In his best-selling memoir On Writing, Stephen King writes about coming up with the idea for his first novel Carrie. He was working as a janitor at a high school and had to scrub the rust-stains off the walls in the girls’ shower. He recounts seeing the metal tampon dispenser and not knowing what it was. Later, King had a vision of the opening scene of a story: high school girls showering in a locker room, and one of them gets her period. Only she doesn’t know what it is, and the other girls start cruelly pelting her with sanitary napkins. She thinks she’s dying, while they’re all making fun of her.
While King knew this might be an interesting scene, it could not serve as the basis of a novel. He then recalled an article from years before that discussed telekinesis—the ability to move objects just by thinking about them. The article said there was evidence that girls in early adolescence might gain powers like that—right around the time of their first period. King wrote of that electrifying moment, “Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea.”
While shooting a movie in Italy, Hollywood’s most successful writer/director James Cameron became very ill and suffered terrible nightmares, including one where a metal “exoskeleton” dragged itself through explosions, holding sharp knives. This surreal image stuck in Cameron’s mind, and he later combined it with the idea of a time-traveling robot covered in human flesh, to create The Terminator. A billion-dollar franchise was born!
But where do these “combinations” of ideas come from? Well, it’s not an exact science or an academic exercise. On the contrary, idea generation should be a fun, creative endeavor that happens without self-censorship. You have to turn off that overly-critical switch in your brain that says, “What a terrible idea!” There are no terrible ideas because even the “worst” ideas can lead to great ones! It’s much more difficult to generate fresh concepts if you’re fearful of coming up with bad ideas. One way to keep the process light is to treat it like a game.
I used to play a game with my comedy writing partner called “The Most Unlikely.” The object was to come up with a dramatic film that was the most unlikely to be remade as a comedy. He would throw out The Deer Hunter, and I would hit back with The Accused. He’d pitch Sophie’s Choice, and I would strike back with Precious. (I know what you’re thinking: why don’t you remake Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo as a comedy? Maybe I will, smart-ass.)
During the “Most Unlikely” game, one of us threw out What’s Love Got to Do With It? You know the one—where Ike Turner beats the crap out of Tina. There’s no way that could be reimagined in a funny way, right? Or could it? No, no way. Well, I mean, it might be funny if Tina was beating the hell out of Ike. No, that would be wrong! Unless, “Tina” was Reese Witherspoon and “Ike” was Jack Black. What if they were a singing duo in the 70’s who were extremely successful in the eye of the public, but hated each other behind the scenes. The perfect couple on television; a nightmare behind closed doors. Sort of War of the Roses meets Sonny and Cher. That made us laugh.
We thought of a world full of competing singing duos like Donny & Marie (except our brother and sister team were sleeping together) and Captain & Tennille (you’d swear that Tennille was just Captain in drag). We thought of great set-pieces where Reese might slip Jack some LSD before an appearance on Sesame Street, so he would freak out on the Muppets as their faces melted in front of him. Then, in retaliation, Jack would put Nair in Reese’s shampoo the night before the Grammy’s, so she would show up bald. Of course, Jack would have to sing the national anthem at the Superbowl, after eating a whole chocolate cake packed full of Ex Lax. (Hey, it worked in Dumb & Dumber!)
By a stroke of luck, we were able to pitch the idea to Jack Black. He loved it, and we ended up getting offers on the project from several studios. All because of a stupid little drinking game. (Oh yeah, I forgot to add that if you couldn’t come up with a funny “most unlikely” concept when challenged, you had to take a shot of vodka. I don’t recommend this particular method for idea generation unless you have a very strong writer’s constitution.)
Another way to come up with an idea is to take a familiar dramatic formula and turn it on its head. Especially in the comedy world, where you play off expectations to get laughs. Donnie Brasco was the best in a long line of crime films in which the FBI sends someone undercover in the mob. We thought it would be funny if the mob sent someone undercover in the FBI. And Corky Romano was born.
This “reversal method” can also take you from comedy to drama. I was working on The Jeff Foxworthy Show and had been assigned an episode called “Feud for Thought” in which Jeff battles with his neighbors over some-such sit-commy thing. In the midst of researching famous Southern feuds, I noticed that there had never been a feature film on the famous decades-long vendetta between the Hatfields & McCoys in the late 1800’s. The bloody quarrel broke out over a petty land dispute, and was exacerbated when one of the Hatfield boys started getting busy with one of the McCoy girls. Seemed ripe for the Romeo and Juliet in the woods treatment.
So I tracked down one of the last living witnesses to the feud, who was like a buck-ten, and optioned the rights to a book he had written on the subject. I wrote a spec screenplay of about 120 pages with my writing partner, setting up the families like the Appalachian versions of the Corleone’s and Tattaglia’s. The script was awesome! Amazing! Epic! And. . . nobody bought it. A busted spec. End of story. Right?
Actually, no. The script sat on somebody’s shelf for five years, and then, out of the blue we got a phone call. A network was interested in doing a dramatic, historical mini-series, and an executive had (literally) found our unsold spec script on the shelf of a vacated office. The network asked whether we could add 80 pages to The Hatfields & McCoys so that it could become a made-for-TV movie to play over two nights. The answer to that question is always “Yes! Absolutely! In fact, I envisioned the film as mini-series from the moment I started writing it!” (Of course, that was ten years ago, and our mini-series never got made at that network. However, later the History Channel made The Hatfields & McCoys with their own take on the classic story and it broke viewership records and won many awards. So, we got to the party ten years too early, and there’s not really a lot you can do about that except dream about what could have been.)
The lessons to be taken from these experiences? Keep an open mind to the subtle clues the idea gods lay at your feet. You never know where your next screenplay will come from. It might even be conceived from a typo…
- More articles by David C. Garrett
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