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Killer Premises: It’s All In The Execution?


Scribes seem to always bemoan the fact *their* premise has been used already in a film. Very often you’ll read on an online forum a writer saying they “can’t” pursue a script because a produced movie is *practically* the same. Other times a writer will press on only to be put off by feedback and/or their colleagues’ insistence the idea is “too derivative” of a particular movie.

Yet the “pre-sold” notion – this idea that audiences are already familiar with a particularly story and its characters – is actually GOOD NEWS for writers. I don’t advocate writers write solely for the market, since I feel this can make their screenplays flat and try-hard. That said, I do believe the savvy writer finds out what the marketplace wants AND combines it with his/her own story desires – there is always a happy medium to be had.

Someone said to me once “originality is overrated”. After several years at this spec writing lark, I’m inclined to agree. I’ve been to not one, or two but THREE pitching sessions with producers now where my supposed ultra ground-breaking ideas have been dismissed with a “meh”, only for my “emergency pitch” (ie. the pitch I hated cos I thought it was dull and derivative and left ’til last) has made them sit up and take note and ask me for more on that idea. Yes it might make you want to tear your own eyes out, but it seems producers really do want that hallowed notion of “the same… but different”.

Premises CAN be the similar or even identical. Writers often say that it’s the “execution that counts”, citing that age-old idea of “the same … but different.” The problem then is, those writers will be too samey and not different enough. It’s not hard to see why: some genres are even known for having the same premises: think of “body swap” comedies here: kid wakes up an adult. Adult wakes up a kid. Girl is a boy; boy is a girl. Rom Coms? Boy meets girl or girl meets boy. At the root of it, they’re all the same really. Can you ever *truly* break new ground?

Absolutely, yes. ALIEN is a “classic” horror: a monster kills a bunch of people in a confined space. Boom. That’s the “same”. What was “different”? The idea of the creature bursting from a host’s chest! Remember, by 1979 we’d had all the paranoid invasion movies of the 50s and 60s thanks to Hollywood’s concern over communism overseas and the start of the Vietnam war.

So yes, you CAN have those supposedly identical premises and in those cases, sure, at surface level it seems as if it’s the execution that counts: by that I mean your characters, who they are, what they do; the plot moves you choose to tell your story – but also one other thing lieutenant: your HOOK.

Your hook is the *thing* that sells your story “off the page”. It’s the element of “different” that makes producers, agents, your audience realise this is not the exact same as another story, which has already been told. So going back to ALIEN here, the chest-bursting was the hook, the *thing* that marked it out and what made Execs want to make it, then audiences to see it.

So here are my thoughts on six movies from three very similar ideas, yet very different hooks …

Taken (2008) versus Spartan (2004). The thriller in which a woman is kidnapped and “there is only one man who can save her” is always going to be popular; women in the audience like the idea of a knight in shining armour and men like the idea of kicking ass and getting the girl (in whatever context: in the 80s it was wives and girlfriends like in Polanski’s Frantic; recently it’s been a focus on younger girls, often daughters).

In Taken, Liam Neeson must rescue his daughter from nasty Albanians who nick her for the sex trade; in Spartan, Val Kilmer is a government agent who must retrieve the daughter of a high-ranking government official who has been kidnapped, but essentially these two films share the same premise. What differs here is in Taken, the task is personal; Neeson shuns government help or interference, preferring to go it alone, so failure or success is his. In Spartan, for Kilmer it’s an entirely professional thing: retrieving things – including kidnapped daughters – is this “thing”, it’s what he does. What’s more, unlike Neeson’s character, Kilmer has back up and utilises everything at his disposal to get the girl back.

Of the two, personally I preferred Spartan; not just because it was written by the God David Mamet, but because Kilmer’s character appears to go furthest in terms of his arc, since he goes from a purely professional mission to one in which he actually cares what happens next. By contrast, there were more than a few moments which stretched credulity for me in Taken, not to mention Neeson’s incredible luck in *just* being behind the daughter and her abductors, like when he sees her being dragged into a car when he’d been chained up for a while downstairs and escaped in the nick of time. What’s interesting about Spartan however is I didn’t even know of its existence until it turned up in a DVD baragin bin; the Hub brought it back one night when foraging for booze and crisps, yet Taken had a massive launch, it was everywhere and everyone seemed up for watching it. Perhaps it boils down the one thing that sticks out for me: Neeson is more appealing than Kilmer? Depressing really – the quality of your script means little; what star you have attached is everything.Death Sentence versus The Brave One (both 2007). Is there anything more hackneyed than the revenge movie? I’m struggling to think of one; it’s difficult to know what to do with this idea; after all, the notion of “an eye for an eye” appears to have been done every way you can imagine – male and female protagonists, rape/revenge, murder/revenge, gang/revenge, historical revenge, supernatural revenge: you name it, it’s been done in some way or another.

