Monday, December 27, 2010

While we were dining on Christmas night, one of my friends and students from the Academy - ScreenWrite.In ignited a discussion on dialogues of old Hindi films which had created great impact on the audiences of those times, which he doubted exist in the same order nowadays. I found it an interesting query, at the same time I opined I loved the dialogues in Taare Zameen  Par (2007)  or very recently Aakrosh (2010) impressive for that matter.

The discussion then moved on to the scene (I’m editing those portions of the discussion of Indian regional language films for the sake of the majority to relate to the movies,) in Jerry McGuire when Tom Cruise dashes into the room to claim his estranged wife. When he spots her in a group of unfamiliar women, his eyes are moist and his face is awash with a million feelings. He locks eyes with her and pours his heart out in anguish. She tearfully shushes him to let him know that all is forgiven and that she is back. That moment would have been complete and poignant even if it had ended with Tom’s soulful soliloquy, but the dialogue, ‘You had me at hello’ melted the last icicle in a cynical heart.

In Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks and his team are getting trained in the spacecraft could you guess as to how that scene would turn out with none of them saying a word? For sure, there would have been much labored gesticulating involved.

That’s why we need dialogue – to sometimes convey the essence in situations where no words are necessary, and to sometimes convey information in situations when only words will do.

Now, movie dialogues, as with real life speeches, broadly elicit 2 reactions: ‘Well said!’ or ‘Who talks like that?’ To predominantly write dialogues that fall in the first category, there are a few thumb rules that one can follow.

One of the most important things to remember is that a dialogue is something that a character gives birth to. It is the character, complete with his strengths, his weaknesses, his past, his experiences, and most importantly, his reasons to tell a bit of his story that mouths the dialogue. In other words, what a guy says can’t be very different from who he really is.

Tom Hanks, as an articulate, wronged lawyer sitting across Denzel Washington explains his HIV predicament: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.’ No, it couldn’t have worked there – but an earnest and simple Tom Hanks eager to share his wisdom with a willing stranger – yes, there the dialogue worked.

The next important thing is to remember why your character has to speak in the first place. Does the dialogue establish character? (A guy with 20” biceps mumbling ‘Tough men don’t cry.’ Or Michael Douglas in Wall Street saying: ‘Greed is good.’)

Or does it move the story further? (‘But Ma left for the hospital ages back! You can probably catch her at the platform),

Or does it connect two divergent pieces of information related in the story?
When the characters are real and the situations reasonable, simple dialogues become quote worthy. Take the tough Arnold Schwarzenegger saying ‘I’ll be back’ (most of Rajnikant movies have similar dialogue characteristic) or a somewhat curious lady in ‘When Harry met Sally’ making up her mind for dessert after witnessing Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm, “I’ll have whatever she’s having.’

They didn’t say anything exceptional, and they didn’t even say it exceptionally but the character and the context makes the dialogue worth quoting. The dialogues worked because they were natural, they were probable, and they were dialogues that one can believe them of saying.

And finally, I’d suggest we write dialogues keeping in mind that some scenes really work without them. As Air Supply - the Australian duo sang it: ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’


Saturday, December 18, 2010


Two days back I had to answer a query by one of my prospective students, who wanted to join for a creative writing program I offer now at the Academy - ScreenWrite.In. Her query was: How’s creative writing different from Screenwriting. I reckon many have this confusion, and that’s why I told Revathy I’ll write a blog about this.

Creative writing is anything where the purpose is to express thoughts, feelings and emotions rather than to simply convey information.

Creative writing is considered to be any writing, fiction, poetry, or non-fiction that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, and technical forms of literature. Works which fall into this category include novels, epics, short stories, and poems. Writing for the screen and stage - screenwriting and playwriting respectively, typically have their own programs of study, but fit under the creative writing category as well.

'Creative writing is writing that expresses the writer’s thoughts and feelings in an imaginative, often unique, and poetic way.' (Sil.org – What is Creative Writing?)

'Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be out-law heroes of some under-culture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.' (Don DeLillo)

Creative writing can technically be considered any writing of original composition. In this sense creative writing is a more contemporary and process-oriented name for what has been traditionally called literature, including the variety of its genres. The practice of "professional writing" is not excluded from creative writing — one can be doing both in the same action.

Forms of creative writing:

Collaborative writing
Creative non-fiction (Personal & Journalistic Essays)
Flash fiction
Playwriting/Dramatic writing
Short story
Stream of consciousness (narrative mode)

To differentiate or bullet-point screenwriting from creative writing I’d say screenplay is a visual and an auditory medium. It cannot convey the inner thoughts of the protagonists’ minds as within novels, unless there is a narrative in the form of a voice-over, as in Goodfellas and Field of Dreams. However, such a tactic must be used with care, as it can be often be overused and may not be the best way of conveying inner thoughts.

There must be no literary prose within the screenplay. With just about a hundred and twenty minutes or so of storytelling, there is very little scope to describe in depth the protagonists’ background and biographical details.

On an average, a novel can be anything from 60,000 to 500,000 words long, and depending upon the font used, the size of the book will differ vastly too. The screenplay has strict guidelines, demanding a particular font (courier or pica with a font size of 12), with the ideal length of about 90 to 120 pages long, one page equalizing one minute of screen time.

As a screenplay is a blueprint for a film, and film being in present tense, it becomes a written and unbreakable rule that you can't write the text in past or future tense. Flashbacks and Flashforwards or any innovative non-linear structures are all inside the storytelling; but they are shown on the screen in present motion as is always the case.

So Screenplays are more ‘formatic’ for purposes of time and visual orientation than Prose or Poetry. Creative writing is an “art piece” of your mind wherein you can freely express your ideas, emotions and ability to attract or magnetize readers. Screenplays , on the other hand, attract readers but of a special category viz. the script-reader or the director to make the play to a visual reality.

To wind this up I’ll ‘retweet’ here: Nothing else has ever given me such ineffable joy or left me in profound despair, still I can't imagine a time I cannot write a screenplay.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Yesterday when I was teaching the different emotions that screenwriters handle so very often, one of the aspirants asked me a pertinent query: How’s mystery different from suspense?

This is a question asked by many students of screenwriting at my studio – Screenwrite.In. The answer is very similar to a Court's definition (and I can’t remember which Court) of pornography, "I can't define suspense, but I know it when I see it." Though we all know the difference when we see mystery and suspense severally, we find it sometimes, ineffable to detail the difference.

Wishing to have a better sharing for this mystery and suspense definition I referred the guiding interpretations of the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Contrary to popular belief, Hitchcock explained, suspense bears no relationship to fear. Instead, it is the state of waiting for something to happen.

Crucial to the Hitchcock-ian thriller is the difference between suspense and surprise. To put it simply, (I have written this before in one of my previous blogs: ABOUT 'SUSPENSE' IN MOVIES) the director said that if you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o'clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, to Alfred Hitchcock, that the audience be as fully informed as possible.

Based on this principle, the suspense thriller has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist's job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a chain of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred, and the protagonist's job is to discover who committed the crime, and why. The dilemma created for the writer of traditional mysteries is the fact that the villain and the details of the crime must remain unidentified, breaking Hitchcock's rule of keeping the audience informed.

While writing a mystery the screenwriter quickly learns that it is far harder to generate suspense when the story revolves around something that has already happened, as opposed to a life-threatening event that is going to happen in the future.

For this reason, most of the mystery-screenplays contain elements of suspense, where the protagonist or another character's life is in danger as long as the villain remains at large. At the same time to the screenwriter’s utmost alarm he/she loses the most significant source of conflict: the protagonist and her major foe cannot face off in conflict until the final scene. A threat from an unknown source is never as superb as the danger of a known and powerful villain.

So, if it's that simple, why don't we all give up writing ‘whodunits’, and turn our attention to screenplays for the next Die Hard or Ghajini (Hindi 2008) sequel? The answer is simple. While the traditional mystery may lack something in shock value and sensational thrill, it has other merits.

