The good thing about putting up my film That Four Letter Word online is that I continue to get at least two emails every week (this, three years after the film released) giving me feedback. Given it’s a film I’ve long left behind, I mail back everyone who writes in promptly and thank them no matter what they have to say about the film.
Whatever it was, good or bad, it’s a film that made me a director.
Hence, I always find it a little arrogant when I introduce myself as a filmmaker… I mean are we, the “filmmakers”, really that powerful – or just plain stupid – to believe we MAKE the film?
A film gets made because a lot of people put their heart and soul and of course, loads of money and time into it and we the makers, rarely notice the personality of the film that’s emerging out of these collective efforts during the making of it. Not all of it was conceived or intended by the creator or the maker of the film.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that a film acquires a much more powerful personality and dimension than originally envisioned by the storyteller. It’s only when we observe and learn from this natural, organic process – of how the idea became a story that became a screenplay that finally became a film – we begin to understand the art and science of storytelling.
And hence my theory: Film makes filmmaker. Filmmaker does not make film.
No, I am not going to talk about That Four Letter Word… Suffice to say it was written by a 22-year-old writer, made by a 24-year-old, shelved and remade all over again by a 27-year-old. Now that I am 32, I can laugh at the innocence of the boy who decided to become a filmmaker because he wanted to tell the world the story of his life and friends for the stupidest of reasons. (If you are new to this blog, there’s more on that here and you can download my film from Part 1 Part 2 and Endcredits)
That out of the way, the rationale behind this post is to put some of my thoughts online lest I forget or lose them forever, given my bachelor-pad memory.
There are filmmakers who decide they can tell any story and then scout for stories to tell. For these storytellers, stories are just containers of entertainment. And they make what can broadly be classified as mainstream commercial cinema.
And there are people, like me, who make films only because of an intrinsic need to get a story or thought of their system… Films as expression. Often classified as art-house fare.
Now, it’s not that entertaining films can’t have artistic expression or films made as artistic expression cannot contain entertainment. Smart storytellers have always found a way to mix what they want to say and what people want to hear and do full justice to the story.
We’ve heard filmmakers often say “There’s no art cinema or mainstream cinema. There’s only good cinema or bad cinema,” and have agreed with them because there are so many good commercial films we love to watch over and over again and so many arty-farty pretentious films out there we want to avoid.
Parallel to this art versus entertainment debate runs an equally relevant debate on whether storytelling is an art or a science with the ever-growing dependence on technology.
Screenwriter John Truby has this software called Blockbuster that will help you put your raw materials for the story, characters and sub-plots together BEFORE you start writing your screenplay. Sreenwriters type away gloriously on Final Draft believing that it’s scientific because you are using a computer to write a film.
I believe these debates – Films: Art or Entertainment AND Is Storytelling an art of science – are not just connected but are essentially responsible for the other debate to exist. In these debates, I found my path, my key to effective storytelling.
What you want to say and want people want to hear is a heart versus head conflict and a truly great story is born when there is no heart versus head conflict. When people want to hear what you want to say.
Now, I’m a man of science. Not atheist, agnostic. I did my Masters in Science (Communication) and have always believed that there’s a lot of science to communication and expression. With the right elements, devices and tools, you can convince people about anything on the planet, we were taught.
Which is why I find the answer to my questions on storytelling strangely spiritual.
Now, we all know that a movie has to move you and entertain you along the way.
A story needs to strike a chord somewhere and connect to the audience.
Though this can be manipulated scientifically, we all know that the more successful films have had something intrinsically powerful within to trigger off those tear-glands without their actors resorting to glycerine-induced allergy.
Which means you need to have something to say first and though this can be constructed or assembled or borrowed or inspired BUT unless you feel strongly about it, what you want to say, has no heart of its own. Once this story has a heart, it can be told scientifically.
I know this may again sound like a formula but it isn’t really.
The story needs to be all-heart (artistic expression) and the telling needs to be all-head (science of entertaining).
The problem with most of our films is that they are scientifically put together with a bunch of guys saying: “Let’s make a film like…” and then they talk about spontaneity and art when it comes to writing that screenplay down.
