Category Archives: filmmaking

4 qualities of my favorite romantic comedies

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

10 Great Qualities of Film Part 1

10 Great Qualities of Film Part 2

10 Great Qualities of Film Part 3

Two years since I wrote Part 1 and I still agree with these thoughts. I’ll be darned.

It’ll be useful when I enter the mire of indie film-making and need a compass to get my bearings.

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So in keeping with my promise to myself in that last blog post, I have been devouring rom-coms as quickly as I can. Which means a few a month (I have a toddler).

I’ve nailed down what I love about the ones I love. Looking at them now, they look like the tools from my emotional toolbox. Here goes:

1. ROLE PLAYING TO SURVIVE

In My Girl Friday, the role Hildy thinks she has to play is the one of the wife, away from journalism. But journalism, and her ex-husband, keeps sucking Hildy back in.

In Tootsie, he is encased in it i.e. starring as a woman in a soap opera. The first professional success he’s had in years. He falls in love with his co-star while knowing that escaping this role is practically impossible.

2. CHAOS

To me, this feels true to my life. It’s chaotic and love happens when I’m not paying attention.

The professor in Bringing Up Baby chases a bone and a leopard across three states and ends up falling in love while doing it.

The professor in Monkey Business is trying to nail down the formula for his anti-aging serum but instead realizes he loves his wife and couldn’t care less about aging with her.

Both professors are played by Cary Grant. When it comes to rom-coms, he’s just toppers (props if you know which rom-com that’s from. Hint: It’s also a period piece.)

In most of these madcap movies, it turns out the thing they were chasing wasn’t that important after all. As usually is the case with things we chase.

But my favorite and obviously the most contemporary one of this batch is Bridesmaids:

Annie is trying desperately to cover over her insecurities. But the more she tries, the more they burst to the surface, causing an ever-quickening tornado of chaos. Of course, climaxing with her punching a cookie. But finally she realizes that yep, she is at rock bottom but she’s going to be fine. Because all good rom-coms, whatever their engine of comedy or romance, are about – wait for it – loving and knowing yourself.

3. IRREVERENT MELANCHOLY

 

I’ve been around a lot of grief lately. I wish people handled it in as entertaining a manner as this. Or handled it at all, instead of bottling it up, though that’s another post entirely.

This is where I think my love of the perverse and sci-fi could really come out to play.

My favorites:

Eternal Sunshine may well be my favorite movie of all time. Largely because it devolves into….

4. MELANCHOLIC CHAOS

A lot of the time lately, grief blindsides me while we’re rushing around trying to hold it together. Grief is followed by chaos, or vice versa. And because we lean on people when we grieve, love often follows too.

Death at a Funeral is one of my favorite examples of this. Precisely because it follows that exact pattern.

In Bruges is about guilt followed by chaos and a good amount of violence, punctured with love between these two wonderfully charming Irish hitmen.

And Four Lions. Disenfranchisement. Chaos. A good amount of violence. Punctured with love.

Now I know, these aren’t traditional rom-coms. I’ve expanded the ‘rom’ to include all kinds of love. Because if we’re not writing about love, what are we writing about?

 

 

Do your movies give people ‘pleasure’ or ‘joy’?

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

I have a feeling this is going to be a long one. Because it’s about my mom. Buckle in, my friends.

And I’m going to be saying ‘pleasure’ a lot. Try to keep your mind out of the gutter, Internet.

I can’t remember the last time I saw my mother enjoying something. I once saw her pop a pickle in to her mouth and she looked ecstatic.

But no, nothing after that. We spent her birthday in hospital in Vellore, Chennai. I tracked down a bakery and found her some awesome chocolate cake. She scolded me for it. And I can’t remember her eating even a little bit.

My mother felt the need to earn pleasure. To reward herself for hard work. For reaching a goal-post.

That’s all good. But the trouble is, those goal-posts are slippery. Like a just-lotioned toddler with no clothes on.

My mother never earned the right to pleasure, though she did a lot with her life.

Oh, but what is pleasure really, if you think about it? Life’s basic necessities with a little extra oomph. Tea and cakes instead of bread and water. A silky pajama with lace trimmings instead of trusty old cotton.

It’s, of course, a matter of taste what is pleasing. But what I’m getting at here is, it’s just a little prettier than what we would normally have.

There were times when my mother would deny herself basic necessities too.

I remember shopping for my impossible-to-please husband with my mom.

Some backstory: Sri Lankan Muslims have this beautiful custom of exchanging gifts when a couple gets married. There’s a couple of baskets of stuff for the bride/groom – usually clothes, toiletries, costume jewelry, the stuff you might give your spouse on an anniversary. And lots of baskets of fruit, chocolate, all kinds of food, for the bride/groom’s family. A flipping humongous cake is also customary.

