STORY FROM CONCEPT
by William C. Martell
BACKSTORY: For the past few months I was working on a
assignment where I wrote a bunch of treatments but we never went to script. This was
very frustrating. I felt like I was spinning my wheels. Recently I quit the assignment, and
around the same time had a producer ask me if I had any horror scripts. I didn't have
any, but pitched a story about SURVIVOR: WEST INDIES going really, really wrong. A
hurricane blows a raft containing a "tribe", a cameraman, and the Jeff Probst-like host
to an island run by a Voodoo Priestess. A sugar mill, a HUGE grave yard, and a run
down mansion. When one of the dopey survivors removes the gris-gris charm that
keeps the Zombie Lord and his gang underground, they have to barricade themselves
inside the mansion to survive.
So I'll show you how I came up with the middle (and everything else) based on the
concept - maybe it will help you with your scripts You get to look over my shoulder as I
turn a concept off the top of my head into a screenplay.
ISLE OF THE ZOMBIES (say it outloud)
I started with the concept - zombies are the living dead... that's an interesting
contradiction. How can something be living and yet be dead?
Concept lead me to theme - what does it mean to be alive? There's an old comedy
routine (I think it's by Hudson & Landry) where the punchline is "I couldn't live like that!"
That became the cornerstone of my script's theme. How do you define living, and what
situation is so horrible that you couldn't live like that.
This is why the concept is important... and why you need to find something that is
unique and interesting. Find something
that is both a cool idea and "personal" - because that concept is where everything else
is going to grow from. You can start with character or you can start with concept. In this
case I needed a story that would be inexpensive to film, and that meant people trapped
in a house. So I needed to find the most original and
interesting reason for them to be trapped... because everything in the script - every
scene, every character, every line of dialogue - is going to grow from that concept.
Though we have seen zombie movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, when was
the last time you saw a movie about REAL zombies? The voodoo kind? I had to go
back to the 1940s to find a movie about real zombies (though the very under-rated
SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW from 1988 is about a quest to find the powder that can
turn a man into a zombie). But a story about *real zombies* is still kind of boring... which
is why I've combined the SURVIVOR elements. That makes it topical and kind of funny.
I think we'd all secretly like to see all of the pretty petty politicians of SURVIVOR forced
to deal with a REAL problem. Zombies wasn't enough, SURVIVOR wasn't enough,
combine the two and you have enough for a silly little horror movie. You need to start
with an interesting CONCEPT to produce an interesting screenplay.
I had come up with some general ideas about characters - I knew I had a tribe of
folks who thought they were going to be playing a TV game... and ended up fighting for
their lives. But who were these people? And what exactly did "lives" mean to them?
So I made a list of various reasons to be alive and things that people would identify
with being alive. Because these folks want to live, not be merely alive (you can sing the
lyrics from MAN OF LA MANCHA if you like - this is a universal theme that even pops
up in Broadway musicals). Once I had my
list of what being alive means, I picked the best of the bunch and built a character
around them. That way every
character would be related to the theme, and would be exploring the theme just by
CHARACTERS FROM CONCEPT/THEME
My protagonist is a survivor contestant who defines being alive as being free. He's a
cool rebel and a bit of a smart-alec, covered with tattoos (like Lex from Santa Cruz).
Because freedom is his definition of being alive, the opposite is what he most fears:
being trapped or confined. He's about to be trapped in a house surrounded by
zombies... that should bring out his fears. That fear also became the spring-board for
scene ideas... how could I trap Maxwell Rand? What tasks could I send him on that
would put him in confined spaces?
Because this was like SURVIVOR, I gave each of my characters a luxury item. A
symbol of their definition of being alive that might have other uses once they are
trapped in the house. I also created a "catch phrase" and made a list of words or
phrases that connected to the character's definition of being alive.
My female lead, Liz Connell, thinks that having friends and family make you alive.
