Category Archives: Comedy

10 Great Qualities of Film – Part 3

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Part 1

Part 2

All of this is still true. And still enormously frustrating. In the face of waves of rubbish from English-speaking film, I want to hold firm to the mast of my principles i.e. the things I really love. I won’t be afraid to not like something and I won’t be afraid to fall head over heels in love with something. And I won’t be afraid to have my hopes dashed against the rocks either.

(But, thank God, I freaking loved Star Wars.)

Anyway, here goes with the last two in the series (Part 1 and Part 2 here)

9. Women/POC/under-represented people winning. Stories with these people which are not just about them being under-represented.

I HATE HATE HATE movies which make the conflict in the movie all about someone’s gender/culture/disabilty etc. As if the only story worth telling is how their depressing, awful, lack of privilege is making their lives depressing and awful. And often how they ‘rise above’ their depressing awful lack of privilege to become more acceptable to the privileged, one way or another.

Those things are true. It kinda blows not being a white able-bodied straight dude.

But heck, we have trouble finding parking too. We have days where everything goes wrong. Where our kids or spouse or co-workers or parents drive us crazy. Those conflicts have nothing to do with our identity categories. Couldn’t we also perhaps be caught unwittingly at the center of a zombie apocalypse? Alien invasion? Earthquake? A hostage situation? (To be fair, I can think of a few action movies that have represented women and people of color a little better. Salt springs to mind. And Jack Reacher.). A parental conflict? A black-magic ritual gone hysterically wrong? You know – life?

Romantic comedies make me want to weep (not in a good way). It’s all beautiful white people in sun-kissed environments falling in love. POCs fall in love too. And sometimes – really! – the people they are in love with aren’t too concerned with their background at all.

Now I’m sure this has shut down the brains of a lot of romantic comedy writers out there now. What? An Indian woman could marry a non-Indian man and not have to contend with culture?

There are other obstacles to true love. Drug abuse? Political rivalry? Bad weather? It’s called creativity. It’s worth exercising.

No, really. My kingdom to see a Muslim woman fall in love with someone who really is not intimidated by her faith. And I’m pretty…oh, I don’t know…hardcore I guess, but honestly, I wouldn’t care too much if their relationship was ‘Sharia-compliant’ (my Muslim peeps know what I’m talking about). Just Muslims being humans. The way I know them to be. Not refugees, terrorists or accomplices or victims thereof. Gah.

No, there are no examples of this because there aren’t any that I know of that don’t come from Bollywood, Korea, etc.

10. Dueling philosophies.

These kinds of movies positively cook with tension and are amazing fun to watch.

I’ve yet to see a better example of this than Skyfall. The dueling philosophies in Skyfall are the old (M, Bond and the M15’s ways in general) against the new (Silva and his tech-as-terrorism tactics).

One of my favorite bits of set dressing that reflect this – this bit of dialogue occurs when Q first meets Bond:

Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old war ship. being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
James Bond: A bloody big ship.

Q sees the end of something great. James Bond sees something much more blunt, much less beautiful, still pretty awesome.

And at the end of the movie, when Bond meets the new M – Ralph Fiennes’ character, Gareth Mallory – they have their first conversation in front of a painting of another bloody big ship, this one sailing into the horizon.

In other words – ‘screw the inevitability of time’.

I just loved it.

When every filmic choice made speaks to this one theme, the film coheres in an immensely satisfying way.

For the record, there are very few movies that I would watch over and over again that are NOT comedies. Of the straight-up action movies, there are only 3: World War Z (for reasons mentioned in earlier posts),  Jack Reacher (for a great character) and Skyfall.

It’s been more than a year since I did this blog post. And yet again my thoughts on the matter have changed.

You see, just a couple of months ago, I realized I want to write romantic comedies. Heaven knows why it didn’t occur to me before. I’m a hopeless romantic and I love making people laugh. I guess I was just confused by my affection for fantasy, sci-fi and the perversely funny.

I think this list still holds true generally, but I’m going to work on a different list for romantic comedy. Gives me an excuse to geek out and watch as many rom-coms as humanly possible.

So there’s that. Cheerio, darlings.

