Interview (Part 3): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Tween the Ropes”.

Elizabeth Oyebode wrote the original screenplay “Tween the Ropes” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 3 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Elizabeth and I discuss some of the themes weaving through her script “Tween the Ropes” and how she chose the sport of double dutch jump-roping:

Scott: I was on the fence about asking you this, but since you’ve been talking about Nidi’s like a rock and then, some other times, she’s more like a leaf. I’m going to throw this out to you. [laughs]

The toolbox and the fact that she is this resident manager or superintendent of the building, and actually Nidi even does some repairs around the thing. The toolbox is actually in the last scene. I’m wondering, were you going for some sort of symbolic or metaphorical thing about repair? The family needs repair or under repair, or was that just an extension of the job and has no deeper meaning?

Elizabeth: Of course, it’s a story about a broken family and whether or not they have the tools to mend themselves on their own. The toolbox entered in because I thought it was very important to highlight externally this idea that all this family really has to do to get itself on the road to repair is to stop turning a blind eye, to look to themselves.

By addressing some family conflicts head on, taking the hammer and banging it into the nail. Instead of the alternative, you know, keeping the box locked, all those family secrets locked away.

Scott: The major complicating factor in the story, I think you would have to say in terms of character, is Frankie. The father who has rejoined the family after several years, he’s been away in prison.

Elizabeth: Yes, for three years.

Scott: He’s a rather loose cannon at times. Present, and then at times not around. There are occasions where you see a paternal side to him, though pretty largely, I’d say, very toward narcissism because it’s all about his own experience, but there are other times where he’s increasingly drawn toward negative impulses born out of his own desperation and drug dependency.

How did that character emerge in this process? Was that early on that you had that father figure, or is that something that evolved over time?

Elizabeth: The father figure was there from the beginning. He was central to the dynamic of the family bond and, of course, to the plot.

Scott: You’ve got a couple of other people. There’s Old Lady Smith, who lives in the same apartment building. She’s got a rather negative view of Nidi.

Elizabeth: She does. I wrote Old Lady Smith in to introduce a generational perspective on self-imposed limits and denial. She strongly disapproves of Nidi’s aspirations. Again, I think that speaks to her own life experience and perhaps not being given opportunities herself.

And, now, to see this next generation of child daring to ask for things really gets under her skin because, of course, no one bothered asking her and she never got the chance to ask. I really wanted to explore the questions of who deserves love and how much of it do they deserve, and who deserves opportunity and how much of it do they deserve.

Scott: Then there’s Mr. Yee, the next door neighbor who opens up love in a very disturbing way for Nidi. I don’t want to get into that terribly much because I don’t want to give away where that goes ‑‑ in sum, that little world inside that building.

If we say that the best way to create an emotional connection with the script reader and audience member is give them a sympathetic protagonist, then you succeed 10 times over in your script because Nidi is all that. Her personality, her potential, her intelligence, her grit, her determination and then, amidst all this other stuff around her, you’re really, really grabbed by this character. And all of ten years old.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Yes, there’s this intellectually unsupportive environment for her at home and, of course, this mixed bag at school, and, in both settings, everyone’s just trying to get by, to get from one day to the next. These are the examples that she’s presented with for what adults are like. Right?

Scott: Right.

Elizabeth: Then, of course, she’s looking at her classmates and just trying to figure out…As you said, she’s an outsider. She’s just trying to figure out how she fits in to all of this, because her needs and wants are being dismissed over and over again.

There’s no real reason given as to why, especially because most of these desires are not particularly complex. The conflicts that lay before her are very challenging given, as you said, she seems to have an internal strength that a lot of the characters she encounters don’t possess.

Scott: There’s that. Then there’s this, as we’ve said earlier, surrogate family, this double dutch jump-roping team led by Miss Harper. Why that particular sport? How’d that come about?

Elizabeth: It’s interesting in that it’s this three‑pronged reliance system. The person that’s center stage is the jumper in the middle and then there’s these two turners who have to mirror each other to help ensure the jumper’s success.

It’s this team dynamic that I think is really unusual in sports. Typically, it’s either a bigger team or one person. In this, there’s three people, occasionally four or five, but three people who really have to work together. I wanted to portray what might happen when one of those people is the bully and the other is the one getting bullied.

Scott: That’s interesting because, again, if we’re going to talk about physical objects with potential symbolic meaning, a rope can be a useful tool. You can climb a rope. You can also get tripped up in the jumping, which is what one of the bullies does to Nidi.

You can also be strangled by a rope. The title of the script is “Tween the Ropes,” so there’s something symbolic going on there, yeah?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. It’s a constant balancing act for Nidi. When she’s jumping between these ropes, there’s this constant wavering, one foot going up and the other going down. I wanted to convey that feeling of swaying back and forth, not really knowing whether the ground beneath you was firm enough to stand on.