A successful mystery is compelling drama because it explores the uncharted territory of the mind. Few mysteries today rely solely on a puzzle. The contemporary whodunit has become a ‘whydunit’. For the same reason that we read true crime stories, we read mysteries to find out why a sane person would be pushed to commit the ultimate crime, or how an insane murderer could so brilliantly cover his tracks. The reader gets involved because the mystery is such a perfect medium for revealing character.

All great literary writers have understood the connection between plot and character. Characters are defined by what they do. How characters act is controlled by who they are. Henry James wrote, "What is character by the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"

The tension is created in a traditional mystery, as in any novel, by the unresolved conflicts between the characters. Conflict is created by placing interesting and well-rounded characters, which the reader can identify with, into an extraordinary and unfamiliar situation.

The sudden death and subsequent homicide investigation of a close relative or colleague is an emotional cauldron that is nevertheless plausible and understandable to the reader. Thus, the reader is hooked not by shocking thrill seeking, but by an intense need to know what will happen to these characters that have become like friends.

A good mystery satisfies our need to understand the human condition; but a suspense comparably is momentous.

ScreenWrite.In – New Logo and Website

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dear friends,

I’m so happy to tell you Screenwrite has come up with a new website and a new Logo - the Logo for the future, from now on. The website too is revamped with more visit-friendly, informative features.

There’s something I’ve added as Applied Programs in the Academy - ScreenWrite.In. Those are Short Term programs for: Sitcom/Serial writing for TV, Writing for Animation films, Creative writing, Copy writing, Blog writing, Play writing and Story Boarding apart from Screenwriting.

The intention is to bring about more and more writers with organized writing outlook, with the knowledge of systematized tools of writing in each of these writing segments. And my dream is more aspirants to get actualized, attending these programs.

Please visit www.screenwrite.in and popularize the website as a friendly gesture.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Adaptation is always a hot topic when it comes to discussing about creativity, and so it came when a few of my old students from L V Prasad Film and Television Academy visited me at my Studio - ScreenWrite.In

I think the prototype of adaptation is what John Ford (Director) did with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940), which was a book of over 400 pages boiled down to two hours (screenplay by Nunnally Johnson). Somehow Johnson and Ford get the essence of that book on film. The same with William Goldman’s Marathon Man – a 336-page novel adapted to a movie time of two hours and five minutes, by the author himself. (Wow! I adore William Goldman!)

These two projects were in the back of my mind when I did ‘Soorya Manasam’ (Malayalam – actors Mammooty, Shawkar Janaki dir. by Viji Thampi) an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous novella ‘Of Mice and Men’. The literary material I was dealing with was schizophrenic, emotional and down to earth, and kind of unpredictable. The book had an unsophisticated pace and a lazy rural quality.

I have seen many nomads in my childhood (mostly from rural North Eastern states of India)who used to come to my household for carving stones for traditional grinding for making dough, the way they move around from place to place, their lives always connected to movement at a certain pace. I reckoned I should keep that feeling when I wrote ‘Soorya Manasam’. I didn't want to go too far where the pace got sagging, but at the same time it couldn't be staccato because it wouldn't be true.

In literature, the author has the opportunity to explore in pages all kinds of explanations inside of characters' heads. You can be more psychologically motivated than you can in film, where you have a finite medium, where you have to give an image and a certain set of audio and visual information presented clearly.

When a film is an original idea, at least for me, it writes itself. It won't let you sleep. It wakes you up. You're writing on napkins. You're almost having wrecks on the street trying to talk into the tape recorder. When you adapt a screenplay, my experience is that somehow you are so mindful of the spirit of another work that you are always trying to keep from being a generation removed. You run the danger of being one generation removed from what the author was able to do with the book initially.

Somehow we need to teach ourselves how to approach adaptations safely as neither movie barbarians nor literary purists. A film shouldn’t need to form fully from a writer / director’s cerebral approach in order to be deemed good. Nor should an adaptation tethered too tightly to its source. The Scarlet Letter (screenplay by Douglas Day Stewart) didn’t fail because it was unfaithful to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel; it failed because it wasn’t a very good film.)

In Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Devdas (2002) irrespective of the studding star cast, Saratchandra Chatterjee’s novel is badly adapted as compared to Dev.D (2009) Anurag Kashyap has made. Comparatively the screenplay generates a version of the source-story, which is curiosity generating either by the pictures that back emotions or the purity of emotional content in relation to the current placement of the topic. Dev.D has achieved both and hence a better adaptation.

For artistic, financial, and practical reasons – (there will always be a large percentage of people who never read the literary source) – films must succeed on their own terms. At the same time, though, they shouldn’t replace the stories they are based on – though we the reading public, have let this happen all too often. In the best cases, adaptations extend, enhance, and elaborate on their sources. And when the pairing of director and author is complimentary as with Julio Cortazar and Antonioni (Blowup), or Altman and Raymond Carver (Short Cuts), or interestingly William Goldman and William Goldman (Marathon Man) they do even more. Then the works and themes of each artist gain synergy and resonance when taken in concert, and even the differences are instructive.

“In the end the film is there, and the stories are there and one hopes there’s a fruitful interaction.” – Robert Altman, Director.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Screenplays and screenwriting is, in and of itself, a very unique writing form because it has a standardized screenplay format that is common among the industry; because it has to be read and interpreted by a lot of different types of professions and individuals.

This means that the screenplay format and screenplay structure is going to be much more common between different screenplays than other literary forms, which allows screenplay terms to become much more common and used. When you work on screenwriting you need to address many of the common screenwriting terms so that you can keep in mind the standards set for both the screenplay format and the screenplay structure that is often followed.

And this is a common question from the many who attend my screenwriting programs at Screenwriters' Academy - ScreenWrite.In.

Here is a basic screenplay glossary, outlining different screenwriting terms that you are going to need to know when working on your screenplay.


A screenplay beat can actually refer to a couple different things. First, a beat in a screenplay can indicate a literal beat in the dialogue. What this means is that you have placed the word BEAT in between two lines of dialogue to indicate that a little time has passed between these moments and that there has been a little bit of a shift, or beat.

The other type of beat that would be indicated in a screenplay glossary would be the story beats that would be in a screenplay. This would indicate the main beats that would happen a few times in a story that indicate action/dialogue/emotional-shift moments that mark moments in the script.


FADE IN is a specific line, and format, used in your screenplay to indicate a literal fade transition. This FADE IN is display in all capitals followed by a colon (:) and is only really acceptable at the beginning of the opening scene.


In the opening slug line of a scene in your screenplay you are going to have an indication of DAY or NIGHT, which is in line with the screenplay format. Instead of this you can put CONTINUOUS if it is a scene that is continuing directly from the previous one. You could actually use this device on several scenes that run into each other, such as in a chase scene.


In your slug line you are always going to indicate if it is in an INT, or interior location, or EXT, an exterior location. These abbreviations are always included and cannot be left off because it will help the production coordinator to know what they have to prepare for.


What FAVOR ON means in the screenplay format is that in a scene the camera is supposed to favor a specific character more than others. Only indicate this if it is absolutely necessary as you are not going to want to be including directions that the director or the director of photography would be giving in the production situation.


V.O. simply means voice over, and you may want to note that a specific series of lines are in V.O. This will often happen for a narrator or someone who is talking over a series of images, but not indicated to actually be in the physical space where those images are coming from.


Off Screen dialogues are meant for characters who you want to indicate as present in the scene but are not shown at the time the dialogue is delivered.


CUT TO is a transition direction that means a direct cut from one shot to another. This can happen more often than the FADE IN: in the screenplay if you need to indicate that a certain shot is important to come after another.


The insert is a type of shot that is going to be the direct view of the camera even though it may not be indicated by the scene as a whole. These inserts will likely be shot outside of the pattern of the regular film coverage, and may be a specific look on a face or object. For example, in a scene where the girl is very conscious of the time of the day when she talks with her fiancé, you may want to show her concern about the time by putting the insert of her wrist watch. Only include the insert if it is vitally important to your screenplay.


