How does an idea for a feature-length Hollywood action script develop? For some writers, the idea suddenly comes as an "Aha!" moment, for others, it comes along a lot more slowly. I was somewhere in the middle. Is it possible to get an idea for a feature-length Hollywood action script from the lyrics of a song? You bet it is, provided that those lyrics tell a compelling story to begin with. The idea for my own police action script began almost two years ago, with the lyrics from singer Phil Collins classic hit In The Air Tonight. I had listened to Collins song many times before then, but for some reason, had never considered it as a springboard for a serious screenplay idea until more recently. Fifteen months and seven drafts later, I finally had my first work of fiction in my hands.
When you listen to the very first words, "I can feel it coming in the air tonight," you have to wonder what is the "it" to which Collins refers. It could have been anything of course, and not being acquainted with him personally, I had no idea. However, when you hear the first verse beginning with the famous opening, "well if you told me you were drowning, Ill not lend a hand," you cant help but get a little curious. If youre an aspiring fiction writer as I was at the time, you have to wonder what would make a person not help another who is in imminent danger of drowning. As I played about with a few fictional theories, the word I kept coming back to was Retribution. I couldnt get away from it. Websters Dictionary defines it as "something administered or enacted in recompense, esp. punishment." That made perfect sense, but retribution for what? Until I answered that question, I couldn't begin to write even a story outline, let alone the entire screenplay.
Fortunately, the answer to that question came in the following verses: "Ive seen your face before, my friend, but I dont know if you know who I am. Well, I was there and I saw what you did; saw it with my own two eyes. So you can wipe off that grin; I know where youve been. Its all been a pack of lies." For me, that told me almost the whole story. A murder, witnessed by someone at an early age, of a beloved parent or relative. Given those circumstances, who wouldnt identify with a person wanting to see the murderer of that parent getting his just desserts? Not many people that I know of, especially those who have a loving relationship with one or both parents.
Now that I had my baseline story, the next step was to write a story outline, followed by the actual screenplay. Not an easy task ahead of me by a long shot, especially since I hadnt a clue about writing a screenplay to begin with. There are quite a few books on the market that tell you how to write screenplays, but how do you know which one to choose? I decided to skip that for the time being and concentrate on writing a story which, combined with a knock-em-dead musical score and new songs by Collins himself, could be a blockbuster hit at the box office. Okay, we know the last part may be a case of severe wishful thinking on my part, but if you want to be a successful writer, you do NOT think of your writing project as anything less than outstanding. After all, if you dont believe in your own work, who else will? Okay, back to the original problem -- how to write the damned thing.
My first hurdle to jump was writing not only believable but exciting dialog. Without great dialog, youre already dead in the water. I believe getting over the fear of writing dialog is a problem many beginning writers face, and I was no exception. I was convinced that no matter what I wrote, it was going to sound stupid. Rather like looking at yourself "practicing" in the mirror for your first high-school dance, for anyone who has actually done that (yep, I did). However, just as you notice once you get to the dance that everyone else is dancing and having a good time without worrying what they look like. You also begin to study the movies written by other screen writers, and realize that they had to start somewhere too. Not having an actual screenplay in hand, I decided to create my own from an existing movie. All movies begin with an idea on paper, right? To get my own script, I just had to do the reverse; put everything in the movie back onto paper. After four weeks of wearing out my only copy of "The Negotiator" video, and writing down every line of dialog and action sequences, I finally had a working prototype of an actual film in my hands. Now I was ready to look for a book that would tell me how to put my own project together. I didnt have to look for too long before I found the perfect solution: Screen Writing For Dummies. For all aspiring screen writers out there, trust me -- this is the only book youll need.
The first thing I learned from reading this excellent book was that the way I had written my prototype from "The Negotiator" was completely wrong. Luckily for me, I hadnt begun the long process of transferring it from my huge five-subject spiral notebook to word processor yet, so I only had to do this once. After that, I was finally ready to quit stalling and begin work on my own screenplay, a police action drama, which I decided to call Retribution. Nothing else made sense to me.
Writing the screenplay wasnt an easy task, and took a long time to complete. There were times when I got so discouraged I let it go for a day or two because of the dreaded writers block. But as all of us discover, we get through it. If you want to write a compelling story, whether its a script, a short story or a novel, you cant afford to let writers block defeat you. Of course, looking at the job ahead of me, which is getting the script into the hands of Phil Collins himself, writing the seven drafts was a walk in the park in comparison. Some may say that this approach is 'putting all my eggs in one basket," but since he wrote the song that inspired the screenplay, I feel its only natural, not to mention common courtesy, that he be the first person to read it. Whether hell like it or not is another story, but Im ready to take that chance -- if he is.