The fine line between talented and bonkers

questionmarkMy question is kind of a personal question for me to ask and possibly for you to answer. I’ve been a writer, well you could say my entire life, because it’s more than a profession it’s an identity, isn’t it? I find that I spend a lot of time “in my head” so to speak. That is to say, I spend probably 80% of my day day dreaming and fantasizing and exploring my imagination. Something that I know could be easily misinterpreted as a mental illness but nobody’s perfect.

Do you find yourself in similar shoes? And if so, do you find that your writing in a way sort of hinders your life? How do you cope? I sometimes talk myself, well quite often I can be found talking to myself. It’s like all the characters of the story I’m currently working on just start having dialogue and I’m able to just listen and try to decide if this dialogue has the right rhythm, whether this dialogue sounds like real people talking. I’m comfortable with all this and when it comes to writing I don’t think I’m all that bad. I was just curious to see if I have something in common with a successful writer.


answer iconWhen it comes to writers, there’s a fine line between talented and bonkers. Yes, I talk to myself. Yes, I zone out at times, and if you were to ask me where I was, the honest answer would be, “on a bridge in Mongolia.” But I think that’s fairly normal. I don’t worry about it much.

The closest I came to the far side of sane was during my tenure on “D.C.”, a television show I created for the WB in 2000. The wonder of TV, of course, was that I was writing for the same characters and the same sets week after week. But once exhaustion set in, any bit of external stimulation — a conversation with a friend, a song on the radio — went through this filter in my head to ask the Big Question: Could I use this on the show?

It’s like there were two worlds existing simultaneously, and the imaginary one was much more important. My job was to stoke its fires, and keep alive.

I got fired from the show before I could reach complete mental breakdown, but I’m sure it would have happened. The experience made me much more appreciative of normal life. Sometimes a conversation is just a conversation, and a song is just a song.

For those readers wondering if they might be Actually Crazy, rather than just artistic, I’d recommend taking an objective look at your daily life. Do you shower and go to work? Do you have meaningful conversations with friends and acquaintances? Is your living space reasonably tidy, and free of year-old newspapers? If so, keep on talking to yourself. If not, talk to a doctor or another mental health professional and get their considered opinion.

I don’t think you have to be nuts to be a good writer. Nor do I you should use writing as an excuse for not getting help when you need it.

History of Confederated Products

Congratulations on Big Fish. I have a silly question concerning the “Confederated Products” throwaway about halfway through that movie. Since that’s a reference to your previous work, rather than Tim Burton’s, how did it get there? That is, did you include it in the script, or did someone else suggest it?

–Patrick Bowman

For those who don’t know the reference, “Confederated Products” is the Amway-like company that serves as a major punchline in the third part of Go. Originally, the company was supposed to be American Products, but the legal department couldn’t get clearance on the name. I had to submit a list of alternatives, and Confederated Products was the best one that checked out okay.

Since then, I’ve tried to use Confederated Products in every project. (Likewise, I also try to use Melissa McCarthy, who is similarly terrific and versatile.) I just write “Confederated Products” into the script and hope no one tries to change it. Generally, they don’t. After Go, Big Fish is the biggest use of the brand name, but it was also used in the first Charlie’s Angels — though I’m not sure you can see it.

I’ve always been a big fan of giant, insidius imaginary corporations such as Acme or Weyland-Yutani. I registered just so I could be sure to have the name for future projects.

Using the music of an unknown band

I have an idea for a script that was inspired by an album by a virtually unknown band. In a perfect world the script will eventually be produced and soundtrack scored by the band’s music. But let’s take things one step at a time.

Do I have any right writing a script inspired by the words and sounds created by someone else? Do I have any right borrowing titles? Do I have any right writing their music into the script? (I know that’s normally frowned upon anyway.) I think you get where I am coming from. I don’t want to write a script heavily involved with specific music unless I know my rights.


You don’t have any right in a legal sense, but that shouldn’t necessarily be your first concern. If this is the script you really want to write, just write it. Just make sure that on the title page or a page thereafter, you give full credit for things that aren’t yours.

