Archive for February 2011

Coincidence or Idea Theft Addendum

February 23, 2011

Forgot to include this item in my last post, which I came across on Fark.com, a favorite time-waster site of mine (and source of weird news for movie ideas). The link goes to a Cracked article that points out amazing similarities between an old Scrooge McDuck comic book plot and the movie INCEPTION. Could Nolan or his brother have subconsciously lifted elements from it? After you read the rest of the article, it might not seem so crazy — Spielberg and Lucas both admitted that parts of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK were “inspired” by Scrooge McDuck comics!

Check it out by clicking here or go to:

http://tinyurl.com/4afpz79

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Idea Theft or Coincidence?

February 22, 2011

Nearly every writer has had that “oh, crap” moment when out of the blue, they hear about a book or movie deal for a story that sounds remarkably similar to something they’ve written. Ninety-five percent of the time I’d chalk it up to coincidence or parallel development, which happens with inventions and technology too. Or call it synchronicity — some writers seem to be able to tap into a collective unconsciousness, as Jung would refer to it.

But there are times when you have to scratch your head and wonder: did my idea get ripped off by someone who read my stuff? I have never been paranoid about sending my screenplays out to anyone… agents, managers or producers, with or without releases (which basically say you can never sue them for theft of an idea). Why? It just isn’t cost-effective for someone in Hollywood to “steal” an idea they like, especially if the work has been registered with the WGA or copyright office, and there’s a paper trail establishing the source of that original work. At least that’s what I thought.

Over the years, however, I’ve heard first-hand from pro screenwriters about their ideas being ripped off by producers or fellow writers. And there wasn’t much they could do about it because the reality is if you want to work in TV, you can’t complain if a producer “borrows” an idea you pitched. It’s also possible the producer or fellow writer doesn’t recall where they got an idea from, and they’re convinced it came from their own mind.

I bring this topic up because it just happened to me. Again. In this blog, I’ve mentioned my script — THE DOLL (a.k.a., DOLL KILLER and VEIL OF DECEIT) — more than once since it has made the finals of a few contests, and I’ve been in talks with producers who are interested in it. Each time it was close to being optioned, financing fell through or the producer lined up another project that put my script on the back burner. It’s the kind of script that does well in contests largely because the plot is “different” — or as producer/director Andy Fickman called it, “wicked-weird” when he read it as a judge in the Maui Writers Conference contest.

Here’s the logline I’ve used for a long time: An aspiring actress is hired by a mysterious woman to be a nanny — to a life-like doll. Then the seemingly “crazy” woman accuses her of killing the real baby, and the girl must use her acting skills to elude police until she can find out why she was framed for murder.

Two weeks ago I read this in Variety about actress Rooney Mara being attached to star in EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES: “… Mara will play a troubled teenager who agrees to look after her new neighbor’s ‘baby,’ which is actually a very lifelike doll. She decides to go along with the charade while befriending the delusional woman, who happens to be the spitting image of the title character’s late mother.”

Okay, the dead mother twist is different than my script. But my protag is a troubled 19-year-old girl, who goes along with the charade of being a nanny to a doll because she needs a place to stay, and she believes the woman is delusional. I haven’t read the EMANUEL script, so I don’t know if the neighbor lady is really crazy or it’s a ruse, as is the case in my script. Also, the idea of treating a doll as a real human has been seen recently in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, but my original draft was registered 11 years ago… and has been read by a lot of people as a result of making the finals in a bunch of contests.

Ordinarily, I would dismiss any similarities to other projects as pure coincidence. What made me suspicious though is an earlier “coincidence” with the same DOLL script. A couple of years ago, I was watching Law & Order and there was a scene with a young woman pushing an old-fashioned baby carriage… and there’s no baby in it. Later, the young woman is seen taking care of a doll instead of a real baby… then there was another episode involving Muslim honor killings, which is integral to my DOLL “crazy” woman frame-up. The honor killings angle could have easily been something that other writers saw in the news. But the doll substitution for the baby? My wife had read my script, and she was stunned by the similarities.

So I did some sleuthing (i.e., googling). And surprise, surprise: turns out that the same L&O producer had been sued by an aspiring screenwriter, who claimed a particular¬† L&O episode had lifted stuff from her script, which the producer read as a judge for a small contest… a contest that I was a finalist in too. I checked to see if he was listed as one of the judges who were reading the finalists that year, and yep, he was.

However, enough things were different in the L&O episodes from my script that I didn’t have any grounds to sue the producers. The writer who filed the lawsuit lost her case. Did the producer actually “borrow” things from my DOLL script, or was it simply a case of someone else pitching the baby-doll idea and he didn’t even recall reading my screenplay? Who knows.

