Several years ago I wrote a script that had as one of its elements an army of ghosts. Everyone who read the screenplay swore it would sell for big money, and that it was the best screenplay I had written up to that point. I was really proud of this script myself; I felt that I had nailed this story and its treatment.
But when I showed the screenplay to my agent at the time, he looked as if he had smelled some sour milk. His comment was, "Dead people walking around – that's like Scooby-Doo. Don't they have dead people walking around?" He looked at me like I was a moron.
I was stunned. This was a fairly serious script; the ghosts were treated as a real threat. There was nothing there remotely like Scooby-Doo. (The cartoon, I mean. This was before the live action movie.)
But let me put this in context for you: this was years before Sixth Sense, and Hollywood hadn't yet rediscovered the power of the supernatural.
For a while, I was baffled as to why my screenplay made my agent think of a cartoon show. Then it hit me – he had no better reference for dead people walking around.
That's when I realized that imagination is like a reservoir: you can take out only what you have put in.
Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.
I grew up reading comics, watching the Twilight Zone, Star Trek and The Outer Limits. I had also had books full of art by fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta. My mind was full of fantastic images and stories. This was the reservoir from which I drew. It was all of these things I took in that allowed me to create my own stories with their own realities.
My agent had a much more limited palette, so for him dead people equaled Scooby-Doo. He had no other reference point.
I tell you this story because I have a hard time getting some of my students to watch older films or films outside a particular genre. But these things are ways of filling one's reservoir. It will give you more colors to paint with, so to speak, and demonstrate that there can be many different treatments for the same idea.
Look at Batman. There is the 1960s camp version. There is Tim Burton's version from the '80s, which was inspired by Frank Miller's treatment of the character in The Dark Knight comic book. And there is the current film treatment by Christopher Nolan, which, I'm sure owes much to the Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli take on the character in their comic book mini-series Batman Year One. That book treated the character in a more realistic fashion than others had.
My point is that there are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to how a story, or character can be imagined. But your ideas are limited to your life experiences and the books, movies, television show, music and other art that you take in. So do what you can to experience more because, again, your imagination is a reservoir. The more you put in, the more you can take out later on.