March 31, 2016

Weeks 1 and 2: How to Come Up with Ideas for Feature Films

AIB First Draft is a six-month writers' residency programme where a select group of aspiring writers from all over India are being trained in the craft of screenwriting. I feel thrilled to head this project and design and conduct the course. This post is a part of the series that chronicles all that happens at the course. Click here and read from bottom upwards for all posts related to this.

Objective: The students were required to come up with original ideas for feature films, write them down in 100 words each and get at least two of those ideas approved during these two weeks.

Three screenwriting lectures were held during these two weeks - each 4-5 hours long. These involved topics like: How to Ideate Stories for Feature Films; Introduction to the Format of Screenwriting, Script-Writing Software, and the Language Screenwriters Use; the Concepts of the Archetypal Story, the Three Act Structure, Inciting Incident, Act Breaks, and Climax; and a Discussion on the Dialectic Approach of Writing versus the Didactic approach.

Screenplay Reading and Movie Analyses: The students read the screenplays of 'Witness', 'The Matrix', 'E.T' and a yet-to-be-produced film and followed each with four-hour group discussions. Each session was moderated by one of the students and the discussion involved the overall reaction to the script but also going into the details of characters, conflicts, structure, tools of screenwriting, scenes, dialogue, themes and image systems, and the style of writing. A week after reading 'Witness' the students watched the movie, comparing what has changed from the script to screen followed by a one-hour lecture illustrating how the director has narrated the story using tools of cinema. The students also watched Dibakar Banerjee's 'Khosla Ka Ghosla' and created a Beat Sheet of the entire movie.

We also had a lecture on 'Introduction to the Visual Design of Film' that talked about use of images to tell a story, how a filmmaker uses color, light, and camera to affect our emotional response and how depth and balance is used to add meanings and aesthetic richness to visuals. Zhang Yimou's 'Hero' (China/ 2002) was screened after the lecture as an illustration of these concepts.

The students also had four big-screen experiences of latest movies: 'Zootopia', 'Kapoor and Sons', 'Eye in the Sky' and 'Batman versus Superman'. The British drama 'Locke' was also screened to them followed by a discussion on the same. They wrote brief plot outlines of two of these movies. They also spent two evenings watching professional theater performances - 'Sidhus of Upper Juhu' and 'I Don't Like It As You Like It' at St. Andrews Auditorium, Bandra. They then brainstormed on how and if these plays can be adapted into a movie and wrote and submitted a report on the same.

These two weeks also involved three field-trips:
1. In groups of three, the students were asked to discover five locations in Mumbai which are drastically different from each other. Each one of them was supposed to click ten photos at each of these locations, thus clicking at least fifty during the day. The condition was that each of this picture should be, for the photographer, a new perspective or experience - in terms of content, theme, or presentation. In the evening, the students selected five pictures each and presented in front of the batch, sharing what inspired them to click those.
2. The students were sent to different shopping malls. They had to spend 3-4 hours at the food court and observe people. And then they had to write a five-page scene from what they observed. They were not allowed to use their imagination, only observation. After writing, they read each others' scenes and provided feedback. Then they rewrote their scenes, but this time using imagination to make them better.
3. Two days after the lecture on 'Visual Design of Film' the students spent another day clicking pictures. This time all of them were sent to South Mumbai and had to click at least 35 pictures to practise the tools that were discussed in the class. The improvement in the aesthetic value of the pictures was remarkable. In the evening, the students selected 7-8 of these pictures but they were not asked to make the presentation. Instead each one of them presented one of their batch-mate's pictures, commenting on what tools of composition have been employed and how these pictures could have been clicked better.

The students were also made to read a few pages from screenwriting text-books. Most importantly, they were made to write at least one page of a non-dialogue scene every single day, without any exception. During the lectures, feedback was offered to them with respect to the format and the language to use.

Despite such a hectic schedule, the students managed to meet the target of the week and each one of them got at least two good ideas approved, and most got four or more. These ideas were presented in the class and the students responded to them so that we could find patterns in the ideas that are more universally loved.

