Great Scott!

In this post I want to talk about creating stories and characters that are completely original. I’ll go over what inspires my own ideas and scripts and how I go about making decisions on story and character arcs.

I watch films, I read books, I follow current events and have an interest in history. Already, through that, I have enough material to inspire me and to form ideas. There are a lot more interests I have and it is the collective experience of all of these that shape my view of the world and how I like to tell stories. More important than any of these external stimuli which have different effects on each individual is something which we all share and on which we should always trust; Our own thoughts and experiences.

These are the tools which allow a writer to construct an entirely believable story because how you perceive reality and existence is the most true thing you can possibly put on to paper. This may seem to be going down the route of existentialism and you may also scoff at the suggestion that Transformers is grounded in reality. Let me explain…

In my opinion, the two most important parts of a script are the characters and the story. In that order. It is a commonly held belief that the story is all important and that a script will fail if it doesn’t have something interesting to say or somewhere intriguing to take us. I agree but the way I see it you can envisage the most incredible story ever told but if the characters you follow in that story don’t seem credible then it kills any interest you might have and you start to forget why you care about the ending. For instance, in Transformers we follow Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBouef) as he becomes involved with a battle between warring alien robots. Far fetched, but the film is grounded in a coming of age story as Sam grows up, gets his first car and falls for a girl out of his league. One of the reasons the sequels failed was to put this story in the back seat and replace it with more ‘comedy’ amongst other things… It’s an example of how we can relate to the films we see no matter how outlandish that film’s premise is.

A lot of what I write is inspired by real life and the rest is dictated by the needs of the story and the motivations of the characters.

I’ll use my script ‘Beneath’ as an example. I have always loved monster movies and Gojira (1954) is a masterpiece. I wanted to create a monster movie that would be set in the UK (because I’m sick of seeing everything hit  N.Y. or L.A.) and I wanted to give it a twist. Around the time I had this idea, the oil disaster off the U.S. coast occured and it struck me that the environmental message behind the disaster correlated with similar messages behind most other kaiju films. I had my origin (I won’t tell you exactly of course) but I needed a window in to this story. I came up with the idea that we could view the story via multiple characters á la Rashomon or 24. I decided on two characters. One is directly involved in the catastrophe that sets the story off and another is a man working undercover to investigate what’s really going on after the government declares a media blackout so as not to cause panic. They each have their paths in the story and at the end they come together nicely. The twist I used was to integrate a Bourne-esque conspiracy thriller story in to the mix which upped the socio-political message the screenplay is trying to convey. I also wanted to maintain the tradition of making the monsters themselves characters. It isn’t good enough to simply use them as destroyers or cannon fodder. They are living creatures and need to have their own motives and a side you can empathise with. In the context of this story, they were here long before humans and it is the destruction that man causes to the planet that is far worse than the monster’s rampage through London which will surely occur…

Of course with a story that involves an epic story and multiple characters in the present day, I had to think about how the way we live our lives might be affected by a rampaging giant monster and how current forms of social media might extinguish any attempt by the government to quell the spread of information. This element came from this year’s ‘Arab Spring’ which was fascinating to follow. Humanity will always find a way to overcome.

The interesting part about writing this script is that, much like Cloverfield, you don’t see the monster as much as you think you should. There is still enough excitement and pace in the human elements to drive the story and keep you involved. Much like other movies that deal with huge events such as natural disasters or alien invasions, it is simply a setting in which we can explore humanity. Think of Ridley Scott’s Alien for example. You hardly see the cause of the terror but the film still fills you with a sense of dread and atmosphere. It’s Ripley you become fascinated by as much as the titular acid spitting creature.

The script also demands a large amount of research- specifically military and geographical. I needed to include shipping lanes, places, flights, weapon choices, aircraft, marine vessels, oil rig information and a whole host of other elements to create a believable story that is grounded in reality. I set a portion of one character’s story in London and used places that I knew well enough to describe in detail. “Write what you know” is certainly important here.

