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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My notes on 1-location movies: Part 1 of probably many

14 Apr

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

So. I’ve been working as much as I can on a comedy punch up for Whose Wife is It Anyway. My plans have often been punctured by doctors’ appointments and moving plans.

It’s frustrating but necessary.

Yes, yes. I know that I only have 2.5 weeks till my Nicholls deadline. You don’t have to give me that look.

Guess what? We’re going to Rhode Island for a few months God willing! Yaaaay!

Why? Husband’s project ended. New one in Rhode Island. But only for a little while.

I’ve also been studying – as I very much like to do – the structures of 1-location movies, seeing that I am hoping to write and direct my own micro-budget movie soon.

I present to you in this post my findings.

The most high-profile 1-location movies are the horror and thriller varieties – your Saw, your Buried, your The Purge.

I can’t watch horror movies. Like, physically cannot sit through them. They are so traumatizing that I can’t sleep for weeks.

So I enlisted that help of the amazing people at #Scriptchat to help me find movies that aren’t horror/thrillers (thrillers I can tolerate, but it’s not a genre I’m interested in.)

This is the list so far:

  1. 12 Angry Men
  2. The Breakfast Club
  3. The Big Chill
  4. Conversations with Other Women
  5. Death at a Funeral
  6. My Dinner with Andre
  7. The Big Kahuna
  8. Clue
  9. 8 women
  10. Carnage
  11. Sex Lies and Videotape
  12. Tape
  13. Dogville
  14. Venus in Fur (not yet released).

Thrillers I want to see (some for the second time):

  1. Signs.
  2. Alien
  3. Exam
  4. ATM
  5. Hard Candy
  6. Die Hard.
  7. Buried.

It makes sense that I’m gravitating to 1-location movies. Three of these movies count among my all-time favorites:

  1. Signs
  2. Death at a Funeral
  3. Alien

So far, I’ve watched and analysed these movies:

  1. 12 Angry Men
  2. Exam
  3. The Breakfast Club

These are my findings:

  1. These three movies are all group adventures.
  2. Instigator causes the conflict – White in Exam, Bender in The Breakfast Club, Davies in 12 Angry Men.
  3. Conflicts bring up information, NOT instigator. Instigator, while he might be the most high-profile actor, is not the star of the show. In 12 Angry Men, Davies starts the ball rolling and helps it along once in a while, but the other jurors also make significant shifts in the narrative (within character, of course)
  4. Each person has a tipping point. Each person at one point or another will unravel.
  5. Sometimes one person does not unravel for very specific reasons which I won’t spoil here.
  6. Rather than scenes, these tipping points can be used as journey markers. The voting in 12 Angry Men. The ejection of candidates in Exam. The Breakfast Club beginning to question their identities one by one.
  7. Revelations can also be used as journey markers as the whole meat of the movie is interpersonal conflict and not much else.
  8. Of course the most notable emotionally charged tipping point is left till the end. [SPOILER ALERT!] Brian confessing that he wanted to kill himself with a flare gun. And Juror #3 breaking down because he misses his son. And we realize his anger all this time is because he was holding onto emotional pain. And White realizing that he’s sold his soul to win. [END SPOILERS]
  9. Characters interact with their surroundings as much as possible but again, the meat is in interpersonal conflict not in the usually ordinary setting.
  10. The rules of the space however do impact on the way the group conflicts spool out. In 12 Angry Men, the movie is structured by the repetition of the voting. In The Breakfast Club, the kids seem to be in a space outside of the usual high school rules so they work together in a way they might not have ever had a chance to experience otherwise. Exam, of course, is set in an exam room – the candidates are desperate to ‘get the answer’. That desperation triggers and dissolves alliances.

These are my thoughts so far. As I work my way God willing through the above list, I’ll get back to you with more.

Peace and God’s protection. Wassalam and Fee Amanillah.

Sabina

 

Too much to ask? Yeah, too much to ask.

22 Mar

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum! (as perky as I can possibly sound).

