When exploring movie ideas, many screenwriters write what they know. David Garrett challenges you to step outside of your comfort zone for a better premise.
I thought I’d discuss one of my all-time favorite scripts. David Seidler's Academy Award-winning screenplay for The King's Speech was written from his own experience. Born in England in 1937, Seidler was inspired by the wartime radio addresses of King George VI (played in the film by Colin Firth), with whom Seidler shared the problem of stammering.
If the King of England could overcome his impediment to give magnificent, stirring speeches that rallied the free world, Seidler figured there was hope for him. It was this deep admiration for “Bertie” that led Seidler to begin a screenplay in the 1970’s about the childhood hero whose courage stirred him to find his own voice.
While researching the project, Seidler came across the name of the King’s Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush in the film). Seidler tracked down Logue’s last remaining son, who agreed to hand over his father’s diaries, but only if the Royal Family gave their blessing to the project. The Queen Mum gave her consent to the film’s production—as long as it occurred after her death. Seidler waited 28 years—until 2002 when the Queen Mum passed away at 101—to pursue the project. And the wait was well worth it, with the film winning eight BAFTAs, eight Academy Awards and four Golden Globe. (What, no Razzies?! I guess you can’t win ‘em all.)
Why was The King’s Speech script so special? Without a doubt, it contained a high-concept idea (a monarch who stutters) complete with gut-wrenching tension, exacting dialogue and engaging subplots. But what made the screenplay an instant classic was the way Seidler realistically captured the frustration and embarrassment the King faced every time he had to speak. It was the writer’s very personal connection to the story that put us in the shoes of the struggling protagonist. We understood the hero’s fight because Seidler’s writing was informed by living with the same impediment.
Could someone else have written The King's Speech? Sure, it’s possible. However, it is rather telling that in the 40 years it took for the project to come to fruition, no similar scripts surfaced.
One commentator noted that The King's Speech was the first major motion picture to portray stammering with honesty and compassion, rather than just as a punch line. No doubt, Seidler’s personal experience allowed him to view the issue in a unique, sensitive way very few others could. I know what you’re saying—Dave, I don’t have a stutter. Or a glass eye. Or even a limp.
Can I still write the great American (or British) screenplay? Of course you can! You don’t have to live an exact experience to be able to understand it. You’ve probably never fought in a heavyweight title bout against an unbeatable opponent, but you may have felt like the underdog at some point in your life. You might not be able to travel to Mars in a spaceship, but you can understand what it’s like to feel isolated and lonely, sitting in your grandmother’s basement eating cheese puffs and feeding them to your pet rat. Wait, that’s me.
Anyway, these examples are simplistic, but I’m making a point: you must have a deep understanding of some aspect of your story or else it will fall flat. It can be an emotional connection to the situation or a technical expertise that provides a sense of authenticity. If you can provide both, you’ve really hit the jackpot!
Like Mark Boal. Boal penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Hurt Locker based on his experience as a freelance journalist embedded with an American bomb squad in Iraq. Boal not only delivered the realistic jargon that literally puts you in the Humvee, he also captured the psychology behind the type of soldier who volunteers for such a dangerous mission. It was Boal’s “boots on the ground” that allowed him to accurately depict a team of bad-asses who go toward the IED’s that everyone else is running from.
James Cameron has never been to another planet or battled a robot from the future, but his lifelong obsession with alien worlds (Avatar, Aliens, The Abyss) and technology run amok (Terminator, Titanic, True Lies) gives him a unique ability to bring these stories to life. He lives and breathes this stuff.
Like Tom Clancy (RIP). His first novel so accurately described the stealth technology behind an advanced submarine that the Pentagon investigated whether the author had access to Top Secret documents detailing a similar vessel already in development.
"Look, Dave, I don’t know a thing about hovercrafts, light sabers or any of these newfangled gadgets you speak of. I live a regular life. I work at a boring office. I go to Chili’s for lunch. And then I drive home. There’s nothing exciting or cinematic about what I do." Oh, yeah? Tell that to Mike Judge.
Mike Judge based his cult hit “Office Space” on a mind-numbing temp job he once had that involved alphabetizing purchase orders in an office park with chain restaurants next to an identical office park with identical chain restaurants. He resisted the studio’s suggestion that he move the film to Wall Street because he wanted the setting to be like the unglamorous, bleak workplace he was in. The story resonated with a generation of viewers who could identify with the lead characters’ fear of wasting away their entire lives in a four-foot cubicle. Mike Judge wrote what he knew.
Of course, if you only write about “what you know,” it’s going to get boring really quick. Especially if you don’t know much, like me. So, read some books. Get out more! Park your car and go for a walk in a strange neighborhood. Stop off for a drink in a seedy bar. Eavesdrop on some nearby conversations.
Pop into a swanky hotel and check out the people in the lobby. Watch the interactions closely. Is that businessman trying to close a deal or is he meeting his illicit lover? Visit a church service of a denomination you’ve never heard of. Sit in front of a police station and watch as criminals in handcuffs are carted by. Crash a Sexaholics Anonymous meeting. Listen to some people share. You might get some ideas, or even make a new friend!
In short, change your perspective in order to rattle your brain out of its long-settled mental lethargy. Great screenwriters aren’t geniuses. They just open their minds to observing things in a slightly different way than everybody else. Sundance standout Gordy Hoffman said it best, “We’ve run out of ideas because we are bored with what we see. We’re shut down. You don’t need to get on a plane or visit a foreign country to clear your head and help you focus. Your distant planet is down the street, walking distance.” More to come…
Elevate your scripts to high concept with our FREE Download High Concept Scorecard
- More Get Real articles by David Garrett
- Get Real: What's Your Excuse?
- Balls of Steel: Write What You Know... or Not
- Submissions Insanity # 3: Familiar Screenplay Ideas to Avoid
Get help creating a series bible with Tom Benedek's webinar
Season Bible: Building Your TV Series Pitch