Tuesday 9 October 2007

London to Brighton – The Ubiquity of Ideas

Warning! This post contains spoilers for London to Brighton.

First off, let me say that I have absolutely nothing against London to Brighton – all round, it’s a pretty decent film (with one major lapse of narrative logic, but you can’t have everything).

The thing that really intrigued me however, was the ending – despicable gangster Stuart Allen drives tart with a heart Kelly and her ward Joanne deep into the Sussex countryside with the express intention of having them killed by his gormless foot soldiers – Derek and Chum. Whilst Derek and Chum get busy digging a shallow grave, Kelly and Joanne plead for their lives, convinced that they are going to be killed. However, when the moment of truth arrives, Stuart’s cronies’ guns are aimed at Derek and Chum, and Kelly and Joanne are freed. It’s a great scene, full of menace, and the switch is cleverly played out.

There was just one problem for me – it all seemed a little familiar. The reason?

A few years back, I wrote an almost identical scene.

My script was set in south London circa 1974 and focussed on a timid accountant who gets drawn into a violent criminal underworld. The scene I wrote featured the accountant digging what is supposedly his own grave, only for it to become the final resting place for the big bad gangster’s psychotic rival. Without labouring the point too much, the scene in London to Brighton is almost identical.

And what’s more, that’s cool.

I am not for one moment suggesting that plagiarism of any sort has occurred here (my script did the rounds just as the British gangster movie was about to explode messily all over the place, so it got lost in the noise I guess). I think what this episode shows is that some ideas are simply ubiquitous – they possess a weird form of common currency. The fact that I wrote an identical scene a few years back means nothing. And besides, there are so many damn scripts out there all jockeying for attention, at least of few of them are going to share a lot of unintentional similarities.

On the other hand, a friend of mine got understandably upset a little while back when a British feature came out that seemed to borrow entirely from one of his own scripts. To add insult to injury, my friend had actually sent the script to the lead actor’s agent a few years before, only to see the idea apparently recycled wholesale into a starring vehicle. I think he consulted an entertainment lawyer but from then on the trail went cold (the film bombed big time anyway, so a law suit is pretty pointless when no-one has any money available to compensate).

Whether or not this was a similar situation was difficult to tell. There was a certain ubiquity in the idea, and, as we all know, you can’t copyright an idea (believe me, I deal with this sort of crap every day). You could launch an action based on a like-for-like comparison of the two scripts side by side, but if that test fails, you’re screwed. It’s all in the specifics – the idea/concept is obviously important, but what counts in an instance like this is the execution (there are other issues to consider here of course: unless you have a compelling case, try finding a media lawyer who would take this sort of thing on for free, not to mention the damage it would do to any career if litigation was a first port of call).

Anyone can have an idea for a screenplay – it’s not difficult. The difficulty comes when you have to actually write the damn thing. How many times have you seen someone on Shooting People announce that they have a drop dead brilliant idea for a script, but what they really need is for someone to write the thing for (or ‘with’) them? In the next breath they start talking about confidentiality agreements just in case you think their diamond studded, gold plated idea is worth stealing. Pah. It’s the execution that matters.

My solution to this? Be original. What I took from London to Brighton is that I’m not being original enough (must try harder). If nothing else, being original gets you remembered.

And that lapse of narrative logic in London to Brighton? When Derek and Chum happen across Kelly in her friend’s house in Brighton, they order everyone (a bunch of dozy dope smoking slackers) out of the house at gunpoint – the slackers then promptly disappear! Hang on a minute – crazy pimp with a shotgun holding two women hostage? Quick! Call the cops! On second thoughts, don’t bother. We’re all pretty laid back here in sunny Brighton, so when crazy pimps start waving shotguns around, we all go, ‘Meh – been there, done that.’ Besides, I think I’m getting a bit autistic about narrative logic (which in the case of London to Brighton seems to be directly related to how much money was left in the budget). I need to relax a bit, I think.


Lucy V said...

It's not just the execution, but as your post title suggests - some ideas are just ubiquitous and turn up again and again and again. Without wanting to pour cold water on your scene Chip, I've lost count of the number of times I've read someone building a shallow grave thinking it's for them but it ends up being for someone else and I'm sure other script readers have too. There are ideas and scenes that crop up loads, all from unconnected people. Who knows why, but they do.

Chip Smith said...

You're absolutely right there, Luce (you cold water pourer, you) - I obviously haven't read as many scripts as you have, but if I did then I'm sure the old shallow grave scenario would pop up again. As you say, certain ideas crop up all the time, which is why I always try and tell myself to be a little more original.

Lucy V said...

But even if you did read loads more scripts Chip I bet you a million squid, tentacles and all, that you would still write something in particular, congratulate yourself on being original, then find someone beat you to it! ; )

Chip Smith said...

Nah, not a chance - the way my brain works, I'd be amazed if anyone could come up with half the old nonsense I choose to write about ;-)

Besides, I thought you had a meeting to go to? Go and slay 'em, kiddo...

Lucy V said...

On reflection, having read your last script... ; )

Chip Smith said...

I think in that particular case, for 'original' read 'demented'!

Didn't you write 'weird is good' in your notes? My new mantra ;-)

Robin Kelly said...

I did like the film but that scene lacking narrative logic means I can never love it. I don't think it's about budget but spending a bit longer on the screenplay as there were other ways of achieving the same thing.

But I also think the twist at the end with the shallow grave doesn't entirely stand up. So relax, your autism isn't as bad as mine ;-)

Chip Smith said...

Hi Robin - reading some of the production notes for L2B (see what I did there?!) it seems that a lot of it was filmed quite quickly, so certain aspects may have been improved a little by having a bit more money thrown at them I think. Even so, it's a pretty decent little film, I think - I can almost forgive the lapses in logic given the generally all round brilliant performances of the cast, but not quite :-)