“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 19

July 28th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us and while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 136-137 in which Wilder answer Crowe’s question about the genesis of The Apartment:

BW: The origin of The Apartment was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, Brief Encounter [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, “What about the guy who has to crawl into the warm bed…?” That’s an interesting character. Then I put that down, and put down some other things in my notebook. The hero of that thing was the guy who endured this, who was introduced to it all by a lie. One guy in his company needed to change his clothes, he said, and used the apartment…and that was it.

I picked it up again because we were just through with Some Like It Hot, and I liked Lemmon so much. The first time we worked together was on Some Like It Hot, and I said, “This is the guy. This is the guy to play the leading man.” A little nebbish, as we said, you take pity on him. But The Apartment, I had it in mind for years and years before it was really activated. “How will it feel for the guy who crawls into that bed after the lovers have left?” That was really how it started… I had the point of view of the insurance guy, C.C. Baxter. And I wanted to say that Lemmon is a naive guy. His superior–that guy that runs the company–wants to go to the opera, and he would like to use the apartment to change his clothes. And Lemmon says, “You can have it!” And that triggers how he becomes a servant to the head guy, the president of the insurance group, which then gets him a better job.”

This says a lot about Wilder’s creative process:

* He had no problem using other movies as inspiration, here a movie called Brief Encounter.

* He would find a unique entry point into the story. As opposed to looking at an affair from the perspective of either lover, what caught Wilder’s imagination was the experience of the “guy who crawls into that bed after the lovers have left.”

* And we can see his mind immediately go the question, “Why would the guy let someone use his apartment for an affair?” First, he is duped due to a lie. But to sustain the conceit, the person using the apartment would have to hold something over the guy, which led Wilder to the idea the guy having the affair and using the apartment is the guy’s boss. Right there, you have the central idea of The Apartment.

This is a good example of the power of two words: What if? What if a guy allowed his boss to use his apartment for his trysts in order for the guy to get promoted at work? What if. Perhaps the two most powerful words in generating story ideas and fleshing out narratives.

Next: More “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

The Business of Screenwriting: The Travails of Pitching (Part 2) — The Surprise Visitor

July 28th, 2016 by

After the humbling experience of pitching the latest project to a distracted exec, we actually sell it to another studio. We head out to Palm Springs to hole up and jam out the rest of the first draft of another project we are writing when we get a call: The studio’s offer on the pitch is a low-ball. Our agents and the producer on the project think we can get a better deal at another studio.

So we turn right around and zoom back to that studio for a hastily called meeting. As we show up and swap hellos, the producer says to the exec, “Hey, thanks for squeezing us in.”

We are about to find out exactly how squeezed the exec’s schedule is.

Just as we’re set to launch into the pitch, the door scoots open and this ancient gray-haired guy hobbles into the office, lugging some gear. Turns out he’s there to shine the exec’s shoes! The exec apologizes to us. “You don’t mind, do you? This is his regular time slot.”

With visions of yet another distracted exec before our eyes, suddenly our producer bolts upright, and calls out to the shoe shine guy:


Turns out our producer remembers Jimmy the shoe shine guy from years ago when the producer had a deal on the lot. A regular customer, they’d gotten to know each other pretty well. But they hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. They shake hands, clap shoulders, and catch up a bit, the rest of us startled by this crazy coincidence. Then the producer says:

“You don’t mind listening in while these fellahs do their pitch, do you?”
“No sir, that’d be just fine.”

So while the shoe shine guy goes to work on the exec’s shoes, we get to work with our pitch. It goes great, everybody laughing in the right spots, the exec jumping in with ideas that slot right into where the story is going. At the end of the pitch, the exec turns to the shoe shine guy:

“Jimmy, what’d you think?”

All eyes turn to Jimmy. A big grin spreads across his face and he says:

“That is one helluva funny story.”

We sell the pitch in the room. And end up with double the other studio’s offer.

Next week: There’s a green light…

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones.  Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here. 

Daily Dialogue — July 28, 2016

July 28th, 2016 by

Jenny: His name’s Forrest.
Forrest: Like me.
Jenny: I named him after his daddy.
Forrest: He got a daddy named Forrest, too?
Jenny: You’re his daddy, Forrest.

Forrest is stunned. He steps back. Jenny moves toward him.

