On how Tina Fey stole my idea*

On how Tina Fey stole my idea*

*and why a. she didn’t and b. it doesn’t matter. Working that clickbait headline of blatant lies.

I really enjoyed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which I binge-watched last weekend.  It is worth four hours of your Netflix subscription.  Ellie Kemper is brilliant; I seriously need to get me a housemate like Titus in my life soon; the theme tune is, as Teri put it, A+.

And yet, it was a slightly odd experience watching it.  Because a very long time ago, just after I’d left uni, I had the same plot idea.
Here’s the legal disclaimer: OBVIOUSLY, Tina Fey did not actually steal my idea.  I have never met Tina Fey. I don’t think she’s ever met me.  I would be absolutely amazed by her abilities of Inception-style brain-based intellectual property stealing if she’d actually managed to see any of the actual idea I came up with and, henceforth, was able to steal it.  Because, seriously, no.

This is not actually a ‘Tina Fey ripped off my name and now she’s ripping off my ideas’ post.  It’s more of a ‘huh. Isn’t it interesting how two people can take the same idea and present it in completely different ways?’ kind of a post.  Maybe there’s something we can learn here? Mostly, how I really should pull my finger out and complete a script already, instead of writing blog posts about writing scripts.

The baseline idea I had was – is, I suppose – called Follow the Herd. It differs from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in three key ways:

  1. It was set in either London or an Anonymous Big City, but certainly not New York;
  2. The protagonist actively escaped, rather than being rescued, and had to deal not only with a world in which Facebook existed where it hadn’t before, but also her guilt at abandoning her fellow commune members;
  3. the overall outlook was a shitload more bleak than Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

But the baseline plot – ‘young woman spends years in a doomsday cult, escapes and has to make her way through the modern world’? Yeah. That part is exactly the same.

The truth is that Follow the Herd never really got off the ground because I could never decide if it should be a novel or film.  Still can’t, in fact. My slight gut feeling leads me towards novel, and the initial blurbings I wrote for it were in prose.  But, because away from my job I primarily write scripts, my natural inclination is to envisage it as a film. I saw images for it long before I heard words.  So, ultimately, neither quite works.  And I don’t think TV would have worked for my idea, the way it operates in my head, at all.  It has a definite start and end, which TV shouldn’t always have. YAY for writerly indecision.

Format matters.  Format defines the scope of your work, informs what it should be.  I saw my take on the subject matter as a brooding, introspective treatise on how the world fences itself off into groups to avoid the possibility of standing out and winding up alone, and those who try to strike out on their own (or don’t fit in to begin with) are often cast aside.  Because this is one of the Life Observations I Have Made that, frankly, drives me insane.  Also because at the time I was 24 and wanted to Say Big Things but had absolutely fuck-all to say at that point, like all 24-year-olds who are not Orson Welles.  So of course a novel or film appealed to me.

(Side note: around the time I was originally conjuring up this idea, I also wrote a horrifically pretentious attempt at a play, set during the Spanish Civil War and attempting to invoke Lorca by way of Pinter. I think only Anna has ever had the sheer misfortune to read it.  My writing started feeling infinitely better the second I gave up attempting cod emulations of major artists and started talking about things I’d actually experienced instead. #art)

TV, on the other hand, is and always has been about characters above all, about people over concept.  Which is why the pieces I’ve been working on more recently have generally been intended for TV – I’ve actually bothered to learn a bit about people in the intervening years.  It’s also why Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt works in a TV format – the show isn’t about the concept, it’s about how this perkily optimistic 13-year-old in a 29-year-old’s body reacts to the world around her.  Those possibilities are endless.

Aside from anything else, Kimmy Schmidt is far, far different from the central character I had in mind.  My leading lady had, at the point we met her, been ‘out’ for a little while; reality had set in, and under the weight of the (misplaced) guilt she felt at abandoning what amounted to her second family, was barely functioning.  She’d also actively chosen to join the ‘commune’ in the first place, so it was (supposedly) as much about the weight of really, incredibly poor early-adult life choices as anything else.

Kimmy Schmidt… not so much.  She became one of the ‘Mole Women’ when she was kidnapped, at 13; and was liberated by external forces.  All of that makes her take on the world in an almost foolishly, but entirely earned, positive fashion.  Those two characters in those two sets of circumstances, alone, make the stories different.  Because how could they not?  Different characters, different circumstances, same idea = different stories.

Whatever. Ultimately, none of this matters, except this – Tina Fey is the one who actually made the bloody idea into a thing that exists.  Meanwhile, I’m still mulling over whether it should be a novel or a film.  Really, the point is this: very few ideas are actually entirely original.  It’s all about the expression.  So you should totally hire me to write stuff, because I promise they’ll still be totally different, even if they will no longer be my novel/film thing about a girl who escapes a cult.

Also, there’s totally no way I’d have ever thought about the actor who plays the Reverend as a cult leader.  Therefore, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wins everything.