Archive: Jun 2009

Chennai Screenwriting Workshop-Part 2

Slightly delayed, but let me jump into coverage of Day 3 and Day 4.

May 31st, Sunday, 2009. Day 3.

The morning of Day 3 belonged to Atul Tiwari and dialog. Atul was a great mix of prepared notes and extempore. He started off with a history of cinema in Chennai1 and then waded into the key elements of writing good dialog. He talked about how characters give birth to dialog and dialog gives birth to characters; that to write good dialog, you really need to know a lot about the character, who she is, the physiology, sociology and psychology. He stressed the importance of subtext and of the unspoken word.

He also talked about common pitfalls to avoid – like falling in love with dialog and ensuring some character in the script (or in your next script) says those lines. I can honestly say I’ve had those moments where there’s a great line and I spend time wondering how to get a character to say that.

We then watched several scenes of dialog from movies and he deconstructed what worked in each of those scenes. He ended with stressing that dialog should not be used for exposition in your script. After all, cinema is a visual medium – show don’t tell, as the oft-repeated phrase goes. Atul is an engaging speaker – expressive, witty, and very aware of the pulse of the audience. All in all, a very good session.

While Atul owned the morning of Day 3, the afternoon session was run by Mr. Hariharan. The topic was Deconstructing a Screenplay. The session started well – he screened a movie called The Lunch Date written and directed by Adam Davidson. This is a famous short and used in film schools all over the world as an example of a great short. Davidson made it as a student at Columbia and it won the Student Academy Awards as well as at Cannes and at the Oscars. So far, so good.

Mr. Hariharan then dived into a very detailed deconstruction of the short from the perspective of film making. Not the screenplay, film making. So we were treated to details about how to figure out the location size and block your characters accordingly, how to stage the scene, how many seconds it took the character to do something, how many shots it took to communicate a certain event etc. All very good stuff but really, it was not deconstructing the screenplay at all. It was deconstructing the film. Mr. Hariharan is clearly a very visual filmmaker (a good thing) and he communicated the intense focus on detail one needs to make a good shot, scene and short film, but I think it left a lot of the audience confused as to what it had to do with the script. And, it also left several newbies wondering what to put in a script (location details, shot details, etc.)

A more effective method for this session might have been to read a script (as the writer wrote it), examine how it worked with regard to building momentum and tension, character detailing, dialog construction etc. and then watch the director’s vision of the same piece as a film. The session as it was held, definitely had some positives, but I’d mark it as the one with opportunity for improvement.

The day’s screening was Cyrano de Bergerac with the exquisite Gérard Depardieu, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and written by Jean-Claude Carrière. Monsieur Carrière was on the schedule for Day 5 of the Workshop, in the Seminar portion.

June 1st, Monday, 2009. Day 4.

Day 4 was a sizzler – packed and useful. When I was considering whether to apply to the workshop, I chatted with a friend, Somen M. When he saw that Anjum was leading many of the sessions, he insisted I apply because Anjum “was an exceptional teacher”. Let’s just say that Somen’s respect for Anjum lived up to the hype.

The morning and early afternoon were dedicated to sessions on The Hero’s Journey, led by Anjum Rajabali. This is a hard session to write about since so much of the detail was in Anjum’s delivery. So instead of transcribing my notes, I’m going to provide an overview. Using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the basis, Anjum spoke at length about the various parts of the hero’s journey. This is fascinating stuff and is an exceptional way to understand why mythology all over the world has stood the test of time. In terms of screenwriting, it is a very useful way to think of both plot construction and character construction and growth. Campbell’s book is now on my must-read list and it should be on yours if you love screenwriting. Before Anjum started speaking, Atul introduced the session and said many of Anjum’s former students seek out his talks on the hero’s journey. After the session, I certainly understand why. If I’m ever in a position to attend another of these sessions, I certainly will.

This long and utterly fascinating session was followed by two quick and practical ones on the writing process and terminology (Anjum) and a review of a free screenwriting software called Celtx (Mr. Hariharan). Screenwriting software greatly enhances the speed of writing because you don’t have to worry about indenting things the right way and Celtx certainly seems pretty bulletproof in most regards. And who can beat free?

The final session was about the Industry Aspects of writing. Anjum and Atul, both of whom have been instrumental in crafting a standard contract for writers in the Bombay film industry led this session. They talked through the writer’s rights – fees, credit, termination and rolayties and the writer’s duties – schedule of submission and presence at meetings. I was stunned to learn that they had a really hard time of getting people to agree to a minimum fee of Rs. 6 lakhs (USD 12,000) per script. I mean, months, perhaps years of work and the payoff is 6 lakhs? How on earth is a writer to survive? Someone at the seminar pointed out that promo cutters (the folks that cut the trailers for films) get paid 6 lakhs for a month or two of work. Sure you need to know how to edit, but are we kidding here? There’s really no comparison in the amount of work involved.

This session was an eye opener. And to think that the writers union worked really hard to even get to this point! A lot of credit to them. I really hope this is just a starting point and over time, the amount paid even to first time writers – for a good script – goes up dramatically. On that note, it was interesting to see Mr. Kamal Haasan’s reaction to this session; he wears several hats – one as a writer himself, two as the host of the workshop and three as a producer who hopes that this body of students will produce some great work for him, at a reasonable price. He was clearly torn on which hat to don 🙂

The session was an excellent jolt of reality. Everyone should go into this profession with their eyes open. Knowing the reality will better prepare folks for the crazy world that awaits them. The session also wrapped up the day and yes, as of Day 4, Mr. Kamal Haasan had still attended every single session. Impressive.

The next post will cover the final part of the workshop, the seminar. Coverage will be light since I was sick as a dog for a majority of it. My being sick also made me miss the screening on Day 4 РIndig̬nes, directed by Rachid Bouchareb and written by Olivier Lorelle (who was scheduled to speak on Day 5).

Also read: Part 1 – Days 1 and 2

  1. To placate the crowd, to some extent, which frequently asked for examples from Tamil movies which many of the presenters had not watched.