FROM CONCEPT TO FINISHED FILM: A step-by-step guide for making your first feature film. Part 2
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
In Part 1 we discussed how knowing your WHY is the most important question to ask yourself before launching forward with any artistic endeavor. Unless you have that burning passion to create and an undeniable desire to offer value to an audience you'll never make it past the inevitable hurdles and frustrations that go hand in hand with the arduous task of creating something from nothing. Speaking of which...
STEP 1. FLESHING OUT AN IDEA INTO A STORY.
So how do we take a kernel of an idea and flesh that out into a moving story with living, breathing characters that audiences can relate to and care about? Let's take a look at the story-to-script process for REMARKABLE POWER!, PARALLEL WORLDS: A Rock-N-Roll Love Story and a 4-part Original Series in development called PROJECT MK-ULTRA: Sex, Drugs & the CIA.
The story for Remarkable Power came together, as many do, from several different sources. The first nugget of an idea came from an experience a friend of mine had while spending a summer in Prague with a newly made acquaintance. Things started off okay but quickly degenerated as the two began bickering and fighting while crammed together inside a small, dilapidated flat on the outskirts of town. At one point my friend was convinced that if things continued one of them might end up dead. And it almost happened...
This experience, along with a love of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, triggered a kernel of an idea...
What if someone accidentally killed his roommate during a heated argument, panicked and skipped town only to be plagued by guilt, return to the scene of the crime and discover that the body and all evidence of the crime is gone?
Cool log-line, right? Unfortunately while the idea had promise I could never come up with a compelling enough reason for why the body would be gone. Did someone steal it? If so, who and why? Eventually I moved onto other projects but the seed of that scenario remained in the back of my mind and would eventually resurface a year or two later when brainstorming ideas for a screenplay with my writing partner Scott Sampila.
Fans of films like Pulp Fiction and Two Days in the Valley, Scott and I were inspired to write a movie that included a large ensemble of characters and took place in our home town of Los Angeles.
One of the first ideas that stuck was to center the story around a talk show host whose show is falling in the ratings and whose wife is cheating on him with a famous baseball player. Poor guy, right? But what if he concocts the mother of all media stunts that not only saves his show but exacts revenge on his wife? Now we're getting somewhere. We have a sympathetic main character and a big problem he needs to solve: to kill both of those birds with one stone.
But how? We stewed on that while watching a bunch of films about cheating spouses, murder and revenge. When the idea finally struck it seemed like a no-brainer.
What better way for talk show host to exact revenge than to fake his death and pin the murder on his wife and her lover? Yes! Classic film noir. But that can't be the end can it? I mean, yeah he got revenge but what's he gonna do now? He's supposed to be dead.
Aha! How about a few months later, after the dust has settled, he wanders in from the desert, back to life. It's a miracle! Of course this ignites a massive media blitz which breathes precious new life back into his career and show. Two birds. One big ol' crazy ass stone.
But how the hell is he going to pull this off? He's going to need a body, right? And some special effects makeup artist to make it look like it's our talk show host. But where are they going to get a dead body from? And wouldn't the coroner figure it out right away? Shit. Maybe that won't work. We might be back to the drawing board here. Unless...
Wait...what if they steal the body from the morgue before the autopsy? Okay, that solves that problem. But still, where is the dead body going to come from?
ENTER OUR OLD MISSING DEAD BODY IDEA FROM PRAGUE!
What if talk show host's producer is in on the stunt and he tracks down some Czech mafia guys who specialize in providing dead bodies. What if they're the ones who go pick up the dead body after someone accidentally kills his roommate? That would explain why the body was missing when the guy returns to the scene of the crime. But how did the Czech guys know the body was there? Hmm. This is already getting complicated. But maybe that's okay. We wanted a big ensemble cast didn't we?
Let's take a step back and figure out who these two "roommates" are. This is LA so maybe one is a porn star/coke dealer who acts in informercials for quick money? And what if the other one is some pot-head from Wisconsin who wants to make it big in Hollywood. Maybe he sees porn star on the street, recognizes him from a get-rich-quick infomercial, approaches him for advice and the porn star invites him into his house. And this is where the argument happens that leads to one of them ending up dead? So far so good.