After the wedding, the food baskets get divided among all the relatives present. It’s finger-licking good.

On this particular occasion, we were shopping for my husband’s baskets. I was sending him picture after picture, trudging into one designer outlet after another, and the dude just wasn’t satisfied.

I remember being pretty pissed at my husband. And my mother was frothing herself up into a panic. I can just imagine the thoughts swirling around in her head. “Oh my God, what are we going to do, child, he doesn’t like anything we choose, what will people think?”

But it was lunch-time and damn it, I wanted to eat. She wanted to keep looking.

Freaking heck, Indiana Jones couldn’t find what this guy wanted. But my poor dear mother wanted to skip a meal to keep trying.

Pleasure? She hadn’t pleased her overlords, so she did not even deserve food. I forced her to sit down and eat. This makes me a spoiled brat.  A food-court Chinese meal.

Tell me this isn’t about colonialism. That this isn’t about misogyny.

Now I’ve followed my mother’s example faithfully.I used to regularly work myself into a nervous breakdown.

BUT. After years of depression, anxiety and, God help me, a little guy who might follow in my footsteps, I want to change all that. I want to experience the delicious things of life. 

And I don’t wait till I hit a goal either. That particular habit, I haven’t shaken yet. My goals aren’t as SMART as I’d like. I’m working on it.

But – yes, another but – I’ve found that cake is nice and all, but it’s even better with company.

Which leads to me to this other concept. JOY.

What is joy to me?

Joy is sacred. Pleasure is the doorway to the sacred.

You can share pleasure with just about anybody. But joy has to be earned.

Joy is the difference between love and lust. Between hunger and satisfaction.

After overdoing pleasure, I’m now looking for joy. In every part of my life.

I’ve recently taken up yoga with this awesome woman’s videos.

I love that yoga practitioners tend to be radically calm. They don’t pour their bodies into punishing sports clothes and then yell and push till we all faint. I’d like to leave a session of exercise marveling at my body, not hating it.

Aerobics has always made me hate my body. Even if and when they speak of ‘modifications’, the underlying idea is that those are for the weak among us.

Adriene tells us to ‘find what feels good.’ My knee-jerk response to that was, ‘What right have I to feel good?’

The thought felt Like an electric shock, like a whip to my back. 

‘Let me punish myself before someone else punishes me. Because I deserve it.’

And joy? Joy was an insult to God. I need to always be humble and humility excludes joy.

I don’t know who taught me all of these lies about worship and God.

Which leads me to storytelling. My stories might be pleasurable, but are they joyous? This is where it might help to let go of structure and just tell a good story. To really dig deep into what makes you unbearable and establish a connection with the audience.

Ultimately the movies we remember didn’t just bring us pleasure, but also joy.

Oh but it’s more than that.

Because as we all know, Death is coming for all for us – and not the adorable Discworld kind either. Most of us have no idea when it’s going to strike. We should find that joy before it’s too late. And walk through as many pleasure doorways as our senses and values and resources will allow.

See. Told you it would be too long and about my mom.

Terry Rossio’s Time Risk in 11.5 minutes instead of 150

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem
So I just finished an excruciating page-1 rewrite of Whose Wife Is It Anyway for Zero Draft Thirty.
I thought I’d take a glorious week off. Do some yoga. Meditate. Bake. Paint. Take deep slow nourishing breaths.
HA!
My friend Hudson Philips posted this on the Facebook group for ScriptBlast.
Terry Rossio, writer of Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, wrote an article called ‘Time Risk’ for his excellent site ‘Wordplayer’.
I read. I cried. I read some more. Cried some more. And now I want to get to work.
This article really made my head spin and it hasn’t stopped spinning yet.
I thought I’d do other time-poor writers a solid and write a Cliff Notes version. Feel free to suggest amendments.

What’s the one take-away?

Spend time making films, not trying to get films made.
That is, with the cameras rolling. When cameras are rolling, brands are built and power accumulates.
The assumption here is un-produced work is perhaps a paycheck but does not build a writer’s brand. (I only call it an assumption because I imagine tons of people have different beliefs. I believe this assumption myself.)
Damn. Makes me want to go out and get an Arriflex right now.

What is time risk?

Time risk = time spent on task (divided by) probability of said task resulting in writer brand-building, career stability or worst-case scenario, money (I know, Mr. Rossio has high standards for us.)

What kind of time-risks do other players have, compared to screenwriters? 