There’s a scene as well in which the ropes take on this cocoon shape because they are turning so quickly. I employed that imagery because a cocoon is supposed to be this safe space in which a caterpillar can grow strong enough to transform then break free. But, until that is possible, it has to be encased in this shell.

For Nidi, this sport is the closest thing she has to that shell.

Tomorrow in Part 4, Elizabeth talks about what it was like to win the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

For Part 2, here.


Interview (Part 3): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 2): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Tween the Ropes”

2016 Nicholl winners: Justin Piasecki, Michele Atkins, Elizabeth Oyebode, Lloyd Harvey, Spencer Harvey, Geeta Malik

Elizabeth Oyebode wrote the original screenplay “Tween the Ropes” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 2 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Elizabeth and I delve into her script “Tween the Ropes”.

Scott: How did you make that transition into screenwriting?

Elizabeth: After college ‑‑ I think I told you this before ‑‑ I became a stand‑up comedian in the Washington, DC area and I loved it, but a lot of my bits weren’t really bits. They were stories. They were much more expansive. A few people commented that I should perform a one‑woman show just because my sets were almost like an episode of TV.

That’s when I started thinking differently about it. I was trying to write this one‑woman show. Then I just started thinking about plays. Then I saw a book about screenwriting, opened it up, and…

Scott: Here we are.

Elizabeth: Yep.

Scott: Once you discovered the screenwriting, that was it?

Elizabeth: Absolutely it. Then I read as many scripts as possible from the library and online. And I read Syd Field, Chris Vogler, Joseph Campbell. I really loved understanding the psychology behind it.

Scott: Read some books, and then reading scripts and writing pages, that was pretty much your education?

Elizabeth: Yes. I entered the occasional competition for feedback but, for the most part, it was reading and writing. Your blog is such a great repository of information as well.

Scott: Let’s talk about the script “Tween the Ropes,” a compelling drama that won the 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

Here’s a plot summary: “A brainy, young double dutcher contends with the hardships of her life in inner-city Baltimore.” The final words in the script, at least the version I’ve read is a card. It says, “For a real Nidi,” the name of the story’s protagonist. Is this story based on an actual person you know or an amalgamation of characters?

Elizabeth: It’s inspired by a person I knew and several I have read about.

Scott: Nidi Toth, a 10‑year‑old girl, how would you describe her as a character?

Elizabeth: She’s intelligent, resourceful, and determined but also wary of external conflict. I think, for her, there’s this pride of being a rock for her family and her brother in particular. But, at the same time, when she’s outside of her home, she becomes much more like a leaf and subject to the whims of her outer environment.

Scott: She’s growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. There’s the threat of violence all around. You have to live with that, literally. In the apartment complex she’s in, I remember there’s a scene where she’s talking early on to someone about how you’ve got to stay away from the windows. It’s that kind of an environment.

There is that dualistic thing where with her family, she applies one mask. That kind of, as you said, rock, but when she’s outside and in the world with the vicissitudes of life out there, it’s interesting you say she’s more like a leaf.

Elizabeth: It’s a tough environment in which to grow up. It’s one that I wanted to explore from the point of view of a character who gets left in the background often in films.

I wanted to have an audience see the world through her eyes and to feel what she feels on a daily basis, see what her highs and lows might be like, rather than just seeing her as this, maybe, cliché ‑‑ a little black girl jumping double dutch. I wanted them to see her as a three‑dimensional, complicated human being with hopes and dreams, but also these realities and worries.

Scott: Let’s look at the family unit, and then we’ll expand out and consider the surrogate family, which she has at school with the double dutch thing. She has a younger brother, Wayne, who’s seven. They have an interesting relationship.

Generally speaking, Nidi acts much like a mother in protecting him and making sure he has something to eat, but there other times where he jumps to her defense. Could you maybe talk a bit about that sibling relationship between the two of them?

Elizabeth: It’s an interesting symbiosis. They have just each other to depend on for much of the script. Even though Nidi is a bit worried about her brother’s intellectual capabilities, she relies on him for emotional support and, to a certain extent, to keep her grounded and focused on getting through the day.

For Wayne, I think she serves more as a mother figure, a stalwart support system where, without her in his existence, I’m not sure that he’d be able to make it on his own. There’s a connection that keeps them wanting to fight for and be there for one another. They’re always thinking of each other.

Scott: They’ve been forced to by virtue of not only their local environment, but specifically the relationship that they have with their mother and father. Mom is 26. She’s known as Mom‑mom. How would you describe her as a character?

Elizabeth: Mom-mom is physically present for them, but she’s also rather neglectful and unwilling to listen to their needs or their interests. I think some of what she brings to the table as a mother is a consequence of her getting pregnant at such an early age. As a result, she often uses humor to mask a feeling of helplessness and uncertainty.

Also, she knows what it looks like to have one’s hopes dashed and she prefers to be the one to shut Nidi and Wayne down almost out of a desire to protect them. So she’s flawed but not a lost cause.

Scott: And she works a lot.

