The movie Outland is basically High Noon, with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role, and it takes place on one of Jupiter’s moons. Alien was pitched as Jaws in space by Ridley Scott. The Coen brothers came up with the idea for Oh Brother Where Art Thou, using the plot from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. They just changed the characters, the tone, and the setting– to the rural south during the 1930’s.
Notice how these ideas came about. The writers took successful films, and made changes; in locale, the characters and the timeframe. That’s one way screenwriters come up with story ideas, and it’s been around forever. It’s consistent with the idea that creativity is about synthesis, combining two ideas to create a new one.
Playing around with genre is another way. Our most enduring genres include drama, comedy, love stories, action, adventure, crime stories, westerns, war stories, horror, science fiction and fantasy.
While some films fit neatly into one genre, say in the sense that Tombstone is a classic Western, consider Blazing Saddles, and A Million Ways to die in the West, both a comedy-westerns. Mel Brooks and Seth Mc Farland decided to take classic western stories and make them into comedies, another way to come up with fresh ideas.
Some of the best romantic comedies involved a classic film subgenre, the “opposites attract love story.” Lots of movie ideas came out of this notion of putting opposites together.
For example, Abby Singer, the neurotic Jew falls for the goyish midwesterner, Annie in the Oscar-winning film Annie Hall.
In As Good As It Gets, Melvin, (Jack Nicholson) a rude, crotchety and wealthy romance novelist with OCD, hooks up with a sweet, loving and painfully poor waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt).
The “opposites attract” theme has been a staple of Romantic Comedies going back to It Happened One Night, and Bringing Up Baby,” back in the 1930’s. Think of a pair of opposites you haven’t seen yet, and you may have found the germ of a fresh storyline.
Pairing up characters with opposite traits works in other sub-genres as well. For example, in the “buddy cop action comedy,” Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover played opposites, (Gibson, the crazed and reckless cop, Glover, the older, conservative cop just trying to last to retirement).
Those dynamics have worked as well in character comedies, for example The Odd Couple (with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon), and Grumpy Old Men (also with Matthau and Lemmon).
You can see how writers have come up with ideas in the past, by looking at existing storylines, then adding a twist. They think about ways to make a classic plot, or theme, or genre fresh by changing it up – just enough.
Think about Romeo and Juliet, itself a mixed genre – a tragic-love story of members from feuding camps. Many, many filmmakers have used that story as a springboard to create their own idea. For example, in West Side Story, the star crossed lovers came from different gangs (the Sharks and the Jets), instead of rival families (the Montague’s and the Capulet’s).
Even the “zombie movie,” Warm Bodies is a recent revision of Romeo and Juliet. In that movie, one of the star crossed lovers is a zombie, the other, a living human. How will they get along?
Recently, in fact – writers have come up with lots of hit movies by adding zombies to classic stories. Look at World War Z, for example, which combines a war genre with a horror-zombie subgenre. Shaun of the Dead and Evil Dead 2 combine zombies and comedy.
Screenwriters have been using this method for developing script ideas for years. One writer created a fresh idea by telling the story of Abraham Lincoln, but by adding vampires, in the “historic spoof,” Abraham Lincoln Vampire Killer.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez came up with a fresh idea by combining a straight up “crime drama” with a “horror-vampire” film, as well – in Dusk Til Dawn.
James Cameron came up with a great twist on the “disaster film,” with his classic film Titanic. He combined the disaster film with the “coming of age love story” between Rose De Witt (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di Caprio).
Dances with Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, was another very successful combination of film genres, the “fish-out of-water “genre and the western. Costner’s character was a Caucasian soldier, who is wounded, near death, falls on hard times, accepts the culture, and eventually lives with, and adopts the ways of his sworn enemy, the Lakota Sioux.
James Cameron decided to take the Dances With Wolves story, and push it into the future, and added aliens. Again, he successfully combined various genres’ to yield a hit and a masterpiece of filmmaking. Avatar still stands as the highest grossing film of all time.
Many great film ideas have come from looking at two or more successful films, and combining elements of each. When you’re thinking of ideas for your next screenplay, you might try playing around with mashing up existing plots and genres.
Some other examples; in writing Django, Unchained, Tarantino combined a “civil war era western” with a “samurai movie.” Blade Runner was a sci-fi story told against a film noir background. Kubrick took an action adventure story about nuclear war (Fail Safe), turned it on its head and came up with a dark comedy satirizing our fascination with nukes, Dr. Strangelove.
As you can see, some of the best filmmakers out there have looked at existing storylines, and added a twist. Think about movies you’ve seen. Look at all the films on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Imagine what the film would be like with gay characters instead of straight, imagine if it took place on another planet, or in the middle ages, and had a mythic quality.
You might just discover a great idea for a film that feels exciting and fresh using this method. Of course you will need to make it your own, you can’t keep all the locales, scenes and dialogue. Be creative, and put your stamp on it. Write it in your distinctive voice.