The characters themselves need to be well defined and watchable. I gave even the smallest characters details and traits that would make them seem real; as if they were living and breathing as you I read the words in the script. You really need to put time aside for these details as they can actually inspire the direction of the story a lot of the time. I was recently stuck on a script for Mystery Boys, a comic book I write. I couldn’t figure out how the two main characters were going to figure out the puzzle behind strange goings on in a remote Japanese village. I had a vague idea about a ‘crazy’ old guy who knew something more but I didn’t know why he knew it or how they met. I came up with the idea that this elderly guy likes a to drink. The main characters meet him at the village inn. I then created a backstory that stretched to his childhood in the last days of WWII and involved his father. I linked it to one of the main characters who held a mysterious past which is something I also wanted to work in to the story. It was pretty emotional and had a real kick to it. Not only had I solved a few story issues I had now created a really good character and a different ending for the book which became something more than a simple tale of agents against the unknown. It was more human and it is honestly one of the best things I have ever written. It all came from the simple idea of the old man having a drink in his hand.

Similarly, in Beneath, the main characters eventually link up because of who they are and what they do not because I simply decided to place them in the same place at the same time which I feel is far too convenient and lazy.

So, a story can form by seeing what’s around us and by also by the characters we place in that setting. This when the evolution and major changes occur inbetween drafts. It is somewhat painful to change such large portions of script but if your character dictates they should follow a certain path and it works as a story then you need to take the chance and see if it works out better for the script. The story might change which means the characters will do something different which means the consequences might affect the story that follows on and so on…

The main point I want to make here is that when you write, the only voice you should hear is your own. I don’t mean you should write everything from your viewpoint. You need to stay objective if you’re writing something like Schindler’s List for example. What I mean is you shouldn’t be someone else. Keep your style,  hone it and create something that within the first ten pages, the reader will say, “this is a <your name here> script and as usual, I love it!”

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REVOLUCIÓN!

I’m going to begin this series of blogs with a look at how I view the challenges in writing a script that is based on an intellectual property which already exists. I don’t believe remakes, reimaginings or reboots are a bad thing at all. Star Trek, Dawn of the Dead, True Grit and The Magnificent Seven to name but a few are all amazing films. There is a lot of stigma attached when these sort of films are announced but if they’re done well they can even surpass the originals (even though hardcore fanboys have probably already sent out a squad of assassins to hunt me down for suggesting it).

Everyone has an imagination. There are infinite story possibilities that can be conjured by the human brain and it is incredible that most blockbusting films in the last ten years have been based on pre-existing properties. Are the paying audience scared of handing over £10 to watch a film that is an original piece of entertainment? The answer to this is somewhat blurry. Two examples of late would be Inception and Super 8. Both films were original stories, both films came from established talents and both offered smart, exciting entertainment.

Inception was extremely successful while Super 8  was less so although it still made a lot of money. Perhaps the differences in marketing and cast drove more people to see the former. A film with the same marketing strategy and director as one of the biggest movies of all time coupled with an all star cast will always do better than one which relied on nostalgia for E.T. and a cast mostly made up of kids new to the scene. I was still sad that eight out of the top ten performers in 2011 were sequels. I’m not saying all of those in the top ten were bad films. I enjoyed most of them. In 2010, Inception placed at number six while this year Super 8 languishes at eighteen.

As a writer, is it worth having an original idea? The answer is most definitely yes. Avatar and Star Wars must be two of the main examples of original ideas being successful. Pixar consistently deliver box office hits with their genius storytelling and countless other films have made it on their own merit so don’t get demoralised when Fast And Furious 12 tramples over whatever film is produced from your script. The thing that matters the most is that the script you produce is honest to yourself and as long as it tells a good story or has a valid point to make, then you shouldn’t lock it away in a drawer, too scared to show it off. Hopefully, someone will take a chance on it.

Most of my ideas are original and those are the ones I most enjoy writing because you can create your own world, characters, story and it’s much more satisfying to see something that works because you planned it that way.

I do have one or two scripts in the works at the moment however that are based on pre-existing properties but rather than me adapting them because I see £’s in my eyes, I’m adapting them because I love the worlds those stories exist in and I have enjoyed those properties for years. These scripts are relatively easy to create as you already have a wealth of material at your fingertips be it a book, video game, film, obscure 15th Century epic poem… It’s what you do with that information that matters. In my opinion, simply churning out a straight up adaptation of what’s already been before is somewhat worthless so I take that material and develop my own stories from it.

Comic book writers in particular will know that the character they work with are so timeless and endlessly inventive because different writers and artists have their own views on what they can do that nobody has done before. Comic book heroes will go through endless iterations and reinventions and yet still have the ability to be loved by fans. Film fans tend to be more unforgiving but as Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight saga proves, that’s not the case all the time. Nolan has managed to turn Batman in to a modern day epic mythology.

