By Joel Haber
Why does Hollywood love high-concept ideas so much? Because they are easy to sell. Producers can easily visualize the movie posters, with taglines immediately popping into their heads. In fact, writing high-concept films can be a pleasure, the truly clever part lies in inventing the concept itself. Once that’s established, a high-concept screenplay almost seems to write itself by logically and comfortably filling out a simple three-act structure. This theory explains why most of the concepts that are bought as pitches (rather than as spec scripts) are high concept in nature.
Having said that... We hear very little about the low-concept screenplay. At least a sizable minority, if not a majority, of films Hollywood releases each year are of this variety. Try describing Cold Mountain or American Beauty in a single sentence. It’s possible (all coverages done by readers distill screenplays into single-sentence “loglines”), but these subtler stories lose a lot by such summarization. Most of Woody Allen’s movies, for example, would fall in this category. Comedies, actually, fall into two types. There are high concept comedies that start from funny ideas, but many others that are built on more basic concepts—like Barbershop—deliver their comedy with the jokes alone. Obviously, there is a range between low and high concepts, and I’m using the term somewhat loosely. Certainly, high-concept screenplays are easier to sell, but since a sizable number of films released each year don’t fit the straight high-concept mold, an understanding of what makes a superior low-concept film would benefit a writer. So, let’s investigate some tools and techniques for developing a low-concept idea into a full-fledged, saleable screenplay.
First off, “saleable” is a key word in that last sentence. Although Hollywood produces many low-concept films each year, don’t think you will be able to sell just any low-concept screenplay. In fact, your craft needs to be much stronger in scripts of this type.
So, what makes one low-concept screenplay stand out from its competitors?
While a high-concept script can rest on its concept alone, the low-concept one lacks this luxury. Good low-concept screenplays succeed based upon an inventive plotline (even when built on a familiar concept), solid characterization, and/or innovative dialogue. A producer friend of mine pointed out that even a film like Pulp Fiction, as memorable and popular as it was, is not really a high-concept movie. It just had excellent characters that attracted popular actors, entertaining dialogue, and a memorable structural gimmick.
In short, all the technical aspects that make a good screenplay great are necessary in a low-concept script. So, what’s the point of this article then? Not to teach you all the things that go into making a good script great but rather to present an overall approach that will move you from the kernel of a low-concept idea to its full realization in screenplay form.
WRITING IS PRODUCING
One helpful technique is to think of yourself as more than the writer of your screenplay. You’re developing a concept here, a concept that will eventually become a film. Model your approach on the development process overall. A producer fosters a property from its beginning stages (a concept or spec screenplay, for example) through manufacturing the product (the movie) and its editing and marketing. As the writer of a low-concept script, you must do the same thing, but your finished product isn’t a full movie but a finished screenplay. You’re not just writing that screenplay; you’re producing it.
As a film moves through the development process, it moves through four distinct stages:
As implied, “production” on a film is the shoot itself, while “production” for you is when you actually sit down and write your screenplay. Post-production, meanwhile, remains basically the same in both processes—editing, either of the film itself or of the written screenplay. I’m going to focus on the first two parts of the process: Development and Pre-production. Development on a film entails overseeing the various screenplay drafts along with locating a director and packaging talent (among other things). Pre-production entails more of the nuts-and-bolts planning, such as finding locations, hiring crew members, etc. The parallel activities in the production of your low-concept screenplay are the gestation period for your concept (development) and fleshing out the details of your screenplay (pre-production).
THE GESTATION PERIOD
There’s been much written about improving a screenplay’s outline and about making a good screenplay great. But what about when you have an idea that is little more than that—a concept with no related plotline, characters, or theme? Perhaps you were reading a book and came across an interesting scenario or profession that was merely secondary in the book. Maybe you thought to yourself, “Hey, that would be a great setting for a screenplay.” You may be right, but the problem is that is not a story. It’s not even close. It’s an idea and little more. Ideas and concepts are not the same thing; theme and structure differentiate the latter.
Too often I’ve heard inexperienced writers or non-writers come up with ideas that lack theme and structure. “Oh man,” they’ll tell me when they hear I write, “You should write a movie about my life,” or some equally vague comment. Oddly, they may be correct that an entertaining film could potentially be set in their little worlds. Perhaps they work at an interesting job, or maybe they really do have entertaining and funny things that frequently happen to them. Still, this is not enough for someone to start writing the movie of his life. The writer has to develop that seed of an idea, finding its theme and an appropriate plotline. The idea needs to gestate and grow into a mature concept.