Elizabeth: Yes, very hard‑working. She’s the resident manager and handles all the maintenance for the building. She has another job working at a fast food restaurant. That’s true.

I think that added dimension of her working so much highlights that though she can’t be a wholly positive figure, she can contribute in the way she knows best. In this case, it’s either financially or just by feeling like, “I go to work. I do my job. Therefore, I’m a good mother.” The emotional component doesn’t really factor in.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Elizabeth and I discuss some of the themes weaving through her script “Tween the Ropes” and how she chose the sport of double dutch jump-roping.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.


Interview (Part 2): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 1): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Tween the Ropes”

Elizabeth Oyebode wrote the original screenplay “Tween the Ropes” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 1 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Elizabeth talks about moving to Nigeria as a child and how that influenced her to write stories about outsiders, and how her background studying physics has been relevant to her screenwriting.

Scott Myers: Elizabeth, I’d like to start toward the end of the journey, for this particular interview. The night you received the 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award, in your acceptance speech you said this ‑‑ “We watch films because our curious minds seek connection, higher truths and adventure.”

I was really struck by that, because I think it’s such a great way to describe the draw that movies have for an audience. Connection, higher truth and adventure. I was wondering, could you elaborate on that. How did you come to that way of thinking about it and what does that mean to you?

Elizabeth Oyebode: After I was born in America, my family moved to Nigeria for a few years. When I moved back here as a little kid, I didn’t speak English, so I felt really disconnected from my surroundings.

Watching films re-introduced me to how people here speak and interact, much more so, actually, than how real people interact. [laughs] And they helped open my eyes to what was possible and to what, in the end, matters most in life.

Scott: Do you remember some of those movies from your childhood that were most particularly evocative, ones you remember the most?

Elizabeth: Oh, yes. Usually, the name Spielberg is in the credits.

[laughter]

Elizabeth: “E.T.,” is the first film that I watched. It still gets me because I could relate to the feeling E.T. had of being displaced from his planet. [laughs] I felt that way too.

“The Color Purple” was another one that really resonated with me. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as well. Each one is epic in its own way. Each is a visual wonderland that lures you into thinking bigger than yourself.

Scott: That reference to “E.T.,” the fact that that’s the first movie you remember seeing. A pretty remarkable film to see as your first film. Julia Chasman, the producer who gave you the award at the Nicholl ceremony said when you came back to the United States, it was almost like you felt like an immigrant in your homeland.

I was wondering if that impacted you in terms of a special affinity or connection to writing characters who are, in a way, outsiders set apart from the others. Of course E.T. is an outsider. He’s like an immigrant on Earth while he’s here, right?

Elizabeth: Yes. I do tend to write about outsiders who are singular in their abilities or misfits who defy expectations. I’m sure that relates to feeling like an outsider at such a young age.

Scott: You mentioned, too, in your comments at the Nicholl ceremony you spent a lot of time daydreaming as a child and that at some point, you discovered you could put those images into words and create things. Is that how you got into writing?

Elizabeth: It is. I got into so much trouble for daydreaming during classes. I didn’t really come to the realization that I could channel my imagination into words and have that be my career until I was into my 20s probably.

Scott: My wife does research on this and has written some articles. They call it mind wandering now, that’s the preferred term to daydreaming. Scientists think it’s incredibly important for the creative process that we allow ourselves that freedom to let our mind wander.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, and I wish I could’ve told that to my teachers back then.

[laughter]

Scott: It wasn’t until your 20s when you made this connection about writing? Where’d you go to college?

Elizabeth: I went to Tufts. There wasn’t a film program, but I did first learn about a number of films while I was there. For instance, Stanley Kubrick films such as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr. Strangelove.” That was a kaboom kind of moment for me that you were even allowed to approach film in such a dystopian fashion. It really expanded my thinking.

I actually majored in physics with a minor in history, and part of the reason I loved physics was because there’s an order to how the universe works. A structure. At the time, I found that really compelling and it just gave me comfort.

Scott: That’s an interesting observation that you were drawn to physics initially, in some respects because of its structure, the appeal of structure when, of course, screenwriting, screenplays, is one of the more heavily structured narrative forms. Maybe you had a natural affinity for it.

Elizabeth: Oh, yes. I have this background in science and editing, so when I first started screenwriting I was very exacting, analytical, and rigid. Although there are aspects to screenwriting that require that high degree of structure, there’s this other side to it.

It’s the side that, as a kid, I craved — the creative side, the possibilities. I think it’s one of those careers where you get to utilize both left brain and right brain.

Here is video of Elizabeth accepting her 2016 Nicholl Award in December of last year:

Tomorrow in Part 2, Elizabeth and I delve into her script “Tween the Ropes”.

I had the good fortune to work as mentor with Elizabth in a 2015 Black List Lab for Screenwriters in San Francisco. You can read her reflections on that experience here.


Interview (Part 1): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

2016 Spec Script Deals and Analysis

Download free 24 page PDF to learn about Hollywood development market.

