Friday, October 10, 2014

Real life is better than made-up life

I'm working with a producer for some Hallmark movies and we are kicking around a few ideas. And before you start rolling your eyes about Hallmark, it's a viable market. For one example, I get around $2000 in residuals every year from one TV movie about a bear and a boy. I've been getting it since 2002 and it still keeps coming.

So there.

The great thing about TV movies (or MOW's "movie of the week) is that they really get made fast because the market needs them. There's basically three big companies, Hallmark, Lifetime and ABC Family. There was a time back in 2002-05 when everyone was making them.

But that changed with Survival, the reality show that killed TV movies, except for the three above.


You hear a lot of producers and directors who say "just make up a story".  Well, I used to do that when I started writing, making up characters like it says in some of the better-known screenwriting gurus (most of whom have never sold a movie).

They told me I should make a history of the characters, name, where they live, where they were born, age now, what's their job, what's their problem, etc. etc. 

Well, I did that, and the screenplays were very generic and dull. The made-up characters didn't feel real. And why should they, they were made up.

Ever hear that joke about some weird thing that happened in the newspaper, something that "a writer couldn't have written that"? The idea is so crazy it can only come from real life.

After five years or so I wrote my first "real" character. I wanted to write a story based on a newspaper article about fish. Yeah, fish. It was about how salmon go out to sea and then come back three years later to the very place they were born.

I liked the title of the article, "Secrets of the Salmon".

Then I had an idea about someone who comes back home after many years to confront the father. I was trying to find a good female character to be the lead but I tried the "create" method but it wasn't real.

I was working on another screenplay with a development exec who was a woman and pretty tough, we'd go for lunch and she'd down the vodkas. After a few weeks, I realized I found my character for Secrets of The Salmon, it was her.

So I whipped together a character mostly based on her, but also parts from me and other people I knew.  And I knew something else. My characters from then on became based on real people and it showed in my writing.

Jody Foster's company, Smart Egg loved it. And ABC optioned it.

I never looked back again. 

My most recent script is based on a doctor friend and all the ideas I have come from research rather than my fake creations before I wrote Secrets.

Try it, it's a little difficult at the beginning, and it can be tricky. But once you linked onto it, it works pretty damn good.

Have a good week-end.


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