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This too shall pass – a tribute to Robin Williams.

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

 

5 ways to write a blockbuster movie

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.

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

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

 

6 pitfalls of genre movies

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.

12 Qualities of Great Film

PopcornBismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum wr wb,

Hello and happy weekend!

Though it’s almost over.

My head is splitting so this one will be brief, I’m afraid.

Ted Hope said that we should all have a list of things we love about film. To avoid chaos and confusion. To elevate our work from good to great (this link via the Black Board. Discussion of it here). To know what to fight for and what to let go.

I’ve been struggling (yet again) with my rewrite for Mr. Wonderful. I hope – Ted Hope – this exercise will help me figure out how to fix it.

It’s a rookie screenwriting mistake, but I love it too much to let it go. And really, really, really – I do think there’s something there worth saving.

I’ve been collecting a list of films that just make my heart sing. Movies that made me sad when they ended.

This is the list and I hope it continues to grow.

Science fiction:

  1.  Alien
  2. Prometheus
  3. Blade Runner
  4. Star Wars: A New Hope
  5. Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back
  6. Back to the Future 1
  7. Signs
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Drama (mostly):

  1. Half Nelson
  2. Fight Club
  3. Inglourious Basterds
  4. The Future
  5. Me You and Everyone We Know
  6. The Dark Knight Rises
  7. The Prestige
  8. Michael Clayton

Comedy:

  1. Crazy Stupid Love
  2. Tootsie
  3. Lars and the Real Girl
  4. The Odd Couple
  5. Billy Elliot
  6. In Bruges
  7. Death at a Funeral
  8. Manhattan Murder Mystery
  9. American Beauty

Just off the top of my head, this is what I perceive are some of the common traits of these movies. I’ll unpack the movies and the traits they contain one by one and add to them.

  1. Adults acting like children (not really bad adolescents)
  2. Looking at the true ugliness of human nature and not looking away.
  3. Looking at the true beauty of human nature and not looking away.
  4. Subverts expectations. Weird, freaky, disturbing.
  5. Love
  6. A dark, even disgusting, sense of humor.
  7. Understated.
  8. Ambitious
  9. Deals with questions about the nature of human existence.
  10. Beautiful to look at.
  11. Joyous.
  12. Funny

Now I’m off to rest my head.

Love,

Sabina

A screenwriter’s prayer of gratitude

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum wr wb.

Hey, all.

This past Thursday, if you live in America, was Thanksgiving.

Ironically, for some reason, all of the major corporations decided that the next day is Kill Each Other For Stuff Day a.k.a Black Friday.

It’s all a conspiracy, I tell you. ‘They’ don’t want you feeling too grateful, otherwise you might become too happy and healthy and then you won’t buy stuff and the economy as ‘they’ know it – which is the one where ‘their’ fur-lined pockets are stuffed with dubloons – will collapse.

See?

It’s simplistic but I’ve found that the simplest explanations are generally the truth.

Everybody wants to make money.

Anyway, it’s that time of the year where everyone seems to be reflecting. And before I look back on my year and really tear myself a new one, I’d like to spend a little time being grateful.

I know that both Christianity and Islam recommend a regular practice of gratitude. Plus, gratitude has well-documented health benefits. Which I can’t find documentation for at the moment.

I’ve been meaning to make a habit of gratitude. But was too busy being curmudgeonly. Not anymore. That’s my New Year 2014 resolution. No more curmudgeonly. I find when I’m grateful, I’m actually more courageous. I have more energy. I’m more joyful. I notice the beautiful things around and I’m not going searching for that emotional buzz.

So what am I grateful for this year?

Note: I’m going to be saying Alhamdulillah (thank God) in this post. It is a post about gratitude after all.

I’m researching a new story concept. It involves some of my favorite things; women of colour, food, tricksters, the supernatural, transformation/metamorphosis. I’m loving it already. Alhamdulillah!

I just finished a first draft on a bonkers multi-protagonist comedy. I never thought I could make it coherent. But I think it’s not bad. Alhamdulillah!

