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How to Steal Ideas – Learning from the Coen Brothers

March 14, 2010

I chose idea robbing as a general topic for my personal blog because I like researching things online, and I believe that idea sharing facilitated by the internet is making us smarter as a culture.  I also think originality is misunderstood.  If your idea is completely out of left field and lacks grounding, odds are that it won’t resonate.  On the other hand, if you take multiple ideas from the past and combine them into something new, your chances of success are better.  There’s an old saying: “stealing from one is plagiarism; stealing from many is research.”  The films of the Coen Brothers are excellent case studies in effective idea robbing.

The Coens have a reputation as quirky auteurs with a style all their own, but their creative process is largely grounded in borrowed ideas.  The general plot of The Big Lebowski (1998), for example, is lifted from The Big Sleep (1946) with The Dude as Marlowe, Maude as Vivian (Lauren Bacall), Bunny as Carmen (Martha Vickers), and the Millionaire Lebowski as General Sternwood (Charles Waldron).  It too loose an adaptation to be called a remake, though.  Walter and Dude are anachronistic characters from the 60s.  The dream sequences are references to the over-the-top Busby Berkeley choreography of the 1930s/1940s, and the Jackie Treehorn sub-plot takes us through the booming porn industry of the 1970s.  Somehow the Coens combined all of these elements to create one of the more quotable cult classics of all time.

The title of O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) comes from Preston Sturges’ film Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  In the Sturges film, a Hollywood director played by Joel McCrea grows bored making light-hearted musicals, so he sets off on an odyssey disguised as a hobo.  His goal was to research life as a common man in order to make a hard-hitting dramatic film called O Brother Where Art Thou? The trip doesn’t go as planned, and Sullivan ultimately decides to scrap the idea having come to the conclusion that his musicals do more good for society than a dramatic film.  The Coens thought it would be funny to actually make Sullivan’s shelved film 60 years later, so they borrowed the plot from Homer’s Odyssey and created an award-winning comedic musical.  Like many people, I hadn’t seen Sullivan’s Travels until after O Brother, but the Coens tend to steal ideas out of respect, and they did us a service by re-introducing Sturges’ comedies.  The Lady Eve (1941) is another great one that you can stream online if you’re a Netflix subscriber.

The Coen movie most relevant to blogging (or any other type of writing) is Barton Fink.  The story centers around a successful New York playwright who moves to Hollywood to pen movie scripts, where he is stricken with chronic writer’s block.  The Coens wrote Barton Fink as a break from their tiring work-in-progress, Miller’s Crossing.  Pulling something of a reverse Barton move, they left Los Angeles for New York and wrote the script in a frenzied three-week session.  In Barton Fink, the title character becomes so obsessed with creating a great work that it tortures him and stifles his productivity.  He seeks advice from the productive – and raging alcoholic – screenwriter W.P. Mayhew, loosely based on William Faulkner.  While Mayhew is usually too drunk to offer cogent advice, his secretary/ghostwriter, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), encourages Barton not to over-think it and to just stick to a formula.  Fink struggles with this, as he holds himself to lofty and arrogant standards.  Fink’s biggest hurdle as a writer is his self-centered personality and inability to listen to those around him.  John Goodman plays a cheerful salesman character named Charlie, seemingly the only other guest in the hotel where Fink stays.  In their first encounter, Charlie says, “I could tell you stories that would curl your hair.” Rather than listen to what Charlie has to say and spin the stories into scripts, Fink interrupts him and rattles on about himself and his craft.  While writing is by nature a somewhat solitary endeavor, ignoring inspiration from the world around you is a recipe for failure.

My screenwriting professor in college, Richard Chapman, used to tell us that the key to good writing is the ability to remove yourself from a situation and be a fly on the wall.  He suggested one way to learn realistic dialog was to sit in a coffee shop with a pad of paper and just write down the things you hear.  Richard was always on the lookout for good ideas and made no attempt to hide it.  Sometimes in class, if someone threw out a particularly creative character idea or a great line of dialog, his reaction would be “Hey, I like that – can I steal it?”  We always laughed and took it as a compliment, although I’m sure he really did jot it down in his notebook.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2010 8:21 am

    Just saw A Serious Man this weekend – do you know what this is taken from?

  2. March 15, 2010 9:06 am

    Haven’t seen it yet, so I guess I need to queue it up. LA Times says the setting is autobiographical:

    “Set in a very specific time and place — the Jewish community in suburban Minneapolis circa 1967 — that closely echoes the Coens’ own background, “A Serious Man” is a memory piece re-imagined through the darkest possible lens.”

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