A parenthetical is a device that is permissible in the screenplay format that is included in the dialogue. It is a direction to the character (how to say the dialogue, or show some pertinent expressions during the dialogue) and is included only if the reader may not be able to decode the intent of the line.


SUPER means superimpose and is going to indicate that one image is to be superimposed onto another, if that is the intent as listed in the screenplay. Superimposing images is not the most common filmic device, so its inclusion will likely indicate a visual theme you are trying to establish in your film.


Though it was a relatively common practice in the past, very few filmmakers use Point of View in their work. Point of View is essentially the positioning of a camera so that it appears as though it is the sight line of a specific character, where this is their “Point of View.” This often only happens briefly in a film where you are not intended to see a character yet or if they are intoxicated.

In other generations, this was an entire device, such as the ability to hide the killer’s identity in the original Friday the 13th. Point of View can fit wherever you feel as though it can be worked with, but you still have to identify this in your screenplay. As with almost any film element, there is a format for Point of View in your film’s screenplay.


For brevities sake, you are always going to abbreviate Point of View as POV. In all places of your screenplay where it is indicated that Point of View is taking hold as a perspective you should be writing POV.

POV is a camera direction inherently, and therefore many people will not want you to put it into your spec script. The reason for this is that it should be the director’s choice and will only be put into the official shooting script. The point here is that in most cases that you are going to have a POV in your film it does not need to be in your screenplay.

If you are going to put it in there, as when you are transferring a spec script into a shooting script, or if you are directing your own screenplay, you are going to identify this at the beginning of the area. This could be the direction that comes right before a short sequence though it has to not include too much action because POV is so limited.



John can see something glowing at the end of the corridor as he scurries to find the obscure thing.

This will then indicate both what is about to happen and exactly the camera position to capture this. With this, the POV will just be a brief indicator before the main action is there.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Continued . . . On Using Camera Movement

Once you've set your locations known and had your sets designed, the look of the picture is locked in. I don't care what your cinematographer does. If it is a tiny room, you're photographing tiny spaces. If it is a colorful room, you're making a statement about bright color.

To suddenly say, "I'm starting to shoot this film, now I'll create my visual style," is nonsense. That’s why I said earlier, the Director has to know the location well in advance. The visual look is total ensemble work and it is extremely important that it be set very early on.

The camera and camera movement are part of the vocabulary you use to make your statement. If you overuse camera movement, it's like screaming, "Help, help, help" all the time, or having 25 exclamation points. If you're looking at the eyes and face of a character and they're revealing emotions, why the hell move the camera unless that movement makes a statement?

On the other hand, in Apoorva Sahodharkal (Tamil) while Appu (Kamal Hassan) laughs out loud on the circus ring making others laugh, his huge histrionic speech that's wildly funny, and I pan down to his hands and his fingernails that dig holes into his palms and they bleed, there's a reason for that camera movement.

There’s one shot on Guna when Roshini tries to escape the dilapidated church where she’s kept a prisoner by Guna, as she comes out and runs towards the car, screams: “help, anybody help”. The camera suddenly pans in different directions as we hear her voice coming back. The forest looks lavishly expansive, exaggeratedly careless; and we find her voice coming back to her from all around, as she finds herself a part of eternity.

It was a striking camera move, but it was also making a point: "OMG, how lost the girl is, and how endless can be the journey of escape!"

On Scoring Films Effectively

While writing screenplays, I’m sure we all come up with a music within, which is hardly effable or rather not defined at that point of time; still we can well feel the presence of music, as a writer. But a director, I reckon should have a clear definition with the songs, and more importantly the music score used to highlight emotions in the film. In general, music and sound effects are dangerous weapons because they are over-used so much. Chanakyan (Malayalam) and Kuruthippunal (Tamil) were films wherein songs were not essential but music score was.

In Chanakyan, Mohan Sitara - almost a debutant music composer at those times did a wonderful contribution for Chanakyan; he had composed a score well before the cinematographic shoot was on, so we could use the score as a base to shoot the pictures. The score actually has characterized the lost music inside the character - Johnson, and also gave many modulations to his long-pending revenge.

