“I like to feel with absolute certainty that the fundamental idea for the film is, without a doubt, an exceptional premise, one that implies that a film must be made from it, without question.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio
Interview with John Robert Marlow
“I hear lots of concepts from new scribes and rarely do any resonate with the sound of a ‘Hollywood movie.'”
WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart
Q & A (Part 1)
Last Friday, NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast the story Inmate With Stock Tip Wants To Be San Quentin’s Warren Buffett and I’m sure I’m not the only one who instantly thought, “That’s a movie.” In fact, I imagined Hollywood executives were on the phone with the show’s producers Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva (The Kitchen Sisters) before the broadcast ended.
The arc of the story is all there; a young man grows up on the streets of Oakland where he ends up in a gang and committing crimes that land him in prison. He doesn’t learn to read and write until he’s in prison. He’s never even heard of the stock market until a fellow inmate tells him, “This is where white people keep their money.” BAM! There’s your inciting incident. Let the transformation begin.
From there he throws himself into learning everything about the stock market, sometimes staying up all night and reading as many as 500 articles in a single day, and eventually becoming very savvy in predicting the rise and fall of stocks. Inmates, prisons workers, and even outside traders take notice and he earns the nickname Wall Street. We could give it the working title Inside Trading or Inside Trader.
But the real question is—is it a movie? It’s not hard to see a great role there for Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson,—or a great comeback role for Wesley Snipes. Perhaps a comedy with Eddie Murphy or Kevin Hart.
But is it something that would make producers spend years trying to produce? Is it something that studios would throw $10-50 millions of dollars making and then millions more to market? Is it something that would attract name actors that would help attract a large audience? I’m not writing the checks, but from my perspective the answer is yes. You have a few precedents that help make that decision.
There’s movies like The Pursuit of Happyness (about a homeless man turned stockbroker starring Will Smith), there’s the ever popular The Shawshank Redemption (where education/redemption were key themes), there’s Matt Damon as the in trouble with the law janitor who turns out to be a math genius in Good Will Hunting, and the angle of finding a second chance in life and paying back your debts to society.
And there’s the fact that San Quentin is one of the most recognizable prisons in the country, and open since 1863 is the oldest prison in California. Here’s just a shorts list of films, TV shows, and pop cultured references connected with San Quentin: Escape From San Quentin (1957), Dark Passage (Humphrey Bogart), Johnny Cash in San Quentin, The Lincoln Lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) Beyond Scared Straight, Lock Up, Fruitville Station, and most recently, Ant-Man. So, yeah, San Quentin is a part of Hollywood—and deeply embedded in the American consciousness.
It’s a prison reform story— similar and yet different than what’s been produced before.
One of the strengths of the Scriptnotes podcast is John August and Craig Mazin look at the business side of Hollywood screenwriting and filmmaking. In Episode 201(How would this be a movie?) they have a fascinating exchange speculating whether a story that’s ripped from news headlines could be a movie. It was one of their finest 10 minutes ever of their over 200+ podcasts.
While they come at it partly from the perspective of “if I were running a studio” I think they their insights translate well to the indie filmmaker, or really just about anybody telling a story that’s trying to attract an audience—and worth involving other people’s time and money to create.
Does such and such a newspaper story (or any idea you have really) have enough weight for people/studios to invest time and money making? It can be an intriguing story but— is it a movie?
One of the news stories they looked at was the FIFI scandal which involved corruption on an international level. They discussed what kind of movie it could be; a comedy, a political thriller, or a straight drama. What is the tone of the movie? Is it like Cool Runnings, Invictus, a Coen Brothers comedy, a political thriller, straight drama, Erin Brockovich, American Hustle, Moneyball, or Traffic?
Here are some of insights and questions they hit on:
“The thing we need to always remind ourselves is…whoever we pick as our hero, what is going to be her journey through this movie. And how are we going to find the moments of triumph and failure along the way. How are we going to get to that place where all hope is lost? Where do we get to that darkest night? And how are we going to structure the story so that character could have those moments, because that’s what would let it be a story about a person rather than a story about a scandal that we just sort of fundamentally don’t care about. That’s honestly the challenge with most of these movies that are based on real life events is trying to find a way that you can have — you can really chart a hero through this whole thing.
“Every movie ultimately must be about people. We simply don’t watch fictional movies, even dramatizations of real things for the events themselves. That’s why we watch documentaries. And even in documentaries, they make it about people. Otherwise, it’s a textbook… You have to make it about people. That’s how we connect to everything. So Sorkin looks at Facebook. And he says, here’s a man that started Facebook. Facebook is so that you can make friends. This man doesn’t seem to have any friends. Good. Let me start there. That’s a good place to start. Really good place to start.”
So look at the questions of “Is it a movie?” and “How would this be a movie?” as different sides of the same coin. I hope you find that’s helpful to you on your road to writing what Christopher Lockhart calls writing The Right Script.
And keep in mind that “Is it a movie?” doesn’t have to mean, “Is it a big budget Hollywood movie?” Otherwise some great indie, foreign and lower budget studio films would have never been made. “Is it a movie?” is a scalable question—from the big budget Hollywood film all the way down to a short film shot in one day. (And a short version of the Wall Street in San Quentin could absolutely be shot in one day, in one cell, with one actor—it just won’t be the Denzel version.)
And once again this all shows that there are interesting things happening in unlikely places. Just remember before you start writing a movie (or securing story rights) to ask, “Is it a movie?”
P.S. You could also do the Orange Is the New Black version with Halle Barry as Mrs. Wall Street. Perhaps a Pete Rose-type character inspired by the USA Today article Inside prison baseball with the San Quentin Giants. Or a fictionalized/Inspired by version where the main character starts a financial podcast in prison and becomes the next Dave Ramsey.
8/21/15 update: According to a CNN Money article Wall Street (Curtis Carroll)—also called “The Oracle of San Quentin” co-teaches a class to inmates with Robin Williams’ son, Zak Williams (who has an MBA from Columbia). Yeah, the odds went up on this being a movie some day. At least a documentary.
12/13/16 Update: “When you are reading a script, only one thing truly matters, which I learned from my old boss Harvey Weinstein: is it a movie? Not is it a good idea, or is it well written, or is there some big star attached. Is. It. A. Movie?”
What It’s Like To Be A: Producer