The upshot of all this is I don’t know if the EMANUEL project will have any impact on the producers I’m currently in talks with. They haven’t brought it up, and I don’t intend to point out any similarities, coincidental or otherwise.

Oh, forgot to mention one other coincidence: the producer of the EMANUEL movie had requested and read at least one other script of mine, which they passed on. Not sure if in the past, THE DOLL crossed their desks or not, but they were definitely on the receiving end of queries I sent out for that spec. Is it possible the writer/director or producer subconsciously picked up the germ of an idea from one of the hundreds of email pitches they receive each week? Sure. In the end though, it still boils down to execution of the concept… and who gets their project out first.

The Hero’s Journey Outline

February 8, 2011

Some writers have an innate understanding of story structure. They don’t need to outline plots before plunging in. I’m not one of them. My favorite part of writing is NOT writing — I love to research, jot notes, create side projects, digress. Taking that approach in the past has sometimes led to good stuff, so I never considered it a waste of time. But it’s also led to dead ends or half-realized premises that were flawed from the start because I lacked a strong through line or clear-cut heroes and villains.

When I wrote my first screenplay years and years ago, I didn’t know what three-act structure was. Yet it was there in my script, since I had seen so many movies that it was ingrained my subconscious. Eventually, I learned more about crafting stories through screenwriting books and workshops. The book I recommend to all writers and screenwriters these days is Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat!” because it incorporates elements from Syd Field’s three-act structure and Chris Vogler’s equally important Hero’s Journey outline. Sadly, Blake passed away a couple of years ago just when his “beat” approach was becoming a part of the Hollywood vernacular.

Blake’s outline is great for writing scripts. But I like the Hero’s Journey because it’s a little broader and allows the writer more latitude in the early stages of finding your story. Often we start out wanting to write about a particular idea or character, only to later realize the story is really about something else that has more significance or power. The outlining exercise can help you identify potential problems up front before you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in a draft that doesn’t really work… don’t throw it out though! There may be stuff in there you will want to use or revise for another project. Right now I’m reading Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat,” in which he dissects the musicals he’s written or collaborated on. You’d be surprised at how many songs that are now considered classics were the result of tossing out earlier songs and rewriting them from scratch. But some of the rejected melodies or lyrics would resurface in later songs or other musicals.

Anyhow, back to the Hero’s Journey. I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Vogler when he was one of the judges in the Maui Writer’s Conference screenwriting contest way back in 2000. One of my scripts was a finalist so I flew over from Oahu and got to attend his seminar on classic story-telling paradigms. His book, “The Writer’s Journey,” is based on Joseph Campbell’s 392-page work, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” I have read the Campbell book, and recommend you read Vogler’s book instead, unless you really, really want to delve into arcane mythology and folklore on an academic level.

Below is the basic outline that Chris discusses in his book and talks. You can apply it to most good movies or books. Ask yourself if your story fits most of these steps or “beats” — if not, is it because you lack a well-defined hero and villain? More precisely, are their goals and your main conflict clearly apparent? Subtext is great, but drama/comedy/tragedy are all about surface conflict and emotions that draw us into the internal conflicts of the characters.

SET UP ORDINARY WORLD – Make audience identify with characters. Establish want versus need. The “wish” must be clear. In cutting the symbolic cord (separation from parents) must also contrast the ordinary world with Special World to come…

CALL TO ADVENTURE – Hero drawn or forced into life changing situation by some kind of catalyst or event.

REFUSING THE CALL – Hero initially turns away from call or reluctant to get involved — identify what hero fears most. Hero will have to overcome that fear to accomplish goal.

MEETING THE MENTOR – Hero seeks or given advice from voice of wisdom and experience that will help guide him.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD – Descent into the Special World.

TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES – Initiation into new life.

ORDEAL – Hero dies literally or symbolically.

REWARD – Hero reborn.

ROAD BACK

RESURRECTION

RETURN WITH ELIXIR – Cycle completed.

*******

Want to see an example of how the above factors into a book or script sale? Take a look at this description of a movie deal for an adaptation of an upcoming novel due out soon…

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
Writer: Kenneth Oppel (author)

Logline: Young Victor Frankenstein attempts to save his twin brother, Konrad, who falls gravely ill. Victor seeks out a mysterious old alchemist who sends Victor and his best friend Elizabeth on a dangerous quest to find three rare ingredients needed to create the Elixir of Life, a fabled serum that will give the drinker perpetual health. Along the way there are betrayals and a love triangle between Victor, Elizabeth and Konrad.

Classic Hero’s Journey outline. No idea if the book or movie will be any good, but all the elements that publishers and producers look for are contained in that short paragraph. Simple? Yes. But not easy to do.