy says. "But it must have been used now 4000 times." This is the problem that new movies must solve. As Gilroy says, "How do you write a reversal that uses the audience's expectations in a new way? You have to write to their accumulated knowledge."

Now, in this passage, Gilroy is speaking specifically about reversals - but the same is true of coming up with fresh ideas - you must write to the audience's accumulated knowledge. Which is why the list of movies we were coming up with yesterday is important. Screenwriters need to be articulate in what has come before and what is going on now. Because audiences have literally seen every story that can be told at the movies already. They really have. But. Knowing that, it's not that you have to come up with an idea for something that has literally never been done (good luck with that, by the way) it's telling a story with your particular imprint, with your particular take on it - that is what you need to strive for. I believe there are infinite variations on each story and that's what keeps the doors open for you as you strive to come up with an original idea. You have to think about the meta story you want to tell - okay this is the story of a man needing to restore his pride and his dignity. Okay how about if that's a western? How about if we make the antagonist a wealthy landowner? Nah. How about we make the antagonist a dangerous outlaw? Yeah, okay - how about the story is not about the rancher trying to save his ranch but him accepting a job in order to save his ranch? What kind of job? How about if the job has to do with the outlaw? And we have 3:10 TO YUMA.

So it's being able to go from the meta to the details of your story. And it is in the details that you will find the specificity and the originality you are looking for. In FRENCH KISS the meta story is an uptight woman who falls for a rebel type. Yeah but he's a Frenchman. And the woman has to get on a plane and track down her fiance, who she thinks is cheating. And she sits right next to this crazy, stinky Frenchman - and they wind up falling in love. So the meta story is pretty familiar, yes, of course, but the specific details create a particularity we have not seen.

So when trying to come up with a good idea for a script, at first identify the meta. Then create details that have not been seen before. Use your store of knowledge about what has come before. If you're writing a romcom - you better have seen a truckload of romcoms so you are aware of what has been done. Ditto every other genre. This is why it is essential that screenwriters - woe are we - see a huge amount of movies. Pity the poor sucker who skips this step, thinking that he or she is just so brilliant that totally original ideas literally sprout from their brain regularly. No such luck. You have to do your homework. Identify which genre you'd like to write, noodle around with some ideas then test them - go through the mental files (if not physical files) of other movies in this genre and look for similarities and differences. How can your idea be the same but different?

And part two of this Waver's question:

I'm particularly attracted to movies like Babel, Traffic, and Syriana et al; those with multiple storylines and a common thread (although, I wasn't all that keen on Crash, too preachy I thought...okay, racism, I get it). But, how many scripts are you seeing that employ this technique? Would you tell me not to bother, it's been done to death? Or, would you say that it may be okay to pursue as a writing sample?

You know, for a while there, a couple years back, I saw TONS of scripts that were ensemble, braided storyline scripts just like BABEL, TRAFFIC and CRASH. A lot of writers got inspired by that. So on the one hand, I would say beware going for that - it's a very tough mini-genre to pull off and to pull off well, let me tell you that. The skill set involved is formidable. That said, because Hollywood is so counter-intuitive sometimes - I would always err on the side of writing what you are really, really passionate about. If that's what you want to write - go for it. If you can pull it off with excellence and originality, it will at minimum make a great sample. And who knows - it might just get you repped or even sold. An awareness that there was a spate of films of this nature relatively recently is of course key. I do not think writing this type of script is a slam dunk right now. I wouldn't do it, personally. That said, in my opinion, there is one truism in Hollywood that trumps them all and that is that nobody knows anything. So do what you will.

If you enjoyed this post, follow me on Twitter or subscribe via RSS.


Joe Public said...

In addition to Julie's comments, people watch. Just go out and view how many different kinds of folks we are. You can have story like, well, any of Arnold Schwarzenegger's films where he just blows the crap out of and kills everything in sight.

Now, let's say you(writer) are at the airport and a Franciscan nun passes by: maybe instead of Arnold? No influencing Arnold. Then your story goes something like his dear Aunt comes to live with him and she's a Franciscan nun. And she preaches the virtues of the ten commandments, especially "thou shall not kill." And she gets into his head and he's gotta start catching bad guys in creative ways who try to kill him, and then he catches them and reads them wanna make you puke scripture on forgiveness. And then makes them recite it back.

Don't lock into an idea, really play with the recipe... a little this, a little that...and when something truly original takes shape...YOU WILL KNOW IT!

Good luck!

LindaM said...

I agree with everything you and Tony Gilroy are saying. But movie makers (writers, directors, especially studio suits) simplify this to mean "more, faster, louder." Oh, we had a car crash in the last movie? Then we need THREE in this one! He dove off a high building in the last one? Well, why don't we have him dive off a moving plane in this one!

Gilroy's comment: "How do you write a reversal that uses the audience's expectations in a new way?" can be converted to "let's have MORE reversals!"

One of the most interesting developments in the TV series "24" occurred in Season 5, when the writers developed an intense and exciting conflict of between President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and his boozy wife, Martha Logan, played by Jean Smart. The scenes between those two were so electric they totally eclipsed all the car crashes and bombings over the course of the season. You waited with baited breath for one more scene between the two. Of course, it helped that the roles were filled with absolutely superb actors, but that wasn't the only reason. Somehow, the writers and story developers created an emotional conflict of tremendous depth. And unfortunately, they've had a hard time since then creating another one.

It's really hard to do that, but it's something important to remember in trying to create something new and better. It's not how big the explosions are - it's how big the emotional impact is.

Julie Gray said...

@Joe - GREAT advice!

@Linda - wonderful advice as well. Great example!

Thank you both for contributing your two cents. That's what the Rouge Wave is all about; a place for writers to learn, commiserate, laugh and grow. And it couldn't happen without great, thoughtful comments like these two. :)))

millar prescott said...

Haha! I was just thinking the exact same thing. Perfect timing and, Julie, as always, your answers are insightful and well considered. Thank you. You're a gem in a bag of rocks.

Anonymous said...

My copy is pretty out-of-date, but presumably people are familiar with Videohound? It's a good way to work backwards from a concept to work out what has gone before and to see what you are building on.

Christian M. Howell said...

I can say I definitely agree with Mr Goldman.

But in my mind it means that this is an abstract industry and just because it works today doesn't mean it will work tomorrow. Or because it worked with Eastwood doesn't mean it will work with Ferrell.