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How to polish your screenplay: notes from Mahindra–Sundance Screenwriters Lab

By Vikas Chandra • Published on April 13, 2012

Vikas Chandra was selected for the inaugural edition of Mumbai Mantra—Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab in India for his script ‘Toothache’. He, along with seven other screenplay writers, participated in a 5 day- workshop in Lonavla. Vikas Chandra sums up his learning from the workshop in this article:

 [Y]our donkeys are not carrying enough load! 

In the beginning I had no clue on how to prepare or even what to expect from the lab. Worse, I was gripped with the fear that in no time I would be exposed as a writer!

I expected to be bombarded with questions I had no answers to, at least not at that moment. With such apprehensions, I approached my first session, which was with Audrey Wells.

Thankfully – nothing of the above happened.

We started talking about the central character in my script. Why did I choose my protagonist? What do I like about her? Can I connect her to my personal life?

Soon it became clear that the exercise was only about finding the spine of the story – my story. The discussion was rigorous. We went back to the genesis of the idea, the news article that sparked the film in the first place, and how it evolved over various drafts.

“I am here to help you tell the story you want to tell..”

Once we managed to pin down the spine of the story in one line, it became a filter to sieve through the scenes and decide which of them were not working.

Audrey has a simple thumb rule for scene construction. Each scene is like a donkey, which has to carry the load of your plot.

“Is this scene giving me any new information about the character… Is it progressing the plot…”

Well.. umm.. it further shows the cute husband-wife relationship.

“It’s a beautifully written scene… but it doesn’t deserve to be here..”

In a Kitty Party scene – What should the secondary characters chat about so that the scene doesn’t meander and remain relevant to the plot?

The protagonist’s problems. Other women will talk about their son’s achievements while your protagonist misses her son, they will talk about their wonderful marriages while your character puts up a brave smile. Whatever the others say has to drive another nail in the coffin of your main character.

Audrey is the writer of The Truth About Cats & Dogs & The Kid and writer/director of Under The Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane. Most of her stories have been about “sick people getting well”, in some way or the other.

The most valuable advice she has to offer to upcoming writers is – “Be kind to your back. Stand and write.”

What’s the last thing you would change about your story?

Asif Kapadia is a BAFTA award winning filmmaker, known for the visually striking The Warrior and the beautifully crafted biopic Senna.

“Why a North Korean couple? Why can’t they be a Punjabi refugee couple living in Delhi?”

This is the question I dreaded the most. My script ‘Toothache’ is about a North Korean expat wife named Kim who lives in India with her husband – the couple yearns to be back in North Korea, but struggles to find a new and different idea of home in Delhi. When I had begun to write it, the question for me was not why.. but why not! Gradually though, as my investment in the story increased, I realized what an uphill task it is to get this kind of a film made.

So when Asif asked the same, I started to buckle..

Umm.. may be.. it’ll definitely make it easier to get produced…

If the city of Delhi is under curfew, what can you show to convey that effectively..?

For a writer/director it’s important to breakdown the screenplay into images that imply more than what’s necessarily said in the plot and give the required emotional thrust to the narrative.

In The Warrior, there is a sequence when the army of warriors led by Irrfan Khan attacks the village that had requested for waiver of loans. The otherwise frantically paced sequence ends with a long-ish shot of an earthen pot smashing into the ground and water seeping into the parched earth. Kapadia chanced upon this shot through pure logic – the most precious thing in a desert is water, and hencethe loss of water signifies the real extent of loss.

For Kapadia, it is a string of images like these that helped him craft a minimalist film like The Warrior. The genesis of the film itself lay in a solitary image that was derived from a footnote in a short story about a samurai kid who is shown a severed head and asked if it was his father’s.

Before ending the session Asif threw his final salvo at me -

“What is the last thing in your script you would compromise on?”

I hesitated. I knew I had to take a stand. I went back to the beginning, to figure why I had even wanted to tell this particular story.

The fact that the couple is North Korean… is the last thing I would change in my story.

“Good.. that’s a beginning at least…”

What do you mean by a hopeless, pathological optimist? 

I hate it when I have to describe my characters. I would rather you read my script and draw your own inferences. And I also hate to admit it, but articulation is not one of my strongest points. I still haven’t figured what my primary language is… Hindi? English? Hinglish..?

Shekhar caught me.. not once but several times.

“Yeh teri bhasha nahin lagti..”

“Tu apne hi shabdon mein ulajh raha hai..”

Would you like to watch a film like this?

“That’s irrelevant. Would you want to make a film like this?”

Yes.

Then go ahead and make it.

Shekhar Kapur has directed Masoom, Mr India, Bandit Queen & Elizabeth, apart from other films. He was the only Indian advisor I had on my panel.

Research. Research. Research.

“Which school in Delhi does the Korean kid go to..?”

Umm.. she stays in Jangpura.. but definitely can’t afford Bluebells International.. then.. may be.. Kendriya Vidyalaya..

“Then she should be speaking fluent and not broken Hindi.. Every student from KV is good with Hindi”

“What car did the Korean ambassador to India use.. was it an ambassador or an Impala..?”

“How long did it take to get an Indian passport in 1976.. how long did it take to get a phone connection..?”

“Why do your protagonists have a landline in their house.. why can’t you make them dependent on the neighbor’s phone for receiving their calls, which was a common practice in those days..”

God lies in details

What do characters talk about in a scene?