This gestation, however, need not be a passive one. When a fetus gestates in its mother’s womb, it is not just lying in isolation. It is being warmly nurtured, constantly fed nutrients and receiving oxygen from its mother as it grows and develops into a more complex and mature organism. In parallel, if we as writers want our ideas to develop through a gestation period, we should not just let them sit for a few months, hoping for miraculous growth. We need to actively “mother” our ideas, creating a womb-like environment in which they may mature.
While a high-concept script can rest on its concept alone, the low-concept screenplay lacks this luxury. Good low-concept screenplays succeed based upon an inventive plotline (even when built on a familiar concept), solid characterization and/or innovative dialogue.
One way to create this nurturing environment is by researching your subject on a more general and broad basis that you will do later in the writing process. Rather than researching details such as work procedures or appropriate jargon, become a quasi expert on your overall subject. Read books on anything at all connected to the subject, both fiction (for the tone and trappings of your world) and nonfiction (for history, issues and quirky details). By becoming an authority on your topic, you will often discover a theme that can make your subject more accessible to the masses. Or, perhaps, you’ll find certain minor characters or backstory elements for your main characters.
When you can draw out a basic three-act structure for your screenplay, you are ready to “greenlight” your script and move it from the development/gestation phase into the pre-production/planning one.
I was once doing general research while gestating an idea set in a Cuban cigar factory. I began by reading one book about cigars in general, which led me to many other sources—fictional and not. Finally, I stumbled across a paragraph that summarized the thesis of a book that had been written about 50 years ago on Cuban history and culture. I realized it could supply some good background and spent a few weeks tracking this book down. As I read it, I discovered the complete thematic background for my screenplay, material I would never have found otherwise, had I not spent the time learning more about Cuban culture from this book. Though the book was not directly related to cigars at all, it still became the key piece of the puzzle that led me from the kernel of an idea to a more comprehensive story structure.
Another good tool for creating a womblike environment in which your idea can gestate, is to watch and analyze related movies. I was recently writing a comedy and decided to watch nearly every other comedy on a similar subject. I did this not to mimic those films but rather to differentiate my screenplay from them. Any gag, no matter how minor, that I saw in those films, I consciously chose to not include in mine. Believe me, it hurt because I had to remove a few of my favorite gags. Still, in most genres and in comedy, in particular, if an element is familiar, it loses a lot of its weight. Watching the movies also helped make me an expert—an expert on the genre, able to spell out what had and had not been done before as well as what worked and why. Thus, I could find unique ways of delivering on styles and techniques that previously worked without any outright copying. Going back to one of my early examples, it isn’t difficult to imagine Quentin Tarantino’s deciding the style he wanted for Pulp Fiction and then watching (or in his case, probably re-watching) a number of films from the genre as he developed his intersecting storylines.
Ideally, what will happen through the gestation period is a certain gelling of concepts and theme, some characterization and perhaps, a few details for scenes and/or backstories. You will know you’ve completed the gestation period when your kernel has grown into a main character or two, moving through the bare bones of a storyline, preferably related by a theme. When you can draw out a basic three-act structure for your screenplay, you are ready to “greenlight” your script and move it from the development/ gestation phase into the pre-production/planning one.
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FLESHING OUT THE IDEA
While the gestation period is an important phase in the development of any idea, high or low-concept, the pre-production phase is even more important in the low-concept film. It is during this phase that low-concept ideas divide into those that are superior, and therefore likely to be bought and produced, and those that will likely end up in dumpsters behind production company offices. This stage is the “meat and potatoes” of any writing process. It is the period in which the writer adds various subplots; inserts specific scenes, plot twists, and obstacles into his bare bones three-act structure; flesh out all the major and minor characters, along with their respective character histories; choose an appropriate tone and style, or potentially even finalize a genre choice if that had still been up in the air; and finally combine all these elements into a well-developed treatment. A number of individual techniques can help ease your process during this period, aiding you in fleshing out your idea.
First off, talk to people about your idea—I mean anyone and everyone willing to listen and give you honest feedback. Don’t worry about someone out there stealing your idea. Truthfully, this doesn’t happen frequently in Hollywood. It is simply too great a hassle, and the risks to both bank account and reputation are too great to make it worthwhile. But even if you’re still hesitant, keep in mind that low-concept screenplays, by their very nature, are more difficult to steal even should someone want to. If I had a high-concept idea, you could hypothetically steal it and write another script that might be very similar to the one I’d have written. If, however, two people write separate scripts, both based upon the same low-concept idea, the two scripts will likely be vastly different. You couldn’t possibly come up with the same kind of dialogue or characterization that I would without actually getting inside my head! It’s said that when Alfred Hitchcock (who, by the way, made many low-concept movies) was planning a new movie, he’d tell the story to everyone he met, soliciting feedback from each of them. If he wasn’t scared of people stealing his ideas, why should you be?