‘Sup, homes. (as gangster as I can possibly sound – because really, if you don’t like me, I want you to respect me. And respect in this world apparently means fear.)

I wish I wasn’t a writer.

I wish I was a plumber. I wish I found joy in pipes. In unclogging pipes. In learning the intricacy of sewage and drainage and any number of other -ages. I wish I could help someone with their pipes and I wish I could see that look of gratitude in their face. “Yeah! You did it! You did what I couldn’t!” And joy – glorious joy! They would pay me! An hourly rate too!

I wish I didn’t care what people thought. But heck I do. Or I try to convince myself I don’t, after they’ve hurt my feelings. Over and over again.

Over and over again.

I don’t know what it is. It’s well-documented that it sucks to be a Muslim, a woman, to live in a country where you don’t look like the dominant racial majority.

But surely, we can lay off even for a fraction of a second.

Surely?

So I can catch my breath a little. So I can believe even for one second that I could be happy. That I wasn’t born a prisoner.

Sorry for asking. No, not really.

And a writer on top of all of that?

Bleeding onto the page and having someone spit at it. Over and over again.

Over and over again.

Week in, week out.

Humanity, I’m done with you. But really, I have nowhere to go. No other planet to call home. No other species that wants me. I’ve been feeling like that all my life. That I am an unwanted member of a family.

A number of things prompted this. Specifically, Alice in Arabia.

Seriously? Are we going there again? Isn’t that chestnut a little old? Like 23 years old? Now someone is going to tell me that, as writers,  we’re always reworking the same concepts.

Gosh, I can’t wait for a Birth of a Nation remake.

I’ve gained a little weight. I said so to a woman. (Big mistake, by the way. Even a woman that loves me.)

She agreed with me. And then hurriedly and repeatedly tried to take back her words.

Goshdarn it, I was looking for a little validation. Not too much to ask right? Apparently it is.

You know what? Never mind. Fire at will. Or at me, whichever floats your boat.

I’m not going to puff up or shrink to protect myself. While I’m still alive (life, precious life), I’m going to be me. Can’t be anyone else, even if I tried. And believe me, I have. So fire away. It’s not going to change a thing. I wish it would. But it doesn’t.

Screenwriter. Muslim. Woman of colour. God give me strength.

The Emotions of Story-telling. Part 2: Pain

7 Mar

ImprisonedBismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

I started out this week weeping over how awful and not funny my screenplay was. I might have been right. However, after changing the ending and doing a few character passes, it’s not as awful as I thought it was. Still not as funny as I’d like it to be, but not unfit-to-be-used-as-toilet-paper bad as I thought it was.

Funny how one’s emotions turns on a dime.

I’ve been ruminating on my other screenplay, the one about the Deaf family going through trying times.

I’ve been unable to find the enthusiasm to dive back into it though it’s not a terrible concept. In fact, according to my friends at The Black Board, it’s amazing.

While writing and rewriting Whose Wife Is It Anyway this week, I realized why that was. I know the world of Whose Wife Is It Anyway. I lived in it. I know what’s likely to happen and I know what’s not likely to happen.

But more important than that – I know its pain. I’ve felt the very same pain myself. I know what the characters hunger for. I’ve felt that same hunger myself.

I can choose to dress up that hunger in a screenplay however I like – with comedy set-pieces, with action scenes, with stirring speeches, etc. But the fact is, I don’t need to think too hard to get back into that place

I don’t know the pain that drives Operation Kismet yet. Not yet. Or the hunger. I might have felt it peripherally but not as viscerally.

I know it intellectually but that’s not enough.

I’m going to say that this calls for research but it calls for more than that I think. It calls for soul-searching – no, less pretty than that. I need to wade into the muck. That too, someone else’s muck. I need to get Operation Kismet’s skin. And I need to allow it to get under my skin.

I need to not be afraid of that pain. In fact, I should invite it in.

How well do you know the ‘pain’ in your work?

Wassalam and Fee Amanillah. Be cool and carry sanitizer.

Love,

Sabina.

