FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
FLEXING YOUR IDEA MUSCLES
People always ask: "Where do you get your ideas?" Though there are any number of smart ass responses I've developed to answer this question, the real answer is: After working out my "idea muscle" for a couple of decades, now... I get ideas everywhere.
My problem is that I can't shut the danged ideas off! I can't sleep without some new idea going off like an alarm clock. I dream strange ideas, but getting to sleep in the first place is a problem because of all of the ideas. I have no idea what that cruise ship's "hard roll" on the news earlier today will bring to ruin my sleep. I mean, do they know what caused it? Is Davy Jones after the captain of that ship? Or was it an underground volcano? Or an enemy nuclear sub exploding? Or did too many overweight cruise patrons decide to go to the same side of the ship at the same time?
These are the ideas I'm getting while wide awake - the ones that come when I'm in half-sleep are even better.
You need to start flexing your idea muscle. Don't just look at the world around you as background, look at the world as a source for great ideas. They are everywhere! One of the assignments in my big 2 day class (the Idea one) is to take a page of today's newspaper - not the front page, but some random page - and find the big summer tentpole movie idea. In the class I literally give everyone a page of the paper in the morning and after lunch they have to pitch their idea to the class. Every single page has a great idea on it, if you look hard enough and use your imagination. The best idea ever pitched in the class was by a guy who got a page of grocery store coupons... and on the other side of the page - more coupons! I won't tell you what his idea was, but everyone in class thought he should write it and I would have paid to see that movie. Start with the raw material all around you - the ideas that are just waiting for you to spot them.
Then take those raw ideas and use your imagination and creativity. Add the What if? question. I pitched a sci-fi action script in 1993 called MARKED MAN about those security devices they put on merchandise that trigger the alarms at the store door. I'm sure you've had the danged things go off and had to return to the counter to have them remove the things. Okay, what if... you had a security tag inside you? A chip like they put in pets. The police know where you are 24 hours a day - it's on a giant data bank. And you were accused of murder... and the police checked your chip, and the computer says you were at the crime scene! But you weren't! Now you are in the run, but the police always know where you are - making escape almost impossible. You have to find the answer - how could your chip be at the crime scene when you were across town? Sort of an ant-alibi, and that's probably part of where that idea came from.
When I first began my website I had a feature called "idea of the day" where I would take This Day In History from the newspaper and use it as raw material for a Summer Hollywood movie idea. Back then I would put up the tips just after midnight, usually after a day of working on some screenplay. At midnight, the next day's news popped up on Yahoo News, along with the This Day In History feature. So I would read what happened on this day in history and come up with a movie idea based on it. Not all of them were good, but this was mostly an exercise for me to take some boring bit of history and turn it into something interesting. I was exercising that idea muscle. The secondary purpose was to show you guys reading the tips that ideas really were everywhere. I didn't take long coming up with these ideas, because I wanted the first thing that popped into my head... rather than staying up all night long on some stupid thing at the bottom of the script tip. I usually had a script to write!
So a Civil War news story might spark an idea for a Red State / Blue State Civil War right now... or maybe the new Mars Colony deciding to break its ties with Earth, or a divorce comedy in the White House (don't we always like First Ladies more than Presidents - which side would you be on?). So start looking for ideas. What you want is the seed of an idea, that you add a heaping spoon of creativity to.
Think weird. Look at the world around you - all of those raw ideas - and twist them.
What if your child's nightmares were so strong... they came to life!
What if you pretended to be James Bond to pick up girls... only to be overheard by a terrorist cell who were now trying to kill you? (The plot of my very 1st script).
Here are some of the surviving Idea Of The Days. After the first year online, I decided to discontinue the Idea Of The Day, and when the script tips ran again, they were often just trimmed out of the code... because the tip ran on some other day. Somewhere along the line I realized this silly stunt/exercise might have some value, so instead of deleting the tips I made them invisible. The survivors have been floating around on the bottom of script tips - invisible - since, I don't know, 1998? Maybe 1999. Script Secrets was originally on my Compuserve homepage ages ago. I started it after the first version of the full sized book came out, which was summer of 1998. The tips may not have begun until late 1998 or early 1999 hard to remember. I retired a bunch of old tips in 2000, and some more in 2001. A couple of those tips got a page one rewrite and ran about a week ago... more will roll out over the next few months.
