Thursday, September 30, 2010

Finding a story that works

I'm gonna go a little further on this topic of ideas, as someone asked for a better idea of what makes a good story.

I find stories everywhere, every day, but 90% of them are gone by the end of the day. Once while traveling in Utah I stopped at a truckstop and as I was looking around I noticed an older man, maybe 70's, working class, putting up a poster for a missing girl. I figured he may have been her grandfather and I was struck by his humbleness, he had that pain of loss that nothing could cure.

I still think about that moment, and I know that someday it will become a story.

On the other hand, I had a chance to go to France on an exchange program thru the WGA and spend a month or so in a lovely villa somewhere north of Paris. But I had to have a screenplay that had a French location. I came up with a half-baked idea of a baseball player who is banned and has to go to a French town to teach French kids how to play baseball.

It was a bad story. No moment like the old man.

Now, I can rattle off bad stories with the best of them, I would say that most of my 34 specs aren't great, but greatness happens maybe once in a writer's life, and if the writer is exceptional, maybe a few more times. My specs are all "makeable" in that they are well written and can be made with real actors and crew.

But the stories to half of them aren't really that good. I don't feel bad because there are a lot of bad scripts that get made anyways, without mine.

In short I, and I don't attempt to say all writers, or even half the writers in WGA, need a story that has a heart to it, it has to have truth in some way. And I don't always get that. Emperor of Mars  has that truth, if you've been reading the blog, you know how many people read it, mostly major studios and producers.

Funny thing is; when I try to write a huge blockbuster, the executives will read it, but then they usually say "that's not the real Jim". And they're right, as much as I hate to admit it, it's the Jim who wants to sell a script that isn't what he does well. They want the truth and even though many execs don't really have an idea of what that is, they know when it's not there.

But truth doesn't always get made either.

My sources of stories are as follows:

Newspapers or magazines
True life stories (including episodes from my life)
Remakes of old movies
Things I see in everyday life or travels

And less common, stories I hear from friends. 

I tend to write down notes in several notebooks, little things that, if they begin to add up I create a file for them and then forget they're there. The reason I don't begin on them is that heart thing, I need to find the heart to it.  

Coming up with a plot is easy; boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. A classic formula. Can you name one movie that has that plot; how about The 40-year Old Virgin.

How about The Graduate.

But those are easy to define. How about another one that's a little bigger. 


Sure there's spectacular 3D effects and huge battles but ultimately, it's the boy meets girl formula. 

Dances with Wolves is another favorite of mine, and it's not so much about boy meets girl, although that's also a strong plot gimmick, but it's also about loneliness, best seen in the scene where Kevin dances around the fire by himself, because it takes his loneliness of being all by himself at the little outpost.

These plots can be argued, but for me, that's when I know I have written something good. When it's' got a heart and soul and breathes real life. I've done it a few times, not many, one of which is a script called Side by Side, which is about an Irish hitman sent to bump off a gay union leader in the 1950's and falls in love with one half of a pair of Siamese Twins.

To be honest, that script is so not me in so many ways that people don't believe I wrote it. I don't even know where it came from, maybe from all the things I've seen and heard. And it wasn't my idea, it was a director I know, Paul Lynch, who planted the seeds. But once I began to write it I found the heart of it in the Irish hitman, he was a loner out of touch with the world and was not long for it.

In a way, he was John Wayne in The Searchers, a man who doesn't know how to live in society and is doomed for emptiness.

I find ideas in the LA Times now and then. I found a story on the editorial page years ago about Number 6, who was one of the wolves introduced from Canada to Yellowstone. Apparently he was found dead after several years and it appeared he was probably killed by other wolves. Survival of the Fittest.

But the editorial went on to acknowledge the bravery and strength of Number 6, that he was the major factor in the wolves surviving the first few years. Even rangers acknowledged that he was something special, smarter, quicker and more adept than even some of the humans who tracked him.

I wanted to make that movie. But here's where my ideas begin to wobble.

I lost interest after a few weeks. This is always a bad sign, usually I lose interest in most of my ideas in a day or a few days. But the fact that I created a file was a major step. This would be my Black Stallion.

I knew opponents of the wolves would probably complain about some "Hollywood writer" making up stories about how good wolves are. But I didn't really care, and it wasn't about that, it was about a singular beast on this earth, who for reasons we didn't know, was special.

Over the past 4 years I come across the file and take it out and put it into the "Active" folders and then after a few weeks file it back in the cabinet.

But the fact that it is still there tells me it's still trying to lure me in, to tell Number 6's story to the world.

In fact I might just go open it again this week. I just talked myself into it.

(Monday - more on this subject)

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