Directors

Directors can direct a hit feature and almost certainly be asked to do another, though it may not be something they are nutty about. They can direct a string of hits and become major league players who get to choose what they want to do next e.g. Spielberg, Nolan, Cameron, etc. Rarefied air indeed.
If they direct a flop film, they do land in movie jail.
Note – this is only with regards to features. I don’t think this language of flops and hits exists in the short film world, which are directing samples much like specs.

Actors

Actors are all looking for that big break. A lead on a hit film or TV show can instantly book tons more projects. If even one of these is a hit, it leads to even more.
Their foes:
  1. Time risk at the beginning is enormous: auditions, preparation, classes, etc. But the payoff, as described above is EPIC.
  2. Competition.
  3. Age (mostly for women – it’s a fact, don’t shoot me).
A working actor’s job also has lower time-risk in a few other ways:
  1. Their work usually starts when the camera is rolling i.e. onmaking films.
  2. Their time commitment to a project might be measured in months, not years. I’ve spent four years on Whose Wife alone. Gah.
  3. They can do multiple projects in a year due to this relatively lower time commitment.
Once they hit the big time:
  1. Much like directors, they might not always do work they like. But if they get really big, they get to choose.
  2. They might even charge a reading fee (just to read but not commit to the script). This further mitigates time risk.

Producers

Of all of the monkeys in the circus, I feel the most kinship with this one. With a few differences.
  1. We commit to one, maximum two projects per year. They commit to numbers in the double digits. Hedging their bets.
  2. Most of their work happens after the deal goes through. And they are paid for it. Ours – well, anyone who’s written a spec will know what a beast it is. And we’re only paid after the script is sold or optioned. And sometimes…not even then (wait till you see what I have in store for you.)
  3. They sometimes don’t even read the screenplay. They might have only read coverage.
  4. The writer faces that blank page with an idea and faith in that idea alone. We’re betting on our good judgment. The producer would likely only read the script after it was recommended by a trusted source. Raising the writer above the competition. He likely has more knowledge whether the finished project will work or not in the marketplace. Again elevating the writer. Then and only then does his/her work begin.

Agents:

All I could glean is that it is not the agent’s job to produce. It is their job to manage ‘heat, maximising pay-off when a project or writer generates interest.’ So after a writer does her job and a producer does hers, then the agent steps in and really blows it up. Right? No idea. Yet.
Okay, here we go. Clutch your pearls.

Screenwriters cop the most time-risk. Why?

Most of our work happens before cameras roll. By definition, we really get the short end of the time risk stick.
I tried looking for patterns, but realized that what we all want to know: Is there anything I can do? If so, what?
The only things we can control are our actions. So I divided the time liabilities by what we do to ourselves, what others do to us and things that no one can anticipate.
So here goes.

Things we do to ourselves.

Writing on Spec: Of course we all know what the time risk here. We’re faced with it everyday. The odd thing even pro writers are often asked to write on spec. WTH.
 
Free Revisions: Essentially it’s work for free for people who do not deserve it. Both factors must exist for this to be time risk. Free work. And the people must really not deserve it – bad notes, revisions are only a stalling tactic etc.
 
The Agent Hoop: Agents giving you notes when we are the experts here.
Assignment chasing: Essentially this is a job interview, which is enough to give me the shakes (I was laid off twice, fired once. Thank you, Recession). But it’s much WORSE than a job interview. You have to review materials – think of comic books that have editions stretching back decades. You have to develop a take. That won’t tick off fans but will hit all the right ‘boxes’. It’s enough to drive you potty.
The Free Outline: Unpaid work. Always a time risk
Giving notes: more unpaid work. But this time for friends. It’s awesome and fulfilling to help out friends. But there comes a point, I think, when it becomes a time risk.
There’s an old saying in Hollywood: “Get them into your film before they get you into theirs.”

Things other people do to us.

