How to find movie ideas in random articles.

“Pulling premise” is a skill I learned from improv classes, where someone will tell a brief, personal monologue and then the class has to create punchy, comedic scenes off of that monologue. Some people are naturally good at this, others, like me, have to work really hard to develop the skill. Pulling premise comes down to “find the most interesting, playable idea off of the material you’ve been given to work with,” and that’s really difficult.

This is an exercise I like to give my clients. I’ll take an article and ask them to come up with a number of viable screenplay takes that organically flow from this idea.

Take this example:

It’s the story of Elizabeth Bathory, a medeval countess who killed servant girls and bathed in their blood in the hopes of maintaining her youth and beauty. Some call her the first vampire.

When looking at an article, we should ask ourselves: what kind of recognizable movie ideas does this organically give rise to? There are many stories in this material, some more interesting than others.

This could be a historical piece. A biopic of a fucked up lady in a fucked up time. We could use her life and times as a way of shedding light on the time she lived in (and hopefully find some analogs between that time and today).

This could be a genre piece. It’s SAW in 1600! We’d probably map this over a conventional horror piece, start with a group of young nobles going to their summer castle like co-eds on spring break. But when their carriage breaks down, they get sucked into the debaucherous tortures of the dread castle.

This could be the lead-in to a supernatural horror film. A group of students go on an excursion to the Bathory castle, but they open the chamber she was sealed in. Now they have to escape. The plot would could hinge on them destroying the source of Bathory’s unlife, which, given her obsession with youth, would probably be a mirror.

Alternately, we could move the soul of the situation to modern times. Rose Byrne plays a Texas housewife who fears that she’s growing old. Her family runs their town, so no one suspects when she starts abducting local girls from the trailer park and bleeding them dry.

We could go Bates Motel on this motherfucker. A countess who kills servant girls probably isn’t enough to hinge five seasons off of, but we could treat the Bathory’s like the BORGIAS and make this an HBO prestige historical drama about a fucked up dynasty.

We could build off a small slice of the article: Bathory spent three years walled up in a small room. We could make this like QUILLS or GODS AND MONSTERS, make it about the lesboerotic relationship between a decrepit, dying Bathory, and the nubile, godly servant girl who brings her bread and water.

Or anything else. The trick to pulling premise is to make a list of the things it could be, and then ask yourself what you’re most comfortable illustrating. For me, I love stories of melancholy, human nature, and the abuses of the powerful. I would go with the Rose Byrne in Texas take. A pure horror writer might like the students in a vampire castle angle, an AFI student might go with the GODS AND MONSTERS take, etc.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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