Yesterday, I had the following e-mail exchange:
Manager: Teri, you're brilliant, when are you going to write something commercial so I can represent you and finally make enough to put in a swimming pool.
Me: I have no idea what gave you that impression. Seriously. Anyway, I’m working on it. I think. I don’t know. What’s commercial?
*ulcer flares up*
But yes, I do need a lake (a pool will do too) for my Labrador. (Note: later I got that he was talking about HIS pool, not mine.)
Manager: I've read your blog, you're very smart. But you need to write a movie, not a "script," IMO.
There it was again. That word. Movie.
By great coincidence, the WGA Foundation’s Notes on Craft started last night. The topic was Premise & Concept, and as tradition dictates, even though I attending in person, I asked my friend James who was streaming the event, to ask what the difference was between a script and a movie. He asked me if maybe it would be better to ask a concept related question. Fine. I told him to ask what the “test” was for determining whether or not you had a high concept idea.
Last night’s program was moderated by Daniel Petrie, Jr. and the panelists were Allan Loeb, Anne Peacock and Daniel Pyne. (pic)
Luckily for me, James didn’t have to ask. Petrie asked it right away: “How do you know you have a great idea for a movie?”
People are always approaching screenwriters and telling them their great idea for a movie. Most of the time, they are good ideas for something else but not a movie. So how do you know?
Pine answered he didn’t know. For him it was more of an organic process. He mostly knew when he didn’t have a good idea for a movie. For him, great ideas stay with him and linger. It’s usually a simple one expressed in a few words and it has to be a concept that can be carried for many pages. He starts with a character and a tiny conflict and builds from there.
Loeb said that in order for him to move that idea into a movie he had to picture in three acts. Petrie then referenced Terry Rossio’s blog Wordplay and what Rossio calls the “strange attractor.” You begin with something that’s already in the collective consciousness (the familiar) and then you add something different, which is the “strange attractor.”
The same but different, get it?
Peacock agreed, adding that you have to be passionate and excited about the subject in order for it to go a long way. She asks herself if the idea passes the sustainability test. That is, can it be carried out in three acts? Loeb added that he also asks himself “why should this story be told now?" He needs the zeitgeist to grab on to.
Obviously, given the studios’ preference for IP, most of the work these screenwriters do is adaptation. But they stressed that it didn’t matter that they weren’t working with original ideas. Even with adaptation, you need a unique approach and everyone’s is going to be different. While they read the source material they constantly ask themselves WHAT’S THE MOVIE? And sometimes, it’s not the story in the book. Sometimes they hate the book, but there is something in there that captures their imagination. You must eliminate what’s not relevant to the movie.
Petrie revealed that Pyne is adapting a beloved sci-fi novel called The Stars My Destination. Apparently, it has been in development for 50 years and 40 writers have tried to adapt it. Pyne said it took him a long time to find the right approach after many false starts, but that he’s finally cracked it. He said it was very difficult because the protagonist is the bad guy version of the Count of Montecristo and it’s a story about primal revenge.
Peacock’s latest film, The Fist Grader, is based on an LA Times article. The story takes place in Kenya at the time when legislation made education a right for its citizens. The article was about an 84 year-old man who showed up on the first day of school and his struggle to be allowed to get an education in spite of his age. Because she’s South African, the story spoke to her but it was still too tiny to be a movie. As she researched this man’s life, a word resonated with her: Mau Mau. It turns out that the old man had been a liberation fighter in the Mau Mau Uprising against the British and which set the stage for Kenyan independence. This element added muscle to the little, lovely story and then it became a movie. She said you have to grab the audience in a visceral way.
So again, when do you know you have a movie? The writers shook their heads and Loeb said “You know it when you hear it.” Petrie brought up his former redheaded protégés, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. They told him that they come up with dozens of shitty ideas every day, but if they come up with one great one a year, they felt they were doing pretty good.
I hate to break it to you guys, but they said a great concept is very, very rare. I actually feel better now and less anxious about my inability to tell if any of my ideas would make a good movie. Instead of over-thinking it, I’m just going to wait until I know.
Oh, but wait. We’re not supposed to just sit there waiting for that idea to strike. The panelists said that’s not really what happens. You have to start somewhere and it’s usually with a character or a situation. The idea emerges through the process writers go through working with those elements that move them. It’s usually a character. Pyne said a writing teacher told him to work in reverse and to try to surprise himself. You work back into the concept. That was his process for White Sands. He kept on imagining a desert and the character, a disillusioned sheriff. Then, after developing the situation, he found his concept: A man pretends to be dead to solve a murder. Ok, so again: we’re supposed to be writing, with or without a high concept.
A writer’s point of entry should always be what she’s passionate about. Find a profound idea that captures your imagination and go with it. Specificity is very important in developing the concept. A good exercise that forces you to rethink your story is to switch your protagonist’s gender, age, etc. and the location.
They went on to discuss television concepts versus film, but I won’t get into it here because I don’t feel like it right now (I’m trying to finish this post before I eat lunch). To make a long story short: the concept should be strong enough to be sustained in 100 episodes and opportunities for writers abound in cable television. Then they opened the floor for questions and most of them were not very good and did not pertain to the subject of premise and concept.
Petrie, Loeb, Peacock, Pyne
I love to go to these WGA events not just because of the wealth of information, but because I feel better afterwards. I feel I’m not alone in my insecurities and anxieties and that comforts me and motivates me.
Petrie, as he does in every single panel he moderates, told a story about his screenwriters’ poker game. One time someone asked, “When does your script turn to shit?” He said page 85. Other writers gave numbers in the late 70s and early 80s. Josh Friedman said page 147. That Josh! He’s so incorrigible.
Anyway, the panelists laughed and Peacock said for her it was in the 70s. I thought, that’s so true. She also added that when you hit the shit wall (my term, not hers) you have to grab on to something to finish. She starts to hate herself and almost panics that she won’t be able to deliver what she’s getting paid for. That she’s a talentless hack and impostor. So she has to think of John McEnroe digging himself out of a two-set deficit and eventually winning. She refuses to give up and forces herself to follow her beatsheet, outline or treatment to dig herself out and finish. Loeb calls it getting the bad 110 out. I thought, wow, I’m not the only one. There’s no magic or secret. It takes drafts to fully understand what you are really writing about. You just have to do the work.
Petrie said that the Impostor Syndrome never goes away. You never feel you are worthy. (Great.)
The questions then turned to the sad state of affairs, as they always do. Why aren’t the studios buying original specs? Why are they obsessed with IP? Why do the studios continue to make formulaic crap? Blah blah blah.
And the answer is always the same:
Once you start worrying about and writing for the market, you are doomed as a writer. Write what you are passionate about.
Petrie talked about the seismic shift in the creation of content and its delivery to audiences. Yes, studios are almost completely inaccessible, but at the same time, the rest of the world is open to creators and distributors. He said his dad got into directing television at a time when it was new and no one wanted to do it because everyone who was anyone was doing radio. He said that they, meaning the panelists and film industry insiders, were radio. We are the future.
So to recap:
1. A great concept marries the familiar with the strange.
2. You’ll know when you have a great concept when you have it.
3. You can’t just sit on your ass and wait, you have to write.
4. Write for the market and be doomed.
5. Write what you are passionate about, but make sure it’s a movie, not just a script.
And now, off to my tuna Panini. Have a great weekend.