Recap on the #selectedten and four Black List reviews

28 Nov

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem (no, I’m not going to let you forget I’m a Muslim. And no, that’s not ‘speaking in tongues’. It’s speaking in Arabic.)

I know, it’s been a heckuva long while since I’ve written.

There’s been a whole lot happening which will probably become clear in the coming months.

Short version:

  1. I got into the second round of Sundance Screenwriting Labs. My heart stopped.
  2. About a week later, I was selected to be a member of Geoff LaTulippe’s first ever #selectedten. My heart, which I had just gotten up to speed, stopped again.

Heart traffic light

It was quite a learning experience both times.

With Sundance, I had to write an acceptable nth draft (I’ve lost count) of a script in a week. A script I wasn’t planning on looking at for another year at least.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard on a screenplay in my life. The important thing is, I know I can.

With Geoff’s thingy…competition? Quest? Quest sounds about right.

With Geoff’s quest, we had to write a screenplay in six weeks. From scratch. I had been prepping something else, but like a fool in love, I decided to go with the sci-fi comedy screenplay I’d been wanting to write for a while.

I really was a fool. But I think it paid off in ways I’m only beginning to realize now. Here’s what I learned from the entire experience:

  1. It’s hard work, this screenwriting business. From what I hear, 6 weeks is the standard gestation time production companies give you (I think).
  2. My instincts are much better than I think they are. I wrote two drafts in six weeks – well, a draft and a half. One was 58 pages long, the other 96. The first time I knew there was plenty wrong with the thing. The second time as well. In fact, I knew what was wrong both times. But I was too focused on hitting that deadline. Troubleshooting and solving problems are a big part of screenwriting and I should have taken more time to cook that turkey.
  3. Speaking of cooking turkeys – I love outlines. The more detailed and robust my outline, the more confident I feel, the easier and faster pages get written. That first ‘draft’ was sheer agony. Never again.
  4. People make everything better. The Selected Ten are kind of awesome.
  5. I love science fiction.
  6. And I freaking love screenwriting. I love that it hurts.  Because, ladies and gentlemen, you can’t grow if you don’t hurt. I’m not suggesting stubbing your own toes, but you get what I’m saying. Even babies cry and then they learn that Mummy and Daddy have always got their back. Or not. Either way, it’s a good lesson.
  7. I love peeling away the layers and figuring out what the characters want from me. Whose Wife Is It Anyway is the first script I’ve brought to polish. The first script I think is good enough to show to people. And I love that I can remember so clearly – even though it was 3 years ago – not knowing what the characters really wanted. Really shooting in the dark. I remember doggedly sticking to it against everybody’s silly advice and finishing it. Of course, nothing may come of it, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.

About the Black List reviews:

  • Some reviewers are definitely more inexperienced than others and it shows. But that doesn’t give what they have to say any less weight.
  • Some reviewers are definitely on a power trip. One reviewer basically asked “what’s the point?”.
  • Franklin Leonard did say that the score doesn’t always reflect the review. The reviewer I mention above rather inexplicably gave me a 5, in spite of the fact that he/she didn’t think my screenplay had a ‘point’ or was entertaining. Another reviewer pretty much agreed with the content of everyone else’s reviews, but gave me a 3.
  • Does the ethnicity and gender of my main character have a bearing? I wrote a 51-year-old female Indian protagonist. Yeah, it probably does. Won’t be so naive as to think it doesn’t.
  • Probably got the lowest score of Selected Ten. That hurts pretty bad. I guess I should have modified my expectations. My husband tells that I always knew I wasn’t going to write a ‘perfect’ first draft (that’s impossible), so the end goal was the reviews, not the score. Still, I’m a brown person getting a mark – asking me to ignore it is like asking me to eat poppadums without any chutney.
This is actually a masala dosa. Just as tasty as poppadoms and chutney. I'm hungry now...