Themselves.

It helps to know the back stories of each of your character, even beyond the scope of the script, in as much detail as possible, as those back stories will tell you what the character will say in any damn situation.

What does a man who’s been shot and thinks he’s going to die, say..?

“Main jaa raha hun Phoolan, tu apna khayaal rakhna..” OR “Meri chinta chhod, tu bhaag, apni jaan bacha..”..?

In Bandit Queen, when Vikram Mallah is grievously injured near the pond, he falls into Phoolan’s arms and sensing that his death is near, blurts out,

“Maa se kahi, doodh pee liyo maine..”

You are a land of cobras and tigers.. your country is fierce.. where’s the ferocity in your story..?

I sat across Guillermo Arriaga, author of Amores Perros & Babel, while he drew 9 concentric circles on the title page of my screenplay.

“Where is your protagonist right now..?”

Arriaga was referring to Dante’s 9 circles of hell as laid out in Inferno, the first part of his epic poem ‘Divine Comedy’.

I hesitated… maybe in the 2nd circle.. at the max 3rd..

“Why can’t you push her to 7th.. 8th.. 9th..?”

But she’s such a nice person…

“Nice is boring.”

The deeper your protagonist is inside the circles of hell, the stronger will be her journey back, and the greater will be the pay off.

Arriaga is a hunter who works as a writer. He doesn’t believe in the 3 Act structure. He hates outlining his story. He doesn’t do research. He draws mostly from his own life, and keeps re-writing drafts of the story till the story has found itself.

Drafts – NOT revisions. Each draft is a draft from scratch.

The Babel that we saw on screen was his 72nd draft.

“Who wants to see the story of a 60 year old woman looking for a medicine.. That’s boring.. I want to see a 19 year hot chick on screen..”

He asked me to rewrite the screenplay with the husband’s POV. Then another draft with their son’s POV. Then another, this time changing the protagonist to a 19 year old girl. Then another…

My heart sank.

“Be rigorous with your story.. Kill the dearest.. only then the truth in the story will come out..”

Our meeting did have a silver lining for me though.

Arriaga admitted that he liked my dialogues, and said that my writing has a sense of rhythm. I couldn’t have asked for a better return gift from him. It was March 13, his birthday. I gifted him a DVD of Manirathnam’s Yuva – albeit with a poker face.

This is the story about a woman WHO…

Howard Rodman’s was the 5th advisor meeting I had on my schedule, and he stressed that he wouldn’t want to repeat what the others had already said.

Rodman is a screenwriter, novelist, and educator. His feature adaptation of the book Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for the Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. Rodman is also the Vice President of the Writers Guild of America, West.

“Who do you write your screenplays for..?”

The Actor. They are a writer’s best friend and the most important medium – who will project your scene.

Write your scenes for an actor – not necessarily for any particular actor. Get into an actor’s shoes and the re-read your scenes to figure out how they might approach the scene.

Take acting workshops – to understand actors’ motivations, to see what they seek from a scene, what’s going on in their minds while acting.

Rodman is 61. Conversations with him are delicious, peppered with a lethal sense of humor.

“Let’s play a game.. Finish the sentence – This is the story about a woman WHO..”

He sums up movies in one line – Bad things happen to not-so-good people so that they become good.

I countered that.. in Hindi cinema, goodness is a virtue heroes are born with – they don’t need character transformation. Apart from other things I also gave him the example of a future blockbuster during the shoot of which the superstar refused to run after the baddies, saying the goons need to come to him to be bashed up.

Quick came the repartee,“I would take that as – Bad things happen to good people and they become better!”

As a writer, I often get stuck after a scene wondering what scene to conjure up next. Is there a formula that can help you decide that?

Rodman let out a secret that was shared with him by the creators of South Park. In every screenplay, there are only three bridges that connect the scenes.

Therefore.

But.

And then.

Sc 1. Therefore. Sc 2. But. Sc 3. And then. Sc 4. Therefore…

If you find that there are more “And thens..” in your screenplay than “Therefores” and “Buts”.. you know your pace is sagging.

Elementary, I now say!

In any situation,where she puts her attention – is her personality

Vikas Chandra (R) with Malia Scotch Marmo (L)

Malia Scotch-Marmo wrote Steven Spielberg’s fantasy Hook, and also served as associate producer on the film. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia Graduate Film School. Recently she co-wrote a script with Sundance Institute Lab alumnus Sabiha Sumar. The film, Rafina, was shot on location in Karachi in 2011.

With Scotch-Marmo, I had the last of the 6 advisor meetings, and surprisingly, the longest one. Even at this stage, when a lot of water had already flown under, she had something new to offer.

I asked her the same question I had been asking everyone.

Would you like to watch a film like this?

“Of course. Why do you even ask..?”

It’s hard to put in words the feeling you get when you see someone else’s eyes light up for your story. That’s why we want to make movies in the first place – to make connections with some stranger in some god-forsaken part of the world, to light up his eyes, to make his day. For me, this lab was about learning to make those connections. It isn’t about scripting the next blockbuster, or finding the right film for the market. It’s about finding the right choices for the stories you’ve been dying to tell. And realizing that somewhere along the line you’d forgotten that these were the stories you’d been dying to tell.

To know more about Mahindra—Sundance Screenwriters Lab, click here. For call for entries 2013, click here

The complete article first appeared on F.I.G.H.T C.L.U.B blog. 

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