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Where do movies come from? At the risk of sounding like Lucas from Empire Records (although “What’s with today, today?” is a perfectly valid question), there’s something genuinely incredible about the spark that leads to a multi-million dollar piece of art, crafted by thousands of people that a massive audience can enjoy.
Someone reads a book or hears a story or finds an old family heirloom in a basement. Someone wants to recognize a figure that made a profound impact on our world. Someone stumbles across an old idea or has a Eureka Moment in the shower. It all gets put through the ringer and ends up as the only source of light in a darkened room.
So, yes, there’s a magic to it all. Movies take their ideas from anywhere and everywhere (including other works of art and other movies). To celebrate that, here are five great films made just a bit more incredible by exploring where they come from.
Back to the Basement
For Back to the Future, the idea to send a young man back in time to hang out with teenage versions of his parents was born from a trip into the boxes of writer Bob Gale‘s childhood home.
“I was back in St. Louis, Missouri, visiting my parents. Searching around in the basement, I found my father’s high school yearbook. I’m thumbing through it and I found out my father was president of his graduating class. I didn’t know this. I thought about the president of my graduating class as someone I had nothing to do with. I was head of the Student Committee To Abolish Student Government. So I thought, ‘Gee, if I went to high school with my dad, would I have been friends with him?’ So that was the idea I came back to Los Angeles with.”
For Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, it was an opportunity to use time travel as a means to explore character, but some of the elements that we know and love weren’t present in the first drafts. The biggest change was in replacing a giant, “car wash”-like time machine with a sports car whose doors opened upward. And where did that come from? A joke.
According to Zemeckis, they’d decided that the farm owners who see Marty crash in the 50s would mistake his time machine for a space ship, and a DeLorean fit the bill best. The change also came in handy when they decided to get rid of the darkest element of the original idea – that Marty would accidentally go back in time while trying to use Doc Brown’s mysterious, electricity-riddled machine to kill himself.
It was probably best that they left that out, although they felt totally cool keeping in the Oedipal, incestuous stuff. Go figure.
Gale and Zemeckis got 40 rejections for the project, and they were only able to make it because Zemeckis finally had a career hit with Romancing the Stone. Because of that, they were able to return to Spielberg and get the greenlight from Universal.
Not bad for rooting around through a bunch of old boxes.
The Movie Made For Its Soundtrack
Usually, soundtracks are made in support of movies. They can be promotional tools or a source of added revenue aimed at fans who enjoy the songs of a particular flick. However, in 1964, Richard Lester and United Artists went to the trouble of directing a movie solely so they could make a soundtrack.
At the time, The Beatles were emerging as an epic phenomenon, and they were locked into a tight contract with EMI for albums, singles, and EPs. For obvious reasons, all other record companies were devising plans to sign the group to their company, but one industrious employee at United Artists Records was clever enough to recognize a loophole in their contract: they weren’t exclusive to EMI for movie soundtracks.
Because of its origin, the movie could have been a throwaway project, a meaningless bit of fluff that would have served solely to deliver a Beatles record for United Artists to profit from. They didn’t put much money into it, but the resulting film became an iconic flick because of its stars and because of its angle on mockumentary style.
United Artists wanted it cheap and fast, but studio head David Picker also wanted it as a good as possible, and the band certainly didn’t want to be part of something lacking in quality. Thus, an 87-minute story told purely to sell a slab of vinyl was crafted with the Beatles’ hip sensibilities and became a hit on its own.
The Comic Book Movie Without a Comic Book
As we all know, the modern comic book movie explosion happened after X-Men and Spider-Man both hit big, leading to a rush to mine all sorts of graphic material for gold. In fact, the boom has had such a major effect on studio thinking that some filmmakers have had to turn their ideas into comic books before being able to pitch them seriously, simply so the words “adapted from the graphic novel” have a chance to appear on screen.
However, The Wachowskis’ The Matrix was a comic book movie born without a comic book. The directing pair originally envisioned the story as a graphic novel that included all the Kung Fu fighting and science fiction excellence for which every man, woman and child yearns. They wanted to do live-action anime, appreciating the ability of both comics and animation to, you guessed it, slow down action and show it in different ways.
In proving they could handle the project as a film, they first turned to Joel Silver, who wanted them to prove they could direct. Instead of greenlighting The Matrix, he gave the go-ahead (and $6m) for them to direct the thriller Bound. When it was a success, they earned their spot in the chair, but it would still take convincing the studio. In order to do that, they of course turned back to the comic book world and hired artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce to ink a 600-page storyboard with every shot of the movie.