She fears being separated from her friends - alone - isolated. This sentimental aspect
of her character made her a little like Colleen (from the TV show). She's a sweet girl -
who is strong inside. Not only is she isolated from the outside world, she may never see
her family again. Again - I used the character's fear as a way to generate scene ideas.
Liz needs a friend in her tribe that will be taken away from her. Her "luxury item" is a
photo album of her family and friends back home. This will give her comfort... but when
she drops it and has to go back for it will put her in peril... and later in the story she may
be forced to leave it behind. I want to make sure these "luxury items" not only expose
character, but can be used to create drama and conflict. Liz's dialogue will be filled with
words and phrases about friendship and family.
My sidekick is the cameraman Paul Holland... who is a very physical person and
defines being alive through his physical self. His big fear is being paralyzed. When I
was making my "I couldn't live like that" list, being paralyzed was right there on top. His
"luxury item" is a portable work-out gizmo advertized on an infomercial... later the
bungies will be used to make cross-bows to shoot at the zombies. I wanted these
"luxury items" to show character and end up useful in unusual ways. Paul's dialogue
revolves around the physical self, and his background is: as a kid he wanted to be a
Life Magazine photographer, but ended up a DP on Martha Stewart Living... he quit that
to take this job on the Survivor-like show. He and Rand are both attracted to Liz...
created a love triangle and lots of tension.
A contestant named Clement believes that you aren't living unless you're making
love. He's the sleazy Romeo of the group, always hitting on the gals. The more afraid
he becomes, the more he wants to have sex... and what he really fears is not being
able to have sex (what if all of the available women are the walking dead?). Hey - what
do the French call orgasms? The little death? Concept & Theme & Character are all
tied together! His "luxury
item" - a huge box of condoms. Later they'll be filled with 151 proof rum and used as
napalm water balloons.
The show's pretty-boy Probst-like host thinks that being alive is being known and
loved by others. He needs to be the center of attention - and that will create conflicts
with the rest of the survivors. He fears being unknown... just one of the crowd. Hmm,
think he'll turn into a zombie later in the story? He's an ex-"Live At Five" weatherman,
and this is his big break. His luxury item? A dozen cans of hairspray (that will be used
as blow torches later in the story).
There's a book-worm character named Abrams who thinks that being able to think,
reason, fantasize is what defines being alive. He fears being brain dead... like those
zombies out there. His luxury item - all 7 books of Remembrances Of Things Past. He
never got around to reading them in real life... now they'll be used as weapons and fire
starting material. This character thinks, reasons... his dialogue and his problem solving
techniques come directly from his definition of being alive... which is part of the theme...
which came from the concept itself.
There are other characters, but I think you get the idea.
ALLIANCES & ENEMIES
Because I wanted to make sure there was as much conflict and drama inside the
house as outside, each character was given allies (alliance characters) and enemies.
There were people they liked who they would risk their lives to rescue and people they
disliked that helped to create conflicts. Because conflict is story, I made sure that each
character would end up paired with their enemy and forced to work with them. Rand
and Paul don't like each other at all - and are paired for the entire film. They are in a
constant struggle regarding leadership of the group.. And will learn that they have to
work together to survive. Make sure you have conflict between your characters - that
will lead to drama.
Characters were fleshed out with jobs, backgrounds, and skills. I wanted to give
them interesting jobs back home that added something to their characters - but also
might come in handy when they were trapped on the island. My theory was to come up
with an occupation or skills that were ALMOST helpful - using the model plane designer
from FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX as a "model". In that film their plane crashes in the
desert and the only way to survive is to rebuild a working plane from the undamaged
parts. One of the passengers says he designs planes... and only later do we find out he
designs model planes (that fly). If the character has the EXACT skill needed to survive,
it's a major coincidence. If they have something close, it's more realistic and creates
some suspense... in FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX we are never really sure the plane will
be able to fly.