Obviously, if your script can’t be made without this band’s music, you won’t be able to sell it until they’re handled. But by your description, it doesn’t sound like the world is breaking down their door, so it’s always possible they’ll read your script and say hell yes.

Including illustrations with your screenplay

questionmark I know it’s a big no-no to include drawings or images in your screenplay, but is it ever okay in certain circumstances?

For example: I’m writing a script where the town that the story is set in is integral to the plot. A fight breaks out there in key sections of the town’s layout and it is all very well co-ordinated.

In this case, is it possible to include a small map of the town’s layout?

I’ve tried describing the town and its layout in detail, but it ends up at over 3 pages…and that’s condensed. Surely a small map could help the reader better understand the details of the action scenes?


answer iconI recently read the first few books of THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, and sighed with nostalgic longing at the map on page two which shows the layout of the little town. The author/illustrators had gotten it just right. I immediately flashed-back to my sunbeam days of youth, as an eager young reader flipping to the map to figure out what route Bobby would take to get to the Old Mill.

Cut to the present. I’m going to stick to my guns and say it’s never okay to include drawings with a screenplay. For as often as screenwriting is compared to architecture, there’s one crucial difference: it’s not really architecture. With clever descriptions, the screenwriter gets to evoke the feeling of a small town, with its lazy cobblestone streets and general store on the corner. But you’re not allowed to literally draw the map.

I know that for something like a fight sequence, a schematic might make life a lot easier, but words are all you get. Focus on the emotion and story moments of the fight, not the logistics, and everyone will be better served.

The difference between homage and rip-off

questionmarkYou knowing a lot about screenwriting and the law, I’ve got a question about ethics and rights; When is a screenplay an ‘homage’, as opposed to an illegal rip-off/unauthorized remake?

Let’s take Seven Samurai for instance. It was remade officially and legally as Magnificent Seven, but then there have been other versions of the story made since then — most notably Battle Beyond The Stars and, to an extent, A Bug’s Life. I might be mistaken, but I’m almost certain these films didn’t have remake rights. How was this done?

Is it all a matter of “shut your mouth about the source and you’ll get away with it”? For instance; I’ve noticed that despite it being blatantly obvious; Tarantino has never been quoted as saying City On Fire was an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs. However, James Cameron came right out and said that some short works by Harlan Ellison were the inspiration for The Terminator — and then he got sued.

Is it a case of altering the situations, names and characters to the point where they are dissimilar enough to pass as a new work?

Or do you consider a pre-told story an ‘archetype’ from the point it enters the public arena? I could see that being the case for Seven Samurai — the story has been re-told so many times that the very core of the story (seven warriors defending a village from bandits) has now become an archetype. Would you agree?

Let’s put the theory in practice with a hypothetical: I write a script about a bank that hires seven police officers to guard them from a large-scale robbery they have heard rumored will take place (no, that’s not a script I’m working on…feel free to steal that idea if you want, people).

Would it really come down to the difference of me saying “I thought it was a great story and wanted to pay homage to the master; Kurosawa” — as opposed to “I thought it was a great story, so I blatantly stole it.”?

Even if you’re not sure about the legal side of things, what would be your opinion on a writer working on an homage piece?


answer iconThe great thing about your question is that it already did all the hard work for me. Observe and learn, dear readers: see the wonder of the self-answering question.

Basically, I think you’re right on all counts. An “idea” is essentially unprotectable, so seven guys defending a village can be done any number of times without owing a dime (or a tip of the hat) to Mr. Kurosawa. What is protectable is the execution: the plot, the characters and all of the details. The Magnificent Seven is a remake in that it took all of these elements fairly directly. The others are appropriating only the basic idea, or small details, and are thus labelled “homage.”

Regarding your theoretical bank-heist movie: yes, I think you’d be in the clear, but only to the degree you kept the characters and specific plot points far clear of Kurosawa’s film. And when you’re doing interviews, shut up about your influences.