The Big Idea: Alternate Reality
Have you ever had an idea that you knew was good—that you were certain could produce a windfall of cash if marketed correctly—but that you never pursued? Better yet, have you ever seen your good idea brought to life by someone who enjoyed the success you so clearly deserved, but were too lazy to seek?
I won’t assume we have all experienced this, but I suspect it’s a pretty common situation for those who classify themselves as creative—writers, actors, artists and the like. Unfortunately, it has happened to me more times than I can count, most notably after graduate school.
As part of my master’s thesis, I wrote a feature film script entitled Human Rites and successfully defended it before a panel of esteemed academics. Given that I was such a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino at the time—Pulp Fiction remains one of my favorite films—my script was classic film noir and focused on a former criminal who decided to fly right and leave his shady past behind him, only to be pulled back into “the business” by a friend in need. And as you might imagine, things don’t go very smoothly and take a dark turn towards the end.
It’s film noir, after all. What do you expect?
The story was nothing groundbreaking—as many writers say, every story worth telling has likely already been told. So I suspected my own film was little more than an amalgam of all the crime dramas I had seen in my life. Nevertheless—and despite some weak dialogue (which was never my strong suit)—my professors enjoyed it and saw potential in my idea. One even said he would pay to see it on The Big Screen someday and, honestly, it seemed completely possible at the time.
Call it the idealism of youth, but I was certain that some production company would jump at the chance to make my movie. They would option the screenplay for hundreds of thousands of dollars, fly me out as a consultant on the set, invite me to walk the red carpet at its eventual premiere and relish in the fact I had just been added to their stable of artists. Offers would start rolling in—I would have my choice of which to pursue, of course—and my bank account would swell so much that family members I never met would start coming out of the woodwork to mooch off of me. There would be appearances on late-night talk shows, product endorsements—“Try 5-hour energy, the only boost I need to create the next summer blockbuster”—and maybe even a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live.
It was going to be great!
Sadly, things didn’t work out quite as I had planned. Life got in the way and before I knew it, my idea was little more than an afterthought… a story printed and stored in the university library, but one unlikely to ever see the light of day. Could it have been an entertaining and even lucrative film? I certainly thought so, but this would remain a huge “what if” for years to come.
The film centers on Mike McDermott, an illegal poker player who loses his bankroll, leaves the underworld to pursue a law degree and soon finds himself “rounding” again to help Lester “Worm” Murphy, a childhood friend recently released from prison who still owes a lot of money to the wrong people. Much like my main character in Human Rites, Mike resists at first, but reluctantly agrees to help his friend and sinks back into the seedy world of illegal poker. The only difference is that in Mike’s case, it works. He makes the money needed to pay off Worm’s debt, drops out of law school and heads for Las Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker’s main event.
My own film ends in disaster, but that’s not really the point.
The real point of fact is that aside from the addition of poker—which was becoming increasingly popular prior to the release of Rounders—the happy ending and some minor plot differences, my screenplay was essentially the same. Granted, the script written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman may have been better technically—especially with regard to dialogue—but the fundamental plots were nearly identical. And since someone in Hollywood gave the “green light” to Rounders, it stands to reason that the same approval could have been granted to my script, provided I had the contacts needed to get it into the right hands and actually got off my ass to get it done.
So instead of working with actors I absolutely love—Matt Damon and Edward Norton are two of my favorites—and raking in more than $12 million worldwide, I got nothing. And the screenplay I spent so much time and effort creating still lies dormant on that library shelf, waiting patiently for someone to discover and appreciate it more than I did.
Given how depressing this experience was, I always told myself I would never miss an opportunity like this again. The only problem is that for every bright idea I have, I discover that someone else had it first. I suppose that’s one of the dangers of the Internet since people can access nearly every idea with only a few keystrokes. Nevertheless, this will not stop me from developing even more ideas and hopefully doing more with them than I did with Human Rites. To aid in this endeavor—and to ensure my ideas are as original as they can (and should) be—I decided to start a new column on Gnostic Bent: The Big Idea.
Here’s how it works.
Whenever an idea comes to mind—whether it’s for a blog post, television series, film, short story or any other genre—I will refrain from Internet research—which almost always shoots my ideas down—and instead share it here with you, dear readers. What you get will be the raw thoughts of an idea in limbo, the foundation upon which the story—if unique and interesting—may eventually be built. If it sounds familiar or worse, if it seems like a huge waste of time, I am hoping you will comment to let me know and to offer feedback, criticism and suggestions. Hell, I may even toss in a poll for readers less apt to post comments or more interested in clicking boxes than typing words. You never know.
Although this format relies heavily on reader participation—and I can find value in any comments people feel like sharing—it also allows me to get ideas down before they drift out of my mind and never return. I can also use this as a means of documenting my ideas in case anyone tries to steal them later. Would this hold up in a court of law? I doubt it, but at least it’s something, right? And if enough people respond positively to an idea to make it viable, I will of course protect it using more official means—submitting it as a treatment to the Writer’s Guild, for instance. I just need to make sure it’s worthy first, and that’s where you come in, dear reader.