As with every year since I launched the blog in 2008, I covered the 2016 spec script market. Inside this PDF, you will find 75 spec script deals from 2016 broken down and analyzed on multiple levels:

  • Deal List
  • Genres
  • Studios
  • Agents & Managers
  • Top Sales
  • First-Timers

It’s solid information any writer serious about learning the craft will find helpful in understanding the current buying marketplace.

You may download the PDF here.


2016 Spec Script Deals and Analysis was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

The 19 Best Movies That You Didn’t See in 2016 — Find & Watch These

19 Best Movies That You Didn't See in 2016

The best of the best — that you didn’t see last year. We have returned with another set of worth watching, underseen films from 2016. Back again is our annual list of the 19 Best Movies That You Didn’t See in 2016 (find all the past lists here: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007). Featured below is a hand-picked, double-checked line-up of the best independent and/or mainstream films that were either quietly dumped, ignored by audiences, or not marketed well enough. There’s a mix of documentaries and features, all of them criminally underseen. So to give them some extra attention in the spotlight, and to support some of the finest filmmakers out there, here’s our best you didn’t see in 2016 recap. Full list below! ›››

Continue reading The 19 Best Movies That You Didn’t See in 2016 — Find & Watch These


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Interview (Part 4): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Dinner With Friends”.

Geeta Malik wrote the original screenplay “Dinner With Friends” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Geeta about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 4, Geeta and I discuss the daughter-mother relationship which lies at the heart of “Dinner With Friends” and some movie associations with the story:

Scott: It’s really quite an interesting structure that you have because it is at the end of the day, if you were to look back on it it’s a mother-daughter story or a daughter-mother story, I guess, from the perspective of the protagonist. Yet, the way you handle it, its very depth, it’s not obvious that that’s the story.

There are movies where it’s right up front you know it’s a mother-daughter thing. But, there’s all this other stuff that’s going on in Alia’s life. It doesn’t become quite apparent that that’s the central focus, in terms of relationships and, actually, the plot until about midway, when she starts I think it’s around 65 or something she starts to discover this past about her mother.

Was that a conscious choice on your part to soft pedal or ease your way into that mother-daughter thing, or was that just an organic thing?

Geeta: I think it was organic. It wasn’t an initial choice to do it that way. I think it just flowed that way because I was telling Alia’s story, initially. There was a lot more emphasis on her with these two guys, and her coming back from college, and trying to deal with her parents’ failing relationship.

With the discovery of Sheila’s back story, I thought a lot about Monsoon Wedding, which is one of my favorite Mira Nair films. Structurally, the big relationship reveal happens well into the second act — maybe even the beginning of the third act. It’s so interesting because you get to know these characters intimately before you realize how deep the conflict goes in their lives.

Then, when the reveal happens, the relationships are strong enough to withstand it, which I thought was very cool and very clever writing (and directing). It was a gutsy way to structure it. It’s tricky because you also don’t want these plot points to feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. In Dinner With Friends, it’s important that Sheila’s back story doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of left field.

Scott: I think it worked. It’s one of those things where I was sitting and reflecting on it after I read the script and going, “You know what? I could look back and stitch together those scenes between Alia and her mom that were taking place during the first act and the first half of the second act,” where you’re really establishing the mom’s character.

At first, she’s seemingly very surface oriented but, slowly but surely, you dimensionalize it. In a way, the way you said it is the way I experienced it. You gave us enough of the relationship so that when the reveal came, this big reveal that she was a feminist, a really ardent feminist way back when in the past, I think it works. It wasn’t a surprise. It didn’t come out of left field.

It felt like it was supported very well. Again, what I’m saying, I guess the larger point, I would say, is just one writer to another is it didn’t come off as this heavy-handed thing. It was very depth. It felt like it was this…I said soft pedal. I don’t know if that’s the right phrase, but it feels like…It worked very, very well on the page.

Geeta: That’s good! Good to know.

Scott: Another movie association, which…Now you got the little girl, so maybe you’re familiar with this. May seem a bit of a stretch to you. I’m a big Pixar freak. I love Pixar movies, so the mother-daughter relationship brings to mind their movie Brave.

Geeta: I love Brave. Yeah.

Scott: The relationship between Alia and her mother, Sheila, versus the relationship of Merida and Lady Elinor. Any resonance there?

Geeta: I haven’t seen Brave for a long time — I think I actually saw it pre-kids! I didn’t reference it consciously, but if that French critic ever asks, I’ll say that I did!

Scott: No, but it might be fun for you to go and watch that movie again, particularly with your girls, because there is that thing where Merida says, “I don’t want to be like my mom,” and she thinks her mom is a certain way. Then, they go on this journey together where she realizes that her mother does have this kind of power inside of her, this inner strength.

Anyhow, it just was an interesting point of comparison. I think you might find an interesting kind of a resonance there.

Geeta: Yeah! I should watch it again.