But here are some of the surviving the Idea Of The Days, in order of how they ran over a decade ago...
IDEAS OF THE IDEA
On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigns as President of the United States and Gerald Ford takes his place. Though we've had a number of films about the Presidency, what about the Vice President? What would happen if the VP suddenly had to take office and lead the country?
On August 10, 1864, Congress established the Smithsonian Museum... do they have a secret room of cool stuff like in the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK? What do you think you could find there?
On August 14, 1947, India was granted independence from the Commonwealth of Great Britan... What happened to British families living in India now that their "slaves" were now their "masters"? Okay, now let's take the story into the future, or have it take place on an outer space colony.
On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opens... it was built for less than the estimated cost. When was the last time a government job was built for less than the estimate? What is the worst project that could go over budget? One that might destroy the world?
On August 16, 1969, the Woodstock Festival began. It was a time of "free love"... so it's possible that a conservative 50 year-old businessman may have an adult child he doesn't even know about. What would happen if that 30 year old decided to crash at dad's place? Adam Sandler is your love child!
On August 23, 1833 Britain abolished slavery in all of their colonies, freeing 700,000 men, women, and children. (The United States wouldn't free slaves until 1865 at the close of the Civil War.) What would happen if slavery returned? If someone with over $50,000 of debt could be sold into slavery until they worked off that debt? If VISA and MasterCard could foreclose on YOU? What would you do?
On Sept 4, 1888 George Eastman invented the first camera using a roll of film rather than a photographic plate... and it wouldn't take long for movies to follow. What if you bought a used camera with a roll of film left inside? What could be on that film?
But last Monday, on August 27, 1939 the first successful flight powered by a jet engine took place. In was in a Heinkel HE-178 plane, but what other uses for jet engines are there? Bonneville Salt Flats racers use them to power cars, and there's one in the Batmobile. Wile Coyote straps a rocket on his back whenever he goes roller skating. But what about a jet-car freeway? What if we had an LA to NY autobahn where the speed limit was the speed of sound?
Today in history, the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, but last Tuesday on August 29, 1842, Great Britain and China signed the Treaty Of Nanking - ending the Opium War. What would happen today if a country decided to officially grow a drug crop as their main export product? What if the UN decided it's a free market system, and they can grow, manufacture and sell whatever they want... so another Opium War scenario is out? What would happen if opium dens began sprouting up in the USA the way McDonalds sprout up all over the rest of the world?
On September 6, 1901 President William McKinley was shot by an Anarchist. What if the President were assassinated today... the Vice President would take over. Our two current Presidential candidates have VPs with strong opinions... what would happen if the VP who took over during those hours of darkness after the President is killed has his own agenda that might create trouble for the country. What sort of behind-the-scenes skullduggery might go on to keep the VP in line?
On Sept 9, 1942 Japanese planes bombed the continental United States in Oregon. Almost every war the USA has been involved in has been an "away game"... what would happen if the next war was a "home game"? If the western USA had been invaded and conquered?
Today is a full moon... So let's think about werewolves and other shapeshifters. Did you know that every culture has a shapeshifter myth? But not every animal is lucky enough to be the center of these legends. We never hear about people who transform into bunnies when the moon is full. Werebunnies! What if you were bitten by a rabbit, and during a full moon sprouted big ears, buck teeth, and a bushy tail? (I actually made this as a short film called THE HOPPING).
On September 14, 1948 Milton Berle started his TV (television or transvestite - you decide) career on Texaco Star Theater. Uncle Miltie was famous for dressing as a woman... what if a famous macho TV star of today frequently dressed in women's clothing... and witnessed a bank robbery. How could he cooperate with police and keep his real identity secret?
On September 20, 1519, Fredinand Magellan began the first successful trip around the world by ship. How about a GREAT RACE-type movie about a dozen people who have to travel around the world without using an airplane... for a $10 million prize?