In Kuruthippunal, the original music of Shri Ilayaraja brought about a sense of danger in domestic fascism, hiding behind symbols of patriotism, as he created a positive, folk-like score. But there's an edge to it. There's something under that cheerful, martial thing that becomes threatening.

In Jillunnu Oru Kadhal, A R Rahman used the score more relatable to baroque, at the same time regional folk music, which brought about a dignity and romantic quality, but controlled with a sense of occasion.

On Choosing Projects

We all go by our ethos as a person, and not as a writer or director, as we pursue this path of creativity. The kind of influence we have had during our childhood does make a weight as to the choice we make in choosing a project to write or direct.

Somewhere, we go back to the fact that we all have obsessions. If we're creative, if we're lucky, we have things that drive us, mysteries that we have to live and re-live and act out and re-enact. And each time, if you're creative and you're lucky, you get a picture or a book or a story out of it. That's what I always tell my colleagues and students at my Screenwriters Academy - ScreenWrite.In


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chand Rai is my recent aspirant and student who travelled all the way from Gelephu, Bhutan to learn and experience Screenwriting. And he’s going to host a few programs in his hometown in Bhutan early next year. Screenwriting Academy – ScreenWrite.In is spreading its mission to a wider spectrum.

Chand has been a keen student; at the same his ‘theme’ has been quite definite and unique. The script he finished here, titled 'Nu Ten', sounded really touching, at the same time promising for an international film, which Chand plans to direct himself.

I’m writing this for Chand, and many like Chand who show interest to compare the roles of writer and director one has to switch, when it comes to actualizing a dream to make a film. Chand wanted to know the nitty-gritties of direction as I look at it; may be, he wanted to get a writer’s perspective to directing a film.

Ingmar Bergman had commented: "If you don't have something to say, don't make a film." A director has to have a concept, some driving passion, as a writer has to have a theme or a premise for his story and screenplay. Once you have that ‘theme, premise or concept’, the director puts in his efforts to communicate that concept to other people in the most effective way.

As a Writer most of the time you communicate to yourself, assessing the pros and cons creating conflicts and drama, the Director’s job is being an artist, part of it's being a ‘general’--organizing the troops--and part of it is being a ‘communicator’, so that the other creative people can do their best work within your 'concept'. The other part is being a ‘psychiatrist’--in particular, working with actors. And that is not said in a teasing way, because acting is an emotional tool, and you have to have some sense of the person who's doing it and what they have to contribute to their character in order to get the performance you want out of them.

It's crucial to choose what you say to each person very carefully. Your job as a director is to keep the whole integrated concept moving forward.

Locations and Art Director

A most important choice for any Director is have an idea about the locations one is going to utilize for the cinematographic shoot. As a Writer one may have had a vision about the locale but as Director one has to blend the locale with the pragmatism of the Cinematographic shoot. The Director, unlike the Writer, has to know the location for the Camera Lenses more than just seeing it in his mind’s eye. The location has to be really conducive to generate the emotion underlying the story’s world and the director has to identify it to himself first.

The importance of casting well holds not just for actors, but for all the other key people as well: the Art Director, the Cinematographer, the Costume Designer and the Production Controller etcetera.

While shooting Guna (Tamil) there is this crucial scene when Roshini (Abhirami for Guna) tries to escape the remote, dilapidated church on top of the hill in the forest, Guna hides in the junky bathroom exterior and chases her. And the Art Director had worked the junky bathroom perfect to the core.

But when the scene was staged the Director - Santhana Bharathi thought, "It's absolutely wrong to play it there. It should be outside the church and way beyond, for the curiosity to sustain." Then Bharathi realized that there was no place for Guna to hide, and if he can't hide, the whole scene is down the drain--it was a suspense moment. The Director was walking around the set thinking, "Where the hell do I hide this man?"

