Starting From The Beginning - Where Do Your Film Story Ideas Come From?

by Tambay A. Obenson
March 7, 2013 11:03 AM
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Recalling my recent interview with Ernest Dickerson, and the part of the conversation about black filmmakers dipping into a broader pool of stories as well as genres, taking risks, tackling material that's off the beaten path, instead of following to the so-called path of least resistance when it comes to what Hollywood expects of black cinema (assuming Hollywood is your eventual goal)...

It all got me thinking about how we (black filmmakers) settle on the stories that we want to tell; what inspires them; where we look to find them, etc...

It's been about 10 years since I last directed a film, and I plan to finally get behind the camera again this year, and make another film after so long. I have an idea of what I want to do; I optioned a novel by a black author, although I won't say what and who just yet, and one of my plans is to first produce a short version of it. But I have other ideas as well - original ideas - that I'm writing currently.

So, speaking for myself, in answering the question about how I come up with stories that I'd like to tell, this is how it usually goes for me...

Optioning a book is something I've never done before, so it's not my usual method. What happens more often for me is that I have a theme or a specific subject that I'd like to tackle on film. That's usually where it starts. For example, I'd tell myself that I'd like to tell a story about greed (which is central to one of the scripts I'm working on right now). And then I'd build a story around that, which I think is where the fun really begins for me, because the story you come up with can be as imaginative as you allow your imagination to run.

Why be restricting - especially at the very start? When I sit and begin to think up the story that I want to tell based on the theme/subject that I initially choose, I let my imagination run wild, and, no matter how crazy, absurd or fantastical an idea might seem, I write it down anyway. And I keep writing, and writing, and writing every single thought down, without really worrying about shaping anything just yet. I like to tell myself that I'm just vomiting onto the page - not literally of course - and not cleaning anything up.

But the key is to, again, let your imagination run free. Don't put yourself in a box right from the start. An example for me, as I sit here looking at early notes from one of the scripts I'm working on, there are absurd sentences like, "a man with an gigantic head who can't sleep" or "a chicken that eats dog food, and dances in the moonlight," or "the tree outside my living room window is really watching me and knows all my in-home secrets, which means, at some point, I'll have to kill it..."

And on and on...

I literally just dump the first things that come to mind. Usually I see something that inspires a thought, and I write it down.

This happens over a period of time. It's not set. I just know when I've done enough "vomiting" to stop, and look over what I have, and, just about every single time, I find connections between ideas, which is often a lot of fun; because I sit there and, first, I laugh over what I've written down over time, because a lot of it I won't remember; and then the connections between ideas some times happens effortlessly.

And when I feel like I have some base to build on, after putting different strands together, then I start building from there.

I don't really settle on genre right away, because, often, the genre starts to reveal itself as I move along in my process. And, at some point, I realize what that genre is, and I stick with it from there. But I don't start off telling myself that I'm going to make a thriller, or a rom-com, or a sci-fi film. It could end being a mix of genres, which could also be fun, and make for a really interesting movie, when it works well.

But really, for me, it starts off with just allowing myself the freedom to be recklessly imaginative. When I say "recklessly," I mean, some of the early notes I have written down for other projects I can't even repeat here, because they'll likely offend some people. But that's kind of the *beauty* of it, if I can say that. That early stream of consciousness writing can reveal things about yourself that you may not have ever given much consideration to. But I think those can result in some truly fascinating *original* ideas and concepts which will make for some good cinema.

Other things that influence my thoughts when I'm writing down ideas: Reading. Novels (fiction and non-fiction), articles in newspapers, magazines; watching as many movies as I can, from all over the world, all genres, all styles; asking questions, satisfying my curiosity (I'm very curious about everything), listening to other people, and more.

What about you - all you filmmakers reading this? Where do your ideas come from? When you're about to embark on a new project, starting with the script, how do you decide what story you want to tell? Take me back to that moment when you first say to yourself, "I want to make a film, but I have absolutely no idea what the film is going to be about..."

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  • Temi Olutunmbi | March 15, 2013 10:42 AMReply

    Tambay, this is some great insite and advice. I find too often I limit myself from the endless creative thoughts. I also say kudos to validating the "unthinkable" and often offensive/unorthodox thoughts and ideas as also part of the process. Often I get stuck and quit in the early stages or writing based on too much thought and not enough writing. I labored for six months writing a 14 page fantasy action short. The piece is definitely rough but came from about a years worth of ideas and tangents I wrote down. I'm going to utilize this advice for my follow up project.

    Also best of luck to you and your writing. I really enjoy your writing on the site and hope to see your creative side in the future!

    I personally would like to see more sci-fi work, especially in urban settings which we don't really see often. And if there is work like that out there, i'd like to see more.