Science is about manipulation and as people get more cinema-literate (it doesn’t take too much these days to acquire foreign films or read books on the Hero’s Journey across cultures), they tend to know when they are being manipulated. Some of us willingly surrender to the likes of Karan Johar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali while some of us are annoyed at the audacity of the filmmaker to trying to manipulate our emotions.
Now, the story and the telling (the narrative) need to be one and the same, in perfect harmony, to force the audience into submission and that’s the challenge for every screenwriter.
Which is why there’s science needed to flesh out even the basic story and artistic touches needed to empower the narrative. The basic idea of the film, the heart, should be so powerful that it captivates and overshadows the individual vision of the cast and crew to such an extent that even at some subconscious level, they are helping the core idea reach its self-actualizing potential.
The Spirit of Lagaan by Satyajit Bhatkal takes us through this fascinating journey of how one man’s vision made ordinary people do things they would’ve never ever done all their lives, risking marriage, punishing conditions and their careers, of course.
We as directors are just facilitators, mere guardians of the bright idea when we find one. We just need to look within to find this idea… One that makes us feel alive, one that gives us a new sense of purpose. Then, we need to go all out to protect this idea. If we fail to direct it, will be punished. If we do it right, the idea will reward us and bequeath us the title of the “Filmmaker”… the creator.
Which brings me to the biggest grouse I have with our film business. It’s the duty of a filmmaker to respect the script, not the star.
We spend over 40-50 per cent of the budget in star salaries and the rest in assembling elements to worship the star. The ritual of song and dance and stunt sequences continues till date! How will movies not flop?
Joseph Campbell can take a flying fuck, the Hero’s Journey (especially in the cinemas of the South heads just one way: Up, up and up…) The Hero is unassailable, infallible. He cannot be slapped, he cannot fail or fall because the directors/stars believe that the audience sees God in Him. When did we last see a solid villain who made life a living hell for the hero?
Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with star-based cinema provided the director understands the importance of giving the script the due…
Like I wrote in my review of the last decade of Tamil cinema, give the hero a real conflict. Get him knocked down so that he can get up again. Bring back those powerful villains. Let the heroes have their arses kicked, let them fight odds.
I don’t have a problem with all commercial cinema. I have a problem with bad commercial cinema, poor scripts and stories that are best left untold. I don’t have a problem with stories that have been told, I have a problem with those stories told the same way all over again.
Stories are about a conflict. The stronger the conflict, the better the story.
Which is why the Wachowski Brothers kick ass. They nailed one of the most defining conflicts our generation has seen: Humans versus Machines. As more men are trained to be machines, and machines tend to do pretty much everything humans can do and better, where does that leave us frail humans?
Even in an out-and-out action film, Ninja Assassin had to survive a near death experience (again, hats off to you, Joseph Campbell) before he overcame his odds.
There’s a lesson to learn from Ninja. You could train all you want… You could show fantastic work discipline, play by the book, live by rules laid down by the masters but unless you got a heart… And a mind of your own…. the tricks, the technology, the stars, the budgets, the crew – none of it will really matter.
Let’s put our heart out there for the world to see.
Let’s not get fooled into believing that we can make films. Let’s submit to the power of thought in pursuit of a truly great idea to deliver us as filmmakers.
Let’s get back to the basics of storytelling. Tell a story and enjoy telling it in a way they will enjoy. They must know every single detail of the story by the end of it so that they can go and retell it to the world. They must want to hang out in that world you’ve created and bond with your characters.
In the words of my idol Cameron Crowe:
“I think I want them to feel like the characters are real, cause the movies I’ve loved are ones where the characters are so real to me that I feel like I know them and I miss them. And I feel like I know Fran Kubelik from The Apartment – I do, I know her, to the point that when I see Shirley MacLaine in another movie, I go, “That’s Fran!” And I love it, and I have been oddly satisfied a few times in some of the movies I’ve made that the actor has matched the character to the point where they live. And John Cusack was that guy (Lloyd Dobler) – and he is. It’s the thing that when he acted it, it came to life and that’s my favorite thing; like if Kate Hudson is able to twirl and for a moment be a character that you believe is real, Penny Lane…it’s the coolest.”