If, however, you’re still wary, there are middle-ground efforts you can make. You may have friends who, though not “in the industry” still know a lot about film, film buffs whose opinions are often more insightful than the average filmgoer. Since these film buffs do not work in the film business, and are friends who have earned your confidence, you can present your ideas to them without any fear of being ripped off. Still, as enlightening as their comments may be, your friends still lack the astute intuition of a professional.
A stronger option is to join a writing group. These come in many varieties. Some are online discussion groups or virtual communities to share work while others are land-based and focus more on reading participants’ work. But, any of them can offer wonderful opportunities for a writer to bounce ideas off his peers, other people struggling with similar issues in their own writing efforts. A key element, however, is to make sure that the writing group you choose is supportive. Similarly, make sure you feel comfortable sharing your ideas with the group. If not, the group will be unable to help you; and you’ll find it more a waste of time than anything else.
I’ve drifted through a number of these groups over the years, but only recently have I found one that really works for me. It’s primarily an email-based discussion group that permits members to ask questions or seek feedback on story ideas. Supplementing this group are small meetings on a semi-regular basis. Basically, a few members get together whenever one of them has something more substantial to read and discuss. This group works for three main reasons. First, the group is small in size—only 15 to 20 members, some more active than others. Secondly, every member has been personally invited by another member. Therefore, since everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows someone who does, the degree of trust and comfort is higher. Finally, the tone of discussion (and this is stated outright as the group’s mission) is honest yet supportive at all times. I’ve found this group beneficial to my writing; and, though you may not be able to join it, you can certainly find others like it. Or why not start your own? There are many resources online to facilitate your forming a network of like minds all dedicated to similar goals.
As noted earlier, what differentiates a superior low-concept screenplay from one of lesser quality is strong characterization and an inventive plotline. Another thing you can do during this phase to sharpen your technical elements is an extension of something you started in the gestation period—research. During this phase however, your research should be more directed.
One good method of research is interviewing. Is one of your characters employed as a firefighter? Curious what a typical day might be like for your architect of a protagonist? Try contacting someone currently working in those positions. You’d be amazed how willing people are to speak to you, especially if they know you are trying to use their experiences to create a more well-rounded character for a movie. Don’t underestimate the power of people’s egos—everyone wants to be immortalized, even if in a small part, onscreen. For some of these people, their desire to help goes deeper; they remember people who helped them in some small way when they were starting in their careers and want to return the favor, especially if it’s only going to cost them 30 minutes to an hour.
Among others, I’ve gained access to a legendary advertising creative director (you’d be familiar with a number of ad slogans he's created) and an editor at a nationally recognized pop culture magazine. Their insights, delivered in a brief meeting, helped me add a measure of realism to the backgrounds of some of my characters—realism I’d have been hard pressed to accumulate by reading books or researching online. All it cost me was some sushi, a cup of coffee, and the willingness to ask!
You’d be amazed how willing people are to speak to you, especially if they know you are trying to use their experiences to create a more well-rounded character for a movie.
Similarly, consider visiting locations with which you might be less familiar. If it is a public place, just drop by. If not, many private locations will be willing to give a tour to a screenwriter doing research for a script he is writing. Just ask; you might be surprised. Visiting a location can help you pick up details that add authenticity to your screenplay. More importantly, you can add unique touches that make your script feel more original, rather than a regurgitation of similar films. Furthermore, some of the details you notice while on location might even give you new ideas for plot points or subplots.
Finally, there’s something you can do if you’ve actually been unable to grow your idea from a seed into a full treatment with which you are satisfied. Write everything down and file it away. One of the beneficial things about low-concept ideas is that many of the details are not tied directly to the concept itself. Over time, you will likely build up a sizable collection of such files: underdeveloped low-concept screenplay ideas. When the time is right, pull the ideas out and try combining them. Sometimes, the specific blend of two or three of these concepts can be just what you need to create a memorable and above-average low-concept script. Or, perhaps, you can use one of them to help fully realize a different low-concept idea that you currently have gestating or have recently moved into the planning phase. Old ideas don’t just die hard; they wait around to become active again as surrogate parents to new ideas.
JOEL HABER is a professional script analyst with over a decade of film industry experience, and an M.A. in media studies.
Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2005
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