So Alhamdulillah (thank God), I shot my first short film.
It’s a 8-minute short called I Like Long Walks. One location (my house), one character (me), minimal set ups. We’re currently tightening it up in post and hoping to submit it to a few festivals. Watch this space.
Here are a few lessons I learned from this teeny tiny but mighty experience.
Food rocks. Food is super important. Food is the wind beneath my wings. (I’m fasting.) Seriously though: Plan lunch in advance in consultation with your crew. If you’re going to do French hours i.e. no lunch, have tons of healthy and nutritious snacks on hand. Again in consultation with your crew. I had precisely one other person so that consultation would have been easy. If I had done it. And have lots of water on hand.
Get help. I was so overwhelmed writing, directing, producing and starring that I failed to account for pretty basic needs (see above).
I was initially planning to shoot the thing myself so I did not feel the need to do a recce with sound and light in mind . If I had, I’d have known the train and the highway right outside would be rather a bother for sound. Plus my loud neighbors and their ludicrously long home improvement projects. I had also initially wanted to shoot in my bedroom. But light is terrible there. So we chose the living room but light fluctuates like crazy where I was sitting. It all made for fun times in post.
Take your time on set. Goodness takes time. Especially when your actor (me) has not had a lot of sleep and is acting out some tough emotions.
Divide your script into units even if there aren’t any scenes. So this makes it easier to shoot and easier to edit as well.
Make sure sound is rolling when camera is rolling and off when camera is off. It can make for irritating work in post listening to sound files looking for the correct audio. Label sound files with scene numbers.
Choose people to work with who are generous with their knowledge. Who don’t laugh at you when you ask questions. Who teach you everything they can. Because personally, I learn best from other people
A true spirit of collaboration is key. No creative should dominate the conversation, should drown someone out, should muscle in, negate or ignore any other. Empathy and being a good listener are SUCH PIVOTAL QUALITIES for a good filmmaker, it’s ludicrous. I would highly recommend reading Marshall Rosenberg’s Non Violent Communication. The whole book seems to be up here for free with seemingly no copyright claims.
This is where directing overlaps with mothering to a great degree – the director directs the vision of the film. What that means to me is: Directors set the most gentle parameters they can and then allow their people to play freely within those parameters. Those gentle parameters are key, I think.
Keep the props in a safe place in case you need to reshoot!
Hope this helps. If it is in your heart to do so, go out and make movies, folks. Nothing quite like it. I always knew this. But I’m only accepting this truth now. Better late than never, I guess.
But that implies that I’m a tight wad when I’m not.
I’m introverted, okay?
I love people.
However, the limitless possibility of interaction paralyzes me sometimes. And while talking to people is huge fun, I don’t crave it like plants crave sunlight. I find alone time rejuvenating, not people time.
As you might have noticed, I’m trying desperately to protect myself because being an introvert is often seen as a bad thing. When I did stand-up and improv, people were often stunned at how shy I was in real life. And they said so.
Anyway, I don’t need to add another persecuted signifier to my already long list of persecuted signifiers.
Suffice to say, I find certain activities commonly associated with filmmaking downright vomit-inducing.
Taking general meetings. Or specific meetings.
Can an introvert be a leader? Of course, we can. Leaders serve people. I’ve wanted to serve people all my life.
I’m working hard to entangle the tight knot of fears and insecurities that have stopped me from becoming a director all these years. When I feel that knot in the pit of my stomach, that instant aversion, my brain screaming ‘I don’t want to! I just want to stay home!’, I see him.
The Balrog. Or rather, my Balrog.
I love him really. He looks frightening. And he wants to, of course. He’s got a mean roar. And fire in his belly for sure. But really, he’s cuddly and made of orange fluff. And the stuff that looks like scabs is actually jelly. He’s my fears.
I give him a big hug. It’s like being swallowed by a bear but it doesn’t hurt. Quite the opposite. I feel the fire in him go out.
I ask him what he’s frightened of.