I’m working on a fourth draft of my second screenplay (yes, that’s three different projects in the works). Because I’m learning so much as I’m writing, it’s taking a while to crack this one. I’m wondering if this iteration of the story will be ‘the one’ (numerous rewrites to work on other elements notwithstanding) It’s exciting. I never know if these projects will work but I’m glad I’m getting used to that queasy jumping-into-the-deep-end feeling. Alhamdulillah!

I am grateful for the Go Into The Story blog, my own screenwriting course, a veritable feast of screenwriting knowledge when I thought I had to scramble for crumbs. Alhamdulillah!

I am grateful for John August, for ScriptCat, for #scriptchat on Twitter, for Jeanne Bowerman, and the hundreds if not thousands of people so generous with their time and information that I might need a few lifetimes just to learn everything I want to learn. Alhamdulilllah!

I’m grateful for the Black Board. A more loving supportive safety net of human souls, I wouldn’t have dared to dream existed. Alhamdulillah!

I’m so grateful for Netflix. God, what did I do without it? God, please bless Netflix and let it always be low-priced and plentiful Ameen!

I’m so very grateful for my husband. Sitting in front of me right this moment watching a weird anime about pirates. Alhamdulillah!

I’m grateful for my relative youth and my relative health. Alhamdulillah!

I’m grateful for the mountains that I have yet to explore Alhamdulillah!

I’m grateful for the mountains I have explored. Man, my thighs hurt, but wow those were great adventures Alhamdulillah. I slid down a snow-covered hill-top! Unintentionally, of course!

I’m grateful to be a desert woman who knows what to do in the snow now. Alhamdulillah.

I’m grateful for courage that I suddenly found when I needed it the most Alhamdulillah.

I’m happy I’ve been able to forgive Alhamdulillah!

Alhamdulillah for rain, snow, hail and everything in between.

Alhamdulillah for networking events and good contacts.

Alhamdulillah for possibility.

Alhamdulillah for a dreadful workshop experience. Yes, thank You God for pain. It taught me where I need to draw the line.

Alhamdulillah also for disappointing projects. It taught me again how to deal with uncertainty and disappointment. And the people that cause them.

Alhamdulillah for family far and wide, blood-related and marriage-related.

Alhamdulillah for Mummy.

Alhamdulillah for Daddy.

Alhamdulillah for my brothers and my nieces and my sister-in-law.

I am mostly very grateful for safety. For food. For simple things. Like a roof over my head. Being safe in my home knowing that no one will hurt  me. I wouldn’t have the courage or the energy or the will to dream if I was struggling to survive, emotionally, physically or financially. I know there are people starving even in this wealthy country and many others around the world.

This is not just Thanksgiving getting to me. I have a feeling that I should put all my blessings to good use before God asks me what I did with them.

Take stock, peeps.

Much love,
Sabina

Representing the under-represented, Part 1: Own who you are.

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum wr wb. Peace and love, dear owner of eyeballs.

How do you feel about your work?

Do you feel a little desperate?

Do you find yourself developing ideas that you think an audience would enjoy, but you don’t?

Are you asking, even pining for help, networking like a crazy person, but not really getting anywhere?

This is the real kicker – do you feel the very essence of your being precludes you from being accepted?

Chances are, you might be a writer. Possibly an underrepresented and desperate writer.

It’s okay to acknowledge that.

I’m the second hijabi (headscarf-wearing) screenwriter I know about. Even in the Muslim city of Dubai, I knew only two hijabi filmmakers.

At least I know that I’m not alone. Though oddly enough, it’s hard for two or more hijabis in a male-dominated industry to stand being in the same room together. But that’s another story.

It’s hard. It’s hard wishing people would see past your unusual appearance/life-style choice/belief system/what have you and give your work a chance.

But I’ve learned the VERY hard way. It’s useless wishing. People have to break down their own barriers. People have to choose to listen to your stories. A great story is a thing of true beauty, but people have to open up their hearts enough to let it in. And that unfortunately is a choice.

That said, there are a few things I’ve discovered I can do so that a)I spare myself needless grief and b) I make progress towards getting the work I am doing to the people that would actually appreciate it.

These are the three main steps I am working on.

