How to Get a Good Idea for a Movie

Procrastinate - but keep working!

“Our biggest regrets are not our actions, but our inactions. The chances not taken.”

Where do good ideas come from?

Like so much in filmmaking, the answer is: it depends. Filmmaker Andrew Norton shows the variety in his short film about the mysteries of inspiration:

Although there are dramatically different opinions represented in Norton’s short film, there are also some similarities that got us thinking: is it possible to identify a pattern that characterizes the development of quality, original ideas? If so, then can we implement that pattern into our own lives, theoretically boosting our creativity?

“I get ideas in fragments,” shares legendary filmmaker and Twin Peaks creator David Lynch. “It’s as if in the other room, there’s a puzzle. All the pieces are together, but in my room, they just flip one piece at a time into me.” For Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich, inspiration is a myth. “The thing that gets you going feels like an itch, to me. It’s an itch, [then] wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder… Got it!”

“Inspiration is for amateurs,” Artist Chuck Close agrees. “The rest of us just show up and get to work. Every great idea came out of work… If you sit around and wait for a bolt of lightening to hit you in the skull, you may never get a good idea.” Writer Steven Pressfield lends credence to Close’s perspective. “This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe [artists] don’t,” he shares in The War of Art. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us… Ideas come.”

Essentially, what we’ve noticed is a recurring emphasis on the conception of ideation as a process. In a TED talk, Steven Johnson argues that good ideas are not something that happens in a wonderful, illuminating moment – “a flash, stroke, epiphany, eureka, lightbulb” – instead, they are more of “a slow hunch”, fading into view over long periods of time. “A lot of important ideas have very long incubation periods,” Johnson concludes.

As we dug deeper into Johnson’s theory, we discovered a complementary perspective from Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Many people who develop good ideas live in a sweet spot between preparation and procrastination. “Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps,” Grant explains – or as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin puts it, “You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”

Moreover, like everyone else, original thinkers wrestle with doubt and fear. However, they don’t doubt themselves so much as their ideas, which spurs persistence and innovation, and they don’t fear failure so much as the failure to try – “Our biggest regrets are not our actions, but our inactions. The chances not taken.”

So act. Take those chances.

“Where Do Ideas Come From?” | Andrew Norton

Output, Output, Output

Grant observes that “The more output you churn out, the more variety you get, and the better your chances at stumbling upon something truly original.” In other words, you can expect to come up with a lot of bad ideas before you find a few good ones! 

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap,” summarizes Ira Glass, producer of This American Life. “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

So where does a good movie idea come from? What is the pattern that characterizes the development of quality, original concepts? While there’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all answer, we did discover that good ideas tend to take time. For most of us, they are the result of committed and consistent work.

If you want to dream up the next smash hit, then do it!

Dare to dream. Dare to take the time you need to carve out the concept – and keep carving.

 Michael Koehler, with

If you want guidance, community, and resources along the way, then check out our in-depth online filmmaking course here at Lights Film School, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.


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