Then the Art Director pointed at the junky car Guna had brought his Abhirami and a little dark corner--which the Director hadn't asked the Art Director to supply--so you could keep Guna inside the car and you don't see that man hiding until you're right at the door. The Director never asked for it. It was wonderful. The Art Director has to give you little surprises and eccentricities beyond what you've worked out on the floor plan. The Director and his Prime Crew have to have that kind of rapport, and it's essential. That’s one way to look at it. The other side is, had the Director known the location well in advance, this problem wouldn’t have cropped up at all.

On Using Camera Movement . . . to be continued

Theme of Screenplay

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Last evening, my good friend Dawood (I don’t want to call him my student anymore; he’s now a Film School faculty)  came to my new office of Screenwriters Academy, ScreenWrite.In in Chennai to discuss about his idea of shooting a series of short films. Dawood well believed short films have become a widely recognized segment among film viewers, may be thanks to facebook and YouTube!
Well, the point why I want to write this blog today is something that struck to me when I was hearing what Dawood narrated as his short film screenplay last evening. I asked him a simple question after I heard the script: Did you have something like this ------- as the theme before you started working on the script? He answered yes; and I was truly happy to hear him say that.
Creating a ‘premise’ or ‘theme’ for your screenplay before you start working on it is very important, whether you write a short or long feature script. I always ask my students: “What is the premise of your story?" And I ask this question on purpose to let the student analyze on a fundamental whether the screenplay has succeeded or failed. If it fails, it means the student failed to convey to the audience what is driving his story; or in another perspective why the audience should care?
You may wonder why I keep on harping on the ‘theme-factor’ in classes or discussions on writing screenplays. Though creating a theme for the story seems like a simple enough task, I strongly believe that 90 percent of the films written by students or novice writers fail the ‘theme-factor’ test.
Often times, what makes a story move aren’t what inspire us to sit down and attempt to write a screenplay. The source of inspiration may be a great idea for an opening, a setting, a character or a plot twist. While there's nothing wrong with starting with whatever stirs our imaginations and passions, at some point you should ask, "What is my story about?"
In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946), teacher and playwright Lajos Egri discusses at length how premises work. Egri states:
Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.
The premise should be the driving force behind every event in your screenplay. A good premise is derived from emotions--love, hate, fear, jealousy, desire, etc.--and revolves around a character, a conflict and a conclusion. For example, the premise of William Shakespeare's Othello is that unchecked jealousy leads to death. Othello is the character, his jealousy of Desdemona is the conflict and death (of both) is the conclusion.
In Aamir Khan’s movie Taare Zameen Par (2007), the premise is that a dyslexic child needs to be understood by others to discover the child’s innate talents. The conflict is that none understands Ishaan Awasthi; and Ram Shankar’s diligent approach to find Ishaan helps the boy discover himself finally.
In James Cameron's film Titanic (1997), the premise is that love conquers death, physically and spiritually. Rose is the character, the sinking ship and Rose's forced engagement are the conflict and the conclusion is that Jack Dawson's love helps her beat death and frees herself from her fiancé.
In Jonathan Demme's film The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the premise is that courage destroys evil. FBI agent Clarice Starling is the character, the conflict is her fear of the serial killer Buffalo Bill and the conclusion is that she overcomes her fears in order to defeat her opponent.
As noted by Egri, "A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play."
If your story does not have a clear premise, it will lack focus and drive. For example, if a story is more "illustrative" than dramatic, it may not maintain an audience's interest. I have seen a recent film Va Quarter Cutting (Tamil), which in spite of the directorial and cinematographic excellence falls into this category, I guess.
If a story has more than one premise, or if the premise changes along the way, it will confuse and bore the audience. Either way, the script won't work. However, some screenplays, like Steven Gaghan's script for Traffic (2000) and Alan Ball's script for American Beauty (1999), are able to succeed with multiple story lines and points of view. This is because while these movies may seem at first to be without a premise, in fact, each separate storyline has its own clear premise.
What are the premises of some of your favorite films? Maybe you have a few ideas for a story, but haven't narrowed your theme or premise down yet. Maybe a simple premise could provide you the starting point for your first screenplay.