Death by Sale – a company might buy your script to hedge their bets and do jack with it. If we sell, we put all our eggs in one basket.
“Sell the screenplay, transfer the copyright, the day cameras roll, not before.” – Ram Bergman, producer (Looper, Brick, Don Jon)
Getting fired: Despite the fact that everyone who signs on does so because of the script, the person most likely to get fired for one reason or another…is the screenwriter.
Credit arbitration: The first time I’m thinking about it this way. When multiple writers are used on a screenplay, this naturally leads to credit disputes. The WGA limits the number to four and stratifies them according to who got there first. Not letting the un-credited writers leverage the produced film into their brand. Which is a huge bummer.
Sweepstakes Pitching: Oddly enough I think I was landed with this one recently. I guess I’ve arrived right? Arf.
Sounds like the studio opens it up, knowing that only one can be hired. Another way of hedging their bets. Sometimes there is no assignment a.k.a. The Phantom Assignment. Sometimes they’ve already chosen their writer and are simply mining ideas from the pitches that, if not written down, will show up in the next draft of the project. Sometimes they are leaning towards one writer.
The Rights Hustle: You think they have the rights to something branded, but they don’t.
Hidden Previous Materials Boogie: You think you are the first and the last on a project, but you weren’t (this is sounding a lot like a country music song.) Leading to a messy credit arbitration.
The Vanity Option: A movie star’s pet project (yours) is humored to stroke the ego of ssif star. Nothing ever comes of it. But no one will tell you that.
Parallel Draft Deal: asking one or more writers to write their take on an idea. Sweepstakes writing, rather than pitching.
The Round table: Writing in a round-table. May not be a bad thing, but when it comes to credit arbitration?
Contract delays: Nobody gets paid unless those freaking documents are signed.
Turnaround costs: Projects that die can be sold to other studios. Sometimes the first-buyer studio can charge a thumping sum or are just plain difficult to deal with.
Lawsuits: Apparently successful films are always sued. God.
Whims: Well. You can guess this one.
Gone in 60 seconds: A concept spoken about verbally is stolen.

Circumstance

 
The Boxed In Draft: Your draft is boxed in by the tastes of a high-powered player (director or actor, from what I’ve heard).
Pitching up the ladder: Us first-timers are unlikely to meet people at the top – the one who really makes the decisions. We are likely the people lower down who, if they like it, pitch to their boss. Then they bring us in to pitch to their boss. If they like it, so on and so forth….Lots of potential for rejection.
Note Delays: 
 In Hollywood, it’s well-accepted that projects in production take priority, then films in pre-production, then films in post, and after that, new projects.
That means that we get pushed to the back-burner. This is especially significant if a step must be executed for us to be paid.
Developmental Art: Might work in spades. Might also cost a lot of time and money.
The Competing Project
The Child Killing Gorilla: An executive who takes over from another and murders all their children (figuratively) i.e. their projects.
The Hit Song: We need more than one hit. We can’t be Milli Vanillis.
Option Expiration: Studio options an IP (not buys it). We get called in to write a script. Option expires before script achieves escape velocity (first day of principal photography). Now studio no longer owns IP. You would think that we could sell the script to the next owner. Nope. They can’t even read it for fear of plagiarism suits if they don’t buy it. Lord have mercy.
Learning curve: Man, it takes long enough learning this stuff.

What can screenwriters do about time-risk? 

Answer: spend time making movies, not trying to get films made.

This means becoming a hyphenate, whether we like it or not. Believe me, I don’t like it myself. But those doors slamming shut in my face are starting to ring in my ears. I’m starting to be frightened of my inbox. From those e-mails that start ‘Thank you for your submission!’ <—- notice the guilty exclamation mark.
We all know what they REALLY mean when they say ‘thank you’.

If you have a career:

Start and finish: If you’ve originated a concept – write a book so you own the IP. Insist on being a producer so again you’re attached to the IP.  Or if it’s the tail end of a project, write production rewrites, so you know your work will be filmed. It’s the middle that’s commonly termed ‘development hell’.
Pitch as high up the ladder as possible.
Double-book – train your agent to always be lining up jobs. Given the Hollywood machine – it’s hardly likely you’ll have two jobs at a time.
Prepare for the ‘You’re Dumped’ phone call – The phone call that lets you know that any or all of the above things have happened and your time has just been wasted. The hardest part is the person on the other end will likely be excited that their project is further along.

If you don’t have a career yet:

Make friends with sellers, sell to buyers: The buyers are the ones who greenlight pictures. Everyone else, even in their production company, is trying to get them to do so. So really we’re all in the same boat, just with various levels of access. Until you reach the seller, it’s relationship building, not selling.
Stop-loss: put an expiration date on your project.
Own your IP – write the book or the play instead. Then you own the original IP.
Ask the right questions. 
Spend your time risks – at the beginning of your career, we have time to burn. Use it wisely.
Stack: Work on two projects at a time. Maximise pace and benefit by working on one project with a partner or playing producer and outsourcing a concept to another writer.

