10 Qualities of Great Film – Part 2

9 Feb

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

So. On to the next few things I think are awesome – you’ll find Part 1 here.

This exercise has been profoundly useful because I’m aware almost before I watch a film why I’m going to like it or hate it. This is because the way films are marketed today, they leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. I always know exactly what I’m getting. Not saying that’s a bad thing.

And it provides an additional, much more nuanced layer of culling when I decide what I’m going to do next myself.

Which helps.

It helps to know that you’ll remember why you love something three years later when you’re weeping over rejection letters.

I wish human beings were like that.

Anyway, onto more serious but fun stuff.

6. Great structure.

World War Z performed as advertised. It had plenty of action sequences since it was an action movie. In between sequences, there were a few moments of breathing space as the protagonist worked out the problem. It took place in three or four different countries and managed to not feel bewildering. If I ever take it into my head to write an action movie (I might do just to entertain my husband) – I hope it’s as well structured.

7. Weirdness used to explore the quotidian.

My current two favorite examples of this:

    1. The One I Love
    2. The Future.

Both of these films used science fiction/fantasy conceits to explore a run-of-the-mill relationship milestone – where is this relationship going?

The Future is a little more absurdist than The One I Love. You’d have to approach it with a more of a film-school, liberal-arts sort of mindset. Basically, anything goes.

The sci fi aspect of The One I Love is much clearer and more pronounced. It never loses track though – the emotional through-line remains pretty clear. The partners in both movies are asking themselves the same question and exploring the answer largely separately and in different ways – ‘should we stay together? Do we have a future?’

8. Honesty/authenticity = BRAVERY

I find myself not being able to describe or define authenticity accurately. It just sorta is. Something in the story resonates with some deeply buried part of me. Deeply buried and never acknowledged. And the movie dredges it up to the surface and puts it on display for everyone to see. Liberating rather than embarrassing.

I’m sure my mother would rather I keep my mouth shut and act dignified even if it – literally – kills me. Yes, my mother has walked sedately across a pedestrian crossing as a truck careened towards her, horns blaring, refusing to break her gait even it meant certain death.

Me, I hoofed it. To heck with dignity.

(In case you were wondering, the truck missed, thank God.)

That’s why it’s called a generation gap, I guess.

My example for this was yet again Obvious Child. I’ve racked my brains trying to figure out what it is about that movie that resonated with me.

Of course, Shaula Evans managed to figure it out for me, disguised as a humble writing prompt.

Jenny Slate told the truth in Obvious Child. And there’s something in us that punches the air when someone tells the truth even if – especially if – it’s painful and not pretty.

At the risk of angering feminists – that doesn’t just apply to women, though Lord knows we need the truth. That applies to everyone. I’ve found myself resonating with some of the oddest movies and TV shows. Because they seemed true.

Maybe this is where the real power of cinema lies. In the truth.

And next up: my two favorites. POC/Women/Underrepresented characters winning, or not in stories about how awful it is to be underrepresented. Dueling philosophies. 

10 Qualities of Great Film: Part 1

6 Jan

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

I hope everyone’s having an amazing new year. I hope you had a great 2014 – mine was difficult but kinda beautiful in an unexpected way.

Looking back on my year, I’ve surfaced a few regrets (haven’t we all?) I’ve been choosing projects that I think people want to see rather than stuff that’ll light me on fire. Yes, thinking about the consumer is important. That said, scripts are like relationships – you really need to feel true love for it to work in the long-term. And that means looking for something substantial past that first flush of romance. It helps to get intentional, I think, with what you want out of life and what kind of family you’d like to have.

Yes, I’m very much still in the ‘beating metaphors to death’ business.

Replace the word ‘family’ with career and you have a good philosophy of screenwriting.

So here I am refining my previous ad-hoc rather ill-conceived list of qualities of great film

Another thing I’d rather not do this year – write useless blog posts. I know when what I’m putting out isn’t particularly useful. I’m going to try and eliminate that. It wastes both my time and yours.

Don’t you just hate when you receive emails from people who are trying to sell you things? I want to receive emails because someone loves me and is thinking of me. It sorta makes me sad.

I love you guys, so consider this the first of God willing many presents.

  1. People being awesome.
  2. People being emotionally horrific.

My example for both of the above is Frances Ha.

This movie was excruciating to watch. Mainly because I’ve been there. No, not ‘poor’, but depending on the kindness of others and not getting it. Getting instead an odd sort of cruelty, an everyday but excruciating sort of torture, that you can’t really put your finger, that no one will go to jail for, but you know is a crime.

And who was awesome in all of this? Frances was awesome. Despite her pain and humiliation, she still danced down the street to ’80s music. She still held onto what made her unique.

And [SPOILER ALERT] – much like me, one day, she just got it. She figured what she had to do to survive. It takes a while, this adulthood crap, but it ain’t so bad once you get there.

I love movies that document that everyday inhumanity and everyday awesomeness. They are very often very uncomfortable to watch. But I love them.

3. Joy

4. Despair

This is not just about the everyday or the ‘micro’. Sometimes this can be about the macro – something larger scale that encompasses a town, village, a city, a country – politics, etc. A case in point being Billy Elliot.

Billy Elliot danced with joy, exasperation, frustration, guilt. He danced whatever he was feeling. And his family felt angry and sad because of the political situation and the loss of his mother.

Both joy and despair occurred in equal amounts in this movie. 

There’s a lot about the human condition that seems dichotomous to me. To know joy, you have to journey through despair. To experience and truly appreciate comfort, you must know pain. To love, you must know what loneliness, hatred and non-acceptance is.

Which leads me to the next thing I love:

5. Cyborg movies.

I don’t mean movies about cyborgs.

Courtesy Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Courtesy Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I mean movies that inhabit the cracks between categories, that defy easy categorization – something I know Hollywood loves, but I frankly do not. Is it a comedy or a drama? Is it about one man or about the world? Is it about a family or America?

Examples – Obvious Child.

Comedy? Drama? It certainly wasn’t always funny.

Michael Clayton.

Thriller? Drama? Is it about Michael Clayton or is it about the world that created Michael Clayton?

Watch this space because I’m going to keep talking.

Next up: Structure. Weirdness used to explore the quotidian. Honesty/authenticity.

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

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