An all-consuming first two weeks, sleep deprivation, and incessant hard work. AIB First Draft has kicked off with a bang!

March 30, 2016

Introducing 'First Draft'

Just one post in almost two-and-half months! I do come across as world's laziest blogger. But then something so amazing has kept me busy that I don't mind at all. You won't either, once you get to know about it. Or perhaps you already know, because everyone knows about it. My family and friends who call me these days begin the conversation with - "How's your course going?". Every trip that I have taken in the last couple of months, I have met people who didn't know me, but were well-aware of this remarkable endeavor I'm fortunate to be associated with. In fact, the boy sitting next to me on a flight to Bangalore had actually applied for the course and he couldn't believe that the person who is one of the decision-makers regarding his selection was this bearded, bald man sitting next to him, reading the screenplay of 'The Shawshank Redemption'. 'First Draft' is everywhere. And I think the time has come to share my experiences with it here on this blog.

I am sure most of you reading this are aware of AIB. If you don't know what AIB is, please google and check because it is not OK to not be aware of one of the biggest cultural revolutions of recent time. And AIB, in more ways than one, are also a major milestone, a watershed, in the way Indians have been offered and have consumed audio-visual and live entertainment. So let me not boast about how long I've known Tanmay, because it has been eleven years now, and his partners through him. Let me come straight to the point - the phone conversation one night between him and me that formed the foundation of AIB First Draft.

The phone conversation that night was simple. Both of us were aware of the problems we face as creators - the scarcity of good scripts and both of us wanted to do something about it. Tanmay proposed the creation of a writers' room, where we would train aspiring writers in the craft of screenwriting. He asked if I would like to lead the project. "I would give up all my teaching assignments for this" - I instantly replied. For me, it was clear that AIB's platform would help me find a bunch of really talented and passionate students from all over India. And knowing Tanmay I also knew that he will have them pay very reasonable fees. So my idea of sharing cinema with anyone who had the talent and the will despite not having too much money was about to be materialized here. The way this course shaped up, I was more than surprised by the intent and honesty of AIB.

On 31st December, 2015, AIB made the announcement on their Youtube channel. 'First Draft' is a six-month course where a handful of aspiring writers from all over India get to learn the craft of screenwriting - feature films and web-shows. Not only is the course free, and the writers get accommodation better than I can afford, they get paid some stipend every month to take care of their expenses. By the time the course started, AIB decided to provide them with laptops, screenwriting software, health insurance, and free movie tickets for these six months. And the course would not restrict itself to the genre of comedy. The writers would get to write whatever they want to, as long as it is good. Within four hours of the announcement video's release, we had had 2000+ registrations on our website. By 31st January, the deadline, more than 30,000 people had registered.

We had devised an assignment that the applicants were supposed to complete and send in within ten days. Ninety-per cent of the applicants did not or could not do that and hence we were left with a 'small' number of 3000 applications. Through several stages and a long process of evaluation, we selected 30 for interview. Meeting these final thirty candidates was an inspiring and humbling experience and extremely enriching for us - there is so much of passion and aspiration in every corner of our country and most of them never get any opportunity. By the time we finished the interviews, we were troubled - how to choose a handful from so many deserving candidates!

On 14th March, the selected students reached Mumbai. We have ten of them, three girls and rest of them boys. The age range represented by them is 22 to 43 years. And they have come from Mumbai, Delhi-Gurgaon-Noida, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Raipur, Korba, and Ranchi. 'First Draft' has started on 15th March and until mid-September, these students are going to single-mindedly work on learning the craft and practising it, every single day, and eventually come up with the first draft of their screenplays. I do not promise that the final content will be ground-breaking. I do not claim that I am the guy most suitable to lead this project. I know very well that my own journey as a filmmaker, screenwriter and a teacher has just started and my education far from complete. But I have promised myself that I will give my all, in these six months, to make it a fruitful and enriching experience for these bright and passionate students I am so proud of. How are we going to do it? Keep looking for updates on this space.