This is actually a masala dosa. Just as tasty as poppadoms and chutney. I’m hungry now…

The sudden wave of recognition is over. So here I am, back again. In my pajamas. Still an unemployed, unrepresented screenwriter. It’s pretty depressing, to be honest. Unlike other jobs, one can’t really see a career path. One can’t see steady paychecks or insurance. One really can’t see anything. Even if I did become ‘successful’, ‘paid’, ‘represented’ – it’s never going to be stable. Right?

But you see, I’ve done that job thing and that job thing and I had to break up. I kept trying to go back but jobs really didn’t want me. Honest to God. Got laid off TWICE and fired once.

I’ve taken the easy way out. It almost killed me. It gave me anxiety disorder and made me miserable during my waking hours. I remember this. I’ll try not to forget.

This is what I’m meant to be doing, I think. But even though I remember the misery, I’m still scared. There’s no safety net. There’s no plan B. And the world is a weird-as place, dude.

Reading my previous post again, I realize beyond all shadow of doubt that I’m scared of losing. Losing what? Well, it depends what time of day it is. I’m scared of relinquishing control. But control doesn’t exist anyway.

Maybe this is the way it’s meant to be. One day at a time. Nothing for granted. I’m trying to be all spiritual about this.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Give thanks before you lose everything. I’m srs (look, I lost all my vowels. Damn you, Twitter!)

Love,

Sabina.

This too shall pass – a tribute to Robin Williams.

15 Aug

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

I wasn’t going to say anything. But this is so weird. I’ve never even met the guy.

But in a lot of ways, it’s not weird at all. It makes perfect sense.

I’ve always loved Robin Williams.

And you know, this screenwriting lark might sometimes try to reward me. With a pat on the back. Maybe even an Oscar.

Yeah, I’ve fantasized about that. We all have.

I imagine being dressed beautifully, but never beautifully enough. I imagine being surrounded by impossibly tall, impossibly gorgeous people. I imagine being given that statuette and giving a silly heartfelt speech and running away. And I know by then, I’ve learned by then, that everything fades. That tomorrow, none of this will mean a thing.

Except perhaps meeting Robin Williams. And I always thought he’d be lovely. Meeting him (backstage at the Oscars no less) wouldn’t be one of those ‘burst-my-bubble’ moments – of which perhaps I might have already experienced many. It would be a great moment, one that I’d cherish. One that might even fuel my travails for years to come.

Yes, I imagine he’d be one of those people. One of those ‘spiritual jet-fuel’ kind of people. How selfish of me.

But now perhaps, I won’t have any real prize. And that’s fine. In the end as Josh Fialkov said on Robin Williams’ passing, all the prizes in the world just aren’t enough. 

Why did I love Robin Williams this much? Was it the movies? They were great, but it wasn’t just that. It was the vulnerability. Even when he was trying to make us laugh, I got the impression that he was giving us his soul on a silver platter. That’s gotta hurt. From personal experience, I know it does. And to constantly push yourself out there…he was a brave man.

I wish I knew what we could have done to save him. And others like him.

You know what? Just yesterday, I received an unbelievable prize. I advanced to the second round of the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab. 

My guts haven’t quite recovered and neither has my blood pressure. I’m going to do what I always do. And yet, I have no idea what I’m going to do. It’s a funny feeling.

It’s amazing how we can go from great grief to great joy in the space of a few days.

I’ve learned far too many times that everything, good and bad, passes. I’ll get over this joy as I knew I would get over grief. And then in the quiet spaces, my mind will go back to what it always goes back to. And therein lies in the answer. What I’m really feeling. And what I really value. Worth taking a look at before things get out of hand, don’t you think?

Goodbye and Godspeed, Mr. Williams. You’ll be missed.

Love and peace,

Sabina

 

It doesn’t have to be perfect

26 Jun

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

So this past weekend, we went to New York City.

I’d been dreaming of visiting NYC since I was very very young. I wanted to make a real weekend of it. Drive in and live at a motel and really get to see everything. On foot, on the subway, in cabs and in the car.

