Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: The book and the film

Should you read the book or see the adapted film first? Well here is the problem. If you see the film first, there is not enough incentive to get into the trouble of spending 5-6 hours on a book where you know every beat, just with more beating around the bush. Unless the language of the writer absolutely captivates you. I can imagine seeing a film based on ‘Catcher on the rye’ or ‘Pedro Paramo’ and still enjoying the book afterwards. But with most plot oriented books, after watching the film it is going to be difficult to enjoy the book because there are so many details coming your way without the hook of ‘what happens next.’

And this time around, I tried it the other way. I read the book first. And what do I think? I think after reading the book, it is really tough not to be disappointed with the movie as you naturally build an allegiance with the book. So much of details, back story, nuances etc are lost on the chopping table.

Anyway, this was an interesting experience. It gave me an insight into how different the priorities of a novelist and a scriptwriter are. After I read the book, before I watched the film, I tried to make a note of all those aspects that I would pay attention to, if I am adapting this book.

 (Minor spoilers ahead)

-I thought I would take out the whole track of  Jim Prideaux working as the teacher (lot of pages are devoted to it in the novel) because it doesn’t add much to the actual story.

  • In the film even though it has not been completely taken out, it has been kept to a bare minimum.

-I thought I will resist the temptation to start the film in the middle of the action (which is the fashion nowadays). Continue reading

My script writing strategies for 2012: first update

First of all, I was supposed to do an update every month as per the initial resolutions. But this is coming after 2-3 months. Because after some time I felt that too many updates may make less sense as there is more data to go through.

Total number of days- 96

Number of days where I completed 2.5 hrs of writing- 42

number of days where I didn’t write anything- 35

Number of days where I wrote for more than 3 hrs- 4

Number of networking mails/calls/sms supposed to be sent- 25

Number of networking mails/calls/sms sent- 15

Number of targets set- 10

Number of targets completed within stipulated time- 4

The alarming number among these is the number of days where I didn’t write anything. Well, there has been some unexpected developments at work and home because of which those days happened. But if I had really put my mind into it, I could have written at least one hour on those days.

Networking may appear to have fallen short of the target, but actually there was some initial procrastination and ‘finding my way to do it’ involved. Now things are on track. Target setting is doing fine. Believe me, I was even worse than this. Now I have a 40% success rate.

The new idea I have come up with for the last 3 months is learning the art of narration of a story. I should sit in front of the mirror and practice. May be I should videotape my own narrations (which  then would be safeguarded in the strongest lockers known to mankind for avoiding unwanted embarrassments). Let us see.

Photo by Lawrence Whittemore

Schizophrenia: myths and misconceptions of fiction writers

May 24 is world schizophrenia day. There are some popular misconceptions about schizophrenia that keep recurring in media and films about schizophrenia. Interestingly, in most of our films, the disorder mostly have symptoms that would help the writer to manipulate the story.

I can imagine the argument against this- ‘writing is about finding dramatic possibilities. One should not get too serious about the factual aspect of it. This is not a documentary.’ But it is a lousy argument. If a writer is writing a court drama and to heighten a plot point, if he makes up some laws which are not in Indian penal code, will we accept it?

Basically inaccurate depiction of mental illness is the product of laziness of the writer. First, the reluctance to google the particular illness and spent some time reading about it. Second, the laziness to really work around the irrevocable facts about the illness while trying to create drama. Instead they go for the easy path of molding the illness according to the needs of the story.

Now this can be really damaging from a bigger perspective. Because stigma and lack of awareness have been big problems worldwide in creating barriers in mental health care. And films and media are important determinants of public perceptions about mental illness.

Below are some common misconceptions that keep recurring-

1) ‘Schizophrenia is a behaviour or a state of mind.’

Often you read about a person who is very ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘psychotic.’  What this means is different for different writers. Some times they are referring to weird or aloof behaviour. But using name of a medical illness to denote a behaviour is in itself weird. If some one talks very sweetly, would you call him ‘diabetic?’ Continue reading

Vicky donor

This is again one of those films that thrive on the talent of the writer, but not essentially on the ability of the writer to spin a story. The key here is quirky characters and quirky dialogue.

You can guess all the plot turns miles ahead. But at some point, this familiarity and predictability becomes a strength because it makes all the situations credible.  When you go for all those fancy twists, some times the universe of the story gets pushed into another realm which is not relatable any more. This film demonstrates that, if you choose your subject appropriately and can write great scenes, you can get away with being predictable.

And don’t misunderstand me. Vicky donor is not a great film. But it does have some interesting characters and entertaining conversations. You won’t squirm in your seat for the ordeal to end.