Jenny: Hey, Forrest, look at me. There’s nothing you need to do, you didn’t do anything wrong, okay? [She turns to look at young Forrest] Isn’t he beautiful?
Forrest Gump: He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, but… is he smart or is he… ?
Jenny Curran: He’s very smart, he’s one of the smartest in his class.

Forrest Gump (1994), screenplay by Eric Roth, novel by Winston Groom

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Apprehension suggested by Jon.

Trivia: Tom Hanks wasn’t paid for the film. Instead he took percentage points which ultimately netted him in the region of $40 million.

Dialogue On Dialogue: When Forrest learns he’s young Forrest’s father, he is apprehensive that his son is not smart. It’s a beautiful and touching moment, apprehension as a deeply human emotion.

Movies: Now Available in Concentrated Form

July 27th, 2016 by

A guest post from Tom Benedek, screenwriter (Cocoon) and co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class:

It is so difficult to get a movie made. All the stars must be aligned just so. It does happen. But not often enough. Damn you, Movie Gods!

You can step away from those hurdles and write scripts that become films.

Webisodes are short films. Very short films. The production hurdles may be minimal. A web series may be crude or as good as something by Fincher, Vince Gilligan, David O. Russell, Shonda Rhimes.

The concentrated form is nothing new. In the Roman Empire, they called this kind of story an anecdote. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron – 14th Century short story anthologies. Mark Twain, Raymond Carver, Faulkner, Chekhov, Kipling, Borges, Fitzgerald, many great writers did some of their best work in the short form.

This renowned screenwriting teacher has said many profound things. Promoting his new book on writing dialogue (Anybody read it yet? What do you think?), McKee talks about webisodes.

Mckee: “You have to hook ’em, hold ’em and pay ’em off in three minutes. Good luck!”

You can always use some luck. (See paragraph 1)

And one or two interesting characters, a little exposition, one complication, crisis, climax, and maybe a resolution.

When you’re done, take those same characters more or less, create another complication/crisis and do it all over again.

A web series may be to TV and feature films what a short story is to a novel. You may want to consider taking a break from the “long form” and trying this.

It is a growing field. With opportunity and competition. Distribution is open. “Verticals” with specific demographics gather and produce groups of web series.

Warning: There is a lot of silly and juvenile stuff being done in this space.

Also note: Web series High Maintenance and Diary of an Awkward Black Girl have moved to HBO.

Consider our Writing the Web Series Workshop starting next week at Screenwritingmasterclass.com.

There has never been a better time to be a content creator. With digital filmmaking and editing technologies, and the Internet as a worldwide distribution network, why not make stuff, put it out there, and see what happens. And that includes web series. So check out Tom’s workshop. Starts Monday.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 18

July 27th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us and while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 129-130 in which Wilder discusses directing it on the page:

CC: Is a lot of the directing done in your head, as you write it?

BW: Yeah, if I write it. I’m never stuck because I have an empty exit of a character who comes to talk to somebody sitting at the desk, and he leaves. I always have enough dialogue to cover an exit. Not a lot of dead air. There are no long explanations [in my scripts]. I just have a scene–scene 73, the scene plays in somebody’s house. That’s it. The last thing I do is divide it then into shots, into camera moves. The last thing I do is to figure out, where do I put the camera? First you have to have it on paper.

CC: How did you feel about adding moments of visual poetry, or putting more lyrical elements in?

BW: I was very serious about it. That’s the way it had to be, that’s the way it was. The words must come to life.

CC: Because there are moments, even though the scripts were all tight, there are still the moments where you let the movie breathe a little bit. Where you see the long shot of Lemmon standing outside the theater waiting for Shirley MacLaine to show up for the movie date in The Apartment.

BW: Yes, of course. Even that moment told part of the story–that she was not there, she didn’t show up, she was with her boss. A little poetry. There must have been a reaction from Lemmon, that she didn’t show up, so he was alone. Naturally that was a little bit of a heartbreak, like a normal human being would feel.

As usual, several takeaways:

* Notice how the first thing Wilder discusses when talking about the script is transitions between scenes. Spoken like a director who has an intimate knowledge of editing which Wilder did, often involved in editing movies while shooting them [they did a final edit of The Apartment in one week]. So we, as writers, would do well to think about ways to handle scene transitions through visuals, dialogue, or a combination of both.