But it wasn’t meant to be. I’ve been unexpectedly ill for a few weeks now. Our New York weekend got downgraded to a New York tour. Which are usually 8 hours plus.

I didn’t feel up to that. No, really. Me. Who could jump up and down for 5 hours straight. Who spent three days on my feet shooting a short film. I didn’t feel up to it.

So instead we visited the Intrepid Air and Space Museum (my husband’s really into planes and war memorabilia). It was really cool.

West Manhattan is kind of gross and smelly and crowded though. And the Trump Place buildings right next to the museum are a real eyesore.

But it was nice too. The pall fell from my eyes a bit, I have to say. But that’s okay. It’s just a city. It’s not Heaven. Maybe I’ll find the life there if I went looking.

Which brings me to me.

I’m a real perfectionist. I don’t even want to attempt something until it’s perfect. To a degree that’s a good thing. But it also leads to feelings of despair, obsession (that’s one of my favorites). Not to mention when I enter the realm of rapidly diminishing returns.

Hard work is good. Perfectionism isn’t.

My latest screenplay seems to have a fairly solid structure. But it lacks flesh. I’m working on the flesh now. It’s new territory for me. I’ve not drawn on my own life. I’m writing different ethnicities, different ages and different genders. And the dysfunction of the family very much depends on the internal dysfunction of the characters. Which is what I’m drilling into right now. It’s a little scary. But kind of exciting.

I’m not going to wait till things are perfect though. I’m going to launch it when it’s ready. And not when I’m ready.

Which brings me to something else. A complete non-sequitur.

I don’t usually talk politics or world affairs on this blog. But this one hits a little too close to home. My home.

Regardless of what the BBS say…Sri Lanka is my home. Regardless of whether I speak the language (I don’t) or look the part (I don’t), Sri Lanka is my home (so kill me).

I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s because almost every member of both sides of my family are still there. Maybe because every family story I’ve ever heard has been set there. Maybe because it just feels like it. And I don’t need to justify myself to anybody.

But apparently now I do.

I want most dearly to make movies in Sri Lanka. I have some radical sci-fi fantasy ideas I’d love to set there. To think that I wouldn’t be welcome, and that I wouldn’t be allowed to explore my own past, cuts a lot deeper than I thought it would.

If I’m not Sri Lankan, what am I? A Muslim woman, I guess.

No! No, I’m not going to let someone take away my identity because they feel like it. Sri Lankan Muslim Woman. Deal with it.

I bet no one has ever dared tell a white man that he isn’t white. Though I guess even white men have been chased from their homes.

Here’s what I think the worst-case scenario will be:

BBS start looting Muslim towns and Muslim properties.

The Muslims who can, scarper overseas.

The others stay and are butchered.

Or convert to survive.

You see, Sri Lankan Muslims, we’re not the fighting kind. People say that when you push us far enough, we’ll push back. But not us. We have nothing to push with. Not a fighting bone in our bodies. We’re all biryani and weddings and businesses. That’s all we are.

Yes, there’s fury. But I don’t think we’d ever harm another human being. We haven’t so far. We have simply run away.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps we will form our own militia and fight back. Be branded a terrorist group probably. Who’ll support us financially and with training? Our own businessmen? Probably not. We’re making too much money overseas and don’t want to be blacklisted. The Muslim Sri Lankan diaspora? Again, I think they’d largely be too scared. Who then? Boko Haram? ISIS? Al Qaeda? They have no interest in the region.

So what then? Massacre.

Then no more Muslims in Sri Lanka. At least not openly.

You know what people call that usually? Genocide.  Pogroms.

What will people call it now? Absolutely nothing.

No one will come to our aid.

Not the first time I’ve been betrayed. But I really never expected blood.

All I can pray for now is that I still have a home to go. And all of my Muslim brothers and sisters too.

