Wednesday, May 9, 2012

4 Case Studies in Creators and the Stories They Loved

Nearly fifteen years ago film director Peter Jackson decided his life goal was to remake King Kong. But he couldn’t get the financing. It had been remade. Badly. So instead he acquired the rights to the Lord of the Rings, knowing it would be successful, hoping to leverage it into the chance to make King Kong. Indeed, LOTR was successful and he was given the green light to make Kong. Which was not great, did not perform nearly as well as LOTR, didn’t impact pop culture, wasn’t memorable, and hasn’t really endured.

Nearly forty years ago George Lucas was a hard-edge, downbeat young film maker who couldn’t bring himself to write a happy ending. On a dare he decided to make something light and fluffy. The result was Star Wars. Which he ultimately fell in love with, and wanted to make his way. Two treatments and four drafts later he finally was able to make the movie, but not with everything he wanted because the technology wasn’t advanced enough yet. 16 years after the last of his original trilogy was released he released the first in his prequel trilogy. It was what he really wanted to do, the way he wanted to do it. It was not great, did not perform as well as the originals, didn’t impact pop culture in the same way, and is not a beloved masterpiece like the classic trilogy.

Thirty years ago James Cameron, while working on Piranha II: The Spawning got very, very sick, and had a fever. A metal skeleton holding steak knives crawling away from an explosion. He woke up and started writing The Terminator. It was what he wanted to do. His agent asked him to stop writing, knowing it wouldn’t sell. So he fired his agent. He made the movie on a shoestring budget. It wasn’t expected to be successful, either critically or financially, but it became socially, culturally, aesthetically, and financially significant, spawning four sequels, a television series, and a billion dollar franchise.

Twenty years ago JK Rowling was sitting on a bench at a train station waiting for a delayed train. The idea of Harry Potter fell, fully-formed, into her brain. She took six years to write it her way. Found an agent to shop it. Took a year to find a home. Broke all sales expectations by selling 30,000 copies of the first book, and then broke every record imaginable by sell 450 MILLION books in the series, and becoming the most financially successful film franchise in human history.

What do these anecdotes tell us? Well, George Lucas and Peter Jackson couldn’t turn their love into success. JK Rowling and James Cameron did. Sometimes we do our best work when we step back emotionally and just do what we’re good at. It becomes great because other people love it. And sometimes we love it so much, our own love makes it great. So for those of us trying to write something people will remember this is an interesting question. Do we write because we know it’s what audiences love, and hope to share in that love, or do we love something and try to make it work? I’ll be perfectly honest: the former is far more common than the latter, but when it works, it explodes. And nothing is ever the same again.

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