And for me, the revenge movie Death Sentence appears to try and make this point: despite some shocking plotting (in particular an interesting midpoint) and some good dialogue with occasional decent foreshadowing, this movie has one HUGE problem. It asks us to believe an ordinary, middle-class family guy who works in insurance can not only take on a bunch of harcore street hoodies (not once do we see Kevin Bacon working out in readiness), he ACTUALLY CHOOSES TO DO THIS OVER SEEKING JUSTICE. In the courtroom, Bacon isn’t DENIED justice per se; he isn’t offered the sentence he wants for the killer, so instead he actually says he “can’t be sure” if the felon in question was the guy who killed his son. This is of course thrown out of court and instead he returns home and prepares to kill said felon, just like that. What’s more, it’s really difficult to relate to a man who puts his first born child’s death ahead of his wife’s, not to mention the maiming of his comatose second son; he even sits next to him and tells him how he could basically never love him as much as his brother as he was too like his mother. He then returns home and dresses in his son’s leather jacket to go after those baddies once and for all, sealing the deal that his first born matters, leaving his second an orphan. And where were the police all this time you ask? Yes, where indeed. Despite mounting evidence, he’s not once taken in, even for questioning. It’s as if Bacon’s character can do what he wants and to hell with the consequences. Whilst the point is made he has become the same as the Hoodies, this point is made with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the only conclusion I am able to draw is that to be “good”, he should have turned the other cheek for the first boy’s murder, which seems waaaaaaaaay too simplistic for me for such difficult subject matter.

The Brave One in comparison couldn’t be more different as far I’m concerned. It grabs the difficult, contradictory subject of revenge and embraces BOTH arguments: “revenge is wrong”/”Eat shit bad guys”! What differs in the execution is subtle, but it doesn’t ask us to make giant leaps of faith in terms of Foster’s character’s motivation: because she is a believable, sympathetic character, we can relate to her, understand why she would do such a repugnant thing whilst never condoning it. What’s more, the problematic issue of the police too is drawn into the story; Foster’s friendship with the police officer makes us realise how she gets away with what she does, whereas in Death Sentence the police officer character is held at arm’s length to the detriment of character and plot. If you’re not sure how execution makes all the difference with virtually the same premise, then watching The Brave One and comparing it with Death Sentence is one of the best moves you can make I think. (I’ve written before about The Brave One on this blog: character journey here and a movie review here.)Resident Evil versus 28 Days Later (both 2002). Really this reads like the ultimate in movie wars, UK or US: we could call it, “Zombies: who does it better?” I’m gonna make a controversial move here and say, for me, it’s a tie. I know, I know; I must be mad, I’m a traitor to my fellow countrymen, blah blah blah (a couple of my friends have got into heated debate with this in various pubs because apparently *of course* 28 Days is better, I’m apparently insane). But before you string me up, let me say a few words in my defence.

Both films have things which are interesting about them. I loved the idea the Zombies weren’t actually Zombies in 28 Days, but “infected”. The Rage virus was a new take on a tired idea – and seeing those Infected running up the tunnel as they’re getting in the car was fab. The panoramic views of a dead London and its poignant Wall of The Damned in Leics Square – brilliant. Resident Evil in comparison cashed in on “cool value”: everything was big, colourful, in your face – and it did it well. Its roots were in a computer game and it made no apologies for it. There was some great gore and set pieces: the moment JD gets pulled in to the lift and eaten alive creeped me right out and the next time I went in a lift, I have to admit I did check for Zombies first.

