Film Courage: What are some of the most important questions screenwriters can ask themselves when developing a story idea?
Peter Desberg, Author/Screenwriter: How much is it worth? [Laughs]
Jeffrey Davis, Author/Screenwriter: A point for each, that doesn’t get you to a hundred.
Peter: I think one important question is How universal is it? You may be having the most esoteric story, but if it touches everybody, it’s a universal story. If it’s very, very narrow, then it doesn’t. So you’re always saying How are people going to relate? Can anyone find something in this relationship I’m creating, in this conflict that I’m creating that they can recognize something?
Film Courage: That’s why you asked the Mother-Daughter premise for the book (Now That’s Funny) because you figured most people can relate.
Jeffrey: It’s a generic old premise starting with my sister Eileen.
Peter: Everybody has had a mother.
Jeffrey: I have a slightly different take on that. I believe in the Stephen Sondheim dictum that the more personal a story is (and I don’t mean autobiographical), that the more it matters to you, the most universal it’s going to be. But both things are valid. It depends on the writer.
I will tell you that if you try to write something commercial, you will fail every time. For example, when DIE HARD was a success there was one movie after another that came out with that kind of…none of them was as good as DIE HARD but for every movie that came out like that (hero in a trapped place trying to save the world – whatever that is).
“The need to tolerate failure. The need to get up and try it the next day. No writing career can ever be made on one script. I really believe that you’ve got to write a lot and not judge it…”
Peter: With a sense of humor.
Jeffrey: With a sense of humor, that’s very important. There were hundreds of scripts that were written that never saw the light of anywhere. I believe you have to write what you want to write.
Look at what Go ahead, make my day did. Everybody tried to compete with that.
Jeffrey: And that wasn’t a new concept when it was written. I mean BULLITT worked (say concept). BULLITT was a more stylish cop. The Dirty Harry movies were great. They’re well made, they are kind of the detective version of the spaghetti westerns.
Peter: But having the one key line at the right moment.
Jeffrey: But today I don’t think one key line is going to make a great movie. I think it was the right actor at the right time for the late sixties.
But I think the other thing you need is patience…well, all the things we’ve been talking about. The ability to tolerate…
Peter: [Whispers] Ambiguity.
Peter: [Whispers] Ambiguity.
Jeffrey: Ambiguity. He likes that word. Nobody else understands it. The need to tolerate failure. The need to get up and try it the next day. No writing career can ever be made on one script. I really believe that you’ve got to write a lot and not judge it (we’ve talked of all this before). And then of course be willing to show your work.
Film Courage: Not waiting ten years?
Jeffrey: If you’re just going to put your work in the drawer and you’re just doing it for your own pleasure, that’s fine. But don’t say you want to be a professional writer.
Peter: I’m waiting for the nineteen-part last question.
Film Courage: Well there was a follow-up to something you said.
Peter: Oh, that’s so cheating!
Film Courage: And the follow-up is…
Peter: Penultimate part two?
Film Courage: You said that most films can be based on or their popularity could be based on one line…Make My Day or…
Jeffrey: You mean the hook?
Film Courage: Or Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Something like that.
Jeffrey: Yes, but that had nothing to do with the plot of the movie, that’s just…
Jeffrey: That’s just character.
Film Courage: But you don’t feel that today?
Jeffrey: Well, they want a hook, before they want to hear the premise, before they want to hear the story. So in something we’re working on now, we used BACK TO THE FUTURE, the hook would be a young boy goes back time to make sure his parents get married so he’ll continue to exist. That’s terrible, I cant remember what we used, that’s a hook, that’s not a premise, yet. It’s an idea for…so to me it’s an idea for a story. You still haven’t developed the story. The thing you brought in about the two brothers is much more developed by that.
Film Courage: But in terms of a line sort of living on past the film.
Jeffrey: You mean why do lines live on past the film?
Film Courage: Are we beyond that?
Jeffrey: No I don’t think we’re ever beyond that, I mean you get memorable lines as recently as WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. What’s the line?
Film Courage: I’ll have what she’s having.
Jeffrey: Exactly, you know that line was improved, it wasn’t even a scripted line. That was Rob Reiner’s mom, that’s Carl Reiner’s wife.
Film Courage: But wasn’t that from the nineties? So anything today?
Jeffrey: Oh, I see what you’re saying now? Yes! There is one in a recent movie, I don’t know have you guys seen GET OUT recently?
Film Courage: Not yet. It’s on the list.
Peter: I think writers are always trying to write those lines, but they are usually really self-conscious and awkward.
Jeffrey: This wasn’t because this was a movie…the only thing I can tell you about the movie, it was made for nothing and the guy was famous before he made it, the director’s wonderful, Jordan Peele. He had that show on Comedy Central and he knows everybody. But this is his directorial debut and the movie wasn’t expected to do well and it was one of the most successful movies of the year. There is a great line in it that I think will live on past the movie and that’s…the premise is a white girl takes her black boyfriend to meet the parents…that’s not what the movie is about at all, but that’s all I can tell you or it will ruin the movie for you. But the first thing the father says to the black boyfriend who is actually played to my wife’s consternation by a British actor [Daniel Kaluuya], he says You know I would have voted for Obama for a third term. Now that line is brilliant, it’s also in character, it has to do with the movie but it’s so witty and it’s so true that like liberals (embarrassed liberals) when they want to say something good and they’re…it’s part of what the movie is about that people will…he said in an interview that he gets that all the time from white liberals that they wished he could have had a third term, they are trying to show you how liberal they are.
So I think Peter is right have those just like We’ll always have Paris.
Peter: But it’s just bad when you see it self-consciously written like I think I’ve just written that line and [grimaces].
Jeffrey: Well hopefully you are a good enough writer to see that and take it out. The other thing that really bugs me in writing is when the writer makes a reference that obviously doesn’t belong in the period or they are trying to be too contemporaneous, they’re trying to be too hip, so they’ll make a joke about something. They’ll make a joke about something nobody would have made a joke about. I see that all the time. I’ve probably done it many times. But again a great line is great, it’s great for advertising, but it doesn’t make a great movie. There are so many lines in DIE HARD, but that’s not why the movie is successful. I have a theory about why that movie is unique and successful. He wasn’t there to save the world, he was there to get his wife out of the building. And that’s what made it human.
And a lot of these like SPEED which was a big success which followed it, was such a contrived situation. A bus that if it goes below a certain [speed limit] it will blow up. I mean, come on? And then they manipulate by having the old trick which everybody has used of having their partner hurt which raised the stakes, which can work, it worked great for…oh come on…help me out…for Lillian Hellman’s boyfriend who was blacklisted…you know a great mystery writer?
Peter: It’s been used in a zillion movies.
Jeffrey: Yeah, but who was it? He was the guy who did it better than everybody, the movie about the birds…you know where there was something in The stuff that dreams are made of, a classic line that we’ll always know and that’s from THE MALTESE FALCON.
Film Courage: What line?
Peter: You know when he sees what’s inside the bird, the stones or whatever, it’s the MacGuffin that everybody has been looking for and he says Ah, the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s great right?
And then the other line in that movie that I love is I’m not going over for you sweetheart. Meaning I’m not going to jail for you. I love that movie, it’s so well-written. Dashiell Hammett…thank you for helping me so much.
Peter: I’m always there for you.
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