Lots of love and peace,

The Happy Muslimah

Emotions of Screenwriting: Hope and Disappointment

12 Jun

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

So much has been happening in my life lately. So many OVERWHELMING changes. I’ve rarely had the time to take stock.

So here I am.

I’ve noticed that life comes and goes in cycles. Good stuff. Bad stuff. Good days. Bad days.

Currently I’ve not had much success in the screenwriting/film-making department.

But I’ve been through long fallow periods before. I have hope.

This is a profound change for me. Choosing hope over despair.

It’s something I learned from Brene Brown. To paraphrase, if you numb pain, you also numb joy and hope. So I’ve decided to let both in and give them dinner and dessert.

So who is hope?

Hope is the good stuff. Makes whites whiter and colors brighter. Hope is a daring emotion. It takes courage to feel hope.

Because we all have that nagging voice in our heads. “Take all this joy down a notch. It’s not meant for you.”

How freaking disrespectful. Of course, it’s meant for me. Why else would I be feeling it?

So I’ve decided that I’m going to try pretty much everything and see what happens. No harm, no foul. And lots of hope. It’s a beautiful emotion and I want more of it. And oddly enough, that’s in my hands.

Who then is disappointment?

But of course, there will be disappointment. That hurts like a dentist’s appointment. Nothing will soften that blow. Except the memory of hope. And God.

Say it with me – nothing.

Put down that bottle. Put down that chocolate cake. No. Get away from that hot guy or girl.

It’s real. It’s here.

But it’ll go away. And then we’ll pick ourselves up and get back to work.

Notice I didn’t use a conditional sentence. I hate scolding. And being scolded. I know you’re a screenwriter. As am I. We hurt very deeply very often but we always get back up in the end. I have no doubt. Thank God!

Life comes and goes. Joy comes and goes. This is one of the great trials of this world. A friend once told that the good thing about bad things are that they end. And the bad thing about good things is that they too end.

Maybe this is why I believe in God. He never really goes away, no matter what I do. He’s always there to talk to.

Here’s another tidbit from the Internet that gives me hope.

Don’t be fooled by life’s outcomes.

Not success. And not failure either.

I’ve spent so long thinking I was a screw-up because goshdarn it, I just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But none of it was really my fault. Nope. None of it.

Ultimately it’s all dumb luck. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in fate. So it’s all God’s grace.

Maybe one day, He’ll smile on me too. That’ll be a great day.

Till then, I’m going to hope. It doesn’t hurt. It heals.

This has been another joy-coated pain missive from your very own….

Happy (and Hopeful) Muslimah

The Emotions of Screenwriting: Anxiety

23 May

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

I’ve been putting off posting this because this is markedly more vulnerable than I usually am. And then I figured – what the heck?

There are many different kinds of pain in the world, but my particular brand is anxiety.

Anxiety flowers in my chest like a firework, spiking every nerve in my upper body. Anxiety immobilizes my brain and my legs because even the slightest movement, even the slightest thought, will let the predator know I’m here. Anxiety makes me feel like a toothless herbivore in the brush waiting to be hunted. Anxiety builds in the sides of my cheeks – as if screaming would help me. Anxiety cancels out my complexity, the strength that hides underneath my vulnerability.

I used to be crippled by these feelings. Like literally. I would lie under my blanket praying for death from the pain. I would weep incessantly.

But they got better over time.

I’ve gotten clearer-headed. I tried delving into my emotions. That works. After wallowing in them, I’m less frightened of drowning in anxiety. I’m less self-conscious about saying or doing or being stupid while I’m in this state.

Lately I’ve started noticing my triggers. When I say lately, I mean literally yesterday when I read an article on the same.

My triggers are situations in which I have no idea what’s going to happen.

Like job interviews. I can read every website in the universe. But I have no idea who’s on the other side of those doors. I have no idea how anything will turn out.