The Emotions of Story-telling – Part 1: Love

1 Mar
Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.
Assalam alaikum and what’s up.
Had a great week. Finished a fourth draft. I think it’s much better than the last draft. It’s 20 pages shorter which is almost certainly better.
I took a day off and watched Downton Abbey till I was bloodshot – literally. I want to shake Mary Crawley. They don’t make them like Matthew anymore. They really don’t. I wish I could tell her that.

Now before any dudes get antsy, I’m aware Downton Abbey is fiction. I wonder if they made them like Matthew back then even. Principled, brave, humble – and handsome!

Hubby’s like that. I’m not just saying that. And thankfully I noticed it before something awful happened.

But the fact is –  movies and TV don’t have the time and the patience to go into all the little idiosyncrasies that make up a complete human being, and the tolerance or celebration of which make up a healthy marriage. So possibly Matthew isn’t just principled, brave, humble and handsome, but also messy, lazy, nit-picky, a late sleeper, a worrywart, a holier-than-thou sort, a fathead – but none of those things are relevant to the plot of Downton Abbey. But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about. I’m a hopeless romantic and Downton Abbey is the perfect drug.
I’ve been exercising to this guy lately (I usually exercise in the morning to screenwriting podcasts).This is my favorite talk of his.
He speaks about how oxytocin is the chemical that binds companies together. Not cortisol, the stress hormone – that just  shuts down your immune system. Not dopamine, the achievement hormone – that just makes you ruthless. But oxytocin -the bonding hormone.This was an Oprah-size aha for me.For a long time, I’ve been wondering why when I lost my job, it felt like heartbreak.
I realize now that I cared about the people I worked with and I cared about the work. Both are important but people and values are more important than the success of our ventures.
This puts a lot of my choices into perspective. Why I was loyal even though a company was making huge mistakes – I thought we shared the same values and I was willing to have faith.
Why it really hurt when our management didn’t prove as loyal. Why even years later, if I had the chance to work with the same team (under different management), I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The success or failure of the company didn’t matter as much as my commitment to my colleagues.
Come to think of it now, every film job I’ve ever taken has failed. But I don’t think of those experiences as failures at all. They don’t feel like they are as big a disappointment as the lay-offs. Because my colleagues and I always did right by each other and we knew failure in film-making is far more likely than success.
It’s great to know that I might not have a produced credit but I have a tribe.
This is a note to myself as a future filmmaker insha Allah – don’t sweat about the outcome. A Golden Lion would be great, but finding my tribe will be the real prize.
Much love, peace and joy.
Wassalam and Fee Amanillah,
Sabina.

7 perks of being an underrepresented writer

10 Feb

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum!

How’s it going, peeps? Let’s see…what happened these past two weeks? I wrote 30 pages on a new draft. I realized that I was writing at break-neck speed, not enjoying myself very much, leave alone entertaining myself and felt like my new outline had only minutely moved my project in the direction it needed to go.

I scrapped those 30 pages and went back to that outline. It was unintelligible (most my outlines are), so I wrote a treatment. I told myself I wouldn’t write a word till I was happy with that treatment. I really really challenged myself. This time, it was much much better.

24 pages in, I think Alhamdulillah (by the grace of God), it’s doing pretty good. Though obviously, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

By the way – I made butterscotch pudding pie. Just to console myself.

Image

It strikes me that there’s a lot of negativity flying around, especially when it comes to women in film-making. I shudder to think what we would unearth if we put as much energy into finding out about people of color in film-making. But one layer of privilege at a time, I guess.

This film-making business – it’s hard. Living on Earth is hard. It’s not heaven. Nothing’s perfect.

But it’s not hell either.

With hardship comes ease, says the Noble Qur’an. Not ‘after’ as some people sometimes quote that verse as saying. But ‘with’. There’s always something to be grateful for, even in the darkest of times.

Right now, I’m grateful that there are no dishes to wash. Is it just me or do dishes just dirty themselves? Drives me up the wall.

