This article from Sunday’s LA Times makes a great case study in the difference between an interesting setting and an actual movie idea:

Pagasa may be a 75-acre speck of sand and rock, but that hasn’t stopped a swarm of countries from battling over the hundreds of specks of sand and rock that make up the Spratlys, which may be the most disputed island chain on Earth.

So, in 2002, the Philippines decided to establish a small colony of hardy civilian settlers on the island, augmenting the two dozen military workers who earn special “loneliness pay” to live on the far-off spot — and bolstering its claim that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

The result is sort of “Cast Away” meets Plymouth Rock.

It’s worth reading John Glionna’s entire article, because it’s quickly clear that Cast Away is only one of many different kinds of movies you could set on the island.

Here are some elements I found compelling:

  • Isolated, together. The “volunteers” are far from home, but never alone. In fact, the island is so tiny you can’t get away from someone.

  • Primitive and modern. Despite the airstrip, most of their food comes from fishing. A bad typhoon can destroy them. Yet they keep blogs.

  • An international dispute over an unimportant piece of dirt. Is it really the airstrip the Philippines wants to protect, or its ego?

What is a Pagasa movie?

Is it a thriller? Most thrillers rely on something to isolate the protagonist, either literally (Panic Room) or figuratively (The Bourne Identity). Islands work well for this. In 2002, I pitched a version of Alien v. Predator set on an island in Maine during a massive storm; Pagasa could work similarly.

Is it a comedy? Pagasa is a military installation, so it’s not hard to envision a version of Stripes, cast with a bunch of funny younger actors.

Is it a romantic comedy? Given its isolation and lop-sided male-female ratio, it’s a natural and cinematic setting.

My point is that there’s a big difference between the world of a movie (the setting, the rules, the background color) and the movie itself. And that bridging that gap is what screenwriters do.

When you’re a newish-but-working writer in Hollywood, you get sent articles like this all the time. The producer or creative exec will say, “We think there’s a movie here. Come in and pitch your take.” Generally, they’ll give you some kind of direction, like, “We see it as The Piano, but, you know, funnier.”

As the screenwriter, your job is to come up with the characters, conflicts, goals, themes, reversals and set pieces that make the story worthwhile. (In TV, you call this breaking a story.) You’re not getting paid for this, even though it may take a week of your time. Rather, you’re auditioning for a job. You want them to hire you to write it.

Most of the time, you won’t get the job. But breaking story after story is amazing practice, and each pitch helps you figure out not only how plot works, but how the movie industry works.