March 24, 2013

The Special B’day Gift

A lot of friends around me had downloaded and watched the latest film by Quentin Tarantino months ago, not being able to contain their excitement for it. I refused to do that. Having watched the unforgettable ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) on the big screen, it was impossible for me to experience the latest on my laptop. So, I waited, patiently, and with the hope that the version that the Indian censor board releases does not have atrocious cutting like I experienced last week with ‘The Master’ (2012). As I write these words, I am glad that I waited.

The 22nd of March was my birthday. And ‘Django Unchained’ that released in India on the same day, I believe, was Quentin Tarantino’s gift to me. Ever since the release date was announced, I was jubilant. And finally, on the destined day, after having worked until almost ten in the evening, I had the amazing experience. That the final act was underwhelming is something I’d happily ignore. The first act in itself was enough to please all my movie-senses!

I had decided to visit a temple, something I haven’t done in months, on the occasion of turning twenty-nine. The work kept me from doing that and when I got free it was the time to head off for the movie-hall. “I wanted to visit the temple today” – I said regretfully. And came my brother's snappy reply – “ Isn't that where we're going right now?”

Temple. Indeed. Slashing of arteries and gushing of blood. The stunning landscapes of a Spaghetti Western. The characters and words of Mr. Tarantino. And the wide eyes and an uninhibited grin of the birthday-boy. Thank you, movie Gods!

March 15, 2013

Writing for Others

A student of mine asked me this question today: "How do you keep your vision (as a writer) intact and continue to have a conviction behind your chain of thoughts when you know that the depiction and sensibility of the film (by the director) is going to be different than the script anyway? As a writer, does this bother you... and if it does how do you fight it, and still maintain the quality of the product?"

I can very confidently tell you that the issue mentioned above does not bother me at all. But I understand that there will be writers who will be struggling in this regard. I'll share my take on it. And I'll present it in the form of certain facts that I think a writer should keep in mind:

1. Accept that you are a writer, and not a director: A writer is not naturally capable of directing, unless he has those qualities in him. Creating a world on paper in solitude is difficult but also very different from re-creating that world working with hundreds of people, getting things done in the midst of chaos, and especially dealing with technology and egos of people. So, the writer should understand that he or she, despite being the creator of the story, need not be the best person to direct it.

2. Your script is your film and your only opportunity to seek fulfillment: If you were a famous popular novelist, and you knew that the current novel you are working on will definitely be made into a film by someone, you do not start making the film and doing the shot division and meeting composers for the musical score. You do what you do best - writing the novel. And even if you visualize things, you have accepted that the film-maker might change them, and that this novel alone is your own space where you can do what you want to. Similarly, a screenwriter should write the script he wants to write - and make that film in his head. But he should know very well that the film from his head will be 'remade' by the director. That does not mean he should feel demotivated. The script is the writer's space - and he should do all that he wants to in that space. Consider this - the script is the only opportunity for the writer to 'make his film'. So, he must use it uninhibitedly. This is the only version of the movie he can say he created on his own and take pride in. (The only exception to this is a scenario when the director is attached to the writing process and you are writing to fulfill his expectations. In that case, you have to make a choice whether you want to write as per his instructions, which, according to me, is completely fine and a fair professional decision, or you want to convince him to let you write your way.)

3. Detach: Once your script has been approved, the writer should detach himself from the process. He should learn to let go. Mothers and fathers let go of their daughters (and in some cases their sons). Teachers let go of students. Artists let go of the art-works they have sold. Even directors, at times, let go of the films they have made. So there is no reason why a writer cannot do it. This is a part of his job. If he cannot do it, he should write only for himself, or better, write and keep the script in his closet. However, detaching is not the same as disowning. Depending on the film that is being made, and the way the director is re-interpreting the script, detachment can be of different levels. You can be present on the set and help the director with all he needs, knowing very well that you will have to let him take the final call. Or you can choose to never visit the set, and possibly even not watch the film when it is out. Between these two ends is a wide spectrum, and a writer finds himself attached (or detached) with the film by trying to find that place in the spectrum that suits him as per respective projects. In any case, I think the trick is to trust the director initially. And if things are not happening the way you had visualized, wish him all the best and detach. Start working on the next script, the next 'film in your head'.

4. You are not alone: All creative individuals working on a film struggle to achieve this balance that we have been talking about. A cinematographer might have a certain vision and style that he willingly modifies to suit the director's vision and style. An editor does the same. Even actors wish to work within the director's interpretation of the characters, or at least seek approval from him regarding their interpretations. Musicians, lyricists, choreographers, production designers, sound designers - all strive to achieve that balance. Film-making is a collaborative process and the director is the head of the pyramid. If all creative individuals can come together and become a part of his 'film', there is no reason why a writer should keep sulking in a corner. Perhaps the only reason would be that writers are most used to solitude, and sulking in a corner is something that comes naturally to them. But otherwise, they should understand that they are not alone, or are being 'sidelined' by the director.