  1. Own myself and who I am.
  2. Own a professional attitude.
  3. Build a tribe.

This is going to be a three parter. I’ll talk about each one in more depth.

  1. Own myself and who I am.

People rejecting me is one thing. Me rejecting myself is something else entirely.

I am a storyteller. No two ways about it.

I am also a Muslim. DEFINITELY no two ways about that.

It was hard to accept myself in an unsupportive environment, where you can be one or the other but not both.

I tried very hard.

Moving physically and emotionally/mentally to a new much more supportive environment made all the difference.

A world of difference in fact. My productivity is light-years ahead of what it used to be – I am set to finish four drafts and two screenplays this year!

It’s hard enough shutting down the critical voice in your head. Being around critical people makes it SO much worse. Our creativity can only grow if we minimize and if possible, completely eliminate those people from our lives.

But still the shame persists.

I perform the job of critical mother/father/brother /friend myself.

I keep telling myself “I’m never going to be accepted. I don’t look like these people. I don’t talk like them. I don’t have the same beliefs. Gosh, I don’t drink, I pray five times a day, and I don’t shake hands with gentlemen!  What are they going to think of me?”

Answer? Whatever the heck they please.

I am who I am. I’m not hurting anyone. My faith is my business. I don’t need to sacrifice anyone’s pet hamster on an altar to worship God. So really what’s the problem if I cover my head and pray 5 times a day and bow to instead of shake hands with men? (It’s archaic, but it gets the job done.)

My body. My soul. My business. Their brain. Their mind. Their business.

Problem solved.

Once I get rid of the shame, a number of other glaring habits make themselves apparent.

The ‘victim’ story

People love hearing stories about Muslim people who are suffering because of their Islam.

Wife beatings, honor killings, rapes, suicides, persecution – all of these and more are the stories you’ll find if you look for stories about Muslims.

These stories feed social hysteria about Muslims. Worse still, they make Muslims see themselves as victims, that there is always an enemy, internal or external.

There’s absolutely a place for those stories in the Muslim cultural narrative. I might tell one myself if the mood and the inspiration takes me.

But mostly I want to write stories about hope.

Films for me have always been about possibility, not inevitability.

There’s plenty of conflict in my films. But that conflict doesn’t come from Islam.

I’ve made it my mission to seek out real stories about my community. Stuff that nobody ever hears about. And tell those stories.

Empowering myself

This is the problem with being a screenwriter. I write the movies and then I beg for somebody to read it. And then I beg for somebody to make it.

All of that begging – not a good look.

Ava Duvernay’s recent talk at the Film Independent Forum really inspired me.

Because you see, the people that have the power to make movies may not be interested in Muslim stories. If they are, they might be only be comfortable telling the ‘victim’ story.

And if I hinge my ability to get movies made on making somebody else feel comfortable, I might find myself drifting into dangerous territory as a Muslim story-teller. I might find myself telling those ‘victim’ stories or worse, those ‘abuser’ stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to shop my work around. But I won’t cry too hard if nobody wants to bite.

I know that I’m interested in Muslim stories. It stands to reason then that the ball is in my court to get them made.

I don’t know how yet. But one way or another, I’m getting rid of my coat of desperation. I’m now officially on that ‘I’m making movies’ train.

Peace and blessings of God on you, my fellow scribes/filmmakers.

Babies and bathwater, or, 4 ways to be kind to your screenplay

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum wr wb!

‘Sup, homies.

So I’m on my third draft of my screenplay. Haven’t written any pages of it, since a thorough analysis of my structural scaffolding is in order.

It’s 186 pages long and there might be a lot of good things in there, but they are really buried.

At the moment, I’m going through my screenplay with a fine-tooth comb, trying to figure out what each scene says about my cast of characters.

At best, they say nothing at all.

At worst, they say the same thing over and over again. Or nothing surprising.

The bits that I thought were really clever were sometimes very jarring. Or not clever at all. Cleverness in fact occurred in odd and unexpected places. Such is the beauty of writing.

Yes, perhaps I’m being unduly hard on myself.

But I really don’t think I am.

