June 29, 2016

Weeks 14 and 15: Plotting (Part 1)

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.


Fifteen weeks are over at First Draft. 105 days! Time really flies when you are immersed in something that is so fulfilling. As of now, thirteen stories are being developed at the course, six feature films and seven shows, and while we apply all the learning to find the right structure to these stories, time and again we remind ourselves that the most important elements for us are characters and the emotions they generate through a difficult but rewarding journey.

The students started Week 14 with a 600-word write-up on what they have learnt as the course reaches its mid-point. In the two weeks that followed, we focussed on scene and dialogue writing. The students would write a scene and present it in the class. After a discussion on their scenes, they were shown a similar scene from a movie. Following were the instructions given to them for these exercises:
  • A man is wounded and is lying unattended in a hospital room. Finally a female doctor enters. The two are shocked - she is this man's ex-wife. They are meeting after ten years. As she tends to his wounds, they have a conversation. The scene is somewhere in the second act and the man is the protagonist. Write this dialogue scene in 2-3 pages. Different genres were given to different students. After a discussion on what they wrote, two scenes from 'Ijaazat' were presented.
  • A group of girls are busy with their dance practice for an upcoming college function. A girl comes to them and requests to join in. The other girls tease her for a while but then eventually allow her to join the group. The scene should not be more than 4 pages. It should mainly rely on dialogue, but some action is allowed. The scene where Lakha joins Bhuvan's team in 'Lagaan' was presented after the discussion.
  • A boy and a girl are meeting for the last time. They may never see each other again. The boy loves the girl. In parting, he says something that touches her deeply. Write this scene in no more than 4 pages. Stay away from too much action. Keep the scene dialogue heavy. A scene from 'Life in a Metro' was presented after the discussion.
  • The students were also asked to write a Voice Over narration for a two-minute scene from 'Moonrise Kingdom' - the original scene does not have spoken lines. They then recorded and edited the VO with the scene and submitted for discussion.
  • All ten students were made to write the opening sequence of one of their batch-mate's feature film being developed at the course. It was a wonderful exercise and it has set very high standards for the days to come. I am now very proud of the way these students are approaching scene-writing.
The students continue to provide feedback to each other. They also read the screenplays of 'Juno' and 'The Social Network' during these two weeks. Two regional language films, 'Valu' and 'Visaranai' were screened for the students. The students also watched the latest releases: 'Te3n', 'The Conjuring 2', 'Udta Punjab', 'Dhanak', and 'Raman Raghav 2.0' and attended Vikalp's special screening of the documentary 'Among the Believers' at Prithvi Theatre.

As part of Film History lectures, 'Citizen Kane' was screened, followed by a discussion on why it is widely considered as the greatest film ever made. Later, 'Breathless' was screened, followed by a discussion on French New Wave. We also had a short introduction to Film Editing as part of our Film-making Lectures.

We had a three-hour session with Guest Lecturer Neeraj Ghaywan (writer-director of 'Masaan') during which he shared his journey as a film-maker and the way he approaches his craft. It was insightful and very inspiring. The students also attended a day-long workshop at Avid Learning, a masterclass on film appreciation by Meenakshi Shedde, with a focus on regional Indian cinema.

And a very unique thing happened one Sunday morning. The students attended a Classical Flute recital at Prithvi starting 7.30 am. Not only it was a beautiful experience, it appears that it led to the rains finally arriving in Mumbai! I am sure experiences like these will stay with them forever.

June 23, 2016

Weeks 12 and 13: Story Development (Part 2)

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.

