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Joz Norris

  • Tape 20: Start With A Bad Idea

Hello! And welcome back to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a weekly interactive sketchpad/notebook project from friendly nuisance Jog Noggins. If you’re enjoying the newsletter I’d love it if you shared it with a friend or encouraged people to subscribe! Alternatively, if you decide you’ve had enough of it and it’s no longer for you, you’re very welcome to unsubscribe any time you like. If you’re still with me, then read on for this week’s Tape!

Start With A Bad Idea

A thought exercise this week, based on a couple of films I’ve either seen, or become aware of, recently. A lot of the time when I’m in-between projects and trying to figure out what to work on next, my inner monologue, and the contents of my notebooks, come to look a lot like the “Monkey Tennis” scene from I’m Alan Partridge, as I spool through bad idea after bad idea, simply scraping off the very top layer of my brain again and again to see what sort of top-line idea might flake off that could possibly be the starting point for a bigger project. Just as in that Partridge scene, pretty much all of them can immediately be dismissed as bad ideas, obviously not the sort of thing that would sustain any sort of long-form project, be it a film, a live show, a sitcom script, a podcast, etc etc. So a lot of the time, idea generating feels like a very surface-level process in pursuit of that nebulous “good idea,” the sort of thing which, as soon as you say it aloud to yourself, already sounds like something with the barest glimpse of promise. Everything else gets cast aside pretty quickly.

Then a few weeks ago I saw the film Patrickand recently saw the trailer for the film Deerskinand both of them got me thinking about this process slightly differently, because both of them hinge their entire stories on ideas so simple and banal that at first glance they could easily be dismissed as “bad ideas.” The premise of Patrick is that the main character has lost his hammer, and needs to find it. The premise of Deerskin is that the main character gets a new jacket that he really loves. Patrick turns into a weird, quirky drama about grief and obsession, as Patrick’s quest to find his hammer becomes a stand-in for his attempt to process the death of his father while the nudist colony he has inherited conspires against him. It ultimately boasts a fight sequence with one of the single most disorienting, mind-bending shots you’ll ever see in a low-budget European indie film. I’ve not seen Deerskin yet, but it looks from the trailer like it turns into a ridiculous lo-fi thriller in which the protagonist tries to acquire and destroy every other jacket in the world, because he wants his to be the only one. It made me wonder whether I would ever have persisted with an idea as simple and mundane as “Guy loses his hammer” or “Guy gets a nice new jacket” to be able to hang an entire film off them.

See What Follows…

Of course, I doubt the makers of Patrick and Deerskin actually started with the sentence “Guy loses hammer” or “Guy gets jacket.” I imagine Patrick started as an idea for a comedy-drama about grief set in a nudist colony, and the hammer idea came in later as a simple, clear objective to hang all its other ideas off. But it made me wonder – it is ultimately possible to craft a film whose story is built entirely on something ridiculously mundane and simple, so why are us writers so quick to dismiss something that doesn’t immediately offer itself up as a “Great Idea?” What sort of stories would we end up telling if we actually interrogated our bad ideas a bit more, and said “Ok, well that’s not enough to be an entire film in its own right, but where can I actually go from that starting point?” The idea of a guy who gets a new jacket and really loves it is so mundane as to be almost nothing, but “He loves it so much that he wants it to be the only jacket in the world” is a fascinating development – it’s an entirely logical next-step from that mundane, banal first idea, and yet it opens up a story that’s entirely original and off-the-wall and full to the brim with possibilities.

What if we were to start thinking about a film about a woman who receives a tin of tuna in the post? (This is off-the-top-of-the-brain stuff, because there’s a tin of tuna on the table in front of me, don’t ask why, I actually don’t know what it’s doing here). Not much to that. The sort of thing I would ordinarily just say “No, obviously not” to when it popped into my head. But what if I persisted with it? What if she’s so freaked out by it that she swears to get revenge on whoever sent it? What if she goes to every shop that sells tuna in the country and becomes obsessed with following everyone who buys a tin so she can learn more about them and profile them until she has a good idea of who it was that sent it to her, and why, so that she can enact her violent revenge? Or the same but different – what if she’s weirdly moved by the gesture of a stranger sending her the tin of tuna, and becomes obsessed with finding out who it was so she can thank them and befriend them, and tries to strike up meaningful relationships with everyone who buys a tin from her local shop, in the hopes of one day finding out who it was? I’m aware that both the directions I’ve taken that idea in owe quite a debt to the story arcs of Patrick and Deerskin respectively, because this is a thought exercise based on what those films caused me to think about, rather than an actual story I’m trying to come up with, so neither of those ideas is particularly original. But both feel like the outlines of a genuinely interesting story I would enjoy sketching out to its conclusion, and came about simply by extrapolating from an idea so limited that ordinarily I’d sweep it under the carpet. What sorts of things could we discover if we ignored our tendency to do that?

What do you guys reckon? I know there’s a few writers on this mailing list, so I’d be keen to hear about other people’s processes in this regard – do you tend to dismiss ideas quickly if they’re not immediately compelling, or do you sometimes sit with a very simple idea for a while to see if it’s possible to approach it from an original angle? It’s something I might try to do more of.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Heidi Regan is a fantastic comedian and her Radio 4 series No Worriesall about anxiety and worry, started last night, and you can listen to it here. Give it a whirl, she’s great.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This video of Michael Brunstrom hypothesising about how to stop singing “Three Lions.”

Book Of The Week – I’m currently reading Mark Watson’s latest novel, Contacts, which explores a more optimistic-than-we’re-used-to take on our symbiotic relationships with our phones, as a man’s network of contacts comes together to try and stop him from ending his life. Really enjoying it so far.

Album Of The Week – John Grant, who I think is absolutely phenomenal, just released his new album Boy From Michigan. If I’m honest, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher – it’s 75 minutes long, and has very little of the fun and smarm of his earlier albums, favouring long, slow songs that are mostly either sad or angry. It’s definitely good, but it’ll take me a while to get my head round it I think. “Just So You Know” is a beautiful song, though.

Film Of The Week – Together is a TV movie BBC iPlayer starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan as a couple navigating lockdown together. The theatrical, direct-address approach takes a bit of getting used to, but the two performances are phenomenal, and it makes some really great points about the government’s handling of the pandemic without forgetting to tell a really well-written story. Really good.

That’s all for this week! If you enjoy the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes and would like to send them onto a friend who might enjoy them too, or encourage others to subscribe, then that would be really lovely. This little corner of the internet is still growing, and I really love reading through all your thoughts and responses, so all shares and invites are hugely appreciated to help it grow!

Hope you all have a lovely week and take care of yourselves. Until the next one,

Joz xx

PS Here’s a new sketch I made this week. I think it’s quite good. I hope you enjoy it too!

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