I am often asked, as a writer and as a filmmaker, where ideas come from. It’s a question that I have a very strong reaction to because, where do ideas NOT come from? Who doesn’t have ideas? And that reminds me that people think and live and breathe in different ways. I think visually; I have to SEE it. I also have words, dialogue, arguments, rants, and other verbal insanity running through my head at all times. And when there aren’t words there are songs from the radio. I wish I could write music so that those songs would be original. I wish I could think musically. To me, that is true genius and wonder, something I will never ever grasp. But alas, I think in pictures and words.
So where do ideas come from? It is very very very easy: ideas come from life. Ideas come from imagination. Ideas come from dreams and crazy random juxtapositions that hit you as you drive down the street or stroll through a grocery aisle.
After my sophomore year in college, I wrote my first “screenplay.” It’s called MOMENTUM. Where did the idea come from? I had had a photo in my head that I had wanted to capture. It was a young woman sitting in a diner, gazing out the window and smoking. It had that blue tint to the picture that I now know is shooting inside-rated film (Tungsten) under outdoor-rated lights. I always wrote down the photographs I wanted to stage or create somehow, so I wrote this one down in my journal. Except this time, it wasn’t just an image of a woman sitting in a diner gazing out the window, it was a window into a story. So I asked myself, “what’s the story?”
almost 12 am8/5/97 TuesdayScreenplaystraight shot-level with herA hard-edge woman sits alone in a restaurant/diner booth that has a window overlooking any old street. She pulls heavily on a cigarette and stares out the window concentrating, pensive. (She sits laid out on the bench with her right leg up – she’s on the far-hand side from the camera – and her elbow is bent on the table – the hand she smokes with). Shot is diagonal looking at her. Cut to a scene with her on an isolated highway. Sun is setting. On a motorcycle hear the buzzing of the engine. Cut to a scene with her on bicycle as a young adult biking on a country road, summer late afternoon, with friends standing on the peddles, and holding her arms up in the air. Hear soft chimes/wind. Cut back and forth each shot and then back to the motorcycle scene where you see her standing up on the bike (not on the seat) putting her arms up into the air like in the bicycle scene. Hold longer than the previous shots. Cut back to the woman in restaurant. She’s in her early twenties. Pixie haircut. Black clothing – tight clothing. She says: “I want to fly. I want that freedom. I want to fall from the sky. But I hate flying in an airplane. I feel like I’m in an aluminum can hurtling through space with a bunch of other people who think that hovering at 30,000 feet above ground in a tin can is perfectly normal. At least, [pause] that’s my take on it.” She looks at camera when done – close to a black screen.
This isn’t much of a story; it’s more of a Kuleshov montage of images. But it was a start. An idea. And if I kept putting another scene or line of dialogue or character in front of the last, I would get somewhere. It’s like dominoes…you stack them up and see if they fall together. If something needed to be added, I scribbled it in. If something needed to be taken out, I crossed it out. Eventually, I wrote a feature-length screenplay that was formatted and a complete story.
I can’t tell you how or why they come, but I do believe that everyone has ideas that just pop into their heads. I believe we are all born story-tellers even if we pursue careers that seem far from it. Humans are largely social, and we always end up at a bar or after church or at the dinner table telling a story about something. And where do those stories come from? Our lives. Living. You can’t tell an interesting story if all you study and do is writing or film. You have to live life. The girl I described was basically me at the time, and I filled in the details with my own life. I used to ride my bicycle down the big hill of my street standing on the peddles with my arms out to the side like I was flying. I also hated, especially back then, flying in an airplane. I didn’t worry about whether this was a great idea or believable. Rule #1 about ideas: there are no bad ideas. Just write them down; don’t edit yourself too much. With work and time, you will know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth putting aside.
Maybe this is true with writing music too. As a musician, you learn scales and phrases and you start to piece things together. Oftentimes you begin with something already written, or mimicking something you heard. Maybe it’s not so mysterious.
The only way to know is to begin.