Like all writers, I get asked the “Where do you get your ideas from?” question a lot. My usual response is, “From a storage space in Brooklyn.” But the truth is, they usually come out of things I read, stories I hear, or things that happen to me personally. The last is the rarest of all, since I have been marked from birth with the wallflower gene as one of Life’s observers rather than its participants. (I know, I know -- I go out a lot, but what do I do when I go out? I take pictures. Case closed.)
So it’s a little disconcerting to realize that, because of three things that happened to me in the last ten days, I have three new ideas. Without going into too much detail (because if I did, then half my friends would know the people behind these stories, and they would tell the other half), here they are, copyright 2009, Matthew J Wells, yadda yadda yadda.
Kilkenny Cats. In December an LA friend of mine came into the city for a couple of days, and over drinks we got on the subject of my social life, and internet dating, and to nip that discussion in the bud, I said, “You know, I seriously considered becoming a priest when I was younger, but I said no because I like women too much. And now every woman in my life treats me like a Father Confessor.” “Oh Matthew, that explains so much,” she replied. (And it does.) Last night I found myself repeating that conversation to someone who has an engraved pew outside the Father Wells Confessional, and as I was retelling it, (and this is the part I can’t explain because when my mind moves, it moves like a knight on a chessboard, by hopping to one side and then jumping two spaces ahead) I got an image and a thought at the same time. The image is from history -- when Cromwell went through Ireland like Sheridan marched to Atlanta, leaving behind nothing but a wasteland, he and his army took a particular revenge on the town of Kilkenny. After running out of Irish human beings to kill, his soldiers ran a rope between two houses, gathered up all the town cats, tied them together by their tails, slung them over the rope, and had a grand old British time watching them tear each other apart. The thought was this: suppose a small-town Irish priest, the one man who knows all the town’s secrets and is totally forbidden to speak of them by his vows, suddenly declares that he is leaving the priesthood, meaning that his vow of secrecy is no longer in effect. Wouldn’t the town tear itself apart (and tear him apart) because they’re afraid of what he’d be free to say? Not knowing or even imagining that a man of morals, when pledged to secrecy, doesn’t suddenly become a blabbermouth just because he can. He said, speaking from personal experience.
Chinatown Rules. I recently mailed out a few scripts to a friend of mine who is a reader for the Second Stage department of a theatre company. It’s the first mailing I’ve done since my agent said the evolution play I sent her was “more of the same” and tiresome (not a direct quote, but definitely her reaction), which was the main reason I spent most of 2007 working on a novel. Cut to the other night, when I went to see a movie and, while watching the credits, realized that someone I know was involved in it. Someone who, like my Second Stage friend, is involved with script readings, and to whom I handed a play of mine five years ago which I considered at the time to be the best thing I’d ever written, the one which everyone says “Oh man, this needs to be done somewhere,” whenever they read it. That was not my friend’s reaction because, to this day, he’s never mentioned it –- meaning, I presume, that he’s never read it, or if he did read it, then he didn’t like it, and can’t be honest enough with me to tell me his honest reaction.
So the idea I got was this: writer has a couple of friends out to dinner to celebrate a play of his getting produced at a name theatre (let’s say The Magic in San Francisco, just to make it even more autobiographical). One of those friends is a director whom the writer’s known since college. During the course of the first act, there are a couple of factual arguments between the writer and the director in which the director gets those facts wrong, but the writer backs down rather than taking the argument to the next level. This is to establish the writer’s memory as impeccable. Because when the writer announces the title of his play, and describes the plot, the director says, “Wow. I would have loved to have done that,” and the writer replies, “Well, you had your chance.” “What chance?” says the director and the writer reminds him that he handed him the first draft of this play five years ago. The director says “No you didn’t.” And they go back and forth, just the like the previous two arguments, only this time the writer doesn’t back down, and when the argument does escalate to the next level, it gets personal and bitter and (yeah) alcoholic, until finally the writer pulls out the script of his play, opens to the title page, shoves it into the director’s face and says “I dedicated it to you, asshole --of COURSE I gave you a copy.” Blackout; end of Act One.
Act Two would be, say, two years later. The play at the Magic was a hit; it’s being done in New York; the writer’s director friend is all set to direct it; and the New York producers want to go with somebody else, or else they’re backing out. They don’t care that the writer has promised his friend that he can direct it; it’s all business to them. So what does the writer do? Say “It’s Chinatown, Jake?” (hence the title) and dump his friend in the name of business? Or side with his friend, keep his word, and not get a New York production? The answer to which I will not know until I actually write it, and don’t hold your breath, okay? I mean, I figure if I do, my agent will say “not scientific enough” and hand it back to me.
Don’t Tell Me. This one would take Coward’s Design for Living and go it one better by adding a third male character, the (cough) Father Confessor who, in the course of a single night, watches a man run away from a woman, a woman chase the wrong man, and a man chase the wrong woman, complete with secrets that nobody knows now but him, the kind of secrets which make you avert your eyes whenever you look someone in the face. This is based on (a) an evening out two weeks ago, when, in the course of 90 minutes, the three other people I was with took me aside, swore me to secrecy, and spilled a bunch of toxic beans about each other; and (b) the mental pictire of a frowning brunette checking her cellphone every two minutes for a text from Mr. Wrong. No idea who the main character would be of the three (Father Confessor's out; he already has his own play above); and no idea how this will end, either, except that it'll end badly if I'm being true to life or it'll end happily if I'm being true to the conventions of comedy. Or, perhaps both, if I'm talented enough to pull it off: a nice nasty happy ending, the Noel Coward equivalent of Carole Lombard raging while John Barrymore draws lines on the floor. (That's what this Depression needs--more screwball comedies!)