I can prepare myself for a job interview but really it’s a lot like dating. I go in there and I just talk. There has to be chemistry. And I try to connect and try to understand whether I would fit into this family. And really these people become like family. I have a choice about who I work with. And I should make it a good one. All the prep in the world won’t tell you how to manufacture that chemistry.

And here I am trying so desperately yet again – why is my life marked by desperation? When it’s not that, it’s anger. When it’s not that, it’s despair. Or depression. Or frustration.

And I am trying so desperately now to control. To maximize chances of success. To win. Pushed even to give up who I am. For a trifle. But I can’t do that.

In fact from years with anxiety disorder, I know what panicking does to me.

Anxiety saps energy.

Anxiety makes me forget that God has a plan.

Anxiety makes me avoid situations that’ll help me grow.

Anxiety keeps me small and hunted.

Anxiety is my friend.

It tells me that this situation is new. And exciting. And that I should embrace it for what it is. Just as I should embrace me, with all my weirdness and fragility and strength.

I keep telling myself it’s all going to be fine. And it’s working.

I’m living life on my own terms and it’s fine if this experiment goes belly up. It’s fine if I never achieve anything in a worldly sense. I did what I thought was right in the face of nearly unbearable opposition. I bore it. I’ve borne a lot of things. I’m really strong Alhamdulillah (by God’s grace).

But I am also sensitive. And I will expect strong emotions in my life. And I know I’ll be fine.

I want to go outside and look at that beautiful blue sky again. And those pink trees outside my home. I could really stare at them for days.

Love and peace. Wassalam and Fee Amanillah,

The Happy (and okay) Muslimah

5 ways to write a blockbuster movie

27 Apr

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

So last night, me and the hubsters went to see Captain America: Winter Soldier. It struck me while I was watching it (among the many things that were striking but not hurting Captain America) was there was a formula (who woulda thunk it) to action movies.

  1. Get yourself a superhuman hero. Only nominally human. Impenetrable by any substance, man or alien-made.
  2. Set up a world-ending conspiracy theory. The perpetrators can be any of the Western world’s favorite bogies from the past century, ze Germans, ze Russians or ze Muslims.
  3. Slap on an emotional arc for the character because heck, we do want the audience to ‘identify’ with him.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with the stuff people come to the cinema for (according to the conventional wisdom) – explosions, spectacle, fight scenes, shoot-outs, running fast and getting away. Or not. I got no beef with that. This is after all an action movie.
  5. Bonus points – people of colour, women kicking butt too. But not permitted to steer the ship!

As I was thinking about it, I also realized this formula could be applied to many genre movies and could guide my rewrite process on my upcoming comedy scripts.

Retooling it to be more appropriate to comedy and my humanist sensibilities:

  1. Character arcs are always the first order of business. Refine and define those character arcs. The plot should be a chain of consequence that derives from the character’s actions. Flaw, goals, motivations, internal desire. However I want to slice it.
    1. People outside the mainstream – gosh, this is a tough one. Make my choices specific so that they can’t be man-washed or white-washed. I’m still grappling with this and how not to make it about how awful it is to be not a white straight young man.  As usual, I’ll share what I know when I know it God willing.
    2. Make villains textured. Identify with them. Even love them. Have an I-Thou relationship with them.
  2. Genre elements then must arise organically from character. Make sure the comedy rings true for the characters and not just funny.
  3. Do a pass for set pieces. What are the trailer moments?
  4. Do a pass for reader reactions/expectations. How can I refine the experience of reading this script?
  5. Do a pass of audience expectations. What would my target audience expect coming into one of my movies? This could extend beyond genre expectations. It might be fun to imagine what it would be like to actually already have a signature, much like superhero movies or Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky or Lena Dunham.

Of course, I have had to go over some of these steps more than once. Two comedy passes for example and a few readability passes, depending on where I am in the submission process.

A number of other passes might be added to the list above as well.

This are the passes I intended to do with Whose Wife is It Anyway. Though with the deadline fast approaching, I’ve only managed to do a few of them.

