Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Idea, Concept and Story Development - PART 1

Making a great film starts at the beginning. The original idea, concept or story (for more traditional filmmakers) is the skeletal system of your film. It has to be able to hold the muscle, tissue, heart and brain of your finished film. If it is weak, it can't stand up under the weight of your creative ambitions. Usually, when a film under-achieves or has unfixable problems (once it is shot), they can be traced directly back to the concept and story (or lack thereof).

How do we make sure we are working with an idea, concept or story that truly serves our talent and ambitions? Well, there's no simple answer to that question, unfortunately. Why? Because there are a few variables involved related to what you are trying to achieve with your film.

Therefore, I won't even pretend to present any definitive answers, but I do have some thoughts and approaches we should consider about our ideas and how we might realize them before investing a ton of blood, sweat and tears on a project.

First, I believe you must address the variables and answer the main question - What are you trying to achieve with your film? Meaning, what are you trying to express/explore energetically, thematically and/or aesthetically? There is rarely one answer to this question. In fact, one answer could potentially limit the creative breadth of your film. Think about your film on a lot of levels - energetically, structurally, thematically, aesthetically - and then list all your goals for each level. If the list is sparse, you may be underachieving. If the list is gargantuan, you may be over-reaching. But you'll never know as clearly as you will if you just list them all then sit back and look at that list. If you are doing a comedy your list may look like this (Example A):

1. To make people laugh.

Or like this (Example B):

1. To make people laugh.
2. To create dynamic visual puns.
3. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film.
4. To explore my personal relationship issues.
5. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand.
6. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God.

or like this (Example C):

1. To make people laugh.
2. To make people cry.
3. To push the audience to the edge of a mental breakdown.
4. To create dynamic visual puns.
5. To create visuals such as the world has never seen.
6. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film.
7. To mimic the hypnotic energy of a Tarkovsky film.
8. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand.
9. To show humans as the compassionate masters of the universe.
10. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God.
11. To create a completely new myth of God.
12. To end wars forever.
13. To reduce global warming.
14. To bring prosperity to the planet.
15. To discover life on other planets.
16. To expose all of my personal issues and get revenge on every single asshole who's ever f^%$#ed me over!

Obviously, Example A may be a bit too sparse to do a truly great film (or it may not, if you have a great minimalist approach). It could still be very funny, but it might soon be forgotten. Think "Dumb and Dumber" versus, say, "Annie Hall". And Example C is, of course, ridiculously over-reaching. But even as I say that, I laugh at how many filmmakers actually believe they can create something almost as ambitious as Example C and usually wind up creating nothing more than an incomprehensible mess. Now, I'm not saying Example B is perfect, because there is no perfect example. Simply that which works for you, the filmmaker, and is realistically achievable.

The next step, then, after you've created your list, is to examine it in relation to your idea, concept or story. How well can your idea, concept or story serve your list of goals for the film? Of course, if your list is short, it demands less from your central idea, concept or story. But, again, keep in mind that great films usually work on multiple levels.

If you are a genius, you don't have to make a list like this. Your ability to conceive things cinematically that work on many levels will probably be intuitive and not demand conscious thought about any of this. But I'm certainly no cinematic genius and I really don't know of any personally. What I know are filmmakers who have genius inside of them that is buried under a bunch of ego, mental static, inexperience and misinformation. This kind of work is simply a tool for digging into that latent genius.

Some of this comparison work is a no-brainer. If one of your goals is to create stunning visuals but your concept is to shoot an entire film in a single take of two talking heads having dinner and chatting, then you either have to re-conceive your film to match that goal or eliminate the goal. OR, stretch your creative muscles and try to discover a way to shoot an entire film in a single take of two talking heads having dinner and chatting that is indeed stunning visually. I wouldn't try it, but it might be possible. You should figure that out, however, before you commit any more energy to the project.

Some of the comparison work is a bit more challenging. But it may force you to start filling out your idea, concept or story in a way that will support your goal or goals. Let's say you create a list similar to Example B above. Your central idea is a relationship story told as a detective/mystery story. Meaning, the relationship is like a living being and it's demise is like the death of that living being. So, you want to use a detective/mystery paradigm to uncover the "truth" of that death and unmask the culprit or culprits. Given that, here are your goals, again:
1. To make people laugh - can still definitely do this if you have a penchant for humor. A tongue-in-cheek approach to the detective paradigm could work. Lots of funny relationship vignettes and contemporary life absurdities to explore.
2. To create dynamic visual puns - I don't even know what this means, but I put it on the list anyway. Let's just say we want to use the visuals to generate a lot of humor. Totally doable.
3. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film - this one may be doable with some inventiveness, but will it really serve the tone of the film? My gut tells me no. I'll let this one go and try to come up with some other form of comedic energy - although I may explore it for a vignette, if appropriate.
4. To explore my personal relationship issues - easily done, of course.
5. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand - more challenging, but totally supportable with this concept.
6. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God - also doable, but challenging. The key would be to integrate this thematic idea into the story/humor rather than club people over the head with this as a "message".

So, once you are confident your idea, concept or story is in-sync with your goals for the film, you need to start asking the more difficult question: How? It's fine to believe that you can expose the narcissism of the concept of a Judeo-Christian God in a relationship comedy told as a detective story if that thematic premise is properly integrated. But you won't really know if that's possible until you start thinking specifically about how you are going to achieve it.

I won't give an example because I have no f%$#@ing idea how one might achieve that given my relationship/detective story example. Suffice it to say that I believe God as an extreme narcissist is a funny concept to me. Naturally, I would then need to figure out what circumstances in the story will allow me to explore that theme inobtrusively (or conversely, so obtrusively it's hilarious).

Like all creative work, there is often a trial-and-error process in developing ideas, so don't censor yourself too much. And don't put too much pressure on yourself to detail the "how" part of achieving your creative goals. Just make sure you are confident they can be done with your chosen idea, concept or story. If it doesn't work, then you always change things, of course. You either change the concept or the goal (maybe a little of both) - depending on what the priority is for you.

Alright. This is a good place to stop. Look out for Part 2 - A detailed process for how to take the next steps in developing your idea/concept/story.

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