Deadlines and scriptwriting

Putting up deadlines and following them religiously has been one of my resolutions for this year. Yeah, I have heard all the usual suspects of an argument against deadlines in writing. ‘In art, you are compromising on the quality of your work by not making it as best as it can be,’ ‘Good art is about committing yourself to something regardless of the cost of time and opportunities’ etc. But in my experience, I am compromising on the quality of my writing when I am not conscientious about the time that I am putting into various aspects of writing.

Because otherwise I would spend three months or more into outlining when I should have finished it in a month and then another couple of months into the treatment. Then finally when I come into the first draft, I would realise that there were inherent issues in the execution of the script which would make most of the work in the previous phases invalid and useless. Often mere fatigue and irritation will force me to push many issues under the carpet.

It has been my experience that to really come up with a good script, one need to go with the intensive and extensive work hand in hand. At least for me, however hard you scrutinize and work on the first round of outlining/ treatment/ drafting, there will be crucial issues that you are only going to detect in your second or third draft. So there is some truth in the saying that ‘vomit out your first draft as fast as possible.’ If some one decides to spend two month each on outlining, treatment and drafting, I would suggest that rather than doing it in blocks, one should spend one month each on each of these stages and then go back to drawing board in the next three months. That way, I feel that your script is going to be 100% better.

Photo by justmakeit

Giving feedback: To hurt or to lie?

The Birds by Phillie Casablanca

One of my friends called me a few days back. He was drunk. He was very excited about this idea which he was planning to develop into this 30 minute abstract drama. It is always very tough when some one asks your opinion about something which they are really excited about. And it becomes even more tough because they call you because they expect you to be honest with them. So I told him the truth after coating some sugar on it. But the sugar coating wasn’t thick enough. Or so he felt. It ended up in a (one sided) polemic about why screenwriting is about selling out compared to writing for theater.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have any specific commitment or love for truth. If I am given a choice between hurting someone and telling a lie, I would always choose the second one without batting an eye. But sometimes you make a mistake about how much pain you can cause. You misjudge about the level of rejection some one can take. And often it is very unpleasant to think about the amount of effort someone is going to put into a ‘nothing’ because you also said ‘yes.’

It made me think about subjectivity and objectivity in relation to art. It is really tough at times. Especially with screenwriting, Continue reading

My scriptwriting strategies for 2012

It is a little late to write down a list of resolutions for 2012, I know. But this has been the way the year started for me. I was on vacation for first two weeks which was followed by a hectic apartment shift and some heavy duty academic stuff by the side. I still have not picked up all the pieces. But I am on my way.

So why bother with this post? Let me tell me, putting down in public my strategies and commitments for the year and updating about them from time to time (1,2,3,4) has been one of the smartest things that I did last year. There was a steep climb in my writing curve. Also it gave a certain direction for the whole year.

To summarise last year in writing:

The plan-

I realised that rather than spending too much time on networking, I should concentrate on building up a body of work. What is the point of talking with a stakeholder if you really have nothing worthwhile to offer him?

Output-

I increased my productivity by putting consistent checks on the net and pretty much everything else. My page count doubled compared to previous year.

My short film thriller script ‘The search’ was bought by a filmmaker friend in Canada and we developed it further together. His previous short film has been to Cannes. Hopefully ‘The search’ is going to get made this year.

Co-written adaptation of a Malayalam film for a Bollywood director who already has 2-3 credits is getting some eyeballs. Another co-written thriller script which we had set up as an indie project has covered some ground after around one year.

Failures-

Restrictions on the net and the lack of mobility due to my current work cut down my networking dramatically. Continue reading

My scriptwriting balance sheet for 2011

I intended to write at least 2.5 hours per day  in the last one year. If I don’t reach that target, I will not access the internet for that particular day other than to check my mail. I am glad I didn’t succumb to the urge to peek into the net even once in the last one year without reaching the target.

So how much did I write?

Well, I will simplify the math here. If I just calculate the hours based on days I have reached my target and also the days I overshot my target, it would be around 370 odd hours. That is slightly more than 1 hour per day.

Wait, not done yet.

There are at least 72 days where I have worked but didn’t reach the target of 2.5  hours. Most of these days, I usually would have crossed 1.5 hour mark. There are many days where I fell short of the target by half hour. Still to keep it at the lower side, if calculated at the rate of 1 hour each of these days, it would be a total of 442 hours of writing in the last one year.  That would be around 1.2 hours of writing per day.

I am proud of this even though when rounded into average figures, it is very conservative even for some one with a day job. The reason is that, there were times where writing ground to a halt for weeks due to some academic assignment. At the personal side also, this was one of the toughest periods for finding the atmosphere to write (which is going to change in a couple of weeks). Also there are two 2 week vacation periods in there where I took a sabbatical from writing. And I am going to go easy on my rules in the last week of december even though I will continue writing.