General good sense: 

Make a movie, anyway, anyhow. Get your name on that screen however we can. More importantly:
Become a director. I’ll let Mr. Rossio say it himself.
“Either become a director, or form a team with a director. But better to become a director. And not a writer who directs, but a director who happens to write.”
When I asked if we should turn our focus away from screenwriting:
Be the Cohen brothers. Learn to direct as well as write. Concentrate on learning both crafts.
Television – Television is harder to break into but more stable once we get there.
Sequels: If you’re choosing between two ideas and one of them has sequel potential…Ocean’s Eight. Need I say more?
Give upwardly mobile notes: notes can be like a job interview.
Avoid the Money Guy like the plague: This is someone who doesn’t have the money, but claims they do from some rich recluse somewhere. Always boasts about something big they did previously. Always negotiating their cut.
Make incremental progress : one task a day rather than racing towards a deadline (that actually would never work for me. But to each his own.)
Start an animation studio: Because all you need is an idea, some clay, a kitchen table and a camera that takes good stills. Which is probably all cameras these days.
Is your head spinning yet? Mine is.
Once it stops spinning, I’m going to ruminate on next steps. Maybe road-test some things in the next few months. And come up with a modified plan.
Because those ‘thank you’ emails make me want to punch someone.

My 5-step program for dealing with rejection

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

So both of those opportunities I submitted to a couple of weeks ago? They both rejected me.

Not the first time anyone has rejected me, of course. And if I stay in the game, it definitely won’t be my last.

But these submissions were different.

I’ve never felt as good about any of my work as I did about these. I felt they really represented my voice and my abilities. For one of these opportunities,  I thought I was a shoo-in. For the other, I was less confident but I was sure that my submission was very strong.

It really does a number on your self-esteem when you feel good about something for the first time and it still tanks.

For a while, I drowned myself in Prince William’s wedding cake, namely chocolate biscuit cake. Because you know, chocolate. And biscuit (cookies to you Yankees). And cake.

But you know you’re a writer when the rejections are just fuel to the fire. They made me angry. They made me sad. They made me contemplative. They lit a fire in my belly. Ultimately, they made me recommit to my purpose – to be a writer, regardless of who is confronted by my story.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to lick my wounds a little bit. Here’s a really great process I want to record for posterity. Who is currently wriggling on my lap, paying not as much attention as I’d like to his alphabet video.

  1. Comfort

Like I said, chocolate. Or any comfort of your choice. Though overindulgence is perhaps inadvisable. We’re trying to rebuild here, not bog down.

2. Recovery for the writing spirit

I was feeling pretty battered. I didn’t have faith in writing anymore. Or my ability to tell a good idea from a bad one.

My chest felt full, if you know what I mean. So many eddying thoughts. It made sense to provide an outlet for them. So I returned to morning pages. 

I confess I did these religiously for months many years ago. I thought they were a chore.

But at this particular time for a few days, they were heavenly.

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I gave myself permission to moan and groan and regroup and reflect. And say anything I wanted to say without actually saying it loud and letting that morose energy affect my environment or relationships.

It was wonderfully freeing. I don’t do them everyday anymore. But whenever I feel that anxiety again, I whip out a pen and my notebook and just it let it all go.

I’m much older than I was before. It’s taken a lot of time, patience and a commitment to self-care to build that compassionate space for all of my ugliness. I didn’t always have the courage to look at my pain that closely.

What I’m trying to say is – morning pages sound easy. But they aren’t. So don’t worry if this isn’t wonderful first time around.

I hope the next one works for you. Because it still doesn’t for me.

Artist dates

Artist dates are all about getting comfortable with mischief, with messing around rather than mastering a skill. They’re about simply letting go and having fun, rather than doggedly focusing on the anxiety-inducing result. 

I’m pretty terrible at having fun.

I did go looking for inspiration and I did find it. In The Invitation, a movie by a woman of color who just came out of Hollywood jail.

And Stranger Things.

Horror. Sci-fi. Other dimensions. The 80’s. Geeky little boys. Bad-ass girls. Everything I love in one TV show. Sigh.

I also paid more attention to my time with my son. I let him be my teacher. There’s something to be said for letting toddlers lead the way. All he does all day is play and explore. He didn’t ‘learn’ to walk or to talk. He just got there eventually through discovery.

3. Recommitting to my vision as a storyteller

I went all the way back to the beginning. Why did I start writing in the first place?

At first – I mean, REALLY way back, when I was 6 – it was because it was fun. Was it still fun? Yeah, it is.

Then it was because stories inspired me. Stories like 12 Monkeys (which I saw way too young) and Edward Scissorhands. I fell in love with the underdog. I still am in love with them/us.

And then I realized I was the underdog (around 14). But nowhere was I represented, as either hero or villain.

So I set out to change that.

I dabbled with poetry (I was a teenager. They were mostly tear-filled missives to Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys. Judge if you want. I sometimes do.)

