Screenwriting Diary: Splitting Up One Idea Into Two Scripts...

THE IDEA GENESIS

I admit, I have had a heck of a time with one idea I devised in the early 2000s. At the time it seemed simple, my roomate and I were sitting around chatting, having drinks when suddenly he said "Dude check it out."

He pointed across the street to window in a luxury high rise that had the lights on and blinds open, and in full sight of the entire street was a woman taking off all her clothes and dancing around her bedroom. 

Did she know we could see her? Maybe something was wrong with her blinds? Or was she  an "exhibitionist" of some sorts?  Night after night she would do it at the same time like clockwork.

We didn't have cable or internet at the time, so we did this thing called "socializing" and often had people over just sitting around, talking and listening to music. Then we noticed at different times in different windows across the street people had some strange routines, often to do with taking off clothes/gettin busy.

It wasn't like we looked for it, the buildings were so close you couldn't avoid it. Even people visiting us would sit and stare at the free show across the street. You would be talking to someone and you would notice them looking past you at the windows.

Then one night we were talking and it occurred to us "What if we saw something we weren't supposed to? Like a drug deal, or murder!" and me in my twisted writer logic said "Blackmail!", like Rear Window but with an anti hero. Rather than try to save the victim, blackmail the perpetrator if he's rich. If the blackmailer runs into trouble he may need the perpetrators help. What if he was a lawyer? I got a cool idea!

THE TWITCH PITCH

Transient

Fast forward to 2012, I was attending a pitch coaching session in LA for a week where I got to "pitch" my ideas to actual producers who would give us feedback. I pitched my blackmail idea as "Twitch", but out of a few dozen people maybe only 3 almost showed interest. But just not enough, the three being lower budget companies. The big guns had zero interest and were bewildered at my idea.

 

"Why would a guy hire a lawyer he just blackmailed to get him out of prison?" 

"Why would a lawyer help a guy get out of jail who just blackmailed him?" 

 "Why would a guy help a women he just used for blackmail?"

"A Lawyer would get disbarred. It's too implausible." 

 

"Why would a guy be watching other people's windows?"

"Because he's a sex addict. A voyeur." 

"I don't buy it. It's Rear Window. This is hokey" 

That went on for days. I was really trying to mold it in a way that would catch someone, anyone's attention. I even had one tell me "Sex makes people uncomfortable.". I was trying to explain to him that the story was an allegory for socio economic dynamics, but in LA if you take more than 5 words to explain something they count the seconds for you to be quiet.

It got to the point where other people pitching wouldn't go near me when I asked them for input and pointers. Like my idea was so poisonous it would be infectious.

One question you'll get from someone you're pitching to is "What movie do you see as a comparison?" Seeing that the closest comparison an anti-hero thriller would be is a dark movie from the 70s like Chinatown. Movies that filmmakers my age were inspired by.

Guess what, besides Chinatown and the Godfather movies didn't make any money in the 70s until Star Wars invented the modern blockbuster and changed the industry forever. 

The guys with money who get movies made, they're looking at the bottom line and a movie about a sex addict spying on lawyers having affairs rubbed them the wrong way. Personally I would TOTALLY watch that movie, but finding an audience to justify spending $5-20 million on a dark anti hero drama? No way. Even though the brilliant "Shame" was getting rave reviews and good indie box office. Too risky.

Just about everyone in the screenwriting business tells you the same thing. "If you try to write what sells, you'll write badly. Write what you love and know." 

So I thought "I'm writing what I find interesting, but nobody else does. What does this say about me? Maybe it was my upbringing but I like unconventional stories. Unfortunately Hollywood wants what sells. The nerve!"

THE REWRITE

I returned to my home both equally inspired and disillusioned, but I'm the type of person who gets mad and wants to "better" myself into a position to surpass a letdown. So I began to rewrite and rewrite to make it "friendlier" and less sexy, apathetic. I showed my partner draft after draft, and still had elements of "That's too dark" or "I wouldn't watch that" as we're opposites. I like Kubrick, she loves The Notebook.

So I decided to add personal elements that the average joe could identify with and totally changed the story and characters. The blackmail was still there, but I no longer was "in love" with the idea. Yes the skeleton was still there but a big messy glob of mush was on top of it. I entered the new version into some contests, and the feedback from one was positive saying "besides the 'on the nose' dialogue, I can actually see this getting made."

Nice as it was to hear, I still didn't like the script. And it didn't win anything, not even cracking the top 100. My dark blackmail thriller was now a normal thriller about a guy trying to save his family, which is what we can all relate to. But it didn't turn my crank.

I kept combing over it, thinking "The dialogue sucks because I'm not in love with these guys." The previous idea had so many people telling me it was "harsh" and "crude" because of the apathetic characters (which is a film noir staple). 

Then it occurred to me "This version in no way resembles the original idea, and the old elements are not working in the new structure. I have two ideas. Why not have two scripts?" 

THE RESURRECTION

So now, I started from scratch and wrote a new treatment for Twitch, and have renamed the original apathetic film noir script "The John Club". That one will be "for me" in a way, where I will write it how I want and without worry of what will work or not, and the new treatment will be a script for a broader audience. 

After writing the new treatment without worrying about including the elements from previous drafts, I suddenly felt a weight off my shoulders. And equal excitement to take what I have learned in this process and rewrite the original idea as well. 

So one valuable lesson, if you have a non commercial idea. Keep writing it but slide it aside, and write a whole new idea entirely with the notion of reaching a wider audience. If you try to hang on to your bleaker darlings and combine it with the friendlys, you'll get a frankenstein script that's a mess. Maybe sometime in the future you can shoot the other script yourself for $200,000 and stream it on a net channel, but still pitch it to people to gauge their interest. You never know.

So through all the grief I suddenly have two screenplays near completion. That's not a bad thing right?

Post Link http://goo.gl/hhnqIJ