In the world of screenwriting, Sundance Lab is as prestigious and as productive as it gets. For more than 30 years, the Sundance Institute has been helping screenwriters understand their own scripts better, providing an interface with experienced advisers and showing them the road ahead for subsequent drafts and also for other scripts. From Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to this year’s multiple-Oscar nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, some of the best films ever made are products of the Sundance Lab.
Last year, the Sundance Institute had partnered Mumbai Mantra to do an India-exclusive Screenwriters’ Lab. They had selected eight scripts and got some of the best writer-directors from the world to talk to the participants about their work. While there were the likes of Shekhar Kapur and Jose Rivera, I was particularly ecstatic to learn that Guillermo Arriaga was one of the advisers. The same guy who wrote 237 drafts of Babel…. 237 versions of the same script; not cursory revisions.
After finishing Paanch Adhyay last year, I was itching to write a new script and not go back to the many I had written earlier. Having made a film from start to finish, my perspective towards the craft — including the writing of the film — had undergone a change and I wanted to put all my new learnings into a new screenplay. INK — a suspense drama I had penned about a struggling journalist who chances upon an extraordinary story and embrarks on an impossible adventure — happened and the sheer greed of meeting someone like Arriaga and discussing my script with him had me apply to the Sundance Lab.
Then I forgot about it; got busy with the release of my film. And then in February I got a mail from Mumbai Mantra congratulating me for being selected amongst 500 entries as one of eight screenplays for the second edition of the Sundance Lab. Woohoo!
Early in March, eight of us went to this stunning Mahindra Resort in Tungi, four hours away from Mumbai, for this five-day intense Sundance Lab. Like me there were others who had already made a feature film — Sarthak Dasgupta (The Great Indian Butterfly), Nitin Kakkar (Filmistaan), Renuka Shahane (Rita). Yes, the same Renuka Shahane from Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, with that same beaming smile intact. And there were other participants who were yet to make their first feature.
The advisers, seven of whom were flown down from the US and the UK, were the best in the business. They had all read all of our scripts and they had the kind of clarity about our story, structure, pacing, dialogues and theme that we didn’t. While it wouldn’t make sense to write about their advice for my particular script, here are some of the gems that some of these amazing writers shared with me during the Sundance Lab. Gems that have changed the way I look at scriptwriting forever.
Bill Wheeler (The Reluctant Fundamentalist)
“Writing is not about external validation but internal eternity.” That’s what Bill said. And if you read that line a few times, you’d get an idea of what he is trying to say. Or how he looks at scriptwriting. Bill loves films about splintered souls and most of his scripts deal with people who are trying to surface in life against the tide.
Bill’s latest work is the adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel for Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He spoke about how they would do a constant to-and-fro for almost every scene between Mohsin, Mira and him. How he introduced characters to tell a story cinematically, characters not there in the book. And how one smile by the protagonist was the biggest bone of contention. Yes. Anjum Rajabali (Raajneeti)
The man behind some of the most hard-hitting films on the Indian big screen (Pukar, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Raajneeti) is a scriptaholic. He reads tonnes of scripts every day, writes his own scripts, heads the Film Writers’ Association of India, and still manages time for his family. And he had read more than 30 of the final shortlisted scripts for the Lab. Phew!
His session with me was arguably the most fruitful of the lot. Anjum asked questions of me and of the script, the answers of which made things that much more clear for the characters and the plotting. His emotional references ranged from Indian films like Ardh Satya to Hollywood classics like Psycho and he just made things look simple. Thanks.
Joshua Marston (Maria Full Of Grace)
He’s the writer-director of that brilliant 2004 Spanish film Maria Full of Grace, which had earned an Oscar nomination for the lead Catalina Sandino Moreno. Now, the way Joshua looks at moviemaking is not that easy to identify. His interest lies in being brutally honest to the world he shows, to the point that it may even stop engaging the audience to make them feel a certain way about reality.
For his last film Forgiveness of Blood, Joshua spent more than one-and-a-half years in Albania, trying to understand their culture, their language, their practices. Then he cast real people from there after a series of auditions. “Believability is the key,” is what Joshua kept saying. “When a character leaves the room, you as an audience should believe that the world outside exists.”
Carlos Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien)
The man who wrote that incredible coming-of-age Mexican movie directed by his more-famous brother Alfonso Cuaron. Over lunch he told me how casually they had come up with the idea of Y Tu Mama Tambien — two boys on the beach. And how the film got made because the two projects his brother and he were working on fell through. And how Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin was the inspiration behind the voiceover narration of the film.
Carlos’s approach to screenwriting is as straightforward as he is. He loves football and so he wrote a film about football — Rudo & Cursi. He hates new Mexican music videos and so he put a song in his film that he really hates. He also shared some amazing techniques about directing actors. Like Gael Garcia Bernal, one of the leads in Rudo & Cursi, didn’t know what the lady co-star would do in the love-making scene and that caught him by surprise. “That brought out the fun in that scene!” Carlos suggested an ending for my script that can’t get more bizarre. “Your film; your call,” he winked.
Habib Faisal (Do Dooni Chaar)
The man who wrote Band Baaja Baaraat and Do Dooni Chaar (also directed it) looks at the script as a biryani. Layers and layers of stuff added to make it tasty and sumptuous. He said something wonderful about social reality in a film — you can either end a script showing how the situation is or you can take an authorial voice and look ahead.
Habib and I also got into this amazing debate about what a writer thinks and what a viewer interprets. The second half of his film Ishaqzaade, which he wrote and directed, was severely criticised because of the way Parineeti’s character mellows. Now, when he shared with me the way he looked at her characterisation, it made more sense. Not that I was fully convinced.
We live in a film country where the script is at the last level of the film chain when actually it should be the first. One of the advisers at the Sundance Lab mentioned: “Writing is cheap; unlike filmmaking, where you have to spend a lot of money.” Perhaps because it’s cheap, no one invests in it here. Money or time. We live in a country where producers make films without even reading scripts, where writers are treated like doormat. So, to have all these beautiful minds reading your script over and over again and then holding your hand through the process was almost like a purification of the soul.
INK 2.0 here I come.