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Ethical Lapse?

One of the problems I found myself having as a reader (and continue to have, even in my unofficial capacity as “guy who reads things”) was probably the most basic for a writer: everything I read, I knew how to make better. It didn’t help that when I read for The Manager, he had both general submissions and a “client” roster of awful, awful writers with very good ideas.

Knowing how to improve a story is actually helpful because, rather than just dumping all over a shitty script, you can hone in on the potential goodness and tailor your suggestions that way. I tried not to be the kind of guy who would look at something and say, “Here’s how I’d do it,” so I’d try to look at things as objectively as possible: what’s the story they’re trying to tell, where does it go wrong, why does it go wrong? It helped that many of these screenplays suffered from what I’ll call “objective badness,” plundering such depths of crappiness that any person with basic reading comprehension would know it’s bad. They may not know how or why they feel that way, but they know it with every fiber of their beings.

It turns into a problem when you find a script that is loaded with so many good ideas—but is so poorly executed—that giving feedback isn’t enough. You want to just swipe that idea and make it your own, to do it the justice it deserves.

It’s what we in the biz call “plagiarism.”

It’s something I’ve never done, but it’s a slippery ethical question. Everyone has good ideas. They’re the easy part. But if you’re lifting an idea you’d never have on your own, with the sole intention of making it better so it won’t get tossed into the rejection pile*, how does that shake out? Even though you know it’s wrong, it’s for the betterment of mankind. And besides, nobody but a bottom-feeding reader at a bargain-basement company, making little to know money, will ever set his or her eyes on it. So if you can get it to that point where maybe somebody, somewhere will want to look at it—is that wrong?

Yes, it is.

Which is the only thing preventing me from stealing one of the best ideas I’ve ever read, a really interesting take on the zombie genre. It has one of the worst third acts in any script I’ve ever read (worse than the one where the main character’s death is the act-break turning point, and the last 30 pages are specified to be “shaky digital video” of scripted remembrances of a character we barely cared about, all coming from characters we’ve never met before and will never see again), but it has so many good ideas and is such a fresh take on a mostly retarded genre that I want to swipe it, make it as good as I can, and add it to my portfolio of hackneyed garbage.

I don’t write horror. I could never come up with a good concept, and every time I think the genre’s an endless parade of shitty sequels and remakes, some gem proves me wrong (that is my subtle recommendation for you to all see Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, one of 2007’s most entertaining films). When I read the zombie script, I had one of those great moments where I thought, “Wow, I wish I’d written that.” Then I had the more distasteful afterthought: “Well, not written that, but something with that ingenious setup and…everything else done differently.”

So does that constitute plagiarism? It’s like any kind of nerdy writer game: you start with the same premise to see what kinds of different takes each writer could get from the same approximate starting point. If I take the very basic elements of it but change everything else, that’s not theft…right?

Maybe not legally, but there’s still the ethics. And the potential guilt. And I was raised Catholic, so…

But I still think about this idea. It’s one of those things that just won’t leave my mind—it’s that good.

So about a week ago, Lucy asked me to let her in on the new screenplay I had worked so diligently on. It’s actually a rewrite of an old favorite I was doing to impress a Medium-Shot Producer, so I could present it to him once the dust of the strike had settled. To my surprise, she was interested enough in it to read it. She’s said that before, and usually she…doesn’t. This time, though, she not only took the time to read it—she sat on Instant Messenger while she read it, allowing me to get the feedback in real time. It led to a few amusing instances like:

(13:17:29) Lucy: [Goofy plot point] doesn’t make any sense.

(13:22:40) Lucy: Oh.

Granted, that helps me. As an “audience member” for the screenplay, hearing her pure reactions to what was happening—like getting confused, even if something makes sense later—makes me reevaluate when, exactly certain moments need to happen to avoid audience frustration. What I’m writing here are “selling drafts,” and it’s hard to get shit sold if you have a producer or a lowly reader (each of whom read scripts fast and not too carefully) getting annoyed because the story takes its time before it starts making sense. Of course, it’s also difficult to write conspiracy thrillers where you know the entire conspiracy upfront, but hey…making somebody else happy while making myself happy is a good challenge. One I often fail at.

At some point during the feedback process, I don’t remember how, Lucy got me started on the zombie screenplay. I told her all about it and how awesome the idea was but how botched the execution was and how I’d do it differently because I am a fucking king while the writer who did the script is a tool. Then she said something kind of amazing:

“The setup for the movie sounds really familiar. I think he ripped it off.”

“From what?” I asked.

“I don’t remember.”

Last night, at 2:39 a.m., she did, and she text-messaged it to me: “That’s it! Ghosts of mars. Movie that entities enter people but go into someone else if the host is killed and the one chick beats it cuz she takes drugs.”

There are two minor differences between the script idea I wanted to steal and Lucy’s synopsis of Ghosts of Mars, which led me to check the movie out. I can definitively say that, yes, it has similar enough ideas for me to assume the script I read was probably ripped off from Ghosts of Mars (and probably why the ideas were so above-average while the execution was not—not to say Ghosts of Mars is a great movie, but it’s decent enough).

Which leads to my final ethical question: is it wrong to knowingly rip off a shitty script that rips off a halfway-decent movie, even if you plan to deviate so far from its shady origins that it’d be unrecognizable to the sham screenwriter and/or John Carpenter?

That’s a question I can’t answer.

(Unless choosing to keep working on my own ideas while talking idly about someone else’s counts as an answer.)

*Not that I, personally, have the ability to get my shit past the rejection pile. [Back]

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