I just experienced one of the most amazing examples of "teachable moments" ever. And the beauty of being a contributor at Pipeline Artists is that I have an outlet to share this lesson with all of you as well.
Backstory: I have been working one-on-one with a particular client for the better part of a year now. He has an incredibly unique concept for a television series and has been working his ass off to get it on the page. Today, I was giving him another round of notes (mixed in with lessons about how to improve).
At the tail end of this session, I could tell his energy level was lower than usual.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, picking up on his mood. “You seem rather glum …”
"It’s just …” he started. Then paused, before finishing: “We’ve been through, like, nine rounds of notes on this thing. I’m starting to feel like this idea simply isn’t gonna work, no matter how hard I try.”
I sighed. My job forces me to wear a lot of hats. I like to think of myself as a writing coach, friend, creative partner, narrative guide, and sideshow entertainer, all rolled into one. But today, I had to add a new one to the list: motivational speaker.
“Bologna smoke,” I responded (note: I didn’t actually say 'bologna smoke' ... fill in the blanks).
“Look, if you’re losing passion for the concept, I totally understand and support your decision. You should write something you care about. But listen here, pupil of mine: any idea can be great with the right execution.”
He shot me a less than convinced look. “You’re just saying that because you don’t want to lose me as a client.”
I shook my head at this. “I absolutely am not. I mean exactly what I said. You can make literally ANY idea work if you have enough skill and the proper way in.”
“Prove it,” he said, clearly not believing me. This was meant to be a “gotcha” moment … the coup de grâce that would have him storming out of our session, feeling justified in leaving his writing dreams behind him …
I wasn’t about to let that happen.
“Have I ever told you about the best script I ever read?” I asked.
My student shook his head. In that instant, I felt like The Grandfather, having just come over to read a sick child The Princess Bride. I smiled and opened my laptop.
“Then let me tell you about Yellowstone Falls. It was a spec script written back in 2014, and the main characters are a family of wolves.”
“So, it’s an animated film,” he said. “How does that apply to my work?”
“No,” I replied, “live action. It revolves around a mother running for her life and protecting her pups, trying to get them to the high ground where they’ll be safe.”
There was a distinct pause in the conversation. I waited while he processed that. I could practically see the mental gears turning in his head.
“And it stars … wolves? You mean like, werewolves, right? They morph back and forth into humans.”
“Nope. Actual wolves. Four legs. Fur. Fangs. Sniff each other’s butts to say hello.”
I really had his attention now.
“But, but ... how could the writer even do that? Wolves don’t talk!”
“Don’t need to,” I shrugged, “if the conflict is there, and the stakes are present, who needs words?”
“Okay, but like, how does a writer keep a script going for 90 pages without dialogue? That would get so boring!”
“It’s not 90 pages. It’s barely over 50.”
He looked at me like he had just learned Santa Claus isn’t real.
“Oh, did I mention that the wolves are being chased by zombies?” I added.
“Okay,” he said, getting angry and ready to blow me off. “Now I know you’re just fucking with me. Even if that script did exist, there’s literally no way it could have sold. That’s flipping impossible!”
I silently turned my laptop to face him. I anticipated this. During our exchange, I had opened the Deadline Hollywood article about the script. Indeed, it had sold. For a lot of money, too (if, like my client, you don’t believe me either, here’s the link).
It’s hard to describe exactly what happened after that, but needless to say, my pupil’s mind freaking exploded. After I picked up Humpty Dumpty’s broken pieces and got him back together again, I continued:
“Listen, I’ve never once said that writing is easy. Frankly, it’s probably one of the most challenging fields out there. If you want to give up on this concept of yours, fine. Lock it up, throw away the key, and be done with it. I don’t care. But don’t do it because you think the concept cannot work. Anything can work with the right practice and fantastic execution. Literally, anything."
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout my decade plus working in the business of stories, it’s that execution is the key to everything. It’s the reason that Armageddon still gets brought up today, while Deep Impact doesn’t. Two movies, with largely the same base idea. One was executed well (more or less), and the other wasn’t. And if miners going into space isn’t your cup of tea, then substitute any of these instead:
Friends with Benefits vs. No Strings Attached
The Truman Show vs. EDtv
Babe vs. Gordy
White House Down vs. Olympus Has Fallen
A Bugs Life vs. Antz
And countless others before them.
If I gathered one thousand scribes and told them all to write a spec script about a dolphin who wants to become a commercial airline pilot, I guarantee that the end result would have been hundreds of wildly different executions of the idea. One would have been an animated Disney flick with Will Smith as the voice of the dolphin, another would have been a trippy drug movie, or a contained thriller where passengers learn that a porpoise is at the helm and, rightfully, panic. Hell, I’m willing to bet that one would have been a reboot of the Flipper franchise (side note: I’m starting a contest to see who has the best title for a movie about Flipper flying an airplane). But I’m also willing to bet that at least one of the 1,000 screenplays would come back amazing. Because there’s at least one writer out there who knows how to take that concept and make it unforgettable.
Yellowstone Falls sold for six figures because it took an objectively ridiculous concept and turned it into a thought-provoking quandary. “We’ve seen what effect zombies have on society … but what would happen if they were released on nature? How would nature combat this new menace?” I’ve never seen a movie (or read a script) that deals with this topic before. The concept is immediately fresh and interesting! Similarly, this writer (whose name is Dan Kunka, btw) knew how to take these animals and apply tangible emotion to them so that the audience cared without the need for audible dialogue.
There’s no need for characters to speak if feeling can communicate for them. Each of the pups had a distinct personality trait, which gave them a feeling of authenticity. And Mama wolf had a concrete goal (get my kids to safety) with a visible, obvious threat (zombies want to kill us) and a timeline in which she had to do it (get there before winter when the ice sets in and the path will be blocked).
The story works because the narrative fundamentals are well-established and sound. And it takes your breath away because it manages to make you care about these animals more than you do about most human beings. The execution was stellar, and in the end, that’s what matters more than anything.
But only a very specific version of the idea had this potential. My version of this would have sucked. Yours might have, too. But the next person who passes you might just have the magical key that unlocks it. This is part of the magic of Hollywood.
Additionally, let me just say really quickly that this is also why I resolutely believe that it’s pointless to worry about if somebody is going to “steal your idea.” I already wrote a whole article about this if you want to learn more, but given that nobody’s execution of a single premise is ever the same, then what’s the point in fretting about it? Who’s to say that person’s execution of that concept would be any good? (Spoiler alert: it probably won’t be).
It was quiet now. My client was internalizing everything I’d just told him, the lesson I had just instilled. It was a lot for just one session, and he needed time to process things. I slapped him on the knee.
“Listen, take some time. Think about what you want to do next. If you want to work on another idea, I’m all for it. If you want to cut ties and stop entirely, I won’t hold it against you either. Just let me know.”
I stood and packed away my things, slinging my laptop bag over my shoulder. I took maybe two steps towards the door before I heard:
I turned around.
“I want to keep working on this. I know there’s a right way in, and I’m determined to find it. Can we schedule another session for next week?” my client asked.
I smiled. There was only one way I could reply to that.
“As you wish.”
Godspeed, and happy writing.
(Also if anyone has a spec about a dolphin becoming a commercial airline pilot, I am 100% down to read that ish.)
*Feature photo by Matej (Pexels)