“I’m frightened people will laugh at us. They’ll judge us because we wear a hijab. Because we’re a woman. Because we’re short. Because we don’t have any credits to our name, apart from the time we responded to a crowd-funding campaign.”
I consider my answer as I gently wipe his tears.
“You’re quite right. People might laugh at us. They will very likely judge us for being brown, Muslim and female. And for not having done much.”
“Then why do you want to go?”
“Because I like meeting people with similar interests. With similar passions. It’s been a long while since I’ve been around people like that.”
All of the fire goes out of him.
“But it might kill us.”
“It won’t kill us.”
“It might hurt us.”
“Yes. It might hurt. But we won’t die.”
He slumps down into his favorite chintz armchair. It barely fits him but he loves it.
“Have a cup of tea with me?”
“You don’t drink tea anymore.”
“No, I don’t. You drink tea. We’ll watch The Good Place.”
“Will you come with me to the thing?”
“Yes. Definitely. Always by your side. Like your personal bodyguard.”
In a way being an introvert is a blessing. Adulthood often feels like high school. We are all so desperate to belong somewhere. But I know now all too well what the cost of sacrificing my integrity will do to me. So I’d rather be alone. And thankfully, I’m okay with being alone. Most of the time.
Anyways, I’m never really alone. God. Balrog. And me. Chillin’ like villains.
I don’t always recognize Balrog when he shows up. But when I do, I’m happy to see him.
So it’s been a long while since I updated this blog. I could say that I’ve been crazy busy and it would be true.
But I have also been grappling with massive internal growth. No, I’m not pregnant. But I have embraced my identity as filmmaker, which has caused me to face some pretty deep-seated fears.
The year started out pretty standard. I submitted a draft to the Nicholls and did not get in. Surprise, surprise!
But I also wrote the crap out of a short script, ostensibly because I said I’d let a producer look at it. That producer passed and since it’s a topic close to my heart – breastfeeding failure – I decided I’d make it myself. With an all-female crew a la Zoe Lister Jones.
So far, no bites from producers. But I’m still young.
I also basically tore out my heart and put it on the page – I’m writing a feature about birth trauma.
I pitched the feature to my ladies, the Broads. Got mixed feedback, especially about how funny or not the concept was. Well, no one ever said childbirth was a particularly comedic premise. However,
In addition to that, I found myself for the first time in my life craving like-minded company. Not just because it’s rather hard to make a movie alone. But because I still can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m crazy to think I can.
I found it oddly enough on Facebook. In numerous groups set up precisely for this purpose – assuring each other that we aren’t crazy. Groups like Moms in Film and Binders full of POC Screenwriters. Hopefully some of these will transfer into real life friendships.
Craving is actually too strong a word. I start to feel bone-chillingly lonely and so I think I should have some friends. Some people on the same riotous who-the-hell-do-I-think-I-am path as me. I put some feelers out to people. Which results in immediate nausea and regret.
But more often than not, after meeting and chatting with said people, the nausea dissipates and I’m rather glad.
It’s the ‘rather glad’ feeling I’m focusing on.
In general I submitted more. Much more. And got rejected much more. I won about 5 rejections, not counting the pitches that didn’t go so well. And one non-starter of a project.
The rejections burned for sure – and yes, I do mean vomit. But the warm feedback when it did arrive put some salve on those burns (no, nobody puts salve on vomit).
There is an audience for my work. I feel like I simply need to build a better mousetrap.
Mostly the most precious thing I gained this year was self-belief. Certainty that I could ask the right questions and get the answers that work for me. That I would figure out when to hold them and when to fold them. That God will be there to catch me.
It’s a humbling feeling. I’m terrified, but learning. From books:
One step at a time. I’ll figure it out insha Allah.
Because frankly I want to make things. I don’t want to simply be rejected at higher and higher levels, which is essentially what screen-writing is. Nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re getting paid.
So this year, God willing, will be the year of making things. What are you guys up to this year?