In any case, last week, I had a severe case of this-is-never-going-to-work-itis and a timely reminder from Jeffrey Lieber, showrunner, that I should check the bath-water for babies.

And I wonder – how do I do that?

Here’s what I think I should do. Haven’t gone through all these steps yet and will update this blog post when I do.

1. Do a clean read.

Scott Myers of GITS does an excellent job of explaining that here.

Doing a clean read, I put my script reader’s glasses on. I found a few things I really loved about my screenplay buried really REALLY deep down. If I was a script reader, I would have given it a pass because, well, the script isn’t anywhere near its full potential. I knew that.

2.       Give my script to a few trusted readers. Collect not just the criticisms but the compliments too.

I’ve had the great blessing and privilege of having Mr. Wonderful read by a few lovely people on the Black Board and my classmates at a Screenwriting Master Class. I trust them not to lie. When they said they really liked my script, I am choosing to believe them. I’m going to collect those compliments and file them under a heading called “Babies”. Yes, those babies may not be fully formed yet, but that’s no reason to abort the foetus. Polishing those gems hopefully will get me closer to a great script.

3.       Figure out my story, especially my theme.

This is the part I am labouring through at the moment. I am excavating character, structure and theme as it is now, but also generating a whole bunch of questions that will God willing trigger some great change for the next draft.

I’ve hit upon some excellent truths about what I am trying to say with this story. It’s true what Scott always says. The more you think about your story, the closer it gets to its real essence.

It’s pretty daunting, but it’s pretty exciting too.

4.       Do a not-so-clean read.

I want to actively look for the good in my screenplay.

It might be a throwaway line of dialogue. A nice bit of scenery. A great minor character.

All bits of magic that cropped up unexpectedly.

Sure, those babies may not be fully formed. But they deserve to be nurtured, if they fit my story and my theme. But I can only know that if I know what my story and theme is, hence point no. 4.

Well, that’s my 4-step plan to not throw out any babies with the bathwater. Let me know what you think.

Wassalam and Fee Amanillah. Peace, love and Godspeed.

Sabina.

Wax off! Or, How to write a killer log-line.

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum wr wb, all my brothers and sisters. Peace and mercy be on our calloused fingers and every part of our tired but hopefully happy bodies.

I’ve been studying the oft-ignored of logline-writing.

I have basically stopped ignoring it.

The Black Board has been my Mr. Miyagi in this process.

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I have culled together the main things we should remember when we write log-lines from the various sources listed at the Black Board.

1. Start with an interesting character, give him/her a high-stakes want and make the obstacles against them practically insurmountable.

I think it’s worth unpacking each of the terms mentioned above.

An interesting character

Who would be the most fascinating person to put in this situation? Usually the most fascinating person has the steepest learning curve.

When mentioning the Protagonist, give them just one well-chosen adjective.

Don’t include their name.

Only mention a maximum of two characters in the log-line, preferably Antagonist and Protagonist. More than that and it just becomes confusing.

This applies even to an ensemble piece, such as Bridesmaids or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

A high-stakes want

The highest stakes are usually derived from the five primal human needs – hunger, survival, protection of loved ones, sex and revenge.

None of these need be interpreted literally and more than one, I imagine, can occur in the same script, while carefully making sure the plot doesn’t become too muddy.

Peeples has the following log-line:

Sparks fly when Wade Walker crashes the Peeples annual reunion in the Hamptons to ask for their precious daughter Grace’s hand in marriage.

Wade obviously wants to have sex with Grace,  or wants to continue having sex with Grace, by showing his commitment to only having sex with Grace.

The Peeples’ family, I imagine, are trying to protect their daughter Grace from Wade.

Two competing wants = hopefully a funny and juicy conflict.

This segues nicely into the next crucial part of a log-line

Antagonist/obstacles

Do not ever have a passive character to whom things just ‘happen’. This is a fault not just in the log-line but in the entire story concept. The character should be the engine of action in the story.

He or she does something, something happens, they react by doing something else, probably still oblivious to their fatal flaw.  Something else happens. And so on until the Protagonist learns a new behaviour – or not.

Make the conflict external, even if it is internal. Let the Antagonist take a shape of some kind.