Another trigger for this post was the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell details any number of ways that being perceived as the underdog is actually strength, not a weakness. We have less pride, so we were willing to use unorthodox means and circumvent the system. We adapt new skills to hide our weaknesses. So many amazing things – you should really read that book.

So here are my brief musings on how being underrepresented might be good for you.

1. You know how to work hard.

You know that nothing comes easy – you were probably fed that maxim with your baby food. You don’t complain – you  just roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

2. You know how to be comfortable in your skin.

You’ve probably had a few years of self-hatred. By now, you’ve probably learned to accept yourself for the work-in-progress that you are. No mean feat, I tell you.

3. You know how to deal with uncertainty healthily.

If you’ve survived this long, you probably have sustainable healthy habits.

4. You have a good BS meter.

Sorry to curse in acronyms, friends. What I mean to say is, when you’re in a room, you probably can tell within an instant if someone jibes with you or not. You’ve learned not to question that gut instinct – it’s usually always right. Even if the person you’re talking to is Mr. Hotsy Totsy Executive Producer and the words that are coming out of their mouth say they can’t wait to get their hands on your project – you know when it’s all an act.

You probably don’t question why. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

5. You probably know how to hustle.

Or how to ask nicely. Or how to sell. Or how to get under someone’s skin.

6. You know to present yourself i.e. how to celebrate rather than hide your difference.

Often, people look at me and think that I don’t speak English, leave alone write screenplays. I know I’m going to have to be the one to approach them – not easy, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ve have come to expect a period of surprise. I know they’re going to have to ‘get over it’ before I pitch. And then that pitch had better nail it.

I’ve practiced. You probably have too.

You and I probably both have our ways of dealing with our difference. Me, I bow, I make a joke. That helps people ‘get over it’. I listen. I show compassion. I have open body language.

You probably do ‘you’ – drama, mystery, juggling…it’s all good.

7. This is probably the hardest skill you’ve had to develop. You know how to deal with rejection, harsh criticism or just plain ole jerkery.

Many of us were bullied at school. Many of us come from families or had social circles who either don’t understand or actively discouraged us from pursuing our goals *raises hand*.

It hurts when another human being treats you like you don’t matter. Like you don’t have a right to sit at the table. And people do that in any number of insidious ways.

You’ve probably recognized your default reaction to that first shock of rejection. I’ve seen everything.  Despair, a nervous joke, optimism, acceptance (that person was literally a Zen master).

For me, it’s always been defiance. I remember this one time when I was a kid, we had a day at school where we could wear casual clothes i.e. not our uniforms. For some inexplicable reason, my mother dressed me in my brother’s clothes. I still remember the outfit – a striped yellow button down shirt. And brown pants.

I went to school, all innocent-like, with my pig tails, unaware what was about to befall me. The girls in the class, in their pretty shalwar kameezes, completely shunned me. Loudly complimented each other and turned their backs on me.

I did what even now seems like the most logical thing to do. I looked like a boy, so I went and hung out with the boys.

They were non-plussed. It wasn’t fun. Arguably the worst school day ever.

That was me. I was defiant. I still am.

I’m going to stick it to that reader. And to all those mean people at my workshop who said “You can’t write this!” Says who? Says you? We’ll see about that.

It’s not healthy to be angry, but at least I don’t lie down and take it. It’s a start anyway. Until I can learn to be Zen.

I hope you feel better about being you. I hope we all stay comfortable with who we are. And keep in mind, if you’re not always perfect, you weren’t meant to be. If you’re not there yet, it’s about the journey and not the destination.

And other daft self-help clichés.

I’m rooting for you.

Much love and wassalam.

Sabina.

6 pitfalls of genre movies

12 Jan

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum!

How goes it, friends?

I watched a movie last week that infuriated me.

So much so that I pretty much gave up screenwriting.

Thankfully that only lasted a day.

The movie I watched was I Give It  A Year.  Watch it on Netflix here.

After much thought, I realize that it infuriated me because it could have been GREAT. But was content to be GOOD. And instead came out BAD.