* The words must come to life. Even as someone who directed what he wrote, Wilder was aware that the script pages had to have a vitality to them, they needed to evoke the playing out of the scene on the page.

* Notice how when Crowe broaches the subject of “visual poetry,” Wilder grounds his response about the example from The Apartment in character, how Baxter (Lemmon) was feeling outside the theater, stood up by the young woman he had a crush on. “A little bit of heartbreak, like a normal human being would feel.” Wilder never strayed far from writing scenes that created an emotional connection with the audience and he consistently did that through his characters.

Finally this: “First you have to have it on paper.” A quote worth remembering for our own writing.\

Tomorrow: More from “Conversations With Wilder.” If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

Great Scene: “Little Miss Sunshine”

July 27th, 2016 by

In the movie Little Miss Sunshine (2006), which was released 10 years ago yesterday, there is this wonderful scene: The ending dance sequence where 7 year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) performs on stage of the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant. In the audience watching Olive do her dance routine is her father Richard (Greg Kinnear), a failed self-help motivational speaker, his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), a woman whose idea of a home-cooked meal is a bucket of take-out friend chicken, their son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who took a vow of silence until he becomes an Air Force pilot, and Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), who is living with the Hoover family after a botched suicide attempt. Olive’s dance routine was choreographed by her grandfather Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin), who after having been kicked out of a retirement home because of unacceptable behavior, dies of a heroin overdose en route to the pageant.

We are talking about one seriously dysfunctional family.

And now perhaps the biggest disaster of all: After a series of cuter-than-cute dance routines by other young contestants, each one more chaste and endearing than the previous one, Olive takes the stage to live out her biggest fantasy — performing at the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant:

Then Olive finds what she's looking for:

Kirby, in the sound booth.

He nods at her. She nods at him.

Then Olive turns around, her back to the audience.

Kirby turns a VOLUME knob up to "6". He hits "play".

[The music clearly depends on the rights. For specificity, 
we'll use "Peach" by Prince.]

A BLAST of hard rock 12 bar blues comes out of the speakers.

Everyone is surprised.

The music is hard-driving and nasty. It is completely different 
from the other pageant music we've heard so far.

For the first four measures, with Prince saying, "Here she 
comes," and "She got them gold hot-pants on again," Olive 
barely moves, rocking her shoulders and hips to the beat.

Dwayne, Frank, Sheryl, and Richard all glance at each other.

This is not what they expected.

No one knows what to make of Olive rocking, her back turned.

However, when the first verse begins, Olive turns and 
strides up on the stage -- hands on hips, shoulders swinging 
-- with an absolute and spectacular physical self-confidence.

She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen: 
shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations -- a melange of 
MTV rump shakin', Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and 
out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are 
clearly drawn from Grandpa's sixty-year career of strip-bar 

She dances with a total command -- an exuberant, even witty 
mastery of her body, the music, the moves, everything.

Most of all, she's doing it for herself -- for her own sense 
of fun -- and the judges are instantly irrelevant.

