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05/18/2002 - I Dream of Premises

Last week I talked about the pros and cons of writing a period piece on spec. Are there other rules for the types of premises you should pick for your calling card spec? Not really. Whatever rules you hear are counterbalanced by a list of exceptions, so best to write what you're interested in.

Having said that let me kick off my shoes and tell you some premises/themes I'd like to see, and some that I never want to see again. Please keep in mind that these aren't things my company is or isn't looking for, because my company doesn't accept unsolicited material. At first I thought we were, but the Development Czar chewed me out and said no we weren't and didn't I remember being told that?

Frankly, I don't remember being told that, but if the Development Czar says that she told me, then she must have told me. As you can see, you eat crow long enough in this business and you lose your healthy revulsion for the taste. I don't even care anymore. I learned early on that the sooner you volunteer to take the blame the sooner the angry people stop talking and leave the room. It's all my fault. Right. Yessir, you betcha.

Back to the topic: Premises. Here's a couple of ideas/keywords I'd like to see developed into clever screenplays:

Immortality: One word. Run with it.

Time travel stories: Not necessarily high-budget costume extravaganzas. Something quirky with an independent feel is also fun. TIME AFTER TIME is one of my favorites. SOMEWHERE IN TIME is a big guilty girly favorite, too. Even GROUNDHOG DAY used temporal anomalies to surprising effect, as did the softer piece SLIDING DOORS.

An action-adventure focused on the retrieval of a unique historical object: Yes, that's Indiana Jones territory, but what a great territory! There are dozens of true/rumored mysteries of the recent/distant past that can be explored. One of the fun aspects of the X-Files was the play with urban myths and the sending of original characters in search of a mythic person/place/thing, not to mention the unknown factors encountered upon discovery. These specs don't appear as often as you'd think, perhaps because people consider the road highly traveled - but I hardly see it at all.

Rescue in Hell / Escape From Hell: You'd be surprised how many writers have taken a whack at this one - many of them with great skill. However, I've never seen the spec that made this idea fully work. I mistakenly thought WHAT DREAMS MAY COME was going to be about rescuing a true love out of Hell, and to some extent it was, but it focused on other afterlife issues. I'd love to see a serious adventure piece wherein Hell is a realm that can be escaped, Greek Mythology-style.

Here's what other development types have claimed they'd like to see walk in the submission door:

An over-the-top comedy in the tradition of AIRPLANE, or IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: I'd like to see a piece like this too, but the recent loopy ensemble comedies have suffered from a lack of true zanyness. They're nutty, but they stop short of zany. With pieces like this, it's zany or bust.

A true space adventure movie: You know, one with an access character, a plot and a causal through-line that drives the movie forward? To this let me add that special effects seem to have been the downfall of such movies. The effects became the star and the compelling story isn't there. Not typical spec material, but a worshipped genre.

A self-conscious and yet highly romantic comedy in the vein of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE: In other words, remake this instant classic except make it totally different.


Now that you have a window into development daydreams, here are some of the nightmares that I (and my consultants) really don't want to see:

The "Young Actors Workshop" a/k/a THE BIG CHILL. TBC may have made stars out of its actors, but for every rehash of the BIG CHILL there's a Big Letdown.

Psychological Dramas starring The Child Molestation / Incest Reveal. I know this sort of abuse is widespread and deeply affecting, but it's a freakin' downer. The Ick Factor on the "No Daddy, don't!!" flashback device is incredibly high.

Anything with Voodoo.

Serial Killers. Lots of people do go for these scripts, I know, but movies and TV imply that every third person on the planet is a wily serial killer. Wouldn't we all be dead if there were that many? Exception: When Kevin Spacey plays the killer.

And finally:

No Kitchen Sinks: Here's an example: "A Voodoo witchdocter suffering from repressed memories of incest meets up with his old circle of friends at a retreat, determined to murder them one-by-one."

I hate to say it, but story editors have been known to frame kitchen sink loglines as a tongue-in-cheek homage to hackitude. Don't let it happen to you.


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