Skip to content

A Look In The Spec Pile # 2: Premise

NO SPOILERS Lots of writers worry about the premise of their spec feature or TV Pilot — unnecessarily, in my view. After all, the odds are against anyone making it, so if you have the same idea as a production company or some *big* writer, you still have a sample; your position hasn’t changed in real terms. Other writers worry their premises in other ways – the most common query I get is: “But does it actually work… Is the idea TOO MAD?”

First off, a lot of specs in the pile are MAD — but this is usually to do with plotting and crazy structure, than the actual idea behind it. I can count the number of specs I’ve read where the premise is STARK STARING BONKERS on one hand. To be honest, I don’t recall reading any particularly crazy ones for at least a year! Instead I’m generally treated to the *same old stories* told in the *same old way* – of which we be talking at my class next saturday, “How To Be A Great Script Reader” (there’s a place or two left if you want one! Hurry!).

But what is wrong with with a MAD premise? If you can be flamboyant, yet pull it off with GOOD plotting, a mad premise in your spec could open doors for you — because mad premises get REMEMBERED. After all, what about these…


A young ad exec can’t come up with a slogan for a spot cream and develops a stress-related boil on his shoulder that starts talking to him. Brought to us by the writer/director of WITHNAIL AND I and starring Richard E. Grant and his trademark manic stare, I couldn’t help but remember it — I don’t think I’ve even watched it in the last ten years.


Again about advertising, a bitter exec (played by Dudley Moore) this time reaches breaking time and starts telling THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH in his ad campaigns, ending up in a mental institution. There, he discovers his true “self” and real happiness with Daryl Hannah who was *always* the love interest in kooky movies like this back then.


Proof mad premises don’t have to be all about comedy… But seriously, WTF is Lost Highway about? I couldn’t tell you: when Bill Pullman turns in Balthazar Getty I was completely *lost* but up until that point I had been riveted, especially when the bloke at the party hands him the phone and tells Bill to “call me”, even though he’s standing right in front of him.


Some writers make a CAREER out of mad premises, like Charlie Kaufmann. Looking at three of his best-known: Being John Malkovich takes a REAL actor and makes an Alice-In-Wonderland style door in his mind. Kaufmann writes himself, a REAL book and an UNREAL brother into Adaptation. And just when you think you have a handle on him, Kaufmann changes the goalposts AGAIN, for Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind sees the unlikely (yet fantastic) combination of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet interpreting a multi-faceted, non-linear narrative about what it is *to love*.

Of course, the problem with MAD PREMISES, even with good plotting, is how they’re received: some readers or producers may LOVE your work and just as many may HATE it. But I’d venture it’s FAR better to have readers hate your work for “being too weird” than for them to read it, smile and say, “ah that was nice” and then promptly forget all about you, the writer. After all, we write specs principally NOT to sell, but to sell OURSELVES and our ability.

What other mad premises have you seen, that you think ultimately work or not? Over to you…
If you want more of an insight to the spec pile, don’t forget — Ealing Studios, April 24th, 10 – 5. Be there!

Share this:

2 thoughts on “A Look In The Spec Pile # 2: Premise”

  1. Luis Bunuel's "Exterminating Angel" or "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" would probably get a few heads scratching. Greenaway's Drowning By Numbers is also an add one.

    Other than that, I can only wonder what it must have been like to read Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the first time (which also leads to Terry Gilliam & Tom Stoppard's screenplay for "Brazil".)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *