When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or, if you’re W. Peter Iliff – make one of the best action movies of all time.
The Los Angeles-based screenwriter was waiting tables in a restaurant named Angie’s in the late ‘80s when he struck up a friendship with a co-waiter called Bodie McCoy. “We would get in early and cut the lemons to go on calamari, and we got talking. He had a droll, cool sense of humor. He was older and had a little more of a philosophical side than I did,” he recalls. Bodie would talk about living his life to the max: “going to the edge and then past it,” as Peter puts it.
He became the inspiration for a screenplay titled "Johnny Utah," which later became the iconic Point Break. And to thank him, Peter named one of the lead characters after him.
“I honored him [by naming Patrick Swayze’s character after him] but by changing the spelling a little,” Peter told me on this week’s episode of Script Apart – my podcast in which writers revisit their first drafts of beloved movies. The moral of the story, he says, is that “the universe comes together and gives you information in different ways. You just have to be open to the signs, when someone is going to give you something you can use.” Paying attention to the interior lives and philosophies of people around him allowed Peter to write a movie still idolized thirty years after release. Learning to identify the fascinating character traits and philosophies of the people around you might just be able to help unlock your next great screenplay.
What other lessons are there to be learned from Peter’s revelations about the Point Break screenplay? Here are a few I took away from the conversation – let us know your takeaways in the comments below.
Let Your Subconscious Speak
It wasn’t till long after Point Break’s release that Peter realized that he’d been channeling an inner voice as he wrote the film, connected to his own struggles with addiction. “Pushing yourself to the edge then going past it, I totally get,” he says. “I'm sixteen years sober from drugs and alcohol. I'm an alcoholic, and alcoholics like to go faster. They like to climb the tree to the top. They just want more, more, more. So I totally get these guys, and a lot of [the script] came out of that. My alcoholic nature [means] I want more, I want more, I want more. I need my dopamine shot. So my philosophical take was in that direction – how you justify a life on the edge where you could lose at any moment.”
Learning to let your inner demons and desires come out on the page is what generates authenticity and electricity in screenplays. What hidden parts of yourself can you tap into that might elevate your script or lend it something relatable?
You Can’t Beat Stories That Go “Behind Enemy Lines”
What do Point Break, Avatar, The Fast and Furious, and Dances with Wolves all have in common? They’re all about people who embed themselves “behind enemy lines” in cultures they’re supposed to dismantle – but can’t help but begin to admire.
As a storytelling set-up, “it’s easy and it just works,” says Peter, who also points to the combination of that dramatic structure and the movie’s theme of male friendship as key to the movie’s success. “They're two men on different sides of a badge. And it's that bromance between these two men that I think drives the film. I'm a guy who lost his dad very young. I didn't have brothers, I had sisters and a mom who was perpetually grieving the loss of her husband. So, my male friendships were always really important to me and they've remained so, throughout my life – my bros. So I think a lot of that came out in this, about how men really do strive for male friendships and that connection that sometimes you don't get from your wives and daughters.”
Combining a tried-and-tested story format with a new theme can unlock amazing new ideas – try it for yourself.
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.