ACT 2 FROM CONCEPT
I also created little story goals for act 2 - things to make the middle of the script
exciting. These goals also grew from the basic concept.
1) There's a motorboat with a broken motor... but should they send someone
outside the house (into zombie controlled territory) to bring the motor back so they can
fix it? On an island you'd expect there would be a boat - so it fits within the concept of
being trapped on Zombie Island. Oh, and the "dead" motor they may be able to bring
back to life? Theme! One of the characters is an auto mechanic who has never repaired
a boat engine before... but is willing to try.
One element of these little goals is to figure out how things can go wrong. What if
they get the boat motor back to the house... only to discover that the mechanic has
been killed (and switched sides - now he's a zombie)? You want to make sure the
conflict escalates - that the more they try to get off the island, the worse things
2) In the sugar mill there are barrels of 151 proof rum that will make a great fire
bomb - but you have to send someone out to get it... and the barrels are heavy and
impossible for a lone man to carry. Again - the sugar mill and rum are things that you'd
find on a West Indies island. They come directly from the concept.
3) They realize zombies don't like bright lights and use the cameraman's
photo-floods to keep the zombies back, but the Zombie Lord cuts the power to the
There's a generator in an out-building... does anyone here know anything about
electrical stuff? Hey - you want to go out into the zombie world and get the power
working again? (The power dies - who can bring it back to life?)
Well, you get the idea - I came up with a handful of little goals based on the
concept, each created a dramatic scene where the group had to decide if it was worth
the risk, and figured out how each goal could go wrong in an exciting way. This created
the material for act 2 - that middle part. Between zombie attacks they have to deal with
these goals & setbacks. Should you send the guy you don't like out to do the suicide
mission? Or should you send out the person with the least skills? I thought of these as
a combination of SURVIVOR's "challenges" and "tribal councils" - you're being voted
into a suicide mission!
I DIED BECAUSE OF THE CONCEPT!
Last: In a story like this, people are going to die. The key to a great death scene is
redemption. You want your characters to have glorious deaths. You want them to face
their fears and sacrifice their lives so that others can live. That's dramatic stuff, and
emotionally satisfying stuff. Again - because the characters are facing their fears and
their fears come from the theme and the theme comes from the concept - you need a
great concept that can generate interesting dramatic material. The best way to think of
the death scenes is to think about the way Lt. Gorman died in ALIENS. That scene
made me cry! Here's this guy who has always delegated the dangerous jobs - a coward
- who does this amazingly brave thing. He uses himself as bait to kill as many aliens as
possible to protect the others. At his side, Vasquez - the character who dislikes him the
most! Earlier I said you want to pair your characters with the person least like them in
order to create conflict, and here's a good example of that in action. Vasquez comes to
like and RESPECT Gorman by this point in the movie... and the die together so that
others can live. They die in each other's arms. Man, that's a great death scene!
So start with your concept.
Find the theme within the concept.
Create characters that illustrate different aspects of that theme.
Give your characters dialogue that matches theme and concept.
Create scenes based on theme and concept that force your characters to deal with their
Create mini-goal scenes in act 2 that come from theme and concept.
Make sure what happens to your characters reflects the theme and concept.
In a strage way your concept controls every single aspect of your screenplay. Once you figure out what your script is about, you can fill in the details. Even the strangest concept you can come up with holds the key to the characters, theme, Act 2, and big dramatic moments of your screenplay. You just have to look.
UPDATE: The bad news - the producer decided he wants a "franchise villain" for his horror flick, something like Jason or Freddy. So this script isn't going to sell to that producer.
The good news - I've talked to a couple of other producers who are interested in low budget horror scripts, so I've decided to keep working on this one. I'm having a good time writing it, and AFM is on the horizon (more producers who may be looking for a script like this). I'm hoping that I can get this set up and filming by the middle of the year, maybe out on DVD by the end of the year. That would make up for the year of wheel-spinning that was 2002. I'll keep you posted!