I dabbled with short stories. I had more fun with these.

But ultimately my heart really sang when I watched movies. There’s a reason why they called them moving pictures.

Do I think there’s a possibility that I may never see myself and people like me represented onscreen? Oh yes. Given that black and LGBT people are only now getting the representation they deserve, that too mostly in the indie space, Muslims? I dunno, dude. Many people have told me just how conservative politically Hollywood is. ‘The greatest lie the devil ever told is that Hollywood is liberal’, a dear friend and actress told me. Will Muslims and their stories ever be welcome there truly? Only time will tell.

4. List my resources.

Okay, so I’ve established that I want to make a movie.

What resources do I have to do so?

  1. A little money.
  2. A little knowledge.
  3. My own family home here in Colombo.
  4. My husband’s family home is available to a lesser degree.
  5. To an even lesser degree and subject to many time and ethical constraints, I may have access to the homes of four or five relatives around Colombo.
  6. And them too to a degree, I suppose.
  7. Friends with money
  8. Friends with expertise.

The further away from me the resource gets, the less access I have to it.

But that’s not all the resources I have. I also have:

  1. Quirks
  2. contradictions
  3. Grief
  4. Fury
  5. Helplessness
  6. Dreams
  7. Nightmares
  8. Ambitions

The biggest resource I have is probably the story. But what story can I write with the resources I have? What story will really get me going?

This leads me to the last and most enjoyable step.

5. Combine and combust my resources till my passion is reignited. 

Working with what I have, I’ve come up with a bunch of one-location feature ideas. I haven’t decided on which one to work on yet. But I know why I want to work on it.

The why is this woman right here.

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I want to speak to my mother again. I want to relive the last days I had with her. Maybe be kinder, more honest, maybe say the things I wish I had said.

I want to see my mother again. As she was. As she could have been. As she is in my eyes. I want to ask her about being a mom. I want to ask her how to she dealt with it. I want to hear her staccato syntax construction again, part Sri Lankan, part ludicrously well-read classical and non-fiction literature fanatic. I want to hear her struggle to access the experience she knows she has. I want to help her find the words to articulate her experience.

I want to laugh when we fail. I want to laugh when we succeed. I want to cry when we disagree. To laugh when we disagree. I want to talk circles around her with my college brat arrogance.

I want to be with my mother again.

Maybe this story is my greatest resource. The outcome is the furthest thing from my mind. Within the story, I can move outside of space and time and be with my dearest friend again.

Do I need anymore encouragement? Not really. Do I need anyone to give me permission to write this story? Nope. No. Never.

Am I excited to write this story? Yes. Always. It would seem that everything I’ve written has been for my mother.

I can’t see beyond that. To optioning and pre-production and blah blah blah. And I don’t want to. I just want to be with my mother for a while.

That’s enough juice for me.

Would love to hear what story you have burning inside you. Figuratively, of course. As I said before – build up, don’t tear down.

Much love,

Sabina.

Art is wish-fulfillment

beauty_and_the_beast_beginning

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

For about the septillionth time this year, I find myself wondering why in the feck I’m writing screenplays. Short of papier-mache sculpture and nudist interpretative dance, I think it might just be about the hardest art-form to gain any kind of material success in. In fact, I think those two art-forms might be far more accepting of the under-represented.

My current project is a rom-com called Whose Wife Is It Anyway. It’s tortured, it’s romantic and hopefully it’s funny.

That’s my sales pitch to you.

But to me – I get to say goodbye to my mother. The way I wish I could have. I get to re-imagine a few acrimonious conversations as sensitive, peaceful, healing conversations. I get to have a few more funny, loving conversations with arguably the funniest woman I’ve ever met. I get to hear her voice again if only in my imagination.

And dear owner of eyeballs, you have no idea how long and how badly I have wanted to hear my mother’s high-pitched hectoring again.

A project I want to work on next year takes place all in one location, namely my family’s home here in Colombo.

I don’t have a sales pitch for you yet -sorry.

But for me – I get to be there as my mother dies. And I get to imagine her as a super-hero. No, more than that. A legend.

Even if it sucked donkey testicles in real life, on the page at least, I want to say goodbye to my mother the way I wish I could have.

As most Game of Thrones fans have, I’ve also been pondering the poor sodding fate of poor sodding Elia Martell. In love with a good-for-nothing foppy hair-brained prince. Nearly killed by childbirth. Twice. Abandoned by aforementioned blonde fop. And then raped by the Mountain. And killed. Brutally. But not before her children are murdered in front of her. Including her baby son.