The audience is stunned. No one moves. Mouths hang open. Sheryl, Frank, and Dwayne gape. Richard is baffled. RICHARD What's she doing? What the hell is she doing? When the first verse ends, Olive punctuates the 12-bar vamp with a series of violent pelvic thrusts. Everyone is totally shocked. No one knows how to react. SHERYL Oh, my God...! Abruptly, Frank starts laughing in disbelief. He stands and begins cheering Olive, pumping his fist and grooving to the music. Richard stares at Frank. Cautiously encouraged, he stands and cheers along with Frank -- tentative at first, then more and more unselfconsciously. Sheryl and Dwayne join in, relieved and amazed. Grandpa was right -- she's blowing them out of the water. As the second verse ends and the guitar solo begins, Olive punctuates the vamp with another series of thrusts. This is too much for the contest Official from the registration desk, who sits near the stage at the table of contest JUDGES, including Miss Florida. She looks around and spots Sheryl, Richard, Frank, et al, standing and cheering. The Official gets up, walks up the aisle and yells at Sheryl. OFFICIAL What is your daughter doing? Sheryl -- taken aback -- shrugs. Richard leans in. RICHARD She's kicking ass, is what she's doing! The others smile and nod. The Official is incensed. She turns and walks back to the sound booth. She yells at Kirby. OFFICIAL Turn it off! KIRBY What? OFFICIAL Turn the music off!!! KIRBY (fake deaf) What...?! He smiles and cranks the music up to "8". Mothers and children in the audience clap their hands over their ears. The audience polarizes -- some (the Grizzled Biker; Miss Florida) stand and cheer while others sit dumbfound or frown disapprovingly, shaking their heads. Still others flee for the exit, heads down, hands over their ears. The Official, furious, leaves Kirby and stalks down the aisle to the stage. Sheryl watches with growing worry. SHERYL What's she doing? Look...! She shakes Richard, points. The Official goes to the MC -- at the side of the stage -- waves to him. He bends down, listens. He nods. The MC walks onstage and tries to stop Olive from dancing, grabbing her arms. Olive doesn't know what he's doing, but she won't let him break her routine. She wiggles away and keeps dancing. Richard -- outraged -- races to the front of the auditorium, leaps on the stage, jumps on the MC's back and rides him -- piggy-back -- into the wings. They crash to the ground. Olive stops dancing, turns and looks at Richard. Richard, grappling with the MC, waves her on. RICHARD Keep dancing, Honey! Just dance! Olive turns and stares at the audience. Dwayne, Frank and Sheryl are gesturing -- "Keep going!" Olive -- hearing the music, seeing Sheryl, Frank, and Dwayne cheering her -- starts to dance again, fluid and relaxed. Richard disentangles himself from the pissed-off MC as STAGEHANDS step in and pull them apart. Richard shrugs off their restraining hands, then turns to watch Olive dance. The Contest Official steps forward and angrily confronts him. OFFICIAL Get your daughter off stage now! Richard -- taken aback -- hesitates. She presses him. OFFICIAL If you don't stop her, she'll be disqualified! Richard stares at her. Then he nods. RICHARD Okay. He turns and walks out on stage. Olive, seeing him, is confused. He steps up behind her. Then Richard starts dancing. They dance together: Olive in front, Richard backing her up. Richard looks at the Official with a defiant, fuck-you smile. Sheryl, Frank and Dwayne, watching, can't believe it. DWAYNE Holy shit...! FRANK (to Sheryl) You married that guy? Sheryl shakes her head -- she can't believe it either. Frank runs down the aisle, jumps on stage, and dances next to Richard -- a surprisingly competent set of butt-wagging, party-music moves. Dwayne follows Frank up on stage. Sheryl pauses a moment and watches her family. Richard waves to Sheryl to join them. A beat. Then Sheryl walks, then runs, and jumps up on stage. Richard helps her up, and they dance together. Kirby cranks it up to "10". MUSIC is overpowering everything. As the song winds up, Sheryl lines up next to Olive for a unified series of thrusts. As the final cymbal crashes, Olive pulls up her shirt to reveal "Peach" is written on her tummy with magic marker. Audience MEMBERS respond with a standing ovation. Frank and Dwayne strut around with their arms in the air, like victorious professional wrestlers. Richard picks up Olive, swings her in the air. Sheryl walks over and hugs Richard and Olive. FADE TO BLACK AND SILENCE

Screenwriter Michael Arndt deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2007 because the script is a gem — exemplified by this scene. Every beat in the movie has been building to this moment. This is the Big Set Piece — and the scene delivers on every level, from the comic chaos of Olive’s dance routine to the satisfaction of this flawed and fractured family, coming together as one to support Olive in her moment of glory.

And don’t overlook the obvious: How Arndt manages to describe the action without bogging down the reader in endless details of Olive’s routine:

She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen: shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations — a melange of MTV rump shakin’, Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are clearly drawn from Grandpa’s sixty-year career of strip-bar patronage.

The description is visual, fun, and establishes a clear feel for the moment.

As great as the scene is on paper, the job that co-directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, the actors, and the choreographer did in translating it onto the screen is equally masterful. There all sorts of grace notes throughout, each carrying with it meaning and emotional subtext. Check out the scene from the movie:

You can go here to see an extended interview with Arndt in which he describes how he came to write, then sell Little Miss Sunshine.