On September 21, 1780 Benedict Arnold gave the British Army the plans to West Point and became the quintessential traitor. Recently a scientist at Los Alamos nuclear lab was accused of breaching security when he took top secret information home with him over the weekend. What would happen if you were a scientist who took top secret information home from work over the weekend... and that information was stolen? Now you have 48 hours to get it back before you are branded a traitor on Monday morning. A scientist up against trained espionage agents!
On September 23, 1912 the first KEYSTONE COPS film debuted. Let's do a slapstick comedy about law enforcement!
On September 26, 1898 George Gershwin - the composer of Rhapsody In Blue - was born. What do you think he'd say if he found out they were using his masterpiece for commercials? "It's A Wonderful Life" gone wrong... We use a time machine to bring a famous composer to the present day to lecture on his work. Before the lecture, we show him how his work has made the world a better place... but he HATES how we've commercialized his masterpiece! The lecture is in an hour, how do we convince him to speak?
On September 27, 1864 Jesse James gang robbed a train by surprise and killed 150 people. You read that right - 150 people killed in a robbery! What would happen if Jesse James was reincarnated in modern day Missouri? If he formed an outlaw gang, and used the same level of violence he used in 1864 in 2000? What would happen in a gang of outlaws robbed a shopping mall and left 150 people dead?
On October 1, 1903 the first World Series was played between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Pilgrims. Instead of FIELD OF DREAMS what if we wrote FIELD OF SCREAMS - The ghosts of dead baseball players haunt an old stadium!
On October 2, 1967 Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as the first Black member of the Supreme Court. In the 1940s Marshall had been a hot shot NAACP lawyer who worked on the Port Chicago Mutiny Trial where 50 randomly chosen Black Navy enlisted men where sentenced to death for disobeying orders to load ammunition under dangerous working conditions... after an explosion had killed 322 of their fellow workers only days earlier. What other cases did Marshall work on before he sat on the Supreme Court?
On October 4, 1883 the first run of the Orient Express train linked Turkey to Europe... and helped Agatha Christie come up with a swell idea for a murder mystery. There was also a horror flick that took place on the Orient Express (using the left over sets from the Christie mystery). So how about an action film? The train travels through ex-Eastern Block countries, parts of Asia, and Europe... so let's steal some warheads, hijack the train, and roar across the continent. No one knows what the target country is... but our hero and his team must stop the train before the bombs detonate! How do you board a train traveling at 90 mph?
On October 6, 1956 Dr. Albert Sabin discovered an oral vaccine for Polio. What if a highly contagious, fast-acting strain of polio swept the nation - attacking the nervous system of adults as well as children and paralyzing half the country. We've had movies like OUTBREAK that show doctors trying to stop the disease, but what if they're too late? How about a movie about the aftermath of the outbreak - a post apocalyptic film about a world where half the population is in wheelchairs... and have no rights. Now a wheelchair warrior must roll forward to organize the others and overthrow their oppressors! PLANET OF THE APES meets WATERDANCE.
On October 7, 1915 Georgia Tech beat Cumberland College in a game of football. The score? 222 to 0... a record! What happened when the Cumberland team left the field? They were and are the ultimate losers. How do you explain the loss to your family and friends? This game will haunt you for your entire life. An interesting idea for a drama?
On October 8, 1871 the Chicago fire killed over 200 people and laid waste to over four miles of Chicago buildings. What if a chain reaction created a ring of fire around a two mile section of San Francisco? After evacuation efforts fail, a group of survivors trapped in the middle of the fire must find a way past the flames. Swimming through lakes as fire rages overhead, they make their way to a BART subway station to go under the fire line. But the station is engulfed! What now?
On October 10, 1960 a tidal wave killed 6,000 people in East Pakistan. Most disaster movies are about the impending disaster, but the best (SAN FRANCISCO, 1936) tells us what happens after the disaster. So let's send a tidal wave crashing over Los Angeles at the end of Act 1 - killing hundreds of thousands, and spend the rest of the story trying to survive after the wave is gone and the city is in ruins. Our hero heads the LAFD's Urban Rescue Unit... Where do we get safe drinking water? Food? What do we do with the injured now that hospitals are destroyed? How do we rebuild our world after nature has torn it down?
