‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ It’s the question that gets a ripple of groans at any Q&A session, and an answer comprising a shrug and escorting the asker into a waiting van. ‘Where did you get that idea from?’ That’s a different story. Often the initial ideas that writers crafted into classic movies have some pretty interesting origins. Here’s how they did it.
Nora Ephron – WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
If there’s a genre that’s under-represented in the annals of classic movies, it’s probably romantic comedy, but WHEN HARRY MET SALLY undoubtedly shatters that mold.
The reason the screenplay nails its core dynamic is simple: collaboration.
In fact, some of the greatest aspects of the screenplay have their roots in what would become the core creators behind the story (Ephron, Rob Reiner, Andy Scheinman) just… talking about relationships.
Ephron constructed the character of Harry Burns by scouring the minds of both Reiner and Scheinman, using their confessions and even some of their dialogue to create the man who believes men and women can never be friends.
For Sally, she looked to her own friends, building the character from choice traits she saw in them.
But the most interesting aspect is the story behind… that scene.
The Famous Deli Scene
It all stems from a moment later in the script, when Harry asks Sally about proper post-coital etiquette-
”How long do I have to lie there and hold her before I can get up and go home? Is 30 seconds enough?’
-a moment aimed to illustrate Harry’s (and, in his view, men’s) lack of interest in deeper intimacy. For Reiner, the key to this moment was the fact that:
“…the women are going to mirror Meg’s response, which is, ‘Is that true?,’ and that the men in the audience will know [it] is exactly true.”
But granting us this insight into Harry’s perspective while shaking Sally’s left the script feeling unbalanced. It’s not just his film, after all, and Reiner wanted a reversal of this moment, a moment where:
“…the men are going to go, ‘Is that true?’ and the women are going to go, ‘Yes, we’ve all done that.'”
As with the premise, he turned to Ephron for the answer, and her answer was simple: “Well, fake orgasm’s a thing.”
But the set-up of the scene itself ended up coming from Meg Ryan. When Reiner and Ephron pitched the idea to her, she responded:
“Why don’t we just put it in some incongruous place, like a deli?”
A domino-effect of small ideas leading to one of the most memorable moments in film history.
George Miller – MAD MAX
The ideas for some classic movies are borne out of necessity.
As Miller himself says:
“I always love those stories in film-making where you compromise in a positive way where it’s ultimately hugely beneficial to the movie.”
Before the first MAD MAX in 1979, George Miller and his producing partner Byron Kennedy had only worked on a couple of short films.
Miller drew inspiration from things he’d seen and heard as an emergency room doctor in Sydney to come up with MAD MAX, which was to be their first feature.
It was the story of a policeman facing off against a biker gang.
It wasn’t a story about dilapidated landscapes, the future collapse of society, or the desperation of its survivors, which readers may notice as key parts of the ultimate film and subsequent franchise.
So how did the idea arise?
Money. Or a lack of it.
Struggling to secure funding, Miller decided to do some out of hours doctor work, carrying out a series of house calls for patients while Kennedy drove the car.
They cobbled together a budget, but it wasn’t enough to shoot what they initially intended.
“Interestingly enough, on the very first Max… and I probably shouldn’t admit this… but the reason why it was post-apocalyptic is because the budget was so low, we couldn’t afford to tell that story in a real city, with real cars, with lots and lots of people, so we went into deserted backstreets, and we shot in buildings that were already decrepit and crumbling, and to explain all that I just put the caption at the beginning: ‘A few years from now’.”
Given the success of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, no doubt destined to join the other classic movies on this list, that simple idea for a narrative fix to a production problem was as auspicious as it gets.
Pete Docter – INSIDE OUT
Pixar is a powerhouse, responsible for a string of classic movies, but it’s most recent Oscar-winner, INSIDE OUT, has an oddly personal origin: the writer’s daughter.
When co-writer Pete Docter’s daughter turned 11, he noticed a change in her:
“[She was] spirited and goofy, but then she turned 11. She became a lot more reclusive and quiet. We didn’t literally get eye-rolls… but she gave off that kind of feeling. And that got me wondering, ‘What’s going on in her head?’ That’s when I though of emotions as characters.”
But it wasn’t that simple. Turning 11 may trigger some serious internal conflict, but it falls a little shy of cinematic.
The writers needed some key ‘event’ to trigger the story in Riley’s head.
“Along the way, we tried something like ‘Oh, there’s a school play,’ or, ‘a traumatic incident in school that she’s made fun of for.’”
