Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Film Courage Plus: Big Screens Need Big Ideas

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015... and we are going to set up something this year with a couple of hours worth of stuff! There were something like 12 segments from 2014, and probably around 24 segments for 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

It's a big screen, you need ideas big enough to fill it!

You say you have an idea for a movie... but do you? Maybe you have an idea for a TV show or a novel or a short story or a mini-series or a stage play or a ... How can you be sure that your idea is a *movie*?

In the clip I talk about the problem with many of my early screenplays - they were too small for the big screen. The story ideas would have been better suited to TV. Even though longform cable shows like GAME OF THRONES might make this theory a little confusing, for the most part the size of the average screen reflects the size of the idea necessary to fill that screen. So when you are coming up with ideas for movies - the big screen - you need larger than life ideas. That average FBI profiler chases serial killer idea is fine for a smaller screen, but you need something with a larger scope to make it big enough for the big screen.

"Look, there’s no question that we are heading toward a future where event films are only going to become more event-sized. You’ve got so many options in your home for viewing content that there has to be a need for you to leave your home, and what is going to drive you to do that?" Joe Russo - AVENGERS ENDGAME.

A movie is seen on a big screen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world at the same time (more or less). You sit in a crowded cinema to see a movie, so it is not a small intimate story. You are sharing it with 300 people when you see it. The story needs *scope* (not the mouth wash, the spectacle) - as I say in the clip, people have to spend a small fortune to go to the cinema these days, it needs to be an *event* in order to get them to leave their homes and drive and park and spend all of that money. Just a regular story is going to be a tough sell to the producer and a tough sell to the audience.

I know that many of you are mentally coming up with a list of movies that prove me wrong, and that’s fine... but the business is changing as I write this. The middle has fallen out and medium budget films are failing at the box office. There was an article a while back about movies like LONG SHOT that have two stars, a great funny story, and even though it deals with a Presidential race... the story was too small to attract the kind of audience it needed to make back it’s money. Low budget films can still work because they don’t have to make as much money to recoup their costs, but everything else needs to be a big enough event to get a mass audience. The middle movies end up being “we’ll wait for Netflix” - which seems to be where those mid-range romantic comedies are being made these days. So the bigger the screen, the bigger the idea needs to be...

Yeah, you have a wall sized TV and comfy cinema seats with built in cup holders at home... but the average person is watching a 32" TV set in their livingroom. They watch those kind of small, intimate, personal stories that fit that screen size. Cop shows and comedies and other things about real people - rather than larger than life characters. Of course, even TV has shows about witches and aliens and zombies - because even on a small screen people want to watch escapist stories. But in a cinema? Larger than life stories are expected. So is your idea big enough to fill the screen?


When I had my day job working in the warehouse for a decade, I wrote a good page a day - and that's 3 scripts a year for a grand total of 30 scripts. One of my current spare time projects (like I have spare time) is to rewrite all of these old scripts and make the ideas big enough to fit the screen. One that I finished a few years ago was about a bodyguard and a woman pregnant with the President's kid - and the President's people want her dead so that he can be re-elected. THE BODYGUARD meets what's in Bill Clinton's pants. This was pre-Clinton though, and was kind of a JFK-like Prez and a Marilyn Monroe type. There always seemed to be some movie with a similar idea, just as I prepared to send it out. First we had THE BODYGUARD, then we had all of those Clinton scandal movies like ABSOLUTE POWER and MURDER AT 1600 where the President is having an affair and kills the girl himself. Not exactly my script, but kind of the same idea. Just when those had run their course we got a half dozen Bodyguard-Protects-Pregnant-Babe movies, at least two or three of which starred Clive Owen. My script needed something that really made it different! That made it big enough for the screen.

One of those Clive Owen movies had the *only pregnant woman in the world* - after babies just stopped being born. That’s a big idea! I wrote this back when I didn't understand that high concept isn't just doing search and replace to make it The President or make the bad guys into Vampires or have the story take place In Outer Space. I had a weak concept - one that was obvious instead of inventive. The more unique your concept is, the less likely someone else will come up with it and the more likely it will be something personal.

What I needed was *more* imagination to make it more unique (and more personal) (and bigger in scope).