The character’s flaw is exacerbated, rendered life-threatening, by the obstacles the Antagonist puts in his/her path.

Again life need not be interpreted literally. Death can occur even when all your bodily functions are still working. As anyone who has ever stood in line at the DMV knows.

Hence the conflict forms the dramatic through-line of the logline.

Subplots should not be mentioned.

2. The logline should indicate the set-up, set up the main conflict of Act 2, and hint at the problem that will be resolved by Act 3.

This is by far one of the most useful things I’ve learned from the resources on log-lines.

Let’s look at the Peeples logline again:

Sparks fly when Wade Walker crashes the Peeples annual reunion in the Hamptons to ask for their precious daughter Grace’s hand in marriage.

Let’s re-arrange it so it mimics the 3-act structure of the movie.

When Wade Walker crashes the Peeples annual reunion in the Hamptons, sparks fly when he asks for their precious daughter Grace’s hand in marriage.

It’s much less elegant and a little confusing, which is probably why they went with the previous structure.

Act 1 set-up: When Wade Walker crashes the Peeple’s annual reunion in the Hamptons….

The Hamptons = lots of money.

Wade Walker = probably not so much money.

The use of the word ‘crashes’ means that he’s not expected and probably, not welcome either. Conflict already built in.

Act 2:  “…sparks fly when he asks for Grace…” This is the engine of conflict for the bulk of the movie.

Act 3:  How will we know whether Wade is a loser or a winner in this movie?

Answer: We’ll know if he’s allowed to marry Grace or not.

Once you have all these ducks in a row, you can fiddle around with them to make a cleaner prettier sentence.

3. What are the genre expectations based on this log-line?

The genre is one of the key aspects of marketing a movie and one of the first questions in a production executive’s mind when he views a coverage report.

A lot of dark comedy log-lines I wrote initially were misunderstood as thrillers.

I’ve found using ‘funny’ words and an ‘ironic’ tone might help.

Yep, I’m still researching this one, mostly in the comedy genre, because that’s my jam. Will let you know.

4. You can diagnose a lot of script problems at the logline stage alone. 

It’s amazing what an incredible diagnostic tool a log-line is.

In the forums on the Black Board, I’ve been alerted to lackluster antagonists and protagonists, a lack of a clear goal, and various other more secondary, but still very important considerations.

Such as there are too many weird things going on (sci-fi).

The device that connects everything together just isn’t working (sci-fi again).

And various other common-sense questions that don’t arise when you think you’ve discovered a brilliant concept.

For example, in Harry Potter, why didn’t they use the Time Turner and just jolly well  go back in time and kill Voldemort?

5. Slice-of-life log-lines operate according to different rules.

Slice-of-life movies do not translate their internal goals into external goals.

Christopher Lockhart uses the example of Love Actually:

A varied group of Brits struggles with the pleasures, pain, and power of love during the Christmas season.

…and Gosford Park:

During a weekend jaunt at a British country house, servants – who must keep order and protocol – struggle to please their aristocratic employers until a murder threatens to disrupt the balance.

According to Lockhart, these stories should be defined by a time ( as in Christmas in Love Actually), place (Gosford Park) or historical event (Bobby) and the theme should not be presented didactically.

6. You only got 25 words! 

…but I’m sure, in the age of Twitter, that isn’t too big a deal.

7. Start with a spark of an idea and keep adding elements to it. 

No one is born a fully formed adult having already discovered their vocation and values in life.

So it goes with loglines. Rarely do they come out fully formed.

They start out pure, innocent and sweet in the form of a story concept, a angel that strikes you with its wing in the queue at the supermarket.

For example, “a lawyer who cannot lie”, “Othello in high school”, “Othello in Indian politics” (these three are high-concept because they can be summed in a few words), “racial tension in LA”, “a family road-trip to a beauty pageant”.

The conflict, the stakes, the wants and the needs, all come later as you let the thing sit around for a while, gathering form.

When it graduates college, you’re good to go! (I know I’ve stretched that metaphor way too far.)

Much love and peace,

The Happy Muslimah (in a nutshell)