Tailoring the idea


Tomorrow is the first meeting for a new feature project – my fifty-ninth, if anyone’s keeping count.

Wait, hang on. 59? Fuck, that’s a lot. Is that right?

Yeah, well, sort of. I guess that’s counting all the stuff that never went further than a synopsis or a single-meeting with some chancer who had no resources or drive to actually see a project through. You know, the kind of people who get business cards printed up before they work out how hard it is to actually be a producer.

Still, 59 feature projects (even if fifty of them were abandoned at some point) sounds like a lot to me. And that’s not including the three spec scripts I wrote which never got any interest or input from anyone.

Oh, and looking closer, buried in the middle of those is a job I was paid for but never actually did any work on. Still not sure how that happened, but somehow, after paying me to write a script, the producer in question distracted himself while we were in the middle of a meeting, forgot what we were talking about and ended up paying me to write a different film.

Truly, my finest hour.


But I digress.

The first meeting for project 59 is tomorrow and I have no idea what to expect.

Well, I have some idea. The director I’ve worked with before and he was very story-focused and really pushed me to be continuously better in a really interesting ways. A guy who has a very clear idea of what he wants, but is happy to hand over the task of supplying it to the writer.

So I kind of know what I’m getting into there. Also, I’ve already had a partial cast list (ooh, him? Really? Cool! Wait, and him? Even cooler!), a vague back-of-the-DVD synopsis, a general idea of budget and roughly where the shoot will take place.

This kind of info is great. It really helps inform the story choices and gives me a head start on my favourite part of the process: tailoring the idea.

If you’ll excuse me while I slip into a more comfortable analogy …


I often think of this bit, the first meeting after you’ve been handed the list of pre-conditions, as something akin to being a tailor when a customer asks you to make them a blue suit.

It’s exciting because you have a vague idea of what they want; but have almost limitless free-rein within that brief to stitch together whatever the hell you want.

Actually, no, that’s not quite right.

What happens next totally depends on the customer. It’s your job as the tailor to ask the questions which, subtly, point out that asking for a blue suit is nigh-on meaningless. I mean, it’s a fantastic starting point; but it doesn’t actually mean anything.

The tailor’s job is now to bring his experience to bear on the brief. What kind of suit? Is this for a specific occasion? A job interview? A general weddings/funerals suit? Is it for a fancy dress competition? For everyday wear? Once that’s established, do you want a two or a three piece? Do you want it in fashion, ahead of the curve, classically stylish or coolly retro? And that’s before you get into details like single or double-breasted? A vent? If so, one or two? What kind of lapels, if any at all? And so on …

I find this winnowing to be a joyous process, provided the customer knows that what they’ve asked for is actually quite vague and needs a lot more information to be useful. Because, unfortunately, sometimes the customer just gets angry:

“For fuck’s sake, I told you what I want! A blue suit! A suit which is blue. Just make me the fucking suit and stop asking all these stupid questions!”


Other customers give you no further feedback, encourage you to pursue one idea right down to the tiny detailing on the buttons …

“Uh-huh, go on. Yes! Tell me more!”

… and then don’t bother getting in touch again. You clearly didn’t understand what they meant when they gave you the ultra-clear instructions of ‘a blue suit’. You’re obviously just not in tune with their vision.

The good customers (from my point of view) are the ones who are pleasantly surprised when you start asking the winnowing questions and are only to happy to be presented with choices. I like those guys.

Dropping out of  the analogy for a moment, one of the pitfalls of this prerequisite list type of job for scriptwriters is the “it’s basically x meets y!” kind of pitch. Because x meets y will mean different things to different people.

For example:

“It’s Reservoir Dogs meets Mary Poppins!”

“Okay, okay, so ultra-cool, ultra-violent with a touch of magic and bits of animation?”

“No, you fucking idiot! It’s about American bank robbers in Victorian London.”

“Oh, right. Yes, I see. Silly me. Um … wasn’t Mary Poppins set in 1910?”


“Oh, no reason. Victorian, got it.”


‘It’s x meets y’ relies on both films meaning exactly the same to the person listening as to the person speaking. Which doesn’t really happen. Was The Dark Knight Rises a superhero movie, a social commentary or a tedious pile of dross where nothing had any consequences at all for anyone at any time ever?

Totally up to the person watching it.

So if you were told the film should be that crossed with The Smurfs … what is that? What aspects of each film does the client expect you to incorporate into the script? It may be obvious to them; but it’s not obvious to anyone else.


But that’s why these first meetings are exciting – in an ideal world, no idea should be considered stupid. Everyone should feel free to voice whatever the hell they like and throw everything onto the table for inspection. The first meeting, the very genesis of the project, should be everyone trying to establish exactly what everyone else means. We’re all trying to get on the same page before anything is actually put on the page.

Which is my expectation for tomorrow – an excited, friendly winnowing of the ideas until we’re all committed to the same story.

I love this part of the job. In many ways, I prefer it to actually writing the script. Writing is hard. Bouncing ideas off people’s brains is just joyous.




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Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | 1 Comment

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  1. Pingback: 2013 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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