I was recently asked a fairly common question (once people discover you are a writer) - So where do you get your ideas from? Simple question, not so easy to answer. It's kind of like Kevin Costner in Tin Cup - the more you try to analyse your 'swing' the quicker it may desert you!
Yes, I keep clippings of newspaper stories that pique my interest and jot down random ideas but mainly I "see" scenes in my head which then trigger a larger narrative. Case in point is my short film script Immortal. This is a scene I wrote at 30,000 feet on a flight back to Perth from Sydney a few years ago now. I had NO IDEA what it meant but it seemed an atmospheric opening for ... something.
FADE IN :
BRIGHT YELLOW ... FLICKERS ... becomes a FLAME.
PULL BACK to a CANDLE ... wax running down its side. The
flame sputters, nearly dies.
PULL BACK FURTHER ... Crazy SHADOWS make it almost
impossible to define the space we're in.
An indistinct FIGURE clad entirely in black does pushups
within a circle of candles. Breath disturbs the flames, the
price of punishing, machine-like exertion.
A face is visible in the gutting candlelight - a face like
alabaster. Sweat drips from the figure's forehead, lands in
a pool tinged with RED.
Forever ... forever ... forever.
One by one the candles die until only the chant remains.
I had worked with a director who always liked to start a story in ECU so we're not sure what we're seeing at first then slowly pull back to reveal what is going on. I've noticed I tend to do this in quite a few scripts (including The Red Bride) and "Pull Back" is one of the few overt screen directions I use.
The second piece of information that helped shape the story was a newspaper article about a German teenager who had killed an elderly woman and drunk her blood believing himself to be a vampire.
Imagine that? Thinking you're a vampire! Matching the thought: 'how could you come to believe you're undead?' with the 'candle scene', Immortal emerged. The first draft was about a teenage boy whose mother dies of a rare blood disease and in his grief comes to believe he is a vampire and ends up killing the nurse he blames for not saving her. An exploration of an extreme form of loss and mourning with the material lending itself to tragedy.
Only problem was, that when I wrote the scene breakdown, it seemed so ... linear. So I reversed the narrative and it took on a Memento style structure - main story told backwards intercut with forward moving sequences of the "vampire" being interrogated by a detective. At the start, we think the teenager is a vampire and slowly the tragedy and reasons for it are revealed with the climax being an emotional one as the horror of the self-deception is exposed.
The script lay dormant for a while, until recently when producer Michael Facey read it, liked it, wanted to submit it for FTI's Link program. Jeremy Passmore came on board as director and immediately impressed me with a detailed visual breakdown of the script and a stylistic approach incorporating green screen. Not what I saw in my head but sounded exciting.
A little tinkering was done to the script but hardly any changes that impacted the spine. All looked good until the short list came out ... and we weren't on it. Apparently the panel was confused by the structure and didn't get the way Jeremy wanted to shoot it. Michael was angry, Jeremy angrier while I was surprisingly ambivalent. It's a script I really like (would make a kick-arse short film) but it's not a cookie-cutter one that tends to do well in funding rounds.
The producer wants to re-submit but I literally don't know what I would change that wouldn't make me gag as I dumbed it down. I cheekily suggested we submit the chronological version, shoot it, then edit it with the fractured time-line in post!
The lesson I've learnt is that next time I write a short destined for a funding round is to keep it as simple as possible - nearly set-up/pay-off - and spell it out in the supporting documentation so the panel "get it".