But ultimately Docter turned again to his own life for inspiration. When he was a child, his family moved to Denmark. As he puts it:
“That was the most difficult time of my life. Suddenly, bam, your idyllic boyhood bubble is popped, and you’re aware that everything you do and everything you wear and everything you say is being judged by everyone else.”
And so the film became a story about transition, not just Riley growing up, but Riley moving away from her home, her friends, and by extension her old self.
William Goldman – THE PRINCESS BRIDE
Of course, not all classic movies start their lives in that medium.
Even before the novel, THE PRINCESS BRIDE started life as a bed-time story.
Goldman would improvise tales for his young daughters each evening and, one night, decided he would go one better and write them a story.
He asked them what they wanted it to be about:
“And one of them said ‘princesses’ and the other said ‘brides’.”
When writing the initial novel, he ran into a problem – he had a tonne of great moments in mind, but, as he puts it:
“I didn’t know how to get to them, had no way to string them together.”
Like some of the classic movies above, the form of the eventual story is the product of problem solving, plugging a simple narrative hole with a solution that then becomes the very core of the narrative.
In this case, Goldman came up with a framing device, whereby the story is being read to a child by a father (or a grandfather in the film).
This negated the need to “get to” those great moments by creating an in-world reason to jump ahead, namely the storyteller skipping over the boring bits for the sake of the listener.
Christopher Nolan – MEMENTO
It began with a long drive from Chicago to Los Angeles, during which Jonathan Nolan outlined a story idea to his brother, a story about a man with short-term memory loss, searching for his wife’s killer.
But MEMENTO doesn’t sit in the hall of classic movies because of its premise; it’s the way in which that premise is executed.
Perspective is a key consideration in any screenplay. Do we place the audience in a kind of omniscient position, flitting between characters and giving them access to knowledge that not all the players have to allow for a little dramatic irony?
Or do we ally the audience with a specific character’s perspective, allowing them to experience the narrative world through their eyes?
The stories that tend to work best are those that take whichever approach most clearly serves the existing story.
Take THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. We’re clearly allied to Clarice Starling early on, allowing her first meeting with Hannibal Lecter to carry real weight. We meet him as she does, and are invited to share in her nervous anticipation.
Later we shift to a slightly more omniscient approach, spending time with Buffalo Bill and his captive, Catherine. By the time we reach the climax of the film, we know something Starling doesn’t – the man she’s interviewing is the killer. The fact we know what she doesn’t helps build tension.
The perspective serves the story.
When approached the other way around, we end up with time-jumping structures that feel gimmicky, or locked perspectives that prevent the story from progressing at a decent pace.
MEMENTO is one of the purest examples of a perspective that serves its story. Nolan knew that he wanted to tell it from Leonard’s point of view, but he had a problem: the memory loss.
In something like THE MATRIX, allying the audience’s perspective with Neo’s is relatively easy. We simply need to reveal information to the audience at the moment it’s revealed to him, and both protagonist and audience can move forward together.
But Leonard doesn’t remember information that’s revealed to him, meaning any audience with a working memory is destined to stay a step or nine ahead.
This is the conundrum that spawned MEMENTO’s unique structure. How do you ensure that neither Leonard nor the audience knows what just happened, how he got here, who these people are, whether he should trust them?
You reverse the order.
Now the audience starts every scene just as Leonard does. Lost, confused, and with no memory of what just happened.
Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner – ROBOCOP
Sometimes classic movies stem from a happy accident cleverly mined by an opportunistic writer or two.
Neumeier spotted a poster for BLADE RUNNER while walking with a friend, and asked what the film was about. The response:
“It’s about a cop hunting robots.”
Neumeier’s mind apparently shoved all those words into a figurative blender and landed on the idea of a cop who was a robot.
His initial draft was set in a BLADE RUNNER-esque, corporate world, and centred on a robot policeman learning to become more human.
But the idea was loosely defined, a concept that wasn’t yet working as a story. Cue rejections all round.
Enter Michael Miner, a music video director who had an idea for a film called ‘Supercop’, in which an injured officer is volunteered for a cybernetic experiment.
Noticing how complementary their ideas were – Neumeier’s robotic officer navigating a corporate world and Miner’s more interesting character arc – the two combined them and wrote ROBOCOP together.
James Cameron – THE TERMINATOR
This one’s almost cheating… but it illustrates how some classic movies can stem from nothing more than a single image and a savvy choice of genre.
