Tag Archives: screenwriting

What I said before – all nonsense.

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

I’m so full of feces.

I’m trying to distill life and death and guilt into bolded bullet points for your easy digestion.

When I’m fighting everyday at this keyboard trying to write something that feels honest. That cannot be contained by a three-act structure.

(That maybe does happen in three acts for clarity’s sake, but alludes to something bigger. Also because tying my brain in knots isn’t my idea of fun. And I want to make people laugh. And that means making sense. This is a long parenthetical.)

When my mom died, I learned that I don’t know how to grieve.

For a long time, I wondered if my father was right. If I was selfish. Whether I even loved anything or anyone enough to grieve if it left me. Other than stand-up, improv and my personal freedom. Grieving all of that sounds even more selfish.

But then Mama died and my life went on as if nothing had changed. As if I hadn’t lost a limb.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you how to grieve. Everything I said before was utter nonsense. Well, I do all of those things but only to survive the day. But I have a feeling that most of us want to do more than just survive.

Muslims aren’t really clear about grieving either. Sure,  there’s the washing and wrapping of the body, the Janazah (the funeral prayer), etc. But being in America and my mother being buried in Sri Lanka, I could not partake in that ritual.

Leaving no clean break in my life between ‘with Mama’ and ‘without Mama’.

The best I could get from YouTube is don’t wear make-up or colorful clothes. Well, in that case, I’m grieving most of the time. Or my wardrobe is, anyway. Surely grief is more than sartorial choices?

So I’ve decided to drown myself in other people’s grief. After finishing #ZD30Script (in which I hammered out a holey outline) – I thought I’d treat myself by binging on House of Cards AND Breaking Bad.

But I figure they’ll wait.

I scrolled down my Netflix queue looking for a face of color.
I found perhaps 12 movies in hundreds.
Weak. But okay. Gotta start somewhere. And checking my privilege is a good way to start.

Fruitvale Station

Cried for a young man about my age, snuffed out before he could prove that he could be a father.

The Butler

My struggle with my father was much the same. Less nation-spanning perhaps. But just as earth-shaking. Still haven’t reached that emotionally satisfying resolution yet, though we are on speaking terms.

Decided to watch The Station Agent – a little person is underprivileged too. Though unlike the POCs in other movies, does his happiness come at so steep a price?

Well, I guess everyone’s happiness comes at a price. Uncertainty.

One of those quiet indie movies with quiet change happening over many quiet moments. The humor is pretty quiet too. The only two jokes in the movie are in the trailer.

My life has never been that quiet. It’s always been loud, messy, chaotic, out of control. Even if I wanted to be a hermit, no one would leave me alone. No one leaves me alone long enough to complete a writing sprint. It’s a struggle to quiet the voices in my head.

And of course, sex. Changes. Everything.

And alcohol.

And things change all in a rush – that part is true to my life. And suddenly we’ve found our place in the world and all that madness was worth it.

I liked that movie. I’d like to see a movie like that about people of color.

There’s a grief here I can’t explain. Would movies have saved my mother? Would movies have kept me from post-partum depression?

Movies can’t even seem to tell my story.

There’s a discord here that I really can’t shake.
I wonder if movies have ever told my mother’s story. If they will ever tell my story. If I will always be forced to find myself where I’m not, where I might not even be welcome.
Will my son face that discord too? Will he be in the world, but not really acknowledged by it? Will he care all that much? I didn’t have much else to do other than movies, books and TV growing up.
Perhaps this is yet another thing I need to do differently as a parent. Give my son something else to do.
Fact is, the world may or may not change. I can try and try, but it’s not me that holds the keys. This right here is grief.
I tried most of my life to understand my mother, to be friends with my mother, even best friends. But for a number of years, my efforts were decidedly less than futile. Even counter-productive. And by the time those years were over, ALS had taken her voice. And now, it’s taken all of her. And I can try no more. Though still I try. With my forehead on my prayer mat, I scream in my head to see her again. If it works, I’ll let you know.
I can try and try, but really there has never been any guarantee that things will change for the better.
Not for me. Not for my kids. Not for my mother.
This is grief.
Maybe this is why I’ve believed in God from such a young age. Something has to be stable to keep me sane. Something has to make sense. And someone, and yes, I do believe it’s Him (God has no gender really) has to reward the effort, no matter what the outcome. Nobody and nothing else does on the planet.
This is grief.
This is suffering. I know I’m not the only one.
May I be patient with myself. May I know right from wrong, even when no one encourages me to do the right thing. May I reach out to others who are grieving. May I keep hoping and keep trying. May God reward all our efforts, whatever the outcome. Ameen.
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10 Qualities of Great Film: Part 1

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My example for both of the above is Frances Ha.

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

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

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

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

3. Joy

4. Despair

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

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

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

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

Which leads me to the next thing I love:

5. Cyborg movies.

I don’t mean movies about cyborgs.

Courtesy Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Courtesy Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

Examples – Obvious Child.

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

Michael Clayton.

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

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

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

Recap on the #selectedten and four Black List reviews

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.

Emotions of Screenwriting: Hope and Disappointment

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

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

So here I am.

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

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

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

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

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

So who is hope?

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

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

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

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

Who then is disappointment?

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

Say it with me – nothing.

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

It’s real. It’s here.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be fooled by life’s outcomes.

Not success. And not failure either.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy (and Hopeful) Muslimah

The Emotions of Screenwriting: Anxiety

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

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

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

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

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

But they got better over time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety saps energy.

Anxiety makes me forget that God has a plan.

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

Anxiety keeps me small and hunted.

Anxiety is my friend.

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

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

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

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

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

Love and peace. Wassalam and Fee Amanillah,

The Happy (and okay) Muslimah

5 ways to write a blockbuster movie

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope  this has helped.

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

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

The Happy Muslimah.

The Emotions of Storytelling Part 4: Alone-ness

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatahu!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, it’s outrage.

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

This usually makes me upset. Very upset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wassalam and Fee Amanillah,

The Happy (to be alone) Muslimah!

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 perks of being an underrepresented writer

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum!

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

But it’s not hell either.

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

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

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

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

1. You know how to work hard.

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

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

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

3. You know how to deal with uncertainty healthily.

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

4. You have a good BS meter.

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

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

5. You probably know how to hustle.

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

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

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

I’ve practiced. You probably have too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And other daft self-help clichés.

I’m rooting for you.

Much love and wassalam.

Sabina.

6 pitfalls of genre movies

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.

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.