Daily Dialogue — July 27, 2016

July 27th, 2016 by

Vincent: Whoa!
Jules: What the fuck’s happening, man? Ah, shit man!
Vincent: Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.
Jules: Why the fuck did you do that!
Vincent: Well, I didn’t mean to do it, it was an accident!
Jules: Oh man I’ve seen some crazy ass shit in my time…
Vincent: Chill out, man. I told you it was an accident. You probably went over a bump or something.
Jules: Hey, the car didn’t hit no motherfucking bump!
Vincent: Hey, look man, I didn’t mean to shoot the son of a bitch. The gun went off. I don’t know why.
Jules: Well look at this fucking mess, man. We’re on a city street in broad daylight here!
Vincent: I don’t believe it.
Jules: Well believe it now, motherfucker! We gotta get this car off the road! You know cops tend to notice shit like you’re driving a car drenched in fucking blood.
Vincent: Just take it to a friendly place, that’s all.
Jules: This is the Valley, Vincent. Marsellus ain’t got no friendly places in the Valley.
Vincent: Well Jules, this ain’t my fucking town, man!
Jules: Shit!

Pulp Fiction (1994), written by Quentin Tarantino, story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Apprehension suggested by Jon.

Trivia: According to an interview with Phil LaMarr, it was he who came up with the idea of his character Marvin being shot in the face. Marvin was originally supposed to be accidentally shot in the throat and survive. Knowing that Marvin would die a slow, painful death, Vincent and Jules decide that Marvin should be shot in the head and put out of his misery. Knowing that this would make the characters unlikable, LaMarr took his idea to Quentin Tarantino and he agreed to it, figuring that a single-bullet kill would be funnier.

Dialogue On Dialogue: What a comical reversal where two hit men – through a stupid accident – get apprehensive big time.

Writing from Inside and Outside the Story Universe

July 26th, 2016 by

In the Core III: Character class I’m teaching online, one of the writers in our group Dave Bullis, made two observations:

Hey Scott,

So something I’ve learned before coming into this class.

1. Character suggests plot. Your characters should create their own problems and dilemma’s.

2. Characters aren’t real people. They’re representations of ideals, etc.

What are you thoughts on this?

My response:

Dave, these two points open a huge door into a massive area of discussion because (A) they are both true while (B) seeming to contradict each other: If characters aren’t ‘real people, then how can they – of their own agency – “create their own problems”?

For a short response right now, let me frame my thoughts with this point: As a writer, we have two basic vantage points in relation to our story universe. Sometimes we are inside the story universe, rubbing elbows with our characters, listening to and watching them. We can do this through direct exercise engagements such as character sit-downs, interviews, monologues, and the like. Also once the characters come ‘alive’ in our imagination, they will just show up – as we putz around the house, shop for groceries, in our dreams. And there again, they pull us into their story universe.

The other basic vantage point for a writer is when we step outside the story universe, the mile high view. Here we gain a degree of objectivity where we can see character interrelationships and subplots, start to identify narrative structure and scenes coming together, themes emerging, and so forth. From this point of perspective, we can oversee the plot by selecting the precise moments of what’s transpiring in that story universe 24/7/365, pulling out exactly what we need to shape the story.

We need both frames of reference and, in my own experience, it’s often a lot of going back and forth from inside to outside the story universe during the course of writing and rewriting a script.

When we are inside it, the characters are real people who have, indeed, created their own problems and that makes sense because they have been living the entirety of their lives, thus each forming their own psyche, the totality of their psychological being. Our task is to dig below the surface of who they present themselves to be to the world and discern the underlying dynamics – wants, needs, Disunity, shadow, memories, associations, fears, etc.

When we are outside the story universe, we should be able to identify how this character or that represents a specific type of narrative function, and that type of thinking is precisely what character archetypes are about. Broadly speaking:

* The Protagonist represents the character moving forward toward a specific goal.

* The Nemesis represents the opposing dynamic working against the Protagonist, thereby creating the story’s central conflict.

* The Attractor represents the realm of the Heart, characters most associated with the Protagonist’s emotional development.

* The Mentor represents the realm of the Head, characters most associated with the Protagonist’s intellectual development.

* The Trickster represents Will, characters most associated with testing the Protagonist’s transformation by shapeshifting from ally to enemy, enemy to ally, to see if the Protagonist is learning what they need to learn.

Character Archetypes Paradigm Visual Only

Using archetypes as tools – not rules! – we can dig down into each character in our story and determine what their core narrative function is, then with that understanding zero in on aspects of their psyche which play most strongly to their respective narrative function.