James Cameron‘s only directorial work as of 1982 was PIRHANA II: THE SPAWNING, on which he had clashed repeatedly with the executive producer.
It wasn’t the best start.
THE TERMINATOR started life as a literal fever dream, after a downtrodden, ill Cameron retreated to Rome.
The image that stuck with him was that of a metal torso, pulling itself towards him with a pair of kitchen knives (that last part sadly didn’t make the cut).
Determined to dust himself off after the last disaster, Cameron took inspiration from horror master John Carpenter, who had made HALLOWEEN on a budget of just $30,000.
Combining the idea of a low-budget slasher flick with the image from his fever-addled brain, Cameron put a wholly new spin on the genre, giving it the chillingly futuristic edge that made it such a classic.
The Coen Brothers – THE BIG LEBOWSKI
In perhaps the purest execution of ‘write what you know’ ever, the Coens came up with their classic by combining a series of characters and stories they came across in real life:
- The Dude is part Jeff Dowd (who really is known as ‘The Dude’, drinks white Russians and was briefly jailed after his involvement in the Seattle Seven) and part Peter Exline (who was particularly proud of a rug in his apartment that he felt ‘tied the room together’ and played in an amateur softball league).
- Walter is part Lewis Abernathy, one of Exline’s friends, a Vietnam vet who later became and private detective, and part John Milius, a filmmaker with a bit of a gun obsession.
- The subplot about the Dude’s stolen car is lifted directly from one of Exline and Abernathy’s experiences, during which the latter used his private detective knowhow to track down the stolen car, and the two found a child’s homework in the back seat.
- Jesus Quintana was inspired by… John Turturro himself, who the Coens had seen play a similar role in a play.
This mixing pot approach paid off, resulting in one of the best-loved, most quotable classic movies out there.
Aaron Sorkin – A FEW GOOD MEN
A FEW GOOD MEN sits at a pretty eclectic table with THE TERMINATOR and GONE WITH THE WIND as one of those classic movies that has a line arguably more famous than its story:
“You can’t handle the truth!”
The play-then-film was also Sorkin’s big break.
His sister had just graduated law school, and signed up for the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She called him one day just before he set out for work. Sorkin recounts the call:
Debbie: ‘You’re never gonna believe where I’m going tomorrow’.
Debbie: Cuba. We keep a base in Guantanamo Bay. A bunch of marines down there hazed a guy in their squad and it went bad. Something went wrong and this kid almost died. The accused are saying they were ordered to do it by a superior. Something called a Code Red.
…which readers may recognise as the basis for the plot of A FEW GOOD MEN. It grabbed his attention instantly, but he was heading for work, and had no time to start writing.
So he improvised:
“And it was sometime during the first act, somewhere between the walk-in and the intermission, that I grabbed a couple of cocktail napkins off the bar and began writing.”
Sorkin had to collect together his scribble-covered napkins at the end of each shift and type them up when he got home.
A career break on a cocktail napkin.
Christopher McQuarrie – THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Some classic movies achieve their status via one earth-shattering story beat. The box in SE7EN, the truth about Malcolm in THE SIXTH SENSE… and the final moments of THE USUAL SUSPECTS.
The title itself came from an article McQuarrie saw in Spy magazine, and it planted an idea in his mind: a gang of criminals, constantly getting arrested for the same petty crimes, meet in a line-up and decide to work together.
After writing his first film, PUBLIC ACCESS, McQuarrie was working at a law firm in L.A, and when friend and director Bryan Singer called and asked if he could write up “that ‘Usual Suspects’ thing”.
He retreated to the break room for a cigarette and a think.
Noticing that the room ‘looked kind of like an interrogation room’, McQuarrie started running through dialogue, as though a character was being interrogated.
“I came up with this character who was being interrogated, who was babbling… and I started calling this guy… ‘Verbal’, because he was talking so much.”
As he tried to get Verbal’s voice right, McQuarrie noticed a bulletin board on the wall, made by a company called Quartet in Skokie, Illinois.
So he started spinning a story about a barbershop quartet from the same town, to get Verbal’s panicked patter right. Then it hit him:
“This is what the guy, Verbal, is going to do in the film.”
The cherry on top? McQuarrie was introduced to his then boss the next day. A man named Keyser Sume. The first thing out of his mouth was:
“You have a really cool name. You’re going to be the villain in a film one day.”
Get ALL our FREE Resources
Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!