Scott: There’s a quote that Sheila has when it’s uncovered that she had this activist, feminist background. Of course, Alia thinks it’s awesome. Sheila says, “Yes,” this is to the society that she was a member of. “Yes, the society meant something to me. It meant everything to me, and I lost everything because of it.

“You do these things when you’re stupid, and reckless, and young, and then you get tired, and then, you grow up. Grow up, Alia.” Do you remember writing that?

Geeta: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I do, yeah.

Scott: You could sympathize with her at that point?

Geeta: Yes, definitely. For some of us, after having kids, things do end up seeming less important — things that you once considered to be a permanent part of your identity. It’s exactly as Sheila said: when you’re young, you’re full of idealism. I was, anyway. In college, you think you can change the world. You’re powerful. You have time and energy on your side. And Sheila was actually fighting for something real. Me, I was at UC Irvine, yelling about them closing down our local bar! We just wanted to drink and go clubbing. Sheila was in India in the ’80s, and the political situation was intense, and the rampant violence and sexism were real.

But because she was so militant about what she stood for, she ended up losing her family, her community, her friends. She got tired of fighting. She gave up that part of her identity to live a peaceful, pampered life, and to avoid the conflict that had earlier torn her apart.

Scott: You’ve got a fun little inversion, there, because after that comment from Sheila, Alia says, “You were bad ass once. And, God as my witness, you’ll be bad ass again.”

Geeta: [laughs] Yeah. She wants her mom to reclaim that power and to remember who she was and get that integrity of character back.

Scott: Yeah, that’s my theory about movies, is that so many of them, there’s a central question and it’s “Who are you?” and both of these women confront that question. That the mom discovers that it may have been in her past, but it’s still there, right?

Geeta: Absolutely. It’s buried deep inside her, but it’s still a fundamental part of who she is.

Scott: At least there’s a very nice twist in act three, at the ending. It’s just terrific. Was that the ending you always had in mind, particularly where Alia inspires her mom when she does the thing with the hair and all that?

Geeta: Yeah, that ending has been there since the earliest drafts.

Scott: The last side, that was quite interesting. Alia says: “Words are powerful. Sometimes, it’s nice to just be quiet.” She’s been so verbal throughout that I thought that was such an interesting place for her to end up. Almost like, “I’ve said everything I need to say. I can just kind of settle in and be.”

Geeta: Absolutely.

Scott: Is that kind of where you were at?

Geeta: Yes, for sure. The movie begins with Alia’s voiceover, talking about the gossip that permeates her community, and how words have a lot of power. This constant worrying about what other people will say — that keeps people trapped, and that’s what she ends up seeing with Sheila. First, Sheila was punished for speaking her mind as an activist, and then she herself used words to cut other people down to size. At the end, everyone settles down in the security of knowing that it’s okay not to talk — that they can just be who they are and live their own lives.

Scott: I hope that when you make the movie, you can keep that side. I’ve interviewed a lot of screenwriters where I’ve said, “Wow! That was such a great line,” and they go, “Yeah, we had to cut it.” “Oh, no!”

[laughter]

Geeta: Hopefully not.

Tomorrow in Part 5, Geeta goes into detail about her Nicholl Fellowship experience including what she was doing when she received ‘the call’.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Geeta is repped by Paradigm and Luber Roklin.


Interview (Part 4): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 3): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Dinner With Friends”.

Geeta Malik wrote the original screenplay “Dinner With Friends” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Geeta about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 3 of 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Geeta and I explore some of the key characters in “Dinner With Friends”, those who surround and interface with the script’s Protagonist figure, Alia:

Scott: It’s really quite an interesting structure that you have because it is at the end of the day, if you were to look back on it it’s a mother-daughter story or a daughter-mother story, I guess, from the perspective of the protagonist. Yet, the way you handle it, its very depth, it’s not obvious that that’s the story.

There are movies where it’s right up front you know it’s a mother-daughter thing. But, there’s all this other stuff that’s going on in Alia’s life. It doesn’t become quite apparent that that’s the central focus, in terms of relationships and, actually, the plot until about midway, when she starts I think it’s around 65 or something she starts to discover this past about her mother.

Was that a conscious choice on your part to soft pedal or ease your way into that mother-daughter thing, or was that just an organic thing?

Geeta: I think it was organic. It wasn’t an initial choice to do it that way. I think it just flowed that way because I was telling Alia’s story, initially. There was a lot more emphasis on her with these two guys, and her coming back from college, and trying to deal with her parents’ failing relationship.

With the discovery of Sheila’s back story, I thought a lot about Monsoon Wedding, which is one of my favorite Mira Nair films. Structurally, the big relationship reveal happens well into the second act — maybe even the beginning of the third act. It’s so interesting because you get to know these characters intimately before you realize how deep the conflict goes in their lives.

Then, when the reveal happens, the relationships are strong enough to withstand it, which I thought was very cool and very clever writing (and directing). It was a gutsy way to structure it. It’s tricky because you also don’t want these plot points to feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. In Dinner With Friends, it’s important that Sheila’s back story doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of left field.