In the end, there is a way in which we can see how everything that happens in the physical realm of the story (External World / Plotline) services what happens in the psychological realm (Internal World / Themeline). So each character plays a role in impacting not only the plot, but also the Protagonist’s transformation arc.

I love working with these five Primary Character Archetypes. They may not apply to all stories, but they appear in movie after movie. That’s what we’re studying this week in my Core III: Character class. Not too late to join. For more information, go here.

Dave Bullis has a podcast on screenwriting. Check it out here.

Interview (Part 2): Nijla Mu’min

July 26th, 2016 by

Nijla Mu’min is a young filmmaker who recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for a feature length movie project Jinn, a coming of age story which received support and endorsements from notable people in the film world including Ava DuVernay, Salim Akil, and Franklin Leonard. Here is a description of Jinn:

Jinn is a “sweet & serious” dramedy about a carefree black girl, Summer, whose world is turned upside down when her mother converts to Islam, sending her on a quest for self-definition. It’s a fun, fresh exploration of identity, Islam, millennial culture, and new media. The story is loosely drawn from Nijla‘s upbringing and explores religious interpretation and shifting family dynamics.

In addition to Jinn, the script for Noor, another project by Mu’min, has received numerous accolades including Best Screenplay, Urbanworld 2014 and Finalist, Tribeca All-Access 2016. Nijla was selected to workshop her story as part of the 2014 Sundance Screenwriters Intensive.

As a longtime fan of indie films as an outlet for new voices to give expression to stories involving diverse subcultures, I was happy to reach out to Nijla for an email Q&A. Today in Part 2, Nijla discusses her new movie project Jinn:

In 2014, you were one of 10 writers selected for the Second Annual Sundance Institute Screenwriters Intensive. What was that experience like and filmmaking lessons did you take away from it?

I was really nervous when I first arrived at the Sundance office. It seemed like I’d been working for many years to get to that point- writing and revising scripts, taping flashcards on walls, and creating stories. But once the workshop began, the nerves were replaced with generative, inspired dialogue and exploration of my story and its characters. The next day, we were assigned Sundance advisors who gave honest, helpful feedback on our scripts and discussed next steps with us. The feedback I received was extremely helpful, and I was able to make some changes to my script that elevated the material in ways I hadn’t imagined before the workshop.

The current project you’re working on is your first feature length film Jinn. Here is its plot summary: “A shape-shifting, pepperoni- loving, black teenage Instagram celebrity converts to Islam. Here’s what happens.” What was the inspiration for this story?

I would go with my father to Masjidul Waritheen in East Oakland, a large, pink building with shiny hardwood floors, chandeliers, and an expansive green carpeted area for salat. During salat, I prayed side by side with Muslim women, many of them African American. They wore sheer stockings and toe rings, and their feet touched mine. After Juma, my father sold scarves outside the masjid- lavender, black and gold prints on polyester, rayon, and silk. The scarves billowed in the air as he held them for passing women to purchase. Some nights, I’d go to the masjid with my father and watch him commune with other Muslim men about the Qur’an. This was more than a masjid, but a place of wonder and magic. There were so many rooms, and passageways leading to places I did not know.

As I got older, I started to see that the images, feelings, and beliefs that I associated with Islam were very different than the ones popularized in mainstream media, in my social circles, and even in my extended family. I knew Islam to be close and intimate. I knew it be complex. I knew Islam to be stories from the Qur’an, my father dancing at a nightclub before making salat in the morning, and warm bean pies. Jinn is my attempt at capturing the tangible, complicated world that I know Islam to be, while examining the ways that identity and experiences impact one’s interpretation of it.

Mumin 3

Given the heated rhetoric about Islam emerging from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, how do you think Jinn fits into the cultural zeitgeist?

Jinn is a coming of age film about identity, first love, and Islam. It’s about internal conflict, dancing, flirting, smiling, crying, loving, and laughing, from the lens of a black girl named Summer. Some of the people in it are Muslim. Some women wear hijab, others don’t. Summer’s mother, Jade, becomes drawn to Islam, but not in the terrorist/extremist way that is often popularized in our news cycle. It is everything that mainstream media and conservative pundits negate and malign, and probably don’t understand. It is about people with individual, distinct personalities and motivations. These are the people I grew up knowing. They are Muslims.