It is YOU who will get the proverbial—and creative—ball rolling. And I want to say thank you in advance to anyone kind enough to share their thoughts and opinions. They will be appreciated and utilized, I assure you.
This brings me to my first BIG IDEA, which came to me last night as I was heating up some macaroni and cheese for dinner. Once it was ready, the microwave beeped three times to let me know. A split second later, I heard an identical beeping coming from some other part of the house—the same succession of three beeps in essentially the same tone. I knew this was simply a coincidence and that someone on television must also be heating up food, but it got me thinking.
What if the sound was coming from a parallel universe that for some reason was now accessible from my current reality?
I envisioned another version of myself standing in the kitchen of some alternate universe, heating up food for dinner just as I was doing in my world. Almost everything about this other dimension would be similar to my own—I would look the same, act the same and experience similar challenges—but there would be some key differences to set it apart. For instance, where I struggle to pay bills and make ends meet in this life, my alternate self would be blessed with enormous wealth and would have fewer financial worries in his. My failures would be his successes, my losses his gains.
I have to say that this idea intrigued me. And I immediately thought about how this might “play out” on film.
Imagine a main character whose life is coming unraveled at the seams. His girlfriend dumped him, he lost his job and nearly everything he knows is turning to crap. To make matters worse—and to isolate him even more from his fellow humans—he has also started hearing voices and other strange sounds that no one else can hear. Needless to say, those closest to him believe that he’s losing his mind, even though this is definitely not the case.
Our hero—who I’ll refer to as Jim until I can think of something better—soon realizes that the voice in his head is his own. And I’m not talking about the inner voice that we all possess, either. This one is distinct and different, which Jim knows because the messages it conveys refer to things he has never experienced in his life… often things he wishes he could experience had his life choices been better: wealth, beautiful women, professional success, stardom… the list goes on.
Eventually—and after being alienated from nearly everyone in his life—Jim discovers the source of the mysterious voice and other unexplained sounds. For whatever reason, a small rip formed in the space-time continuum and opened the door to an alternate reality, a new dimension to parallel Jim’s current reality. What’s more, Jim can access this “other world” through a worm hole that suddenly appeared in the back of his bedroom closet.
Did you catch the reference to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? The wormhole doesn’t have to be in the closet, necessarily, but it seemed like a nice touch. Kind of an homage to one of my favorite childhood authors, if you will.
At any rate, Jim reluctantly decides to enter this parallel universe and that’s when things really get crazy. I haven’t worked out all the details yet, but the obvious plot points are there: Jim meets his other self, who isn’t all he’s cracked up to be; there is a dark side to this alternate reality, one that will forever change Jim and his perspective; Jim discovers that even success can come at a price and relishes the fact that while his life decisions may not have been great, they were certainly better than those made by his parallel self; and so on, and so forth.
Granted, some of these seem rather canned and overused, so some tweaking will be needed before I can truly get this idea off the ground. It does seem promising, though, at least to me. Again, I haven’t looked around to see how many other films feature such a premise, but I’m sure they are out there. Like any writer, my ideas spring from a well filled with the works of past and contemporary artists: actors, writers, producers, painters, directors, screenwriters and anyone else involved in the creative process that inspires me. As such, I sometimes generate ideas I believe to be original, but that end up belonging to someone else. Either that or I incorporate elements of their work into my own, kind of like the C.S. Lewis thing a few paragraphs ago.
Whatever the case may be, I sincerely hope this idea is original and has the potential I think it has. Of course, that is not for me to decide; it’s for YOU to judge. If you think this idea has merit and that I should expend energy on developing it further—or even if you don’t—please consider posting a comment to let me know. I also welcome suggestions, criticism—as long as it’s warranted, of course—and any other feedback you’re willing to provide. Nothing is off-limits and since I rarely—if ever—get offended, pulling punches or sugar-coating things will not be necessary. I would rather you be honest and direct than pretend what I have here is worth more than it actually is. After all, this is the only way to grow and improve, right?
And please, please, please… three “pleases” should be enough… let me know if you have EVER heard an idea like this, read a story similar to this one or seen a film that features this same basic premise. Before I devote myself to fleshing out this idea, I would like to know that it’s at least original and unique for the most part. If every story has already been told, then all I need to do is find an interesting way to tell it differently.
With your help, I may be able to do just that. Thanks for reading and hopefully participating in this little blog experiment. And please be on the lookout for the next Big Idea, which I hope will come as I’m preparing dinner tonight!
Posted on July 30, 2013, in Perspectives, Writing and tagged creative writing, criticism, entertainment, film, human rites, humor, idea, inspiration, Matt Damon, personal, perspectives, quentin tarantino, Screenplay, story. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.