Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fishing for Greatness

Having sworn to my manager (and to myself) that I will crank out a new spec by the end of the year, I’ve been outlining a few ideas this week. Producing spec work is a grim requirement of my profession. Most professional writers I know sort of hate it, but if you want your agent or manager to be able to prove that you’re actually still alive, then churning out an annual spec is pretty much mandatory. I understand this in principle, but writing a “polished-ready-to-be-seen-by-producers” spec is (for me) a big commitment that will consume at least twelve weeks of my ever-shortening life, so I really need to believe in it. This leaves me in the daunting position of coming up with that killer (and hopefully commercial) idea that will keep me energized for the next twelve, long and labor intensive weeks.

You'd think this would be easy, right? All writers have ideas; lots of them. But, even the ones born in moments of intense enthusiasm, are surprisingly hard to keep alive. In fact, the infant mortality rate among creative ideas is depressingly high. I rarely discuss my initial ideas with anyone since they can so easily be crushed by landslides of doubt. Suffocated by pillows of comparison. Or worst of all, bludgeoned to death by the big frying pan of bitterness. I could go on with the bad metaphors, but I’m sure you get my drift. Fortunately, million dollar ideas can come from anywhere. But you do have to look for them.

Sometimes, the answer seems to be speed. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer in Hollywood is the great creative zeitgeist that we all seem to swim around in. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had what I thought was a brilliantly funny idea only to call up my agents or manager and be told that there are already three similar-sounding projects in development around town. Sadly, this can also happen when I’m watching the previews of upcoming attractions at my local Cineplex. Often, I find myself squirming miserably in my seat, as I recall having had an almost identical idea two years ago, but (for some dumb-ass reason) didn’t act on it.

Fishing for ideas (like regular fishing) requires patience. When I first came to L.A., I was transitioning from working in theatre which was a world where you were highly lauded for coming up with obscure or far-fetched ideas. Theatre (at least in those days) had no fear of period costumes, ensemble casts, political content or female protagonists over the age of forty. When I moved west to be a movie writer, I thought of myself as an “indie” kind of guy. But I also had no clue how those films got made or how hard it would be to support myself writing quirky, “Coen Brothers-esque” entertainment. After a failed attempt to enter the world of “mainstream” comedy, I knew I had to find some kind of balance between the quirkiness that people seemed to like in my work and the sort of movies that studios might actually pay me to write. I found the answer in my local Blockbuster.

One day, as I was wondering the aisles looking for some entertainment, I happened onto a copy of a movie (produced by a studio) that I had really enjoyed. I sighed and thought to myself, “Wow. I wish I’d written that.” But then it occurred to me that maybe I could write “that.” Or more specifically, maybe I could write my version of “that.” Without plagiarizing the film, I could borrow the basic plot structure, freshen it with new twists and then populate the story with characters that interested me. Soon, I was visiting Blockbuster almost daily as I compiled a list of commercially successful films that held some resonance for me. Some of the resulting ideas did in fact morph into paying jobs. But most importantly, this process painlessly taught me how to write stories that could be bought by studios (without selling my artistic soul to the Devil).

Occasionally, a spark can turn into a wildfire. I remember once having a conversation with a producer who had a very general, one-line idea for a movie. After hanging up, I hopped into my car and to run a few errands. About a block from my house, a character popped into my head who felt like the perfect protagonist for the story he had suggested. Two blocks later, I knew who the antagonist was. By the next traffic light, I knew the plot premise and by the time I reached my destination (about twenty minutes later) I had the whole movie (all three acts) written in my head. I couldn’t believe it! Twenty-four hours later, I met the producer for coffee and told him my idea. Two weeks later, we sold it in our first pitch meeting (literally on the spot). I’ve never had an experience like that before or since, but continue to hope that someday I’ll be revisited by that same fast-moving muse.

I’m not suggesting that finding the “fantastic-never-been-done-before” idea is easy, but sometimes it’s easier than we think. I often have to remind myself that whatever that little scrap of an idea might be – it has never been written by me – which, interestingly enough makes all the difference in the world. What follows is a partial quote (written in 1931) by one of America’s favorite journalistic muckrakers, Lincoln Steffens with whom I share the same birthday. (Check out the full quote in the side bar). “Nothing is done. Everything in the world remains to be done or done over. The greatest picture is not yet painted, the greatest play not yet written, the greatest poem is unsung.” Cast your lines in the water, Hollywood. America needs some entertainment.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being optimistically middle-class in Hollywood at


nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I'm in the middle of rewriting a spec right now. This post was dead on.

Michelle said...

This must be spec week. I actually wrote one a few weeks ago but now entering the rewrite zone.