How would you describe the protagonist of your movie Jinn?

Summer is mature and confident, yet vulnerable and impulsive. She’s a very independent teenager, and craves freedom in all forms, from clothing to music, friends, and even food. She eats greasy hamburgers and hot churros but has a dancer’s body. She wants to study dance in college and is waiting to hear back from Calarts about whether she was accepted to their BFA Dance program. She’s a performer in other aspects of her life as well, and is somewhat of a teenage hustler capable of switching up her look and demeanor to get what she wants, and who she wants. But things get complicated when her mother converts to Islam, pressuring Summer to do the same. Summer’s identity and sense of self come into question- who is she, why is she that way, and can these worlds coexist?

Imagine Jinn gets produced and plays in movie theaters. What do you want moviegoers to be feeling as they emerge from the theater at the end of your movie?

I want audience members to be feeling something- refreshed, in love, moved- but what exactly they will feel may not be up to me. I think that is the power of art, and cinema. It’s the interpretations and experiences that we all bring to it. One of my favorite parts of screening my films and having people read my scripts, is to hear their interpretations, and the emotions they felt. My favorite films are ones that take me out of my head, and linger in my body for hours, or even days. I am sure the directors of those films intend for me to feel a particular way about their film, but I may or may not. One of my favorite films Sin Nombre, directed by Cary Fukunaga, left me feeling a somber sense of hope, though the end of that film is very tragic to many viewers. I was left with images of the main character starting a new life in America. Jinn may make some people uncomfortable at times, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s also isolation, togetherness, and love. It is not a safe, wholesome film. It’s a dramatic rendering of identity, duality, and relationships.

You initiated a Kickstarter campaign with a goal to raise $25,000 to help fund production of Jinn and ended up with over $27,000 in pledges. What were some of the keys you discovered in managing a successful crowdfunding campaign?

I discovered many things during that Kickstarter campaign, many of which I wrote about in this article for Filmmaker Magazine, about launching a successful Kickstarter campaign.

You have had some influential people in the filmmaking community champion Jinn including Ava DuVernay and Franklin Leonard. How did those connections happen and how important was their support?

I met Ava DuVernay shortly after the release of her first narrative feature film, I Will Follow. I was so inspired by her hands-on, grassroots approach to independent filmmaking and how she championed so many filmmakers of color and women. I started to get involved with her company, AFFRM, and then was given the opportunity to work as a PA on her film, Middle of Nowhere, which was one of the best film experiences I’ve been a part of. Since then, I’ve kept in contact with her, and have had the chance to interview her for numerous publications. She’s someone I look up to in many ways.

I met Franklin Leonard after he served as a judge for a screenwriting contest that I won during the 2014 Urbanworld Film Festival, for my feature-length script, Noor. I spoke with him after the festival, and he encouraged me to continue developing the script and to look into putting some of my scripts on The Black List, which I later did. Jinn is currently listed on The Black List and has a score of 7.

Having Franklin and Ava’s support during our campaign really went a long way in galvanizing others to learn about the project, and support it. Franklin Leonard sent a tweet that resulted in several of his follower’s donating and sharing the project, including a $1,000 donation from director/producer Salim Akil, who read his tweet. It was amazing and magical and surprising. I was beyond happy to have the support of people who have made such huge strides in this industry.

What is the status of the Jinn movie project?

We are currently in pre-production on the project. We are in the midst of casting, so look out for some exciting updates on that soon. We were recently selected for the Panavision New Filmmaker’s Program, to receive a camera package, and we were selected for Film Independent’s Fast Track Film Market, where we pitched the film to over 50 production companies and executives. We have locations, some wonderful crew, an Executive Producer and we’re aiming to shoot by the end of this summer.

Where can people go to find out more about Jinn?

People can find out more about Jinn on our facebook page and our Kickstarter page, where we post the latest updates about the project.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I see myself writing for television and for film, and working with other writers and filmmakers under my production company, Sweet Potato Pie Productions, LLC, to develop, produce, and acquire powerful media content that empowers communities to think, feel, and act.