On October 11, 1689 Peter The Great was crowned Czar of Russia. With Russia in a precarious political state, what would happen if the heir to the thrown was discovered in New York and flew to Russia to reclaim his country? But it's all a con! Now the conman Czar is in WAY over his head and must actually pull the country out of depression, deal with organized crime, and marry a noblewoman... just to get his hands on the country's coffers!
On October 13, 1987 dolphins were first used in warfare by the US Navy in the Persian Gulf... of course, they were only following orders. But what would happen if a dolphin delivered a mine to the wrong ship? Would the dolphin be court martialed?
On October 15, 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the island of St. Helena. Panama is the country where Dictators end up today... what would happen if a notorious dictator moved next door to you? Famous for torture, maybe a little Idi Amin cannibalism... but now he's throwing these loud parties and you can't sleep. Talk about neighbor problems! How do you solve this one... without getting tortured or eaten?
On October 17, 1931 mobster Al Capone was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison. What happens when the most powerful criminal kingpin in the world moves in to your prison? Do the guards do what the Warden says, or what the King Of The Cellblock says? Who really runs the prison?
On October 18, 1892 the first long-distance telephone line between Chicago and New York was formally opened. What if you bought satellite service for your cell phone - you can use it no matter where you are in the world - but you got a call that was out of this world? A radio message from a distant planet that has been studying our language by watching television transmissions. Then the voice on the VERY long distance call tells you the bad news..
On October 19, 1977 the supersonic Concorde made its first landing in New York City. Thirty years later on October 19th, the Concorde landed again in New York City... the New York City of 1777! Trapped in the past, the passengers and crew must find a way to get back to the 21st Century!
On October 20, 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee opened hearings into alleged Communist influence and infiltration within the American motion picture industry. Of course, Congress would never do that again... What would happen if all violent and sexual movies, videos, games, TV shows, and commercials were banned? If new Federal guidlines made it impossible to show an argument between a married couple (we want to promote families), if women in films must wear ankle-length skirts, if conflict of any kind was not allowed on screen... If movies had to be about people who always got along?
On October 23, 1824 the first steam locomotive was introduced. Today, AMTRAK is about to introduce high speed "bullet trains" in some areas. Express trains connecting two destinations (like New York and Washington DC) without any stops in between. So let's drop THE FUGITIVE onto a bullet train - someone is murdered on the train, you're prime suspect, and you have until the train reaches the station to find the real killer. The train is moving too fast for anyone to get on or off... the killer is trapped on the train and so are you! (my RAILROADED script)
On October 24, 1929 was "Black Thursday" - the start of the stockmarket crash and the Great Depression. What if the stock market crashed this Thursday? A new depression. Millionaires are suddenly dirt poor. The middle class - gone! Tens of millions are out of work. Manual labor skills are the only thing that matter, now. The Silicon Valley is the new dustbowl. Three computer programmers hear about harvest work on a farm outside Bakersfield and start the long walk from San Jose. Along the way there is self discovery, betrayals, and a new found hope.
On October 25, 1918 the Canadian steamship Princess Sophia foundered off the coast of Alaska; nearly 400 people perished. Let's maroon a cruise ship in the Caribbean - no power, food spoiling... and no one coming to the rescue. How long before the passengers become animals and begin fighting with each other?
On October 26, 1977, the experimental space shuttle Enterprise glided to a bumpy but successful landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. What would happen if the shuttle came back empty? The astronauts had vanished! Into another dimension? How do we get them back before the public begins asking questions?
On October 27, 1938, Du Pont announced its new synthetic yarn: "nylon." Recently we've had products recalled because they were made with a genetically altered corn substance... What if you were the scientist who created the four breasted turkey - more white meat! But AFTER these turkeys became Thanksgiving best sellers you discovered a little side effect: humans began growing extra breasts! How can the company cover this up? What's the impact on Playboy Centerfolds who only have two breasts? Will Brittany Spears get additional surgery?
The opposite of a Full Moon is a New Moon (or No Moon) - we had one last night. The Earth blocks the moon from reflecting the sun. What would happen if the moon didn't "come back" today? If the moon just disappeared?