Warners still wasn’t keen on handing over an $80m budget to young filmmakers. Instead, the studio gave them $10m, and they used it to shoot the opening sequence with Trinity escaping from the police. The studio was blown away, and The Matrix was on track.
There are a thousand fascinating things about the movie and its origins. With its roots in Eastern and Western philosophy, technology, Descartes’ Evil Genius, Baurdillard’s “Simulation and Simulacra,” and a hundred other reference points, it has a lot of birthplaces. It also took a six million dollar test, a ten million dollar test, and a comic book idea without a comic book to make the movie a reality.
And when it became a hit, what do you think they turned it into?
The Story That Launched a Hundred Movies
So far we’ve looked at individual movies that had fascinating origins, but it’s time to look at a catalytic idea that has been shared by hundreds of films. The folk tale “Cinderella; or The Little Glass Slipper” holds the distinction of being made into more movies than any other story.
Beyond film, there are also countless ballets, operas, plays, novelizations, television programs, comic books and ice skating shows that all use the story of a young oppressed girl gaining a magical set of slippers from a Fairy Godmother as their generation point.
The idea has been twisted in every single direction, reset in locations from New York to Japan, and been remade for every generation. However, it’s probably a safe bet that the most famous is Disney’s Oscar-nominated version from 1950.
The question is, what’s so fascinating about this story that it’s been the midwife for so many different interpretations? Why is it shared across time and across cultures?
Whatever the answer, “Cinderella” is an incredible origin story.
The Best Bad Timing and Getting Everything Wrong
After a trip to Vienna and France in 1938 where he went to a jazz club overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, schoolteacher Murray Bennett got the idea that he and playwright Joan Alison would turn into “Everybody Comes To Rick’s.” Their play would never be published, but the manuscript showed up on a desk at Warner Bros. on exactly the right wrong day.
Irene Lee, head of the story department, discovered the play during a trip to New York to visit East Coast story editor Jack Wilk. It had sat on various desks for a year, Lee found it, and it was officially submitted for studio consideration on December 8, 1941 – the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With an immediate interest in patriotic stories and strong advocacy from Lee, studio runner Hal Wallis approved the purchase of the play for $20,000.
That play would become Casablanca.
Not only was the iconic film born from a trip to Nazi-occupied France and some fated timing, it was crafted by doing almost everything wrong. In fact, there’s an apocryphal story that Michael Curtiz only took the directing job after thinking he was totally wrong for a different project. The story goes that he was supposed to direct Sergeant York, but switched productions with Howard Hawks after the pair had lunch and both complained that they had no idea how to make their respective movies.
If that’s true, it was a bad bargain for the crew because Curtiz was notorious for treating everyone viciously and his conduct on the Casablanca set was no different. On top of that, writers were still making changes to the script two months into filming, many of the actors disliked each other, and since the war made it impossible to film actual airplanes, the famous final sequence was shot in front of a flimsy plywood plane with as much fog surrounding it as the machine could handle. Humphrey Bogart was vocal about his issues with the production, and Ingrid Bergman appeared in the movie merely as a backup gig after being turned down for the role she wanted in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Oh, and music composer Max Steiner hated the song “As Time Goes By.” In fact, he requested that they change it, but they were stuck with the tune used during filming because Bergman had already moved on to shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls (after replacing Vera Zorina, the actress who originally got the part over her). Tricky scheduling could have been worked out, but she’d cut her hair so short for the role that there was no way to do the necessary pick-up shots for Casablanca, and the song stayed in the picture.
In essence, all of the most memorable elements of the movie were either done shoddily, on the fly, or against the wishes of the direct creative forces.
Oddly enough, its script (from Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein & Howard Koch) scored the duel distinction of winning an Oscar and of being deemed not good enough to produce by several studio readers in the 1980s who didn’t recognize it when it was sent around prank-style as Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
The Conclusion of The Beginnings
Movies come from somewhere and from anywhere. It’s an obvious sentiment, but the raw truth doesn’t illuminate the fantastical nature of a situation that sees a spark crafted into a wildfire.
Who knew that a writer’s digging around in a basement would cause the creation of one of the best movies of the 1980s? Or that a folk tale first printed in the 17th century would launch hundreds of pieces of art in a form that wouldn’t be born until over a hundred years later? Or that an unpublished play from a school teacher would take all the wrong steps and become a titan of cinema?
All of this goes to prove that inspiration can truly come from anywhere.
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