March 19, 2016

Modern Masters: 2016 List

TSPDT recently released its list of the 1000 most-acclaimed films of this century. Like LAST YEAR, I created a list of film-makers based on TSPDT's 1000, film-makers with the most impressive filmographies during the years 2000 to 2015. Their ranking considers two aspect - how many of their films feature in Top 1000, and what is the respective rank of each of these films on that list.

So here they are, the top ten film-makers of the last fifteen years:

10. Claire Denis (69-year old French film-maker): The only woman on the list, Denis is one spot down from last year. She has directed six feature films since 2000, ALL of which feature in Top 1000: Trouble Every DayFriday NightThe Intruder35 Shots of RumWhite Material, and Bastards.

9. Martin Scorsese (73-year old American film-maker): Scorsese is one spot down this year as well. But his latest feature, 'Silence' should release by year-end and that will give him the opportunity to climb up the chart. He has directed six films since 2000, ALL of which feature in Top 1000: Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

8. Quentin Tarantino (52-year old American film-maker): Tarantino did not feature in the top ten list last year. But this year, thanks to his latest film, he grabs the eighth rank, being the only new entry, and kicking out Christopher Nolan from top ten. He has made six films in the last fifteen years, ALL of which feature in Top 1000: Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight

7. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (45-year old Thai film-maker): His latest, 'Cemetery of Splendour' could not make it to Top 1000. And hence, this Thai master is one rank down from last year. He has directed seven feature films in his career, all since 2000, five of which feature in Top 1000. More remarkable is the fact that four of his movies are among top 60: Tropical Malady (2004) is highest rated at #13, followed by Blissfully YoursUncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesSyndromes and a Century, and Mysterious Object at Noon.

6. Steven Spielberg (69-year old American film-maker): Has directed eleven films since 2000, eight of which feature in Top 1000: AI Artifical Intelligence, Minority ReportCatch Me If You Can,MunichWar of the WorldsWar Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies. Thanks to his latest, he has climbed one rank up from last year. In a few months, his new film will be out: The BFG. It is based on a Roald Dahl novel and the screenplay is by Melissa Mathison who wrote the wonderful ET for Spielberg more than three decades ago.

5. Jia Zhangke (45-year old Chinese film-maker): Has directed seven films since 2000, six of which feature in Top 1000: Platform (2000) is highest rated at #17, followed by Still LifeThe WorldUnknown PleasuresA Touch of Sin, and 24 City. His latest, Mountains May Depart, could not make it to Top 1000, and hence he is one position down from last year. 

4. Wes Anderson (46-year old American filmmaker): Despite no release this year, Anderson has climbed one place up from last year's rankings. He has directed six films since 2000, ALL of which feature in Top 1000: The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise KingdomFantastic Mr. FoxThe Grand Budapest Hotel, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeing Limited.

3. Joel and Ethan Coen (American film-makers, respectively 61 and 58 years of age): Missing the second spot narrowly by one point, the Coen Brothers have retained their third rank. They have directed nine films during 2000-2015, seven of which feature in Top 1000: No Country for Old Men, A Serious ManInside Llewyn DavisO Brother, Where Art Thou?True GritThe Man Who Wasn't There, and Burn After Reading. Their latest, Hail, Caesar! may take them to the second spot next year.

2. Richard Linklater (55-year old American film-maker): Holding on to the second spot, Linklater has directed eleven films since 2000, seven of which feature in Top 1000: Before Sunset, BoyhoodWaking LifeBefore MidnightSchool of RockA Scanner Darkly, and Bernie. His latest, Everybody Wants Some!! is about to be released and Linklater may continue to stay in top three next year as well.

1. Michael Haneke (Austrian film-maker, about to turn 74): Despite having no releases in the last three years, Haneke is at the top. And it seems he will stay there for the next year as well. Reason? Six of the seven features he made since 2000 are ranked so highly that his total score surpasses film-makers with more movies. Cache (2005) is highest ranked at #7, followed by The Piano Teacher (#45), The White Ribbon (#47), Code Unknown (#66) and Amour (#73). Time of the Wolf is ranked #479.