But why would porn star invite some pot-head wannabe into his house? And what could they possibly argue about that would lead to one of them getting killed? And none of this solves the problem of how the Czech mafia guys knew there would be a dead body at the house!
And this is where we got stuck. For weeks!
This is how figuring out a story can get tricky. Lots of angles to cover and holes to fill. And sometimes it's a big house of cards, you change one detail, add one new idea and the whole thing can come crumbling down. But that's how it's done. You just gotta keep throwing ideas against the wall until it all finally comes together. For awhile it might seem like it's never gonna happen. But stay with it. The light at the end of the tunnel will eventually appear.
Okay let's try this again. Why would porn star invite this guy into his house? Wait....what if he needs to provide the dead body for the mafia guys! They need fresh bodies, right? But why would they hire porn star to find them a body? How about if porn star is in debt and needs money? Maybe he owes money to some drug king pin. (And just for kicks let's make the drug king pin a Jewish guy named Moses with two huge black brothers. They could all even wear yarmulkes and own a kosher chicken and waffles joint. Ha!)
Okay, so what if porn star's film director is a Czech guy with connections so he sends porn star to his pals - the Czech mafia guys - and they offer him a quick $10K if he can provide them with a fresh corpse (the one that eventually will be used to fake the talk show host's death). So porn star and his actor buddy go looking for a dead body. They try a funeral home, a morgue, even dig up one in a graveyard. But they can't find one even remotely suitable.
So now porn star is about to give up, he's run out of options. Where the hell is he going to get a dead body from? You see where this is going, right? Yes, just in the nick of time this pot-head out-of-towner loser shows up. Someone no one will miss. But is porn star willing to kill this guy? Maybe he's just too gutless. But we need a body!!
What if.....after porn start can't go through with it he and pot-head loser get an argument and pot-head erupts and porn star is the one who ends up dead. And now this pot-head is stuck inside a house with a dead porn star. So he bails! But then he gets a guilt trip, returns with the cops but the body is gone. Why? Because the Czech mafia guys had told porn star to leave the dead body inside his house and they would pick it up there. But when they arrive to pick it up - there's porn star. DEAD!
But oh well. They need a dead body for the talk show host job so they take it anyway.
Okay so what do we have so far? Talk show host decides to fake his death to get revenge on his wife and lover. Czech mafia guys produce the body. Porn star IS the body. Pothead is off the hook since there's no body at the scene of the crime.
There's one big missing element here though. How is the murder going to get pinned on talk show's wife and baseball star lover? There needs to be a motive. And it's gotta be good and obvious.
And this is where a short story written by my brother Ben years ago came to the rescue. His story was about a Jim Rome kind of sports show host who has a ball player on his show who he knows is screwing his wife. And he outs the guy right on the air.
So how about if talk show host invites the ball player onto his show and, with wifey in the audience, he outs their affair right on national TV. But he'll need proof, right? Looks like we're going to need another character!
Enter low-grade private-eye who is hired by talk show host to spy on is wife. And private-eye gets the frickin' goods! He gets video of talk show host's wife and her lover having sex. And mid-way through the interview talk show host plays the sex tape on live TV. Baseball star erupts and tries to strangle talk show host and all hell breaks loose.Next morning talk show host is discovered "murdered" and guess who the prime suspects are?
Bam! Feels like a crazy dark LA comedy, no? Obviously there was a lot more to figure out, many holes to fill and characters to dial in. But I just took you through the basic development of a nugget of an idea into a fairly fleshed out story concept and set of characters. From here one could either outline, do scene cards, or jump right into the writing. I've done it all ways depending on the story and how complicated it is. For Remarkable Power! we outlined since there were so many moving parts.
From there we moved into the writing phase. And that's where the real magic happened - as well as the addition of an absolutely insane subplot involving thousands of dogs. Yes, you heard that right. Dogs. But we'll get to that later.