It's Halloween! A great time for short people in Harry Potter costumes to rob banks and blend in with the crowd! What if a gang of little people dressed in the most popular Halloween costumes of the year were robbing banks then disappearing into school yards where dozens of kids were wearing the same costumes? How could the police catch them?
On November 1, 1870, the U.S. Weather Bureau made its first meteorological observations. You know - everybody talks about the weather but nobody ever tries to change it... until now. An experiment in weather control unleashes a killer tornado. Now the unstoppable tornado is headed to New York City, destroying everything in it's path! How do we stop it? JAWS meets TWISTER.
On November 2, 1948, President Truman surprised the experts by being re-elected in a narrow upset over Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey. We're looking at a very close Presidential race next week - what would happen if the wrong candidate were announced as the winner and it wasn't discovered until AFTER he had moved in to the White House? Your job: To evict the guy living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave! But he doesn't want to go... does this mean war?
On November 3, 1868 the first Black person was elected to Congress: John W. Menard in Lousiana. A big problem with elections this year is one of the largest voting age groups isn't interested in voting: Young people. What if an MTV VJ decided to start a write in vote for Coolio For President as a gag? But it takes off! On election day they count the votes and neither Gore nor Bush wins... It's Coolio! Coolio doesn't want to be President, but he doesn't have much choice - the people have spoken! How does a laid-back rap star deal with running the country?
It's Election Day! Last week we had an idea where Coolio gets accidentally elected President, today let's flip that... What is Bill Clinton going to do with his life now? What if he decided to start a music career? Play sax for a living? He hooks up with TOWER OF POWER (from my neighborhood!) and they cut a couple of CDs that sell well. Groupies! But the other band members are jealous that Clinton gets the spotlight while they do all of the work. How do you fire an ex-President from your band?
On November 5, 1935 Parker Brothers introduced their board game Monopoly. Well, Hollywood is already developing MONOPOLY: THE MOVIE (this is not a joke), so that can't be our idea. But what about the Monopoly World Championship? Let's do a story about a poor kid who sees more Monopoly money than real money and plays his way to the Monopoly World Championship? Sort of ROCKY with little plastic hotels.
On November 8, 1805 Lewis and Clark crossed the country and reach the Pacific Ocean. Since most of Earth has been charted, let's land a team on Mars and have them discover a lost valley where plant life still exists. As they chart the region, they discover footprints... Human footprints.
Today in history, The Raid On Harper's Ferry took place in 1862... we were in the midst of a violent civil war. What if a civil war broke out in your body? If your left arm and right arm became enemies and began fighting at the most inopportune moments? How would you get through the work day? A first date? What if you were President of the United States and had to bring peace of a country fighting its own civil war... while your right hand battles it out with your left hand?
IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE
So, there you go! All of those ideas came from a "fixed source" - On This Day In History - and all of the "twisting" happened sometime between midnight and 2am after a long day of writing. Usually the first thing that popped into my head, though some days they took a while to pop. You can tell when I was completely exhausted by the quality of the "instant idea".Some of those kind of suck, others are good enough to pitch.
Your mission should you decide to accept it is to keep your eyes open and look at the world around you for raw ideas, then use that imagination to put some strange spin on them so that they become the kind of story Hollywood buys. Train yourself to come up with the "instant idea". Maybe grab a newspaper once a week and pull out an random page, or do what I did and look at This Day In History or flip through the dictionary and take two random words and make a compound word - what that heck does it mean? Or look at words and phrases and even common things an wonder what the opposite of them might be, or take common every day items and wonder how they could be used for evil... or how inventions designed to serve man can backfire... or how some typo in a sentence you write creates a weird idea - what of you took a raw idea and played around with the words? Or how some obscure law could be used in ways that were never imagined when they were passed (I'm thinking of the state where you can abandon unwanted children, where they forgot to put an age limit on it), or some other imaginative twist on some raw idea that is right there in front of you... only maybe you never noticed it before. Look at the world around you, but do it weird. Do it every day, or once a week, until you have built up that idea muscle so that it works on its own.
Then try to sleep, knowing that...