The Big Idea For Your Movie

by Alexander Steele

Charlie: The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality. On top of that, you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.

Donald: Mom called it ‘psychologically taut’.

    —a conversation between a professional screenwriter and his wannabe brother in Adaptation

Before there is a movie, before there is a screenplay, before there is anything, there must be an idea. A glimmer, hint, whisper. Something to get the boulder rolling. Finding the initial idea can be the most daunting part of the process but, fortunately, there is no shortage of places to search.

Your own life.
Your own life is, after all, the thing you know best. But you should tread carefully here. Movies require a lot of story juice to keep them pumping and intensifying for two hours or so and that’s why movies lean on autobiography far less than fiction, which has more license to be meandering and introspective. First of all, don’t even think about telling your whole life story unless it’s as fascinating as, say, the life of Napoleon, and even movies on Napoleon tend to focus on an aspect of his life rather than the whole thing. Even if there’s an interesting aspect of your life, though, it will still need some help.

One of the more autobiographical movies of recent times is Almost Famous, written and directed by Cameron Crowe. As a teenager obsessed with rock music, Crowe got a job writing about a rising rock band on tour for Rolling Stone without the editors knowing how young he was. And that’s the basis of Crowe’s movie. You have to admit, Crowe had a good story. Take an innocent kid, drop him in the midst of high-profile sex, drugs, and rock’n roll, add in the pressure of writing for a major magazine and being torn between his need for a good exposè and the bonds he forms with the band. Crowe’s true story was strong enough so he didn’t have to fabricate too much, but fabricate he did, to make the story all the more dramatic. If you’re tempted to write a movie based on your life, ask yourself if you’ve got something half as good Crowe’s story. If the answer is yes, great, use it…and then you still need to make things up. Just because something really happened doesn’t mean it’s good enough, yet, for your movie.

A better approach is to use something from your life merely as a starting point. Let’s say you’re stuck on an airplane next to a big, loud fellow who won’t stop jabbering and causes an ungodly odor when he pulls off his shoes and yet after a few hours you realize that he isn’t such a bad guy. It’s a good start but you’ll need much more to make a movie. So eventually you manipulate and magnify; for example, it’s the holiday season and the plane is grounded by a snowstorm so the two travelers are forced to share a one-bed motel room and then travel by ground together all the long way to their destination. I don’t know how John Hughes got the idea for the movie Trains, Planes, and Automobiles but it could have been just that. Lost your job? Endured a bad divorce? Struggled with addiction? All kinds of things in your life might prove the inspiration for a movie and—the good news about bad experiences—the more trying the circumstances, the more potency they will have as story material.

You might even draw an idea from a setting or milieu with which you are familiar. Medical school, a modern-day ranch, a Peace Corps stint in Mongolia. Most of us love a backstage peek at life’s myriad sideshows. Look at the way Bull Durham takes us into the dugout of minor league baseball or the way Animal House throws us into the rowdiest fraternity on campus. What interesting world can you introduce us to?

When it comes right down to it, though, don’t worry too much about that old adage: write what you know. Write what you want to write about.

Something you’ve seen or heard about.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Regardless of where you live—small village or bursting metropolis—you’ve got a world of material around you.

One night Sylvester Stallone watched the world heavyweight champ, Muhammad Ali, take on an unknown contender nicknamed The Bayonne Bleeder (for his ability to absorb punishment). The challenger lost but, against all expectations, he lasted fifteen rounds and in one electrifying moment he even knocked Ali to the canvas. That’s how Stallone came to write Rocky.

While hitchhiking through West Virginia as a young man, John Sayles heard tell of the bitter wars that erupted in the region when the coal miners first attempted to unionize in the 1920s. Most everyone around there, in turn, had heard these stories from their parents and grandparents. Sayles listened carefully and then transformed what he heard into Matawan.

The great writer/director Billy Wilder was watching the movie Brief Encounter, a tear-jerker about a couple who borrow an apartment for their adulterous trysts. Despite the film’s poignancy, Wilder found himself wondering about the fellow who lent the apartment, the person who had to climb into that warmed-up bed at night. This led Wilder straight into The Apartment.

History or the News
The pageant of history offers an endless source of story ideas. In World War I, an eccentric Englishman led an army of Arabian Bedouins against the Turkish army and then found his allegiance wavering between his Arab followers and the British army that employed him. It was only a matter of time before a movie captured the saga of Lawrence of Arabia. Historical tales don’t have to be so epic, though, nor do they need to stick all that close to the historical fact (especially when the facts aren’t that well known). The Lion in the Winter is an intimate drama about a dysfunctional family in 1183 that happens to include King Henry II of England, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their less-than-princely sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John.