If we stop to think about it, this is probably happening in the real world a whole heck of a lot. In fact, it might even be happening right now. In Palestine? In Syria? In some ISIS-controlled hell-hole where there are no reporters because no one in the outside world cares?

I invite you to simmer in that fetid reality for a moment.

Now. Why in the feck did GGRM enshrine it in fiction? Who’s fecking wish was he fulfilling?

Every pregnant woman in the series either dies a gruesome death or has the ones she love die in cruel and unusual ways. Robb Stark’s wife got off pretty easy actually. Daenarys and Elia Martell – I mean, seriously, GGRM?

Which leads to wonder why the male species would be so cut up about Ghostbusters. They aren’t real.

The rape and murder of women and children in times of war – that ish is far too real.

Whose wish are we fulfilling with our art? It’s worth contemplating. It’s worth questioning. It’s worth saying no to the beast when he asks us to make our darkest fantasies true on screen.

Recap on the #selectedten and four Black List reviews

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.

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

 

The Emotions of Story-telling. Part 2: Pain

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

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.

Interview with writer/director Lena Khan

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum and greetings, fellow film-makers!

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lena Khan (@lena_khan) writer of The Tiger Hunter, which she is also set to direct God willing next April.

THE TIGER HUNTER is the story of Sami Malik, a young South Asian who travels to 1970s America to become an engineer in order to impress his childhood crush and live up to the legacy of his father–a legendary tiger hunter back home. When Sami’s job unexpectedly falls through and he ends up living in a tiny co-op with two oddball roommates, he must resort to constructing an elaborate charade with the misfit accomplices in hopes of convincing his sweetheart that he’s far more successful than he truly is…or perhaps ever could be.

She has a fairly big actor who is ready to jump on board who is in a fairly big movie out now (I can guess who it is), but she needs a little bit more moolah to make him an offer.

So…what are you waiting for? Let’s get this show on the road! Donate here!

If you have any follow up questions, leave us a comment.

What has your career been like thus far?

It’s been…uncertain. And I think that’s the nature of film-making. It’s different from being a lawyer or doctor or the like, where you know that if you study hard and do the right things, you’ll have some stability and get what you want. With film-making, I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing okay, since I have been able to make a living off of my work, which isn’t that common in this field. But there’s always a sense that perhaps I’m rushing off foolhardy into a nearly impossible career and endeavor. But, I’m doing what I love, and I believe in what I’m doing. So the only way I can see how it turns out is to actually give it a chance.

Why did you choose film-making as a career?

I have always loved the idea of weaving stories, of manipulating artistic or movie magic to get people to feel instead of just hear or see a story. But I’ve always also wanted to have a career that tried to make a difference in the world.

I went into college thinking I was going to go in to academia and become a professor. But when I would walk around my university, it was apparent that people learn more from entertainment and the media than from school.

I remember being involved in student groups in college, and trying to get people to come to programs to learn about what was going on in Sudan. Not many people came. But lo and behold, when Don Cheadle came to town to talk about the issue, it seemed as if the entire campus turned out. Why? Because he was in entertainment. And such is the power of movies. I figured — that’s where I want to be. There’s a way for me to merge my creative passions with a way to work toward some good. And that’s what I’m attempting now.

Tell us about The Tiger Hunter. Where did the idea come from? How long did it take to make? What stage are you at with producing it?

The initial spark for the film came from an email from a friend of my brother’s, telling me about how his father came to America decades ago, and the random stories he had–like only having one good pair of suit pants between his roommates and how they would all schedule their interviews around that one pair of pants. Some were small, but it made me think there was more to the topic. After that, I remembered all the stories my dad used to tell me about his life growing up in India and coming here. My dad’s father was a tiger hunter in India, and the stories he had about that, as well as the crazy ploys he used to come here were something I always heard growing up…but never thought of as stories. At the time, I was working at Participant Media (Syriana, The Kite Runner), and one day I was casually telling some of those stories of my dad. My co-workers all agreed — this, they said, should be the topic for my first film. And so I started writing it.

After that, I interviewed my dad. I interviewed dozens of immigrants, people who lived in the 70s, etc. And from their stories, and a lot of creative manipulation over a year and a half, I wrote the script.

In terms of the film, we are just starting pre-production and based on schedules of the actors (many are TV actors, so we have to wait till their hiatus from filming), we will be filming around April of next year.

As a Muslim I got to ask you this: What are the challenges you face, if at all, being in a Muslim in film-making?