So, what I needed to do was give this old script a high concept injection that would change the core of the story. To take the basic plotting and characters and overlay a new high concept. Add a new weird element. Make it a bigger story. The bodyguard protecting the pregnant babe is still there - but instead of her pregnant with the President's kid, I raised the stakes and changed the genre by having the father be someone even more powerful. So the story is *now* about the Vatican's version of Indiana Jones who unearths the key to cracking a code in the missing Dead Sea Scroll... and discovers that the second coming is about to take place - the Second Son will be born in a certain hospital on September 29th... So the archeologist jets to the hospital to find and protect the pregnant woman from Satan's minions - who want to kill her before she gives birth. Various forms of demons attack (instead of The President's handler's secret hit squad) and each form of demon is some cool kind of monster. I tried to make the demons all kind of high concept. Coming up with them was fun. And the new end twist - she gives birth, and it's *Satan's* son! Okay - kinda RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK meets THE BODYGUARD meets DAVINCI CODE meets CONSTANTINE meets THE OMEN... but much better than the stale script it began life as... and it examines faith and responsibility, a couple of things I've been thinking about lately. I'm hoping they hire Clive Owen as the lead.


Here are two basic tools for making your idea bigger - MAGNIFICATION and SUBSTITUTION. The above is an example of substitution - I rewrote a script with a small idea about assassins trying to kill a woman because she is pregnant with the President’s child, and substituted Satan as the father. That only changes everything. Basically substitution is a “high concept injection” - you can take a small or smallish story and substitute a larger or more cinematic conflict. I really like 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE - which is the story of a woman who gets into a car accident and wakes up in a stranger’s house... and the stranger is pretty damned strange. Does that sound like MISERY? A man gets intro a car accident and wakes up in a stranger’s house? Same basic story concept. MISERY is about a novelist who wakes up in his Number One Fan’s house - and she wants him to write a new novel just for her... or else. A snow storm keeps him trapped in the house, until... In 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE it isn’t a snow storm, it’s an alien invasion. Substitution. The weirdo doesn’t want her to write a novel, but she may be needed to help him propagate the human race. Eeew!

The great thing about 10 CLOVERDFIELD is they use the alien invasion as a mystery element - she doesn’t believe it happened and thinks this old guy is just a pervert... until she sees what is going on outside the bunker. Substitution is kind of a cosmetic change - though you still have to do a page one rewrite to turn a story like MISERY into a story like 10 CLOVERFIELD, the story conflict remains about someone being held captive inside a building and the cat and mouse relationship between them. The snow storm or alien invasion is the background.

MAGNIFICATION is going to change the story conflict itself. Make the conflict larger. This is a tool that can be used to find your “doorway” into a story - so you probably don’t know what it feels like to be wrongly accused of murder and going on the run from the police... so how can you write about that authentically? How can you get into that character? But you probably have been wrongly accused of doing something at work - stealing Milton’s red stapler or maybe someone’s lunch or maybe screwing up when really it was someone else who screwed up. And you have had to hide from Milton (or whoever’s lunch went missing) for part of the day - avoiding them in hallways. So you can magnify those authentic emotions - blow them way out of proportion - to understand how it feels to be wrongly accused of murder and write something like THE FUGITIVE.

You can do the same thing with a small idea - use magnification to blow the conflict out of proportion so a small conflict is now a huge conflict. Big enough to fill the screen.


In one of my Script Tips in rotation I look at one of the keys to an *indie* drama - give the protagonist an “active lifestyle”. BREAKING AWAY is one of my favorite films, about four blue collar kids about to graduate high school and wondering what comes next. A typical coming of age film. So what makes it a *movie*? What gives this story “scope”? Well, our protagonist is a cyclist and there is a world championship bike race in the city nearby - and he can race against the professionals! Now we have a protagonist who competes in a visually exciting sport, and a race that has cyclists from around the world - it’s a world event, not a small town event. In THE WRESTLER we have a story about where Mickey Rourke plays an old has been who is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter... but he’s an ex-wrestler (active lifestyle) who wants to prove his worth by climbing in the ring again. Now we have something visual and interesting. More cinematic.

You always want to come up with story ideas that are big enough to fill the screen, but also personal - so that you can write authentic emotions and not go crazy writing draft #27 because you have a connection to the story.

A year ago I had a project where I needed to come up with a bunch of pitches for sequels to movies in a studio's library. After selecting some movies, my next step was to let my imagination run wild and find interesting and unusual story ideas for a sequel - to take the unique idea from the original and add another unique idea. More high concept injection. While doing this, I looked for stories that were personal to me - things the protagonist could wrestle with that were things that I have wrestled with. Some of the ideas I came up with are really cool - personal and completely wild... and large enough to fill the big screen.

So, if you use your imagination and stay away from small stories, which puts your script in a good stack - there may be another script in there that has the same idea as yours, but there aren't hundreds of them. Then, if you make it personal, you have a script that may have the same idea as another script, but is still a *unique* take on that idea. And we get ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT. And if there is still a script in the stack that has the same general idea as yours, find all of the ways that your idea is different and do a major rewrite focusing on those elements... and if that doesn't do it, twist the concept even more and do a page one rewrite. If someone just sold a script with a similar idea as yours - just make yours different. And make sure that your story is big enough to fill the screen!

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill



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- Bill

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