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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 30, 2014 at 11:38AM

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

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 that I'm working on 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...

What happens most often 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 - at least, initially. 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 my imagination run free. Don't put myself 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, no matter how ridiculous it is.

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. It's actually quite uncanny. 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 typically don't fight whatever it is. 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, if you will. 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 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, and I think that's paramount to the process of creating), listening to other people, and more.

What about you - all you artists (of all kinds) reading this? Where do your ideas come from? When you're about to embark on a new project, starting with the idea, how do you decide what story you want to tell - whether it's cinematically, musically, literary, etc? Take me back to that moment when you first say to yourself, "I want to make create a [whatever the platform is], but I have absolutely no idea what it is going to be..."

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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