Scott: I think it worked. It’s one of those things where I was sitting and reflecting on it after I read the script and going, “You know what? I could look back and stitch together those scenes between Alia and her mom that were taking place during the first act and the first half of the second act,” where you’re really establishing the mom’s character.

At first, she’s seemingly very surface oriented but, slowly but surely, you dimensionalize it. In a way, the way you said it is the way I experienced it. You gave us enough of the relationship so that when the reveal came, this big reveal that she was a feminist, a really ardent feminist way back when in the past, I think it works. It wasn’t a surprise. It didn’t come out of left field.

It felt like it was supported very well. Again, what I’m saying, I guess the larger point, I would say, is just one writer to another is it didn’t come off as this heavy-handed thing. It was very depth. It felt like it was this…I said soft pedal. I don’t know if that’s the right phrase, but it feels like…It worked very, very well on the page.

Geeta: That’s good! Good to know.

Scott: Another movie association, which…Now you got the little girl, so maybe you’re familiar with this. May seem a bit of a stretch to you. I’m a big Pixar freak. I love Pixar movies, so the mother-daughter relationship brings to mind their movie Brave.

Geeta: I love Brave. Yeah.

Scott: The relationship between Alia and her mother, Sheila, versus the relationship of Merida and Lady Elinor. Any resonance there?

Geeta: I haven’t seen Brave for a long time — I think I actually saw it pre-kids! I didn’t reference it consciously, but if that French critic ever asks, I’ll say that I did!

Scott: No, but it might be fun for you to go and watch that movie again, particularly with your girls, because there is that thing where Merida says, “I don’t want to be like my mom,” and she thinks her mom is a certain way. Then, they go on this journey together where she realizes that her mother does have this kind of power inside of her, this inner strength.

Anyhow, it just was an interesting point of comparison. I think you might find an interesting kind of a resonance there.

Geeta: Yeah! I should watch it again.

Scott: There’s a quote that Sheila has when it’s uncovered that she had this activist, feminist background. Of course, Alia thinks it’s awesome. Sheila says, “Yes,” this is to the society that she was a member of. “Yes, the society meant something to me. It meant everything to me, and I lost everything because of it.

“You do these things when you’re stupid, and reckless, and young, and then you get tired, and then, you grow up. Grow up, Alia.” Do you remember writing that?

Geeta: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I do, yeah.

Scott: You could sympathize with her at that point?

Geeta: Yes, definitely. For some of us, after having kids, things do end up seeming less important — things that you once considered to be a permanent part of your identity. It’s exactly as Sheila said: when you’re young, you’re full of idealism. I was, anyway. In college, you think you can change the world. You’re powerful. You have time and energy on your side. And Sheila was actually fighting for something real. Me, I was at UC Irvine, yelling about them closing down our local bar! We just wanted to drink and go clubbing. Sheila was in India in the ’80s, and the political situation was intense, and the rampant violence and sexism were real.

But because she was so militant about what she stood for, she ended up losing her family, her community, her friends. She got tired of fighting. She gave up that part of her identity to live a peaceful, pampered life, and to avoid the conflict that had earlier torn her apart.

Scott: You’ve got a fun little inversion, there, because after that comment from Sheila, Alia says, “You were badass once. And, God as my witness, you’ll be badass again.”

Geeta: [laughs] Yeah. She wants her mom to reclaim that power and to remember who she was and get that integrity of character back.

Scott: Yeah, that’s my theory about movies, is that so many of them, there’s a central question and it’s “Who are you?” and both of these women confront that question. That the mom discovers that it may have been in her past, but it’s still there, right?

Geeta: Absolutely. It’s buried deep inside her, but it’s still a fundamental part of who she is.

Scott: At least there’s a very nice twist in act three, at the ending. It’s just terrific. Was that the ending you always had in mind, particularly where Alia inspires her mom when she does the thing with the hair and all that?

Geeta: Yeah, that ending has been there since the earliest drafts.

Scott: The last side, that was quite interesting. Alia says: “Words are powerful. Sometimes, it’s nice to just be quiet.” She’s been so verbal throughout that I thought that was such an interesting place for her to end up. Almost like, “I’ve said everything I need to say. I can just kind of settle in and be.”

Geeta: Absolutely.

Scott: Is that kind of where you were at?

Geeta: Yes, for sure. The movie begins with Alia’s voiceover, talking about the gossip that permeates her community, and how words have a lot of power. This constant worrying about what other people will say — that keeps people trapped, and that’s what she ends up seeing with Sheila. First, Sheila was punished for speaking her mind as an activist, and then she herself used words to cut other people down to size. At the end, everyone settles down in the security of knowing that it’s okay not to talk — that they can just be who they are and live their own lives.

Scott: I hope that when you make the movie, you can keep that side. I’ve interviewed a lot of screenwriters where I’ve said, “Wow! That was such a great line,” and they go, “Yeah, we had to cut it.” “Oh, no!”

