Monday, February 21, 2011

Ideas and where they come from

The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot
switch it off.  You hear this piece of conversation  across
across the room. "I just can't stand you anymore". 
That's a song. It just flows in.
- Keith Richards

When I began writing screenplays I was often unsure of what to write. I had no real ideas that I thought were good enough to write. This was often proven by the fact that I could write 10 pages and realize there was nothing there.

And in a business where the first 3 pages count, I was dead meat.

Now, after 30 years of working in features, I have more ideas than I can handle.

So what's the reason?

Well, life for one. I was never one with the amazing talent that comes at birth, rather I was pretty ordinary at almost everything I did. Except for one; I watched television like an addict from the first time I saw it.

And the first time was way back in 1958 in a small town in Manitoba where a TV signal was relayed from a TV station 1oo miles away. I wish I could say I had to walk two miles to school but it was only a block away.

The first TV pictures were snowy, for those too young to know what that is, the screen picture was shared with hazy white dots and streaks, sometimes the image was so poor you could hardly make it out. Sort of like AM radio and static except with a picture.

If I was gifted with anything, it was the 17-inch black and white TV. I even remember the show that was on the time I turned the TV on. It was a western, Black Saddle, with Peter Breck who would later go onto the Big Valley.

Now before I lose most of you, I mention the above because for almost 50 years I have watched television. Counting movies it's even more.

And that, along with life, tutored me in drama. I don't envy those truly talented who write brilliant scripts in high school, mostly because I don't know what that's like. For me it was developed slowly, over time and miles and miles of traveling.

Someone once said that I'm happiest when I got a tank of gas and a new highway I've never been on and I admit they're right. Traveling gave me characters, so many that I sometimes get lost in their identities. An ex-student of mine from the UCLA screenwriting class suggested I have a radar for "characters" some of whom often turn into brilliant inspirations or crazy people.

I learned a lot from my stint at UCLA teaching extension screenwriting classes, both in the work and from the students. I would have a maximum of 15 students in online courses and from this I would have to write notes of anywhere from 5 to 15 pages on their work. And these notes would mostly be about how to change or edit or fix their screenplays to a level of acceptance.

You find a lot of ideas over 2 years, ideas from them and also from the remarkable ability to come up with notes for them. This was something I never expected; that after 3 decades of writing, I actually knew something about the subject!

And after writing probably well over a hundred screenplays, I find story ideas everywhere I go. Keith Richards talks about this in his new book, how after he began writing songs for the Rolling Stones, ideas began to come up from everywhere.

That radar as I have also often said, is always on.

The trouble is, that most of the ideas don't pan out to anything. But it's the ones that linger in your mind, the ones that trouble you, daring you to open them up to whatever might lurk within them. Those are the ones you battle with on the page.

Contradictions are everywhere in ideas, something I think is a fantastic idea today, may become cliched and weak tomorrow. But regardless they continue to flow and flow.

Many of my ideas come from newspapers or magazines, which are filled with stories that could work for movies, like a story about women in a small town in Chile who had a "night without men", wherein they banned men from the main street for one night and made it a ladies night". I still haven't worked on that one but it's always there.

There's also a book I want to option, about a flight attendant who experiences a traumatic reaction after a jetliner nearly crashed and the airline refused to help her. Or a guy whose dad give him $500 to cross the country by himself in order to give him a real life experience. 

There's always the crimes and larger-than-life stories but for some reason I tend to stay away from them. And I tend to read a lot of non-fiction books, anything from travel to quantum phsyics. 

And of course, the wealth of ideas from all those reality shows and history channel presentations which offer almost every known subject. And I still want to write either  a movie or TV series after I passed this little Private Detective storefront near me that seemed to beg a movie or series in the light of huge corporations. Somehow this guy managed to stay alive, sort of a Rockford Files kind of place.  I think about that one at least once a month.

And this relates to Ghostkeeper, wherein the re-release of the original 1980 Ghostkeeper, to happen later this summer, almost immediately set off a new idea; Ghostkeeper 2. And it took me maybe a week to fill out a good idea for it; that of a movie within a movie, with the original cast playing themselves in an almost-identical plotline. But this time they're not playing characters, they're playing themselves.

Ideas for writers are crucial, you don't have a future if you don't have them. But the best way to get them is actually quite simple. They come from everywhere, your town, your family (a favorite), newspapers, other movies, strangers, friends (although they usually want to "co-write a script, wherein I write and we both share the money (avoid these).

And one memory that always haunts me; I was in a truckstop in Idaho off I-15 and was enjoying the atmosphere of truck drivers, families on holiday and country girls giggling. Then I saw an old man tacking a poster on the crowded bulletin board; he looked sad in dirty coveralls and old cap and when he saw I was looking at him, he seemed to feel almost embarrassed, maybe awkeward, and he walked to his pick-up truck.

I went to the board and saw the poster, a sheet of white paper with a picture of a young girl, maybe 13. She was missing and it gave phone numbers to call if you saw her.

Life breaks your heart.

But you write. And write, and write and write.

And sometimes get the chance to put Keith Richards into your blog.

You can sometimes get what you want

(Thurs: Ghostkeeper goes on the road & The Christmas Train arrives)