I’m a writer with dreams of working in film, so I took a screenwriting course this past semester. In addition to working on our own screenplays, every week we watched a new film and read the screenplay. And every week, my teacher asked us the same unusual question: “What would you steal?”
The first few times she asked us that question, I was very confused. Was she really encouraging us to steal parts of the movies we saw? Wasn’t that, well, copyright infringement? Also, wasn’t the point of learning to be a writer to train our brains to be original? Shouldn’t we avoid what’s been done before, for fear of being sued by a film company or of coming off as derivative and cliché to your viewers?
To explain herself, my teacher told us a story about a trip she took to Europe. I’ve forgotten what city or country she was in, but one day she went to pick up a friend for lunch, riding a bicycle there. She leaned her bicycle against the wall, took a few steps away to knock on the door and shout upstairs to her friend, and then returned to her bicycle -- but the bicycle was no longer there. It had been stolen.
My teacher tried to find her bicycle, but she quickly learned that in this particular city, bicycle theft was incredibly difficult to combat. People would take a bicycle, and shortly afterwards that bicycle would have been taken apart and mixed up with the parts of other bicycles -- a wheel here, a handlebar there -- with the result that several people would now be riding on bicycles that included a part of her bicycle, but there was no way to prove that they had taken her bicycle. Her bicycle, effectively, did not exist anymore. What existed now were several “new” bicycles, which had been made possible by an old bicycle.
This was how she wanted us to look at “stealing” from other people’s work: as using something old to make something new, something that no one could look at and say, “That’s identical to this old thing I saw before,” but something that wouldn’t exist without that old thing. What could we take from a movie or screenplay and work with to make it our own?
Stories are bicycles -- metaphorically, of course. They are the result of a collective experience, one that’s built up since before copyright was a thing, or before we even had developed the letters used to spell “copyright infringement.” If a story is going to mean something to someone, it has to be relatable in some way. A completely new story, if it is to be understood, must in some way come from the already-understandable world. And the best way to learn what can be understood is to look to other stories that have made it big.
Writers steal all the time, both intentionally and unintentionally. We literally cannot avoid what has been done before. To illustrate, let me tell a story of my own. My family just read the screenplay I wrote this semester. Now, I knew that I’d stolen some things: the repeated “We need to plan; we need to think” from "Thelma and Louise," the dramatic all-revealing rant from near the end of "Chinatown," and the emotional rather than beat-by-beat description of the battle between Jack Sparrow and Barbossa in the screenplay of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl." What I didn’t see coming was that when I read aloud the part where my villain refers to the heroes as “meddlesome kids,” and my sister chimed in, off-script, “And their dumb dog, too!”
We all laughed, and I truthfully insisted that it wasn’t an intentional reference, but of course I had stolen it. Where else would I have gotten that idea? This movie, which no one would look at and think is a total ripoff of "Scooby-Doo" (it’s not a mystery, no one’s in a costume, and there are no goofy chase scenes), would nonetheless not exist as it does without that old cartoon. My screenplay is a new bicycle, with a pedal from "Scooby-Doo," accidentally stolen.