[laughter]

Geeta: Hopefully not.

Here is a script reading from “Dinner With Friends”:

Tomorrow in Part 4, Geeta and I discuss the daughter-mother relationship which lies at the heart of “Dinner With Friends” and some movie associations with the story.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Geeta is repped by Paradigm and Luber Roklin.


Interview (Part 3): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 2): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Dinner With Friends”.

2016 Nicholl winners: Justin Piasecki, Michele Atkins, Elizabeth Oyebode, Lloyd Harvey, Spencer Harvey, Geeta Malik

Geeta Malik wrote the original screenplay “Dinner With Friends” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Geeta about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 2 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Geeta and I dig into her script Nicholl Award winning script “Dinner With Friends”:

Scott: Let’s move to your script, “Dinner with Friends”, one of five screenplays selected for the 2016 Nicholl Fellowship and Screenwriting Award. A plot summary drawn from the Nicholl website:

“When a spoiled teenager uncovers her mother’s feminist past, she’s driven to turn her world of privilege upside down.”

Would you describe it as a drama with comedy, a comedy with drama, or it’s just a movie and you don’t even think in terms of genres.

Geeta: No, I do, and I tend to call all my films comedies! I just feel like that’s where I’m most comfortable. If I say I’m writing a drama, it feels like something heavy and scary, whereas if I call it a comedy, I feel like I can be a little bit looser.

I think of “Dinner With Friends” as a comedy with dramatic elements. A lot of comedy actually comes out of the drama. You’ve read the script — towards the end, there’s this big cathartic scene, and that comes from a very serious place, but then it’s just this crazy free-for-all, and then it returns to being serious again.

Scott: There’s such an authenticity to the characters, the situations, the story world, the dialogue, the whole immigrant Indian in America experience. I’m not sure that I’ve seen quite that angle of the more upper class type of experience.

I have to believe this must be, at least in part, autobiographical or at least you’ve got considerable familiarity with this type of cultural familial experience. How much of the story does arise from your personal background?

Geeta: There are definitely autobiographical elements to it. My family was one of maybe 30 or 40 Indian families at the time in Aurora. Aurora has since become incredibly diverse, but when we were growing up, my sister and I were the only Indians at our high school.

We were in this community where you’d go to dinner parties every couple of weeks, or every week, at someone’s house. The adults loved them and needed them because they were immigrants and wanted a way to hold onto their culture — eat their own food, wear their own clothes, speak their own language. And they wanted to share that culture with us kids and make sure we understood our backgrounds, but what often ended up happening was what happens in the script. It was like living in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, for better or for worse! It’s inevitable in any insular community. There’s wonderful support, and then there’s plenty of shit-talking.

Alia is a rich, privileged character in the script, and I certainly grew up seeing girls like that, but I relate more to Varun’s character — my family was more like his family. They’re involved in the community but they’re not part of that real inner clique, which is how I felt growing up.

I feel like “Dinner With Friends” is showing a side of the Indian community that’s rarely seen. Indians in mainstream media tend to be the comic relief, or the slum-dwellers, or we’re dancing at big weddings, or we’re the kitchiness of Bollywood. Things are changing, of course, but I never saw anything really reflect my own experience growing up as an Indian-American.

Some people have wondered why I’d write a film with only Indian characters set in America, but my experience was exactly that — you go to school, and you have a diverse group of friends in your life, but then you go to these parties and it’s all Indians. It’s a cultural immersion and many of those dynamics are at odds with the other parts of your life.

Scott: The community in the script is Ruby Hill. Is that fictional?

Geeta: Yeah, that’s fictional. There is a town out here called Diamond Bar. I didn’t grow up in Southern California, but I always thought of Diamond Bar as a sort of Indian enclave — lots of Indian people, Indian stores — so I based it a bit on that geography.

Scott: Alia has got some voiceover narration throughout the story. At one point she describes Ruby Hill as, “An incestuous little Indian enclave.”

Geeta: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s accurate for Diamond Bar, so I had to change the name!

Scott: Alia, 19 years old, you’ve already tried to touch on a little bit that she does share that kind of sensibility you have, where you felt like an outsider. How else would you describe her in terms of her state of life when we first meet her?

Geeta: One of my favorite films is Clueless and I was thinking a lot about that movie when I started writing this film, especially in the earliest drafts. I wanted Alia to be this naive, happy-go-lucky, spoiled, rich girl who didn’t really understand her privilege, and took her position for granted.

After a million drafts, Alia evolved from this Cher-like character to being more of a know-it-all. She’s been through her first year at college, you see, so she clearly knows more than her parents, and is very worldly. She’s smoked pot and read Howard Zinn, and she really feels like she’s way ahead of her parents in terms of being progressive. The reality is, she hasn’t actually opened her eyes yet. She’s still driving her fancy SUV, paid for by her cardiologist father. She’s still participating in the same games as her parents, but over the course of the film, she makes some discoveries that lead her to truly understanding more about herself and her family.