The Adventures Of Tintin is a perfect example of this done well. Rather than take one of Hergé’s stories and put what’s on the page straight on to the screen, various strands from different story arcs were chosen and melded then bolstered by newly created scenarios to give a version of Tintin that fitted Spielberg and Jackson’s sensibilities while still retaining the magic and intrigue of the books.

Even The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy wasn’t entirely faithful but it still worked. A particular script I’m working on at the moment (we’ll call it Blue for now) follows a very well known character who has been around for just under twenty years and there have already been numerous iterations in various different mediums. It was important that I found something fresh and what I did was simply take this vast and endlessly imaginative world that had already existed and then added to it. The great thing about stories based in sci-fi and fantasy is that you can create your own rules and as long as they’re followed within the context of the script, you’re fine. You can then place your character in that world and do whatever you like. I chose an origin story for this one as this character has never been on the big screen (properly) before and I wanted to build the story from the ground up. We see how the character changes and how the emotional element of the story develops in this really complex way and so far it’s working very well. I’m confident that my own spin on the character has never been seen before. The script was actually inspired by another writer’s work adapting it to a medium different from the original so in a sense my take is not the first to play with the original form.

The angle I’m taking with Blue was fully realised in my mind when I finally decided what the personal journey of the main hero was. At first it was simply a tale about freedom fighters in a world ruled by a ruthless dictator. There wasn’t enough emphasis on who the main character was. Of course, everyone knows the name but that doesn’t make for an interesting film. The recent big screen hit The A-Team didn’t succeed because it had a scene involving a mid-air tank battle (although that was damn cool) but because we were allowed to invest in the brilliantly drawn characters. They had history, personality and relationships that popped out of the screen and I personally spent most of the film with a grin on my face watching them do their thing.

The origins of the character I’m working with and his ultimate destiny suggested a story in which he is simply someone searching for a parental figure. He is somewhat lost and although he becomes a hero and a leader of underground fighters, he is torn as he fights against the one character he used to trust and love. It’s kind of Star Wars after Luke learns his father is the bad guy. It’s that sort of relationship. Once I had this, the bigger picture became more clear and the character’s path through the story was defined. Other well know characters pop up in the story and I’m having a blast finding ways to include them while not having the sheer volume of supporting characters cast a shadow over the main story. In the beginning it’s a nod and a wink to the audience but once their world is turned upside down, they become more prominent. I wanted to include them early on so the feel at the end of the script was consistent with the beginning. Suddenly throwing in a bunch of faces towards the end would have made the script lose it’s focus.

I’m sort of picking a few favourite bits from the original material but the majority is of my own evolution of the story.

Another script I’m currently developing (we’ll call it Detention) based on something that already exists is simply a question of taking the ideas and philosophy behind the piece and translating it to a different setting. In this case it was taking a Japanese story and placing it in a near future U.K. The challenges in doing this weren’t so hard. The story carries a heavy social and political message (while also being exceptionally thrilling and daring) which is pretty universal and perhaps even more so after the crazy events of this last year. I took the rules and the basic premise of the story and put my own characters and events in to the script. It’s not exactly a remake but (wait for the in- trend word of the moment…) a reimagining.

I was only inspired to begin Detention after the riots in the U.K. earlier this year. Our current culture of slightly trashy reality television which I personally hate was also an influence. It’s a pretty angry film. Fun but angry. I originally started working on it as a completely original story but when I saw the correlation with the particular property it’s based on I began to realise this was actually a far stronger idea.

Zombie films are a nice example of where you can recycle an idea over and over again and it will turn out to be successful as long as you do it well. I actually prefer Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake to George A. Romero’s original. A bunch of mismatched survivors struggle to survive both a zombie apocalypse and each other is not an original idea but it’s what the films say about humanity that is important. The Walking Dead takes it deeper and while the tv series veers from the path set in the comics, both talk about relevant issues and questions that humanity prefers to avoid.

I have taken care in both of these projects not to copy exactly what has come before however in order to honour the originals, of course there are numerous references that existing fans will pick up on. As soon as I saw that red shirt on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot I knew what fate held in store…

Your personal stamp on the script is in some ways even more important in adapting stories as this is what will make your script stand out. Tom Cruise has been insistent that the Mission: Impossible films are not made to conform to previous instalments in the same way that James Bond films did until the Daniel Craig installments. When you see slow motion doves in M:I-2 for instance, you know it’s a John Woo joint.

I hope you enjoyed this post and perhaps you took something from it. Next time I’ll be talking about my original scripts.

Stay tuned!