Tag Archives: movies.

Don’t binge-watch.

Bismillah

I know, dude, this is a really strange thing for a filmmaker to say, eh?
Look, cinema is a DARK DARK art okay? You can get people used to all kinds of dehumanizing nonsense by showing them IMAGES of it first.
No one knows this better than Muslim hijab-wearing women.
And I’ve been studying and working with cinema now a good ten years. Yeah I’m old. Never you mind how old I am! Just kidding, I’m 34 this year. Growing old is a privilege.
The standard method of creating, at least the way I’ve been taught, is to have a theme.
What is a theme, you ask, assuming you are one of the many lambs my kind lead to slaughter.
It is the ‘meaning’ of the film/show. The question we try to explore. Its essence. Its beating heart.
The more robust the heart, the better the show/film. The more the theme permeates every aspect of the film/show’s existence, the more enjoyable it is to watch. You feel like you’re in good hands. You relax. You enjoy the ride. You binge-watch.
You turn off your thinking brain.
Don’t do that, my love. You’ll drive into a ditch.
Because films and TV always have to leave out SOMETHING. That something is usually something really important.
This is because neither form can tolerate that level of complexity (at least not yet). The real world has multiple layers to it. The world in entertainment can only have a few, otherwise it would cease to be entertaining and just life. And nobody wants to watch life.
The most important questions is…what is the creator of this piece of art leaving out?
Take for example the show Dark.
It is essentially about the inevitability of destiny. This is not destiny delivered from God. It is genetic destiny. Sons are doomed to walk in their fathers’ footsteps. We cannot escape our family’s trauma. We cannot outrun grief. We simply cannot let the people we love go. Even if we escape to another time period. Even if we escape to another dimension.
There is no God in Dark, only time. Which no one worshiped, but everyone tried to control.
There is also no therapy in the world of Dark. Which, given some effort, could have solved all of its problems. But then what do I know?
You see? In order for the TV show to work, you have to leave out something. The creators of this show chose to leave out joy, hope, trust, the acceptance stage of the grieving process, etc.
If I hadn’t stop to think, I wouldn’t have recognized that.
So now what do I do?
I make du’a before I read or watch something, even if it is only a tiny Youtube video or article. (Or at least I intend to. There’s so much content everywhere, that mindfulness will take some practice).
I ask Allah (God) to show me what the creators have left out. I remind myself that all power belongs to Him and we will all return to Him. I confirm that He is the only One who can change my condition. This is a affirmation of my values.
I also try not to watch things for too long. I make notes every so often on what I like and what I hate.
Dark is a beautiful TV show. It was densely and thickly plotted. I loved that time was a tight knot and I loved following along as each strand unravelled.
But as I’ve said above – no God, no joy, no love that doesn’t immediately destroy itself. What a well, DARK, way to live.
Anyway, this is what I do or try to. Be interesting to hear what you think.

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

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.

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

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

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

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

I have basically stopped ignoring it.

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

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

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

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

An interesting character

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

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

Don’t include their name.

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

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

A high-stakes want

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

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

Peeples has the following log-line:

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

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

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

Two competing wants = hopefully a funny and juicy conflict.

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

Antagonist/obstacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subplots should not be mentioned.

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

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

Let’s look at the Peeples logline again:

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

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

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

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

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

The Hamptons = lots of money.

Wade Walker = probably not so much money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Lockhart uses the example of Love Actually:

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

…and Gosford Park:

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

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

6. You only got 25 words! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much love and peace,

The Happy Muslimah (in a nutshell)

I hate movies; or How to eviscerate an idea

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Photo by Bruno Hamzagic

Assalam alaikum wr wb,

So help me God, I hate movies.

Day after day, week after week, I watch trailers, I look at posters, I scan the cinema listings hopefully, looking for something worth watching.

Nothing.

Less than nothing.  A slap in the face. A grab for my wallet.

I’m not interested in franchises anymore. I’m not interested in movie stars. I’m not interested in explosions.

I am not interested in shock, awe, blood, gore. I am not interested in laughter or tears. Those are empty emotions and can be triggered by practically anything I pull up on YouTube.

I would like a story.

How do you define a story?

A story means something to you. Not to me, the viewer, the ticket-buyer, the audience member, the cat-caller. To you, the story-teller.

Why do I love listening to my parents tell stories? Because they are joyful in the telling and I can see it in their faces. And through that joy, I begin to understand their values, their experiences, their beliefs, however different we are.

As we began to stop telling each other stories, I understood them less and less and we fought more and more.

The fact is, story allows me to empathize in a way that no other medium has achieved.

That is why I hate everything that is in the cinema right now. It’s a blatant insulting play for profit. It desecrates story and the power of the human spirit.

I don’t mean to say that stars, explosions and high drama are bad things. I think they just have to be used in the right way.