With all the theory lectures on writing over by week eleven, the students were given new exercises as we finish thirteen weeks of the course and reach the mid-point. During these two weeks:
  • We had a session where each student read out one page of write-up on their relationship with the story they are writing: how they are discovering it, what they like about it, what are the doubts in their heads and how they see the way forward. Other students were made to react to the reading - with the intention to help each other with the help of what they have learnt in the class or while doing their own writing. It was a session where the students did almost all of the talking.
  • The students were asked to select five scenes from different movies or shows which come closest to the tone of their respective stories. They then presented those scenes in class and shared the features of those scene that may define the tone of their stories.
  • The students were asked to write the opening scene of a hypothetical movie where a husband and a wife who are going through a difficult marriage meet a counsellor. The students were assigned different genres for this exercise. After their scenes were presented in class and feedback was provided on their scene and dialogue, we discussed the opening scene of 'Blood Simple' (1984).
  • We have also started Mandatory Feedback exercises where the write-up of one student is shared with all and everyone is asked to read and provide constructive feedback. The beauty of this exercise is that when the student and the mentor have lost objectivity on the story, the feedback by other students shows how to improve it.
During these two weeks the students read the screenplays of 'The Verdict' and 'Ordinary People' and created a detailed beat sheet of 'Satya' after watching the film. They also wrote the functions of each scene of the beat sheet.

As part of the film history classes, the students watched:
  • 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920), followed by a lecture on German Expressionism
  • 'Un chien andalou' (1928) as an introduction to Surrealism
  • 'The Rules of the Game' (1939), followed by a lecture on French Poetic Realism
The students watched the latest releases on big screen: 'Phobia', 'Waiting', 'Thithi' and 'The Nice Guys'. We also watched the silent classic 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans' at Matterden. 

They also watched a play at Prithvi and attended a talk at Avid Learning, Mahalaxmi, on women professionals in cinema that featured Guneet Monga (producer of Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox), Juhi Chaturvedi (writer of Vicky Donor and Piku), Pubali Chaudhari (writer of Rock On and Kai Po Che), Jabeen Merchant (editor of NH10), and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (director of Nil Battey Sannata).

Apart from all this, the students submitted the short film screenplays they have individually developed over the last few weeks. And yes, the daily scene-writing has continued uninterrupted for 90 days now.

June 03, 2016

Cannes in Andheri 2016

The regular readers of this blog must be aware of these festivals I organize for myself at my place - a mini-version of the big global festivals. This May, synchronising with the Cannes, I organized another Cannes in Andheri Film Festival. But this time I was not alone. My students at AIB First Draft joined me and the screenings were held at our movie-cum-lecture hall. We screened eight movies this time:

'Apocalypse Now' (1979/ USA) by Francis Ford Coppola: The OPENING FILM of our festival was the 3 hr 22 min long 'Redux' version of this anti-war classic. Winner of the highest honor at Cannes, the Palme d'Or, the film went on to win two Oscars - for cinematography and sound and is regarded today as one of the greatest films ever made. Watch it to know why. It is nothing short of a wonder!

'The Tin Drum' (1979/ West Germany) by Volker Schlondorff: This surrealistic black comedy, based on the novel by Nobel laureate Gunter Grass, is unforgettable! Winning the Palme d'Or with 'Apocalypse Now' it eventually also won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The film introduced me to the work of Volker Schlondorff - a veteran director of feature, documentary and TV. At the age of 77, he is still making films.

'12:08 East of Bucharest' (2006/ Romania) by Corneliu Porumboiu: This minimalistic dark comedy in the typical Romanian New Wave style was the feature debut for Porumboiu and won him the Camera d'Or at Cannes - arguable the most prestigious award for a debutant director.

'Marty' (1955/ USA) by Delbert Mann: I had never even heard of this and what a revelation this film was! It is one of the two films who have won both the Palme d'Or and Best Picture Oscar. It also went on to win Oscars for Direction (for Delbert Mann in his feature debut), Screenplay (for Paddy Chayefsky who also wrote 'Network') and Actor. The film was shot over 19 days and its box office revenue was nine times its small budget. Moving and thoroughly entertaining.

'The Scent of Green Papaya' (1993/ France-Vietnam) by Tran Anh Hung: The first film of the Vietnamese director won the Camera d'Or at Cannes and then became the first Vietnamese film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It is one of the most beautiful films you will see. It will leave you with a meditative calm that will stay for very long.

'The Double Life of Veronique' (1991/ France-Poland) by Krzysztof Kieslowski: When this Kieslowski film won three awards at Cannes - Best Actress, the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury - it brought Kieslowski to world stage. His Three Colours Trilogy and the rediscovery of Decalogue followed, making him a master in world cinema. My favourite film-maker, and it was a joy to rewatch this film after six years.

