Development serves as one of the most important factors in creating a good film. It is of the utmost importance to nurture and build an idea as it grows from conception to its final form as a shooting script. Sometimes in development you find that ideas you thought were brilliant early on don’t serve the story and themes you want to explore and you must, as the saying goes, kill your darlings. At the same time, you often find the one thing that an idea was missing, that can tie the entire project together. My thesis film at Columbia College has gone through a doozy of a development process and I thought it might be interesting to take you all through a brief snapshot of it.
The initial idea for “He’s The Worst” started as a feature I wrote a year earlier entitled “F**k That Guy” in which a man and his now-famous ex-girlfriend drunkenly hook up one night, only to find out the next morning that literally the whole world knows about it and wants to kill him for it. It’s about celebrity culture, our relationship to celebrity, and the need to let go of the past. It’s also 102 pages long.
In order to cull a feature script down to a short 15-page Thesis, I had to hone in on the core of the idea: A guy trying to rekindle a relationship he has no business rekindling. So I thought of a guy who wants to get his ex back and goes to a party with the intent to do so. I kept a key scene in and made it so everyone at the party knows he wants her back and tries to stop him. Except that this iteration required a huge number of extras, and a boxing ring to be built inside an apartment living room. The initial script felt very fractured as scenes were built like levels in a video game with very little causal effect driving us between scenes. No dice.
So I changed it one more time: Brendan, unsatisfied with his love life after breaking up with Jess, decides that the only way to be happy is to get her back. Fancying himself the hero of a movie, Brendan goes to a party she’s throwing and has to “make it to the princess in the castle”, physically fighting her younger brother, solving a labyrinthine riddle, and finally confronting Jess in a climactic sword fight. All of this takes place in his head, though, there are no fights, and he is not the hero, he’s just a jerk trying to get back a relationship that he should move on from.
Another big part of development once we broke the story for the short, was figuring out how the elements of Brendan imagining the events of the film play out. We hit upon the idea that the director of the movie is also a character in the movie. At first he was just a caricature of an intellectual, spouting nonsense and waxing poetic instead of contributing to the story in any meaningful way. We had to build his character up, but in beefing up the director, we turned him into a sort of quasi-protagonist, diluting the story and making it once again too big for a short. Now we have turned him into an actual character with a real arc, but one that does not turn into the protagonist. This entire process has taken over 3 months, for a 15 page script.
The idea is still very big (TWO fight sequences?! I’m going to hate myself later for this). But the world is easier to create because it’s just in regular apartment rooms or black spaces with weird set dressing and few extras, and the fights are just regular fights in the apartment. Most importantly, though, I was willing to throw away ideas I loved at the time in order to build a better script, and that made all the difference.