From the first line of the Genesis 1:3 to the radioactive arachnid bite that turned scrawny Peter Parker into a spider-man to the titular face-hugging creature in Alien, the greatest stories ever told all owe their beginnings to a single metaphorical light-bulb going off in someone’s head.
Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro sees monsters just about everywhere he goes – or at least parts of monsters – A sliver of plastic moulding from a machine, for example, once inspired him to come up with the look of a creature’s brow.
You can be inspired for the design of a monster by looking at a building, you never know what’s going to trigger it.
“You can be inspired for the design of a monster by looking at a building, you never know what’s going to trigger it,” Del Toro recently told Unwinnable.
“When I started writing Pacific Rim, I didn’t look at manga or anime” he says, referring to his upcoming sci-fi blockbuster about human-piloted giant robots that grapple with undersea Godzilla-sized monsters. “One of the first images that inspired me was by Goya, a Spanish painter – [the painting] was called “The Colossus,” [of] a giant towering over a village.”
For Stan Lee, one of the most fateful bolts of inspiration in pop culture history came from the most mundane of sources: a literal fly on the wall.
“I said, ‘Boy, it would be great if I could get a superhero who could stick to walls like an insect,’” says Lee, who was under pressure from Marvel Comics’ publisher Martin Goodman at the time to come up with some new characters.
“The next thing you need after you have an idea is, you need a name,” Lee says. “So I started thinking of names like Insect Man, Fly Man, Stick-to-Wall Man, Mosquito Man. None of them sounded good enough. Then it hit me – thought of Spider-Man, and that sounded scary and dramatic — and as we often say, the rest is history.”
Of course, it helps to have artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby to turn a comic book idea into an iconic image.
“Regarding The Hulk, I always loved the Frankenstein movie starring Boris Karloff,” Lee says. “To me, the monster was really the hero. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, but those idiots with torches kept chasing him up and down the hills. I thought it would be fun to make a monster [that] was really the good guy.”
But Lee’s Frankenstein idea was still missing something.
“It occurred to me that it might be tiresome just watching a monster running around,” he says. “So the idea of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde hit me. What if the monster had a dual identity– and each identity hated the other? That was the start of it.”
George Lucas should’ve written a royalty check to his family dog. Indiana inspired the look of Chewbacca for Star Wars as well as the name of Harrison Ford’s whip-cracking archeologist.
The animal kingdom has also provided a wealth of ideas for sci-fi creators. The embryonic idea for Alien emerged when screenwriter Dan O’Bannon stumbled on a factoid about real-life predations of spider wasps. These flying insects paralyze larger spiders with their stings, lay their eggs inside their victims, which are doomed to die a horrible death once the larva hatch and eat their way out from the inside. Sound familiar? Inspiration can strike anywhere, at any time.
The image of a fearsome metal skeleton stomping through a post-apocalyptic future came to James Cameron in a feverish dream in a Paris hotel room, The Terminator director has said. For Brian K. Vaughn, the inspiration for his comic, Y The Last Man (about the sole survivor of the gender after a mysterious plague decimates all the males on the planet) came from a fantasy he harbored as an adolescent.
“When I was in grade school, I was convinced that the cute redhead girl who sat across from me would totally fall in love with me if every other boy in the world would just drop dead,” Vaughn said in an interview when the last issue of the series was published. “Growing up, I was disturbed to discover what a common daydream that was among young men, and I thought I could subvert that fantasy to ask interesting questions about gender.”
Sometimes, as is the case with television shows like Lost and Revolution, the premise comes from several cooks throwing their own high concept ideas into a proverbial blender.
When I was in grade school, I was convinced that the cute redhead girl who sat across from me would totally fall in love with me if every other boy in the world would just drop dead
“I am kind of a Star Wars and Lord of the Rings [nut] and I really wanted to tell a big sprawling, epic, heroes quest story that had action, romance, heightened emotions and [that was] just very swashbuckling,” says Revolution executive producer Eric Kripke. “I felt TV was uniquely suited to tell that story.”
Kripke wondered how the premise for the show would work.
“What would have been the even that created a world in America where people would have swords and there would be [feudalism] and there would be warlords and knights?” he says.
“[J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot] said, ‘Look we like the idea, but we sort of seen the plague idea a hundred times. Can we do something different?’ And they had been working on an idea what would happen if all the power went out. So kind of in that way, my peanut butter met their chocolate.”
There is no hard and fast rule as to what makes one creator’s idea flourish and another’s wither and die on the vine.
The aforementioned successful creators, however aren’t paralyzed by the self-censorship that leads to discarding so many potentially creative ideas.
“Inspiration can come from any and everywhere. Which is the best and the scariest part of it,” says Marvel mainstay writer Brian Michael Bendis. “You have to train your brain to see story everywhere. Because it is everywhere. But I get so character-focused that the characters often push the story forward for me in surprising and delightful ways.”
You have to go with your gut, Bendis says.
“All writers are is a collection of instincts,” he says. “And my instinct always starts and ends with me asking myself this question and answering it as honestly impossible: if my name wasn’t on this story would I buy this? Is this interesting to me?”
Del Toro carries around a sketchbook around wherever he goes, doodling ideas. Some come to nothing; others will eventually be honed into fully-formed nightmares for moviegoers.
Take his signature creation from Pan’s Labyrinth. “For the Pale Man, I wanted to be a sort of perversion where you have a guy who’s so thin and emaciated in front of such a lavish banquet – like a spider web because he only feeds on the children.”
That was only the starting point, and del Toro likes to tap the tomes of fairy tales, obscure imagery and inspirational items that make up much of his California home. From Catholic iconography, he borrowed stigmata imagery as well as that of Santa Lucia, a saint that kept her eyes on a little tray.
“I thought it would be really creepy for the creature to use his fingers like eyebrows to show expression,” says del Toro.
Maybe if you look hard enough and keep your mind open, del Toro says, you can see beautiful, misshapen monstrosities all around you, too.
“You never know where the inspiration is going to come from,” he says.
Follow Ethan Sacks on Twitter @ethanjsacks.