  1. A number of character rewrites.
  2. A number of structure rewrites – which became much easier once I had a firm handle on motivations, goals, unconscious desires, etc and therefore the point of the scene.
  3. One last character pass for each character, from major to minor. This was mostly to polish their voices.
  4. A comedy punch-up (what I’ve just completed now).

Now here follows what I wish I had time to do but might return to in the future:

  1.  A visual pass.
  2. A pass for each important element specific to my story:
    1. The progression of my main character’s illness.
    2. Culture – would it translate with someone who isn’t South East Asian?
    3. The reveals of the mystery threading through the screenplay.
  3. First ten pages
  4. Last ten pages – yeah I know these two are super important.
  5. Theme.
  6. Rhythm and pace.
  7. A sense of place.
  8. An emotional graph.
  9. Audience expectations
  10. A craft pass or final edit.

Hope  this has helped.

I really did like Captain America. The movie, that is. The dude is an insufferable martyr.

Wassalam and Fee Amanillah. May God always give you a harbor in the storms of life.

The Happy Muslimah.

The Emotions of Storytelling Part 4: Alone-ness

18 Apr

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

I’m deep into a comedy pass for Whose Wife Is It Anyway.

But I keep getting distracted. The past few weeks I’ve been distracted by sudden illness and moving to Rhode Island. (Which is beautiful and awesome and only 3 hours away from New York, which I have always wanted to visit, but that’s a story for another time.)

I wanted to get back into it. To do the best I can with the very limited time that I have.

That means not just locking the door to my home and my workspace, but to my heart too.

Locking the door to my home and my workspace is accomplished easily enough. Literally lock the door and the windows. Hide the TV remote (we didn’t have a TV in our home back in Denver, but we have one in this hotel room) and disconnect the Internet.

Locking the door to my heart? Now that’s a tough one.

I’m going to guess that everybody has different things that get under their skin.

For me, it’s outrage.

Something happens. Somebody is forced to endure a racist or sexist incident or otherwise dehumanized in some way.

This usually makes me upset. Very upset.

And so I’ve sworn off the Internet (to a great degree), especially Facebook and Twitter. Someone else will have to fight a few battles extra – I’m sure there’ll be quite a few voices to take my palce.

Talking to certain people drains me. Some of these people, I can’t avoid. But others I refuse to speak to, until May 5th (Yes, I know the Nicholls and Sundance deadlines are May 1st. I need a few days’ holiday, okay?)

Performing certain household tasks drain me. This is where it helps to be married.

Performing certain other tasks drain me – but really I can’t make my husband take my place at the dentist.

Sure, all of this can get a little lonely. That’s why I open the doors again after six pm and let everyone and everything in.

I usually spend the time before dinner and bed in quiet contemplation more than arguments anyway. Writing is emotionally draining enough as it is!

In any event, I think it’s a good idea for everybody to be okay with being by themselves and alone with their thoughts. It’s been the defining struggle of my adulthood – learning to love and trust myself. That battle, I’m still fighting everyday. But I think, I pray, I hope that I am much further on than I used to be.

I’m focused on finishing this project. It’s going to be done God willing! Done, done, done! I really can’t wait to put it out in to the world and see what happens.

Now before anyone comes charging in to pee on my parade, I am fully aware that it’s not likely to gain much or any success. But I’ve learned SO SO much from writing this movie, it’s a huge success already in my book. Ain’t nobody going to take that away from me Insha Allah. I’m sure the feedback I get will help me figure out what areas need work in my next projects.

My brain has been buzzing with ideas lately – mostly with left-field romantic comedies. I find myself getting distracted from my 1-location screenplay Birthday Cake (haven’t even started writing that one properly) by these ideas.

It’s a little annoying. But I’m going to count that as a blessing. Better too many than no ideas, right?

Anyway, I’ll leave you to it. It’s after 6 pm and I can open my doors again.

Wassalam and Fee Amanillah,

The Happy (to be alone) Muslimah!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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