  • Darryl | March 8, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    Film ideas for stories can come from anywhere. It can come from a subject matter, a picture you see, a conversation, it can come from anywhere, it just about what story the filmmaker want to tell.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | March 7, 2013 11:15 PMReply

    Ideas come to me all the time. You should be constantly churning out concepts -- no matter how silly or outlandish. A screenplay is conceived when a concept takes hold of you and won't let go. Push it to its extremes, get crazy with it -- the essence of high concept. Then you ask yourself, "Why? Why does this idea appeal to me? What is it about? And what is it -- and I, by implication -- trying to say?" The concept is what your film will be about; theme is what it's really about. Once you've tested your concept (Is this really a MOVIE? Would someone waste their hard-earned money to see this?) and defined your theme (which will control everything you do from here on)... then the easy part's over. LOL Now it's time to do a shit-ton of brainstorming/research/pre-writing. Robert McKee writes in his book "Story" that 90% of what you come up with is drek, low-hanging fruit that should be ignored or scrapped altogether. Don't lean on first-come ideas but keep digging until the story truly "reveals" itself -- usually via immersion. Then you'll have full command of your narrative, rather than just feeling around in the dark with a flashlight when it's time for that first, exploratory draft.

  • Mark & Darla | March 7, 2013 1:42 PMReply

    My ideas for screenplays comes from not thinking about what to think of for a screenplay, my two screenplay ideas came to me out of the blue. In other words I didn't go toward the idea it came to me and hit in the forehead, BANG.

    My characters ideas come from past tv shows , movies made in the 60's 70's 80's and 90's. Two male characters in my first screenplay are base off Lamont Sanford and Rollo Larson buddy relationship.

    The screenplay I am writing now, when writing the two characters Murphy and Derby, I think of Redford character in 'Three Days of the Condor' for Murphy and Jackson characters 'Jules' & 'Ordell' for Derby the assassin.

  • urbanauteur | March 7, 2013 12:37 PMReply

    RECKLESS , you say TAMBAY?...well i pull NO PUNCHES when it comes to reckless abandoned, that why WE are Artists, you want find NO Self-Censorship here , weather i fall hard on my face,oh well...?.. "i tried"... to quote Angela Bofill, and if i am really "FEELING IT"? and Capsize in the Zone" , i feel i could wage Much! Creative BLITZKRIEG! and in fact,i feel i could almost pull Marshmallows out the sky and extract an Panorama of fleeting thought or a Cornucopia of ideas just from reading a discarded news article,out of print book,back of music DVD or its photo/liner note's etc... ,bottom line, i love the ugly-beauty of writing, and especially if it entails blowing completely off the creative hinges, those [so-call-establish-tropes] most light minded gentry DON'T embrace...that's my story and i
    am sticking with it...;-)

  • Dee | March 7, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Sometimes it's an image. I remember pursuing a script along the lines of an image that I had very firmly fixed in mind and getting nowhere. 3 months of work and it was dry, dull and said nothing. I was trying to be deep and philosophical but had disappeared up my own orifice. I didn't know it at the time but the story wasn't about that character. They were the catalyst but they weren't the story.

    When I came back to the idea a couple of years later looked at it, did a vomit draft and all of these other characters wandered into the story and one in particular, had an arc. I shifted the focus and told the story through their eyes. What I have is a lighter, tighter, funnier tale with more involving characters that says more than I could have hoped. The protagonist is a much harder sell this time, but that is the point of writing.

    Also, just wrapped on a short where the idea came from multiple sources. A technology scandal, human behaviour, and a news article. The story came together very quickly and was written in a couple of days. I'm pleased now, as I was then that it had something to say. (In 4 short minutes!)

    Shooting it myself 18 months later and I changed a couple of lines which sounded false in the read through (I trust actors to find these things for me) but that was it, no one else had had the same idea no-one else had told the same story.

    There has been a lot of talk by those that are wont to give advice. (I'm getting real tired of web guru's) That 'Ideas' are meaningless. Yes, Space Pirates is not enough to secure 300mil from Megan Ellison, but that idea I had all those years back had a point and purpose. I may have been looking at it from the wrong angle at the time but it had something that only I could divine. These things don't itch at the back of your brain and delay sleep for nothing, sometimes they just want you to get out of bed in the right mood.

    I have no Idea what draft it's on now.

  • FilmGuy | March 7, 2013 11:26 AMReply

    Since movies are photographs of motion, I like to start by imagining someone running. Then I follow them in my mind and see where they go. Why are they running? Where are they going? That curiosity usually leads to a character and a situation.

    Other times I'll look a still photos and ask myself "What the story here?"

    Images carry some powerful mojo. When you compare the images we get of ourselves with the rest of what's out there, you'll see that we lack enough positive pictures to follow. I'd like to see a black sci-fi film myself. Or just any film about black people that doesn't mention slavery or europeans.

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