Now what is the output? Did I complete the tasks that I had set out to do in this year?

All I can say is that I almost got an equivalent work done. Almost means around 80%. Why equivalent? Due to a variety of reasons, mostly the projects I planned to do in 2011 were not the ones that I ended up working on. Also a (co-writing) project concept was abandoned midway into the 1st draft because it was not going any where. Hopefully, we will approach it from a different angle later on. Anyway I covered more ground with my collaborative projects than my personal ones for obvious reasons.

I am happy with my writing in 2011 except for one single thing. It is all over the place. I need to concentrate on specific projects with the objective of finishing them rather than developing a number of ideas in parallel. I need 2-3 finished products in my platter rather than 10 half finished ones.

Photo by Dalo_Pix2

5 reasons why you should co-write a screenplay

Co-writing is an exercise every writer should try at least once. May be you feel that you are not a ‘team person’. You may have certain fixed priorities and personal preferences in mind and you don’t want to be steered away by a writing partner. But still, you should try co-writing on at least an experimental basis. Reasons? I will give you 5.

The learning curve is steeper

Believe me, we all have our own strengths and weakness. Having a co-writer helps to improve that self awareness. What you would learn by writing 3 scripts by yourself, you would learn by writing a script with a friend. It is because many mistakes we make, we know in a instinctive manner that we are doing it wrong. But the problem is, to openly accept the judgement of such an unconscious ‘shit detector,’ it takes us more time. But with a co-writer who is honest regarding the worthiness of your concepts and process, the duration to enlightenment is cut short.

You will feel guilty if you don’t write

Almost all of us believe that we have some ‘great’ ideas for movies in our mind. But an average idea which you have put down on paper is better than thousand brilliant ideas that you are never going to write. With co-writing, you actually improve your chances of really getting things done. Writers are notorious for their tendency to procrastinate. But if you have a co-writer, it is much more likely that you will keep the ball rolling as otherwise you will be wasting the time of another person.

Learn the team game

What really makes scriptwriting different from other forms of writing is the collaborative process which is the crux of film making. Even if you wrote a screenplay which was wrenched out of the intimate parts of your heart, it is going to undergo scrutiny, invite comments (including many outrageous ones),  and you will be working and modifying it relentlessly until the point it becomes a film. It is all about taking feedback with composure, defending what you really believe in, examining your own ideas objectively and being able to articulate the abstract issues in the script. Now if you have a co-writer, you are a step ahead. You have some one to engage and challenge your ideas even at the concept level. There is a lot of back and forth which gives you time to sharpen your axes and be ready. Also it teaches you to accept disagreement, realise that some one out there may be able to contribute a better idea than yours and to work towards a consensus by bringing in a third, even better idea.

Throwing more darts

Every co-writer brings something unique to the table which is not only about plotting or dialogue or characters. Some may be good in networking and some in getting the work done. Also the catchment areas of different people may be different in terms of pitching your finished screenplay. Some may have technical expertise or past experience which may be helpful in getting your script made. The trick is not in writing your screenplay but being in a better position to really make it into a film. With co-writing, you are widening your net.

There are many roads to the same place

Different writers use different processes in writing. Some outline a lot. Some like to plunge into the first scene and let the characters surprise you. Some believe in structural templates while some love to experiment. Some like to know their characters while for some, attributes of a character develop according to the needs of the theme and plot. Some research while some doesn’t. The problem is, for most of us, our process is set within one or two screenplays. There are different methods in writing a screenplay but it is unlikely that a person will experiment much. But if you have a co-writer, it is much more likely that you will be exposed to a different method, which who knows, may be even better than that of yours.

Photo by ratexla

What if your idea is already a movie?

Had the typical writer’s nightmare 2 days back. The idea I have been outlining for more than a month is similar to the one-line of a film which is already out there. I came up on this while browsing through IMDB. Now comes the important question- what to do? Continue outlining it or abandon it? Or watch the movie and decide how much execution is similar to what I have in mind? But I got an interesting advice from a writer-friend- don’t watch it. If you watch it, some elements are going to subconsciously spill over. Continue developing it and if you want, see it later. I feel that it makes most sense. So I have decided not to shelve one month of work but to boldly go forward. The decision is risky. Most usually a writer is judged by hearing some of his outlines and not by reading all his scripts. A very innovative execution of a commonplace idea is more likely to go waste than average execution of a high concept idea.

What I have learnt from this experience is that writers need to be constant touch with all the projects developing in parallel out there. We can’t watch every movie. But at least one can go through one-lines of movies without spending too much time. This has to be part of our routine.

Photo by  les5siamoises