Finally what advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Do it! Start writing, start shooting, start feeling. There’s no better time than right now. Thinking and theorizing are great, but sometimes you just have to get some ideas on paper, and start making mistakes before you succeed. It’s a part of the process.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

To read more about Nijla and her movie project Jinn:



How We Raised $27,000 on Kickstarter for a Film About Black Teen Identity, First Love and Islam (Filmmaker)

My Struggle Being a Black Woman Filmmaker Outside White Hollywood (Vice)

Writer-Director Nijla Mu’min Selected for Panavision New Filmmaker Program

Happy Birthday, Carl Jung: Screenwriting Guru!

July 26th, 2016 by

Swiss psychotherapist and founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung was born today in 1875. He died in 1961 at the age of 85.

Jung’s influence the field of psychology as well as culturally is profound. For example, the concepts of introvert and extravert derive from Jung. Collective unconscious. Also from Jung. The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator was developed from Jung’s theories. Synchronicity, archetype, shadow, and many more of Jung’s ideas have become part of our conceptual currency. Like this:

Screenwriters and filmmakers owe it to themselves to study Jung. Think you understand the Hero’s Journey? You’ve only scratched the surface until you see the enormous influence Jung had on Joseph Campbell, so much so the latter edited “The Portable Jung”.

The dynamic of the Protagonist transformation arc? In my view, no one provides a better language system than Jung who calls it “individuation“.

How about Jung’s interpretation of dream patterns?

The dream begins with a statement of place, next comes a statement about the protagonist. I call this phase of the dream the exposition. It indicates the scene of action, the people involved, and also often the initial situation of the dream way.

The second phase comes the development of the plot. The third phase brings the culmination of peripeteia, a sudden change of events, a reversal of circumstances, used by Aristotle. Here something decisive happens if something changes completely.

The fourth and last phase is alysis, the solution or result produced by the dream work.

This division into four phases can be applied without much difficulty to a majority of dreams met with in practice, an indication that dreams generally have a dramatic structure.

Applicable to screenplay structure, don’t you think?

If you need a more tangible touchstone as to why you should become familiar with Carl Jung, how about this little movie:

The entire film is replete with Jungian themes and motifs, a subject I introduced in this post: “Inception”: Carl Jung’s Wet Dream.

One of my life’s passions in the last decade has been to study Jung and bring what I find there to the craft of screenwriting. Here is an example of what I mean. This is a quote from Jung:

The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.

Take that idea and apply it to a Protagonist in one of your stories. The so-called “flawed Protagonist” becomes much more compelling and a richer character with which to work if you think about him/her as beginning with a divided psyche, the very nature of which sparks a synergy with the story universe to create circumstances which force that individual to confront their psychological issues.

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is an orphan who doesn’t feel at home in Kansas. The universe creates a tornado to transport her to Oz so she could find friendship with Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, a bridge for her metamorphosis to crystallize her desire to get back because, “There’s no place like home.”

Rick in Casablanca is a cynic who has unresolved feelings from an old love affair. The universe brings his ex-lover back into Rick’s life, forcing him to deal with that old wound, and in the process – with an assist from Mentor Victor Laszlo – get back in touch with his idealism, and eventually act selflessly in allowing Ilse and Victor to leave Casablanca.

Red in The Shawshank Redemption has just about given up, his human spirit crushed by years of institutionalization. The universe puts Andy Dufresne into Red’s life, making him deal with Andy’s persistent evocation of hope, fanning those embers within Red, so that by the end of the story, Red goes to meet his old friend, the very last words of the movie: “I hope.”

We see this dynamic in movies — the universe creating circumstances which force a character to confront their Disunity state — over and over and over again. As writers, Jung’s idea causes us to look at the story-crafting process in an entirely different way by asking this question: Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time? Their fate is not random, rather there is an inherent narrative destiny innate to their unique psychological circumstance at the beginning of the story.

It is a stunning concept… and springs from just a single idea from Carl Jung.

And so today, I celebrate one of the bright lights of the creative life with links to some posts I’ve done about Carl Jung:

Carl Jung: “Memories, Dreams and Reflections”

Universal themes in Pixar movies

Who am I?

Who am I? Revisited

And this 5 part series “Writing Reflections on Carl Jung”:

Part 1: Are We Related to the Infinite or Not?

Part 2: Make the Unconscious Conscious

Part 3: Make the Darkness Conscious

Part 4: Psychological Rule as ‘Fate’

Part 5: Become Who You Truly Are

So here’s to you, Carl Jung, the screenwriting ‘guru’ we deserve!