In trying to figure out why it didn’t work, I learned some common pitfalls of genre movies.

  1. The conclusion cannot be inevitable.

The characters’ fate has to be in real jeopardy.

In an action movie, it’s particularly hard because we’ve seen heroes escape all kinds of peril and our expectations have inflated. But I’m sure it can be done. Don’t ask me, I write comedy.

In romantic comedies, the central question is “Will the main characters find true love?” The answer to that question CANNOT be easy. The obstacles CANNOT be easy to overcome.

In I Give It A Year, however, the answer to that question was very easy. The filmmakers set up the ending far too obviously with soundtrack choices and weak plot choices. The obstacle (there was really only one) was, in my view, non-existent. At one point, a supporting character even challenges the main character as to why he can’t reach out and grab happiness. Tellingly, he is unable to answer. The obstacle in this movie was a straw man.

That’s no fun. I want to care. I want to be gripped by a movie by characters I care about in real peril. If I already know the ending, what’s the point in watching?

The only reason I did honestly was because I’m a comedy writer. And I regret that because I made myself rather upset.

2. The characters have to be real and interesting.

In I Give It A Year, a ‘lovable loser’ marries an ‘uptight career woman’.

And that’s as much characterization as either character is given in the entire movie. I’m not even joking.

The comedy came mostly from the supporting characters, who were miles more interesting, had gallons more depth, yet infuriatingly were obviously given less screen-time.

Again, if I don’t like the main characters and/or if I’m not interested in them, why should I watch this movie?

More importantly, why should I care if they are happy or sad, alive or dead, in the end?

3. The characters have to be consistent.

At one point in the movie, the ‘lovable loser’ turns to his ‘uptight’ wife and chides her for getting the words to popular songs wrong.

Now if he was such a ‘loser’, why would he care? His best friend, and best man at his wedding, never gets anything right. Why should his wife?

And come to think of it, if she is really such a perfectionist, why is she getting the words wrong in the first place?

But I laughed out loud – and I’m still laughing – at this moment because I thought, finally, we’re getting some depth from these characters. We’ve all got contradictions, so that moment made the characters seem more real.

But that was as far as reality went with this movie.

4. Please, God, please write some real women! And give them something fun to do!

The ‘lovable loser’, by dint of his ‘lovable-ness’, got some pretty funny moments in the movie.

The wife however was uptight and continued to be so the whole movie. She didn’t get to cut loose, break out, be the butt of a joke or tell one.

The two main female characters were so so boring in this movie. And unrecognizable as human beings.

Anna Faris’ character? “Badly dressed social justice type.”  Stuck on the ‘lovable loser’, of course.  Since why would any woman want to be with someone worth her while?

5. Completely useless interstitial element.

The film is framed by the couple going to a number of therapy sessions (with a bonkers Olivia Colman) when their marriage hits the rocks at 9 months.

The sessions don’t show us anything other than the fact that the therapist is bonkers. It sets up the pointless Act 3 struggle. Pointless because we, and the filmmakers, already know the ending. So the characters’ struggle is a waste of time and energy.

6. Don’t just string together set-pieces with no connecting tissue.

It felt like the script was made out of someone’s ‘spilt jam’ notebook. Like someone just thought about all the funny things that could happen to a couple and made a script out of them. Regardless of whether those situations could arise organically from the characters or the story the filmmakers set out to tell.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie was hysterically funny. But the funny bits often seemed completely out of character.

And ultimately, the movie didn’t have any emotional DNA. There was no theme. A string of events unfolding before us with no meaning.

Frustrating. Infuriating.

I wanted to like this movie. It’s just up my alley. But I hated it.

I was super upset. Simon Baker! Rose Byrne (from Bridesmaids)! How’d they get such great stars with such mediocre characters?

Time to write some real comedy.

And friends, if I go to production with a script that’s anything less than stellar, you have my full permission to shoot me. Or at least, tell me what the matter is.

If I don’t listen, then you can shoot me.

Lots of love,

Sabina, The Happy Muslimah.

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