I feel the need to pat myself on the back for the God-given awesomeness that has happened in my personal life.
I moved to Australia.
I haven’t had a panic attack in months.
Depression is much reduced though it’s proving to be more of a barnacle than the drama queen that was anxiety.
And I’ve weaned my now almost 3-year-old son off screens – only on the weekends and that too for a couple of hours only on one day. It frankly wasn’t distracting him as well as I would have hoped anyway, in addition to making him downright irritable. His toys are much more his shiznit.
We’re all trying to wrestle our demons in our creative work, aren’t we?
I highly recommend fasting if you are in fact staring into the face of the Devil.
There’s something about hunger and exhaustion that brings one face to face with one’s best and worst selves.
I learned a lot about myself this Ramadan. Not least because I wanted to concentrate less on the ‘acts’ of worship and more on being a worshiper, a slave of Allah. And that means paying attention to the beliefs that stop me from worshiping Him as he deserves.
They are many and varied and more than a little colorful, so I won’t go into details to protect myself from the innocent and guilty.
In addition to the Noble Qur’an, I also partook yet again of Brene Brown’s Gifts of Imperfection. I’ve read it before but I felt like I was reading it for the first time. So many of the guideposts seem to be speaking just to me.
My final analysis? My life has been tyrannically ruled by shame. There isn’t an aspect of my life that shame hasn’t poked its slimy fingers into.
I’m ashamed that I wasn’t able to hold down a job. I am made doubly ashamed by the fact that I was an honors student in high school and did pretty darn well in college. Still no Bugattis and babes for me.
I’m ashamed that I’m a filmmaker. No, really. I’ve claimed it. But I still can’t look people in the eye when I say it.
There are many other things that I am ashamed of, but not everyone deserves to hear my shame story. You, dear owner of eyeballs, may well be deserving, but this is still a public forum.
Oh and addiction! Brene Brown waxes eloquent on the subject of addiction and dude…have I got some real doozies!
The ones I’ve identified so far are: Anger. Sugar. Overworking.
Now if I find myself reaching for chocolate, having a mile-long to-do list, ruminating on past slights by a few chosen people (I know who my favorites are. I keep coming back to them), I find myself wondering what vulnerability am I trying to escape.
Being human is hard. Covering up our wounds, pretending we’re okay, makes it unbearable. Fasting helped me figure who my true Friend is and who my real enemy is. Fasting helped me deal with me as I am, not as I wish I was. Because as it turns out, I can never be perfect. Who woulda thunk it?
May Allah Subhana wa Taala accept all our acts of worship and bless us with another Ramadan Ameen! I miss you, Ramadan. Come back soon.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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, 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 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 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.
Time risk at the beginning is enormous: auditions, preparation, classes, etc. But the payoff, as described above is EPIC.
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:
Their work usually starts when the camera is rolling i.e. onmaking films.
Their time commitment to a project might be measured in months, not years. I’ve spent four years on Whose Wife alone. Gah.
They can do multiple projects in a year due to this relatively lower time commitment.
Once they hit the big time:
Much like directors, they might not always do work they like. But if they get really big, they get to choose.
They might even charge a reading fee (just to read but not commit to the script). This further mitigates time risk.
Of all of the monkeys in the circus, I feel the most kinship with this one. With a few differences.
We commit to one, maximum two projects per year. They commit to numbers in the double digits. Hedging their bets.
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.)
They sometimes don’t even read the screenplay. They might have only read coverage.
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.
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 said 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.
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.
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 phones 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
A little money.
A little knowledge.
My own family home here in Colombo.
My husband’s family home is available to a lesser degree.
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.
And them too to a degree, I suppose.
Friends with money
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
I got into the second round of Sundance Screenwriting Labs. My heart stopped.
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.
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:
It’s hard work, this screenwriting business. From what I hear, 6 weeks is the standard gestation time production companies give you (I think).
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.
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.
People make everything better. The Selected Ten are kind of awesome.
I love science fiction.
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.
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.
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!)