'Son of Saul' (2015/ Hungary) by Laszlo Nemes: Widely acclaimed as one of the finest films of last year, this Oscar-winner had started its journey at Cannes with four wins: the Grand Prize of the Jury, the Francois Chalais award, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Vulcain Prize for Sound Design. Very unique in its style, the film sets the wait for the next film by this Hungarian filmmaker.

'Secrets & Lies' (1996/ UK) by Mike Leigh: This great British drama by seven-time Oscar nominee, the great Mike Leigh had won three awards at Cannes - Best Actress for Brenda Blethyn, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the top honour - Palme d'Or. The film had five Oscar nominations - Best Picture, Direction, Screenplay, Actress and Supporting Actress. I may watch 100 more movies this year, but I doubt many will come close to the greatness and emotional depth of 'Secrets & Lies' - the perfect CLOSING FILM of our festival.

June 02, 2016

Weeks 10 and 11: Story Development (Part 1)

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.

Eleven weeks are over at First Draft. Fifteen more remain, out of which, the last five will be spent not in any instruction, assignments or workshops, but in writing first drafts of screenplays. So only ten more weeks of instruction will follow. It is all building up - each student busy with their respective stories, each having unique struggles, and individual journeys. The instruction and the feedback process too has changed now. It is no more a uniform approach, but tweaked to suit each individual and the story he or she is developing. 

Fourteen ideas are being developed currently. Seven of them are feature films and the aim with them is to have a four-page story document by the end of week 13. Out of the seven show ideas, four are episodic stories with a light-ish long arc and the students are presently trying to write their episodes in half a page each, and understanding the parameters of their shows' respective first seasons. The other three shows are long narratives and the idea is to first develop the broad story outline before dividing those into episodes. Somewhere, in the middle of all this, the students are also working on a short screenplay.

Week 10 started with each student writing in one page his or her expectations from the rest of the course and from themselves. We had writing lectures on: 
  • Themes, Premise, Controlling Idea and Image Systems
  • Story Development: The Principle of antagonism and Types of Progression (from Robert McKee's book 'Story')
  • Plotting: How to Deal with the Second Act, Use of Index Cards, Sub-Plots, Time-Lock and MacGuffins.
  • The Hero's Journey: (from Christopher Vogler's book 'The Writer's Journey')
The students indulged in an in-depth study of the narrative of 'Casablanca' with the help of this series I had put up last year on my blog. They also read the screenplays of 'The King's Speech', 'Little Miss Sunshine', 'Masaan' and 'Kahani'. So they have now read sixteen screenplays in eleven weeks.

We also had a film-making lecture where we studied the concepts of Aspect Ratio, Film Stock, Camera Equipment and Lenses.

The students watched Ingmar Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' on big screen and the play 'The Merchant of Venice' at Prithvi theater. Optional screenings of 'The Double Life of Veronique', 'Son of Saul' and 'Secret & Lies' were held as part of our 'Cannes in Andheri Film Festival 2016'. 

We are immediately following it up with another festival of rare favourite films where each student is screening a film he or she loves but most of others have not seen. We saw the French film 'Love Me If You Dare' (2003) as the opening film of that festival.

However, the biggest highlights of these two weeks were the two day-long workshops we had. The first was conducted by Varun Grover in which he talked about his approach to writing, his influences, and his writing process especially with respect to 'Masaan'. He then went on to demonstrate the importance of the opening scenes of films. Eventually he talked about dialogue-writing with examples from dialogue scenes written by our students. Varun was with us for an entire day and has promised to return.

The second workshop was a surprise improv-workshop with the extremely talented improv-artist and comedian, Kaneez Surka. It was the day to shed inhibitions and indulge in games and exercises through which Kaneez taught us the principles of improv. It might just be the most fun day of all the 77 the students have had so far. Kaneez too has promised to return!

Perhaps it is about the sincerity and the brilliance of the students or the warmth of the set-up or the extra-ordinary effort by AIB behind the course that every guest leaves with the promise to meet the students again. It is not a secret any more that AIB First Draft is one of the best courses in film-writing in this country. After all, the students have written at least one page of a scene every single day for the past 76 days! How many writers or writing-students in this city can claim to have done that?