In the end it's all a matter of readjusting expectations, and constantly doing so. Being a part of a team and maintaining your individuality and giving the best from your end is a question of character. It is not easy. But so is life. If wedded couples can do it, if sportspersons can do it, if soldiers can do it, why can't a writer - who is doing one of the most difficult jobs on earth? How he or she manages to achieve that detached attachment will finally depend on his or her character and priorities. A start, however, can be made by accepting some facts, like those mentioned above, with faith and the right spirit. After all, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." ( from Takashi Miike's 2007 film 'Sukiyaki Western Django')

March 11, 2013

Finally, a Decent Score!

TSPDT's list of the 1000 greatest movies is my favourite such compilation of great movies. It included shorts and documentaries and animation and avant-garde films along with the features. It also includes film-series like 'Berlin Alexanderplatz', and features films from all over the world.

In November, 2010, I had finished watching one-fourth of the list, that is 250 film. By November, 2011, I managed to finish one-third of them. Last month, I went past the 400 mark, and for the first time I'm feeling good about my score.

The next post on this topic would be when I go beyond 500. That would be a day! It should happen some time next year.

Following are the ten movies that were my journey from 390 to 400:

THE SEARCHERS (John Ford / 1956) Ranked #9
GERMANY, YEAR ZERO (Roberto Rossellini / 1947) Ranked #218
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Cristian Mungiu / 2007) Ranked #862
FORBIDDEN GAMES (René Clément / 1951) Ranked #684
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Steven Spielberg / 1977) Ranked #249
DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee / 1989) Ranked #135
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (John Ford / 1946) Ranked #138
TIME OF THE GYPSIES (Emir Kusturica / 1989) Ranked #649
HANA-BI (Takeshi Kitano / 1997) Ranked #808
CLOSE-UP (Abbas Kiarostami / 1990) Ranked #79

March 10, 2013


This is perhaps one of the most inspiring poems I've read. Just finished watching this film, and had to share the poem here on this blog. May all of us be blessed with infinite hope, power, and faith that this great poem stands for. Thank you dear poet, Mr. William Earnest Henley.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

March 07, 2013

Five Facts of Fact-based Fiction

This news is big. Steven Spielberg is about to create a mini-series on Napolean Bonaparte. But the fact that actually makes it such a big news is that Spielberg is basing the series on the script which is often termed as the “greatest film never made”, the most ambitious unrealized project of the giant that was Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, who with his 13 films over a career of 46 years is the biggest cinematic illustration to the cliché of “quality over quantity” had reportedly studied close to five hundred books during his research for the film. And I, as would all other die-hard Kubrick fans, always wondered what that film would have been. Well, now is the time to look forward to it and hope Spielberg does justice to the vision of the master.

This brings me to my topic of this post. I’m presently working on a screenplay based on true events and real people and it’s such a great coincidence that most of recent releases I’ve seen recently have been ‘fact-based fiction’. Just check this out: ‘Argo’, ‘Special Chhabees’, ‘Lincoln’, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Watching these, and reading about them, and simultaneously working on my script has led me to these five broad observations about fact-based fiction.

  1. You do not have the liberty to do whatever you want with historical characters, and the story’s plot points and resolution, unless you decide to do an ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) and assassin Hitler in a movie hall. So, the structure of the film is more a matter of selecting that period of the concerned history that makes for a compelling film. For example, ‘Lincoln’ deals with just one major achievement of the president and finally his assassination. There can be a separate film on the childhood of Lincoln until he becomes the president. It is up to the writer to choose what part of history he wants to recreate, as he can hardly ‘create’ something original.
  2. However, you know that you’re not making a documentary. In feature films, you have to make sure that the larger appeal of the film is not compromised. Cinematic liberty is not only a tool, but often an inevitable necessity. And you always run the risk of losing the credibility if you barely cross that thin line. Watch the climax of ‘Argo’ to understand what I mean.
  3. The bigger fight is internal. As a writer you do not want to lose your integrity. In most cases, you chose a certain character/event because you are personally fascinated by him/her/it. It becomes increasingly difficult, then, to alter facts to make your script spicy. You want to portray the truth in the most truthful way, but understand that point 1 mentioned above will always conflict with your intention to achieve something using point 2. This ethical and moral dilemma is something that you can never escape when you are writing fact-based fiction.
  4. There is this predictable risk of the controversies and legal issues. After all, how can you ever make a film on the real CIA agent who helped in nabbing Osama Bin Laden? Hence you create a fictitious character, Maya, and symbolically portray the determination and efforts of all those who had contributed in the real life. Going by that, I think, the protagonist of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a smart achievement of the writer. Otherwise, it was impossible to make a film on this remarkable historical event.
  5. And then there is the limitation of the budget. When you’re writing about a certain historical period, you painstakingly recreate that world in your screenplay. Knowing that when seen on film, it is the details of art and costumes that will actually make things look ‘real’. As a writer, if you start wondering about whether the budget will allow your director to achieve everything that you are trying to imagine, chances are you would be failing to do justice to your product.

So, what is the answer? In my opinion, the only way out is to take pleasure in these challenges. Working within defined parameters can often be enlightening for the writer. And to be honest, similar challenges are faced while adapting a novel into a film script. Being able to deliver a good script under these circumstances is difficult and rewarding at the same time. Difficult and rewarding – perhaps this is the only similarity between this kind of adaptation and creating a completely original work!

P.S. Today, incidentally, is the death anniversary of Kubrick. Some people deserve immortality of flesh and blood!