I loved Michael Clayton. It showed a veneer of real filth underneath a sterile world. It showed two men coming apart at the seams. Yes it had George Clooney and Sydney Pollack in it. But it was a great story.

I loved Ides of March too for much the same reason. It seemed real to me.

I follow the work of Ryan Gosling, not just because he’s an incredible actor, but mainly because he has a knack for picking exceptional projects. There has not been one movie of his that I’ve seen that I’ve not enjoyed and that I wouldn’t watch repeatedly and that I wouldn’t badger my husband into seeing.

Fo’ rizzle.

So why am I ranting on a Monday morning?

I’ve been generating ideas for The Quest 2013.

There’s plenty of literature on how to test a concept for the marketplace. I particularly recommend Save The Cat’s program of market research.

The question is – how do you know if a story concept is right for you? How do you gauge your level of passion for it? How do you know that it’s touching some deep dark place rather than simply treading tired old ground?

This isn’t just about generating the passion to go the long haul with each project. It’s about having a product at the end, that no matter what happens, you can be proud of. Because you poured your heart and soul into it. Because you told the truth, no matter how much it hurt.

That sort of energy will sustain a career, in my opinion, and that’s what I’m cultivating.

To that end, I’ve been asking a lot of questions about each idea.

As a viewer:

  1. Why would I watch this movie? What elements would make me book that ticket in advance?
  2. What elements would make me avoid this movie? What makes me shriek much like I did above?

These two questions allow me to really get to the nub of what sort of experience I want as a movie-goer.

As a writer (this is the clever bit):

  1. In what ways is this idea within my comfort zone of my abilities, interests, previous writing experience, etc?
  2. In what ways is this out of my comfort zone in the same ways?

It’s maddeningly simple, but for me, it’s helping me shape a story that’s been knocking around in my head for months now.

More importantly, it’s helping me commit to that story. Because I know why I’m writing it. Even if the telling is mediocre and the reception is poor.

Let me know what your thoughts are. And for God’s sake, if you’re a filmmaker with a movie that means something, please tell me about it. I’m starving for something real.

Wasalam and Fee Amanillah (in other words, Godspeed),

The Happy Muslimah

Research is sexy

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Salams and yo!

Research is sexy. Like Angelina Jolie, Ben Barnes, Bradley Cooper, George-Clooney’s-jaw-bones sexy.

….or at the very least fruitful, but blog posts which allude to sex always manage to get more hits.

I’m writing a screenplay about leaving home (a feat I have yet to accomplish myself). The main character in my story is a guidance counselor.  A profession I’ve only once had direct contact with at school. And it was a waste of time too.

Suffice to say, my main character is a good guidance counselor.  I have little idea what that means. This means I need to research.

A part of me (the lazy part) just wants to dive in and write the darn story and to the devil with all this “research” BS.

The part of me that appreciates the hard work that goes into my craft remembers the shock and awe I felt when I found out the inimitable Four Lions was written by *gasp* a white guy.

I’d rather not tell you what this bonkers movie is about.  Please watch the trailer:

I know it’s a movie about terrorism, but somehow it made me hopeful. There is a joy about this movie that escapes their funny accents and their nihilistic fascination with death. Maybe because Wikipedia listed it as a “Jihad satire” .

But I digress.

The point of this post being, the writer Chris Morris researched the heck out of his subject matter. He spent three years talking to terrorism experts, police, the secret service, imams and ordinary Muslims, and then – and only then – did he write the script in 2007. The film only went into production in 2009 and was released late 2010.

From development to theatrical release, the film took almost 6 years. SIX YEARS!

I must say, I’m heartened by the level of respect Mr. Morris gave his subject matter – far more respect, it seems, than we give each other these days.

Note to self and to everyone else reading – the details matter. I don’t want my viewers pointing at the screen shouting “That would never happen!”

My kingdom for access to my university’s library again. There was something comforting about the musty smell, the rough carpets and the new weird friends I made between pages in that giant cavernous place.

But I digress again.

The sexy researcher’s toolkit (in other words, things I’ve discovered I need more of):

  1. People – people for me are the most fascinating resources. You see, a screenwriter doesn’t need the facts. We need something more authentic. And what is truer than the truth? The story.
  2. Listening skills – people like talking.
  3. Time – This process is absolutely vital to healthy development of an idea, especially if the idea is even vaguely grounded in reality. It gives solid ground to worlds that our characters can then confidently tread on – and blow up, if need be.
  4. Patience – You might hit a few dead ends. One source won’t give you the quality of information you want. Another will bore you senseless but will be quite useful. Yet another will start out boring you to tears and then suddenly their narrative explodes with colour. As I said, people like to talk. We should (probably) let them (most of the time).

Hope that’s given you some food for thought.

Love, peace and harmony,

Sabina.