There’s a few – -those that come from being a faithful Muslim, and those that come from being part of the Muslim culture. For the latter, Muslims are generally a bit more traditionally minded. This reflects in a lot of ideas about how girls should be, from how they live their life to when they should get married. For example, they don’t expect girls in the community to be coming home at 2 am from a networking mixer or a film shoot, but that’s what I need to do to get anywhere. As for being a faithful Muslim, that comes into play as well. There are some environments that are just too crazy for me to network at, where I don’t feel comfortable hanging out at. I remember in film school, there were a few films that were so lewd that I couldn’t in good faith help on those film sets…which doesn’t really engender much love for you from your film colleagues. And in my own films, there is, of course, always questions about what I feel okay putting in my films and what I don’t. It’s not about following a black-and-white set of rules, but it is a concern and it becomes an internal conversation. And finally, of course, I do encounter people who take one look at me and assume I am foreign and don’t know how to make a movie or how to think creatively…but I think that happens in all professions to some extent so I don’t want to harp on it. People get over it, anyway.

And since I’m starting out myself as a screenwriter, there’s another question I am personally interested in – how do you deal with the uncertainty of this industry?

I guess I don’t really deal with it…I just accept it. The reality is that this is one of the most competitive fields there is, and there is only so much you can do to mitigate the uncertainty of it. That said, I do everything I can to do so. We’ve literally spent the entire year figuring out ways to decrease risk for our investors, whether it is through film incentives or acquiring soft money. I’ve done tons of research and gotten advice from dozens of professionals on how to survive in a difficult film economy and am implementing that advice. And yes, I do think that means being smart about what you write, what audiences are ready for (I believe in slowly challenging those ideas), and paying attention to the business side as well as the creative side of the film. But aside from that, I’m doing all you or I can–try to make a good movie. Try not to let difficult odds defeat us. I don’t think anyone will tell you there’s much more you or I can do.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters?

Two things – and these are things I try to implement as well: make sure you are very good at what you do, and don’t be naive.

For the former, that means constantly refining your craft, and getting input from objective people who know what they are doing and will tell you how your work is. This means getting coverage done, going to story editors, etc. I think with the advent of cheaper ways to make films, there are a lot of people making very mediocre work. This is a problem because at some point, you will not survive, nor find an audience to hear your stories, doing mediocre work. You need to constantly challenge yourself to improve your craft and get criticism, otherwise you will suffer, and your stories and intent will too. I used to watch American Idol with my family, and I noticed how much people hated Simon Cowell. I hate to say it, but sometimes Simon was doing people a great service. People would come in and they would be terrible. I mean, they were excruciatingly bad. And so Simon was trying to do them a favor by telling them they would not survive in this industry. And people think it’s unfair, but I think the same advice should be given to people who are doing terrible work in filmmaking or screenwriting. Why? Because people who really want to “make it” will know if they have no chances and know how difficult it will be for them out there. But also because if somebody really, really wants to do well in this field despite how bad the criticism is–they will do it anyway.

Secondly, it’s important not to be naive. When people become lawyers, they prepare and they know what’s needed. They have to get good internships in a certain year or law school, do well on their LSAT, etc. In film-making, I feel like people have this idea that if they just put their heart into their work, they will do great. That’s not true. It’s a real world out there, and even if somebody has an excellent script, if they don’t know how to get that script into the right hands, they won’t get anywhere. It’s the same for film-making and I don’t endorse it, but it’s a reality. I’ve seen amazing filmmakers that just don’t know how the business works, so they can’t get money for their films. A few people get discovered, but that’s not the norm. Alternatively, we all see terrible films being made because the teams behind those films know how to play the game. So I think people need to learn things aren’t as idealistic as they make it out to be, and adapt accordingly if they want to live their dreams.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m, of course, obliged to add that we are nearly completely funded, but do have a little bit left to raise. We are actually in a strange position that we have a pretty big actor (in a fairly large movie out right now) who read the script and wants on board, but we can’t make him an offer yet because our budget is not complete. So, if anybody wants to help support our film, in any way possible, please visit our website at http://www.thetigerhunter.com . I do my best to try to help all the younger filmmakers who email me each week and I publish a blog for this purpose, so if anybody wants to help me as well, it would mean a lot to me as well as the success of the project!

 Lena’s bio:

A writer and director, Lena gained experience at companies like Participant Media (Syriana, The Kite Runner) before focusing on directing her own work. Lena has directed commercials, films and music videos for international artists such as Maher Zain and her videos have been broadcast on TV across the world and received over 20 million hits on YouTube.  

Lena graduated from the prestigious UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, after which she spent years gaining experience at renowned film companies. Lena has gained extensive knowledge of what qualities a film needs to be successful, and brings those aspects into co-writing and soon directing The Tiger Hunter