Novice screenwriters are always terrified that someone might steal their idea. Let them. Ideas are cheap and easy, and it doesn’t matter how good your idea is if your screenplay totally sucks.
The least important part of a screenplay is the idea. Anyone can come up with similar ideas, but what makes a difference is how the screenwriter turns that idea into an actual story. Both “Jaws” and “Jaws 4” share the same idea of a man-eating shark killing people off a beach, but one movie became a classic and the other movie became a joke. Same idea, different execution.
For another example of how the same idea can morph into two different stories, consider this idea: What if a nuclear-armed bomber accidentally started attacking Russia and the United States had to try and stop it before it’s too late?
For a serious look at this idea, watch the movie “Fail-Safe.” In “Fail-Safe,” a B-52 bomber is accidentally given orders to attack Russia and the United States is frantically trying to recall the plane before it can drop its deadly payload.
This movie, based on the book of the same name, treats the subject of accidental nuclear war with seriousness. Watching this movie can scare you and make you think about the horrible consequences of an accidental nuclear war.
When you get done watching “Fail-Safe,” watch “Dr. Strangelove.” “Dr. Strangelove” was based on a serious novel called “Red Alert,” but when Stanley Kubrick started producing this movie, he found the whole idea of nuclear destruction so ludicrous that he couldn’t resist turning it into a comedy.
Both “Fail-Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove” have nearly identical ideas about a nuclear-armed bomber attacking Russia and the United States government doing everything it can to stop it. The difference is that “Fail-Safe” treats the subject seriously while “Dr. Strangelove” treats the same story comically.
“Fail-Safe” proved less popular while “Dr. Strangelove” has been regarded as a classic. That doesn’t mean that comedies are better than dramas, but that the same idea can become two entirely different stories depending on the execution of that idea.
So when working with your idea, don’t worry too much about having an original idea (you probably won’t). Just worry about converting that idea into an original story.
While watching “Dr. Strangelove,” watch the acting of George C. Scott and Slim Pickens. George C. Scott wasn’t comfortable playing a comical character, so Stanley Kubrick, the director, told him to exaggerate his actions as much as possible during rehearsal to warm up, then play his character with a more somber tone during the actual filming.
However, George C. Scott didn’t realize that Stanley Kubrick was actually filming the rehearsals where George C. Scott acted outrageous, and ignoring the “actual” filming where George C. Scott was acting more muted. As a result, George C. Scott declared he would never work with Stanley Kubrick again.
Slim Pickens has a different story during the filming of “Dr. Strangelove.” Stanley Kubrick told Slim Pickens that he was filming a serious drama about nuclear disaster, so he wanted Slim Pickens to play his role as serious and dramatic as possible, knowing that watching Slim Pickens try to act serious was comedy in itself.
A good director like Stanley Kubrick knows how to get the most out of actors to get the right tone for the overall picture. As a screenwriter, you won’t get that luxury, so you just have to concentrate on writing the best story possible and hope that a director will turn your screenplay into a great movie in the end.