Looking more recently, the news is an evergreen source of ideas. While in grad school, Kimberly Pierce came across an article in an alternative newspaper about a young woman who passed herself off as a man in a small Nebraska town. Fascinated by the tale, Pierce went to the town, interviewed the people who knew Brandon Teena, and co-wrote the movie Boys Don’t Cry. While Boys Don’t Cry, stayed fairly true to the facts, which lent themselves beautifully to a story, you can use the news merely as a starting point. A much-publicized racial incident in Brooklyn inspired Spike Lee to write Do the Right Thing, but the story he spun is completely fictional. Dr. Strangelove is a ridiculously far-fetched story but it was obviously inspired by the Cold War paranoia that pervaded the headlines in the early 1960s. Truth is, you can flip through a newspaper almost any day of the week—front page, wedding announcements, obituaries—and find the seed of a great story idea.

Adapt something
A high percentage of movies are adapted from works in another medium. A random sampling: Terms of Endearment (novel), Men in Black (comic book), Amadeus (play), The Untouchables (TV series), Friday Night Lights (nonfiction book), Dog Day Afternoon (magazine article) Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (video game).

With so many ready-made stories ripe for the picking, why not pick? Here’s the rub, though. You can not adapt anything that is under copyright protection without obtaining the rights, and if the property has achieved any degree of fame or acclaim, you can bet that someone in the movie business already holds the rights to it, rights that were purchased with a nice chunk of change. Pursuing any well-known property is usually a waste of time, and that includes remakes of older or foreign movies. So, if you want to adapt, you’ll need to find something no one has yet thought to snatch up, something farther off the beaten path.

You might keep a lookout for short stories. Virtually all short stories these days make their first appearance in little-known literary magazines, of which there are hundreds. Most of the stories in these magazines won’t be appropriate for movie adaptation but some of them will be, and chances are good that no one in the movie business will have heard of the story you want. You track down the author, which shouldn’t be that hard, and you arrange to buy the rights for a modest fee. A few movies adapted from short stories: Rear Window, Sunset Boulevard, Memento, Blade Runner, In the Bedroom, Brokeback Mountain.

If a work is old enough, usually over a hundred years old, then the property will be in the public domain, meaning it’s fair game to anyone. Classic stories can be problematic, however, because the movie people have probably already thought of it and they may even be developing a new version on their own. You’ll have a better chance by updating a classic, perhaps even giving it a new twist. Apocalypse Now is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam. After Hours is very much like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland set in contemporary New York City. O Brother Where Art Thou is, more or less, Homer’s The Odyssey set in the depression era South.

If you keep an open mind, you might find something to adapt in the most unlikely of places. Amy Fox, whom you will meet in Chapter 10, wrote a one-act play about three people hanging out on a New York City rooftop. Even though she also wrote screenplays, Amy never considered the play a movie idea. Someone who saw the play in a tiny Off-Off Broadway theater, however, did see movie potential in the story, namely Ismael Merchant, of the legendary Merchant/Ivory production company. Merchant bought the rights, hired Amy to write the screenplay, and a few years later the story emerged on the screen as Heights.

If you choose to write an adaptation, you have a headstart on your story but don’t think you can just type out the original in screenplay format. You will need to transform the source material into a movie, a process that requires you to follow most of the steps you would take if you were working on something brand new. It’s really no less difficult than starting from scratch.

Oh, yes, you can also just spin a story out of pure imagination. Who knows what gave someone the idea of making a movie about a gigantic ape who is shipped from a remote island to New York City and falls in love with a beautiful actress, eventually climbing the Empire State Building with her clutched in his massive hand? Maybe someone just thought it up. Doesn’t matter. King Kong was a fabulous idea.

Regardless of where your initial idea comes from, you’ll need to apply your powers of imagination to tease out the best possible story. Often it’s a matter of playing the game of What If? What if a guy lent out his apartment for adulterous trysts? How can I maximize the drama there? Let’s say he’s an ambitious fellow who lends out his apartment to executives in the corporation where he works, lured by the hope of advancement. All right, interesting, somewhat plausible. And let’s say he’s really a romantic at heart so the whole arrangement is a bit icky to him. And that means he should have a romantic yearning of his own so let’s give him a crush on a woman who works at the corporation. These things happen. And then…what if his crush is having an affair with one of the executives to whom he’s lending his apartment? Yes, good. And what if he doesn’t discover this until after the executive has given him a coveted promotion? Even better. And what if ... ” The best storytellers are masters of this game.

This article is excerpted from Chapter 1 in Gotham's book Writing Movies.