But both films have very obvious drawbacks too. For 28 Days, it was that dodgy prologue with the chimps (though it does handle the exposition quite effectively in its rather clunky way). For Resident Evil, it has to be the Set Up in general with the incredibly wooden performances of the marines as they enter The Hive, not to mention the Aliens references became a little much (as they did in AVP, are you listening Paul WS Anderson? We KNOW you love that movie!! ; ). Character-wise, neither film was up to much in my opinion. Jim in 28 Days was a typical Everyman, which would have worked had he had anyone particularly outstanding to play off on in his group, but for me none of the characters really stood out. Mr Curtis from Holby City dies very early on courtesy of his ruthless girlfriend, but unfortunately that marked the peak of HER character – from there on in she was just running about screaming or being rescued it seemed to me. In contrast, Alice had some intriguing things about her in Resident Evil – not least the question mark over her head with regard to her responsibility in releasing the T Virus – but overall, she seemed inherently male to me, even if she was wearing a sexy red dress. Her “Missing you already” when she killed fake husband James Dreyfus was *so* reminiscent of Arnie’s murder of fake wife Sharon Stone in Total Recall, it felt rather on the nose for me.——————————————————————-
So – “the same… but different”: you CAN use the same premise, but execute it differently, using a different hook. It can even be desirable, as these films show… They all made it to the screen and DVD stores, despite being the “same”. What was “different” was HOW they play out AND what hooks us. Therein lies the challenge, of course.

Have you seen any of these films – how do you think they compare? Have you written a spec, then abandoned it in the belief it’s “too similar” to a produced movie? Over to you…

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6 thoughts on “Killer Premises: It’s All In The Execution?”

  1. I always think of Day of the Triffids when I see 28 Days Later – the first time in anger. Exchange Killer Plants for Rage Virus and you have pretty much the same premise, and some near identical scenes.

    I can see that similar premises might be good if they are a result of zeitgeist thinking and show that you are tapping into a current area of interest, but what if they are (like 28 DL and DOTT) years or even decades apart? Does this matter?

    I’m an awful one for writing something (an entire book in one case) which turns out has a very similar premise to something I hadn’t heard of before. I do find it annoying, but I like to reshuffle the plot and press on…

  2. I have abandoned story ideas not because I think they are too similair but because others do.

    To explain.

    I often do the “pitch test” I will pitch 5 different people a bunch of my premises (seperately of course) and if 3 of them comment that it is like another film (and they all match)I shelve the project as the chances of being accused of “ripping off” another story are greater.

    However if all 5 say it sounds like 5 completely different films then I may be onto a winner and so will be more than likely to persue that one.

    I have been known to do this with outlines too. We shall see how this pays off in later years.

    Of course there are some projects which I will write regardless of what people think because I just need to get them out of my head.


  3. I’ve been tempted to bin things when I’ve discovered others have done something similar but stopped myself.

    As long as I am doing something different with it, saying something new, or hopefully doing it better then what’s the problem.

    I look up at my DVD shelves and see Resident Evil and 28 Days Later squatting there. As do their sequels.

    I think they nicely show how one idea does not mean one story. And I’m with you on liking both.

    Looking along my DVD shelves I find several illustrating the difference in tone, quality and plot from a common basic idea.

    Trapped in the dark with voracious predator: Pitch Black, Cave and The Descent.

    Innocents Abroad: Harvey and 40yr Old Virgin

    Functional Alcoholics: Harvey and Thin Man

    Giant Rabbits: Harvey, Donnie Darko and Tellytubbies.

    I’m not very good at this am I? I’ll quietly creep off now.

  4. Oh and Laura I’ve got Day of the Triffids too. Old film and slightly younger TV series. Or rather Dave has because he’s a better collector than me.

    Hadn’t spotted the link with 28 Days so will look out for it next time. Doesn’t surprise me though. The film scene with the dog in the park gave me nightmares for ages.

  5. I’m comparing it more to the book than the TV series – I LOVE the book but can’t remember the show or film versions at all.

  6. Sometimes we have a soft spot for a certain premise/theme, and we’re willing to let go of logic or really suspend our beliefs. I’m a huge fan of revenge movies, and some of my all time favorites are revenge flicks: Braveheart and The Crow. They couldn’t be more different in a lot of ways, but both have revenge in common. I also love Taken and Death Sentence. Sure, Kevin Bacon’s actions and logic are debatable but considering what he loses, we’re (or at least I am) willing to believe he can eventually lose it and kick that much ass, just like we can root for one guy to kick an impossible amount of asses in a foreign country because he’s just that cool…:) That said, despite being a huge fan, I haven’t tried my hand at a revenge flick because I haven’t come up with a new(isn) angle yet.

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