Amelie, Lethal Weapon, and the Shoebox Strategy

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by Fin Wheeler

French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Amelie) writes down all his ideas on scraps of paper and puts them in a shoebox. An interesting quirk for a character, a premise, themes, motifs, a interesting prop that might look good on the bedside table of the protagonist… they’re all jotted down, added to the mix, and allowed to marinate.

Once Jeunet senses the box has hit critical mass he tosses the lid aside, dumps the scraps on a table and starts to fit them together like a jigsaw. His rule is to use all the gathered ideas and not discard any, so there’s much arranging and rearranging that goes on before all his pieces mesh in a way he feels is cohesive.

The resultant screenplays, and films, have met with varying degrees of success. Amelie was a massive hit both critically and commercially, many praising the lush textures and layers both of the characters and the mise en scene.  His next screenplay, MicMacs, about a bunch of ragtag homeless inventors who wage war on the owner of a nuclear factory, was created using the same method. The film wasn’t well received, many critics suggesting that perhaps Jeunet’s insistence on including every last shoebox scrap resulted in a chain with several weak links.

Personally, I enjoyed MicMacs for what it was (it was never intended as a sort of sequel to Amelie). Deep within the core of the film are important socioeconomic questions and it’s all wrapped up in a light, fluffy, faux-noir exterior. If he’d also thrown a post-it in the box that said ‘use only pastel colors,’ I actually think the fans of Amelie would have really embraced it. Instead, he remained true to this paradigm, hence the Mad Max-lite aesthetic of MicMacs.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s dedication to his methodology impresses the European producers and investors who work with him, plus he has a well-earned reputation and following. So, it is financially viable for him to continue doing what he does, the way that he does it.

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Shane Black’s Take on the Shoebox

For those of us who are at a much earlier point in our careers and are searching for acceptance and success in the infinitely more commercial arena of the American screen industry, blindly following this method isn’t the best option.

Shane Black, who rose to fame with his spec Lethal Weapon, has this to say about his creative process:

I have a shoebox for ideas, snatches of conversations I hear. I scrawl it down, throw the scraps in a box, every time I start a new script I start picking through the pieces. Suddenly you get five pieces together and think; this is almost the first act of a movie, if I flesh it out a bit.

The phenomenal success of Lethal Weapon meant that his next spec, The Long Kiss Goodnight, also written using this method, was the subject of a bidding war. In the short-term this worked out very well for Black: he made a mint. But it also meant that the studio had extremely high expectations; the film would have to do fantastic at the box office.

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It didn’t. (Of course, Shane Black is still doing just fine. But he isn’t pulling down $4 million for a spec anymore.)

Making the Shoebox Strategy Work For You

So, what can be learned from their successes and failures? Here are four principles that could let the shoebox strategy work for your writing.

1. Always be open to ideas.

You can only unearth gems if you’re able to see the potential in all things.

2. The ideas have to have time to breakdown.

You can’t just choose twenty tweets, print them out, cut them up, chuck them in a box and write a best-seller. The copyright issues aside, your subconscious needs time to distance each idea from its original source. Only then can it become an organic part of something new and unique.

The opposite is also true. If an idea has been in your box too long, no matter how cool or cute it is, there’s a real chance it’s just not topical or interesting anymore. You need to accept that. Maybe set it aside for a decade — all fashions eventually come back in again.

3. You have to respect the audience and their expectations.

Taking time to think about the demographic you’re aiming for and what they expect to see when they buy a ticket helps you work out the parameters you should be working within.

It’s not about limiting your work. When you swim at the beach, the zone between the red flags is where you’ll have the best outcome. It’s the same with screenwriting. You can be creative anywhere along the whole beach, as it were, but if you respect audience expectations, you’re swimming within the red flags, and that’s the only part of the ocean producers look at.

4. Ditch the weak links.

The more ruthless you are about throwing out your darlings, the better the result. I watched a cooking show the other day and the presenter snapped a root vegetable in two and tossed it in the pot and let it boil away with everything else. Once it was done, she fished it out and tossed it. It had infused the rest of the pot with a mild earthy undertone, so it had done its job. The actual vegetable didn’t need to be there anymore. It’s the same with ideas.

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Most of us write down random and various ideas, either in a notebook or on scraps we keep in one place.

Allowing disparate thoughts to bubble away together brings a depth of flavor to your work as a whole, but you have to be especially vigilant about the type of ingredients you throw in, how long you let them boil away, as well as what you weed out and when.

Most of all, early on in the creative process screenwriters need to take the time to consider what it is the audience (and producers) are looking for in their reading/viewing experience.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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