Let’s Do It: Writing a Movie Based on Someone Else’s Idea

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2010
by Julie & Jessica of King is a Fink

Director Phil Holbrook had been kicking around his idea for TILT for a few years, but our involvement with the project started on December 29th, 2009, with this message:
Just for the sake of discussion, what do you think you would charge for a script, if you were given an idea & an outline?
I’m pretty sure we looked at each other and said “one million dollars” in unison.  Then we took a deep breath and got serious.  What would writing for another person mean?  The decision to take on this project wasn't easy.  Soon after getting Phil's message, we “met” him on Skype.  He shared his idea with us, which had to have been hard, and then we mulled it over for a couple of days. 

While we didn’t actually make a pro and con list, if we had, it would have looked something like this:

  • We’d ever worked with anyone else on this level.  So far we’d written 15 or so shorts and (almost) 3 feature-length screenplays, but our process had been a private one.  By accepting this assignment, we’d be not only developing someone else’s idea but relying on their feedback and criticism.  This. Was. Scary.
  • We had other projects on our slate.  We were about to finish The Unlovables.  We wanted to revise Moonbugs.  We were in talks to adapt a naughty memoir by author Kevin Keck (no relation; totally family).  We wanted to make another short.  Did we really have time for another major project?
  • What if it didn’t work out?  This was the most worrisome issue.  We’d developed a great rapport with Phil and considered him our friend, but we knew that there could be problems.  What would happen if he didn’t like what we wrote?  Or what if we wrote the movie and didn’t like his directing?  What if the movie was a huge success but we didn’t like how the profits were split up?  (Admittedly, the last one would be a great problem to have.)  Lots of things could go wrong.
  • First and foremost, we really liked Phil.  We’d developed a great rapport with him over Twitter, submitted shorts (and gotten accepted) to his film festival, and genuinely enjoyed interacting with him.  We also thought he was a talented director.  (You've seen Honest Work, right?)  Phil was the perfect Twitter friend: supportive of others projects and eager to share great information.  And he was just freakin’ funny.
  • We genuinely liked Phil’s basic idea.  The idea was fresh, provocative, and edgy, definitely in line with our other work. 
  • The project fit in with our ultimate goal, which was to write screenplays for others.  If we could successfully partner with Phil, develop a script that he loved, and help him make the best movie possible, we’d have proof that we could do the same for other directors.  (Kathryn Bigelow, can you hear us?)
Our Decision
Obviously, we decided to take the leap and join Phil on this journey.  No regrets.
First Steps
After we decided to take on the project, we emailed Phil a 5-page treatment for TILT.  We’d fleshed out the story in some ways that he hadn’t expected, but, from the very beginning, he encouraged us to contribute our own ideas.  This has been one of the best things about working with Phil: he has always maintained that this is our project, too.  It's made the writing process a lot easier.  We don’t just submit pages to him like he’s our boss; we share our work with him as our partner, someone we can rely on for honest feedback and encouragement.  

Turning in Act One
As promised, we turned in Act One to Phil the week before EgoFest.  And then...we didn’t hear back from him.  For about 12 hours.  Julie's hair turned white.  We worried that he didn’t like the script, that he didn’t want to work with us anymore, that we’d ruined everything.  But the next morning Phil sent us a message saying that, overall, he liked what we’d done.  Whew...

Our 1st Big Collaborative Bump

While we were in Brainerd for EgoFest, we talked a lot about TILT, and we talked about one particular element of Act Two that we all had differing opinions on.  Without giving anything away, there’s an element that Phil wanted to add that we disagreed with.   By the end of the weekend, Jess and I had promised to give it a shot.  On the ten-hour drive back home to Chicago we threw ideas back and forth and tried to figure it out.  By the time we got home, though, we still hadn't figured out how to incorporate Phil's request.

A Big Talk
We talked with Phil about the issue over Skype, and it was the most difficult talk we've had.  In the end, we asked Phil to give us a chance to prove that we could make a solid Act Two our way.  We know this had to be hard on Phil; it took a huge toll on us.  On one hand, we knew that this had started as Phil’s project, and we wanted to give him what he wanted.  We didn't want to let him down.  On the other hand, we wanted to stay true to ourselves and create character arcs and story lines that made sense to us.  We also wanted to end up with something that we could share with others as a true reflection of our ability to develop stories.

We sort of felt like we were designers on Project Runway: we wanted to satisfy our client (Phil) while still letting our personal style shine through.  (Hmm, note to Phil: we may need to get a TILT Tim Gunn.  And maybe a TILT Heidi Klum.)

Ready for Act Two?
We’re planning on turning in Act Two to Phil by Saturday (3/27).  We think it’s good.  We hope Phil does, too.  We’re still a little nervous about showing him what we’ve done, but, in the end, we know that we’ll be able to talk about the story honestly and respectfully.  Our partnership is solid (solid as a rock, in fact), and we all have the same goal: to create the best movie possible.


  1. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman March 25, 2010 at 2:30 PM

    Wow. Very impressive. I agree, once you complete this, you will absolutely have proven you can write with and for anyone! I've had four writing partners... it ain't always pretty. But you have the right approach, in my opinion, regarding writing someone else's idea. I'm adapting a book now with the author, and I have openly told him he has final word because the book is his, but I have absolutely changed the story, added to it, tweaked it in ways he would never have expected. Not every story creator would allow that with humility. Finding the right match is key. I'm so excited you guys are working together and can't wait until it's completed!!!!!

  2. Philontilt March 25, 2010 at 2:46 PM

    Respect & Trust

    Julie & Jessica, both have mine.

  3. Anonymous March 25, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    Phil - Thank you. So happy to be working with you.

    Jeanne - Thanks for your kind words and your personal anecdotes. We're glad that we went out on this limb with Phil, and we can't wait to see how this all turns out.

  4. Anonymous March 26, 2010 at 8:05 AM

    Wow! I am impressed. I have trouble keeping my internal editor silent during 1st drafts. It's good to hear the writing team and idea originator get along and can bounce ideas back and forth to move the story along.

    I think the two of you deserve big pats on the back for taking someone else's idea and still providing your voice and writing style.

    I can't wait to see the final product.

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