Scott: You mentioned Clueless. Wonderful movie. I found myself thinking, while I was reading, of the script of The Graduate.

Geeta: Yes, and there’s definitely shades of that in there as well, especially the pool scenes!

Scott: I was going to say, there’s all the pool scenes.

Geeta: Yeah, definitely.

Scott: This affected you, who doesn’t share the values of those around her, the backyard gatherings, the neighborhood get-togethers, the swimming pools, adultery. Not, in this case, with her with adult people.

In the end, that question floating around is pretty obvious subtext in The Graduate. I think it worked here What’s the purpose of life? Were you at all thinking of The Graduate, or was there ever an association that resonates with you?

Geeta: Yes, absolutely. That was such a metaphor, being adrift, and that’s how I felt at that age, and that’s how Alia feels as she’s figuring out her identity. And you’re right, this idea of differing values becomes even more stark as the film progresses. Also, when you’re young, you don’t realize that your parents had this entire life before you were even born. It’s just too hard to imagine them not being Mom and Dad. I thought about that a lot with this film, and thinking about my own children and how to reconcile those two identities: pre-kids, and post-kids.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Geeta and I explore some of the key characters in “Dinner With Friends”, those who surround and interface with the script’s Protagonist figure, Alia.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Geeta is repped by Paradigm and Luber Roklin.


Interview (Part 2): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 1): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My conversation with the writer of the winning script “Dinner With Friends”.

Geeta Malik wrote the original screenplay “Dinner With Friends” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Geeta about his background, his award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to him.

Today in Part 1, Geeta talks about her educational background, her family’s love of movies, how she has written and directed short films as a way of giving voice to her creativity:

Scott Myers: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up and how did you find your way into film making as an interest?

Geeta Malik: I grew up in Aurora, Colorado. Most of my family are scientists — I have an uncle who’s a wonderful painter, but nobody is involved with filmmaking. That being said, my parents always enjoyed the arts, so we were definitely exposed to it in a big way, especially Hindi music and film. We watched everything, from the biggest Bollywood films to what they called the “parallel cinema” films in the 50s, 60s and 70s — smaller, more realistic films that often explored a different side of India than the mainstream stuff. So, the arts always played a role in my life, but being an artist was never portrayed as a career path. It was always, “Oh, these are hobbies while you actually make money as a scientist, an engineer, or whatever else you want to be in the hard sciences.”

I went to UC Irvine for undergrad, and I started out in electrical engineering. The way I justified this to myself was that I really like astronomy, so I naively figured I could just go work for NASA or something. But I was awful and distracted with the math and science, because I was constantly writing stories and poems in the margins of my papers and not paying attention. I’ve been writing my whole life. It was much more natural and made a lot more sense for me to do an English degree, and so I switched my major halfway through college. And then, in my last year, I took a screenwriting class with a wonderful professor. I realized writing for movies could be a potential career.

I had also written a tiny, short little play that was produced in a festival in New York, and found that I wanted to direct my own work as well — to see what was in my head directly translated to the outside world — and so I went to UCLA’s grad program for film directing.

Scott: UC Irvine has got a pretty well recognized writing program at the MFA level. Is the undergraduate strong, too?

Geeta: I think it was. I had a great time there. I took a lot of creative writing classes, and the professors were amazing. I took a class with Alice Sebold, who wrote “The Lovely Bones,” and she was fantastic. I took a class with Maile Meloy, also an amazing author, and I met Aimee Bender, who had gone through the program and who came back for a book signing. She’s one of my favorite writers.

Scott: You say you got an MFA in directing at UCLA, right?

Geeta: Right.

Scott: You took a screenwriting class. That was the first time you dabbled in screenwriting, when you were at UC Irvine?

Geeta: Yeah. That was the first time. It was the last quarter of my last year that I decided to finally look into this whole filmmaking thing. I’d already started writing plays. I wrote some plays in high school, and I knew I wanted to move to L.A. — I think it was always in the back of my head that I wanted to learn more about film. So, I enrolled in that class and I just loved it.

Scott: Let’s jump back a little bit. As a youth, your family was introducing you to various Bollywood type movies. Were you also watching other foreign films or American movies?

Geeta: Yeah. My mom especially loved foreign films. To this day, she watches more movies than I do! And we watched plenty of American films as well — I remember “Fiddler on the Roof” and “My Fair Lady” being in pretty constant rotation. And my dad, he loved goofy comedies. We grew up on Mel Brooks, “Blazing Saddles,” and “Airplane,” “Naked Gun,” “Police Squad,” all those. He also loved westerns, which is one of my favorite genres.

Scott: Are there some particular filmmakers that, as a director, that have inspired you?

Geeta: Mira Nair is always the first. She was the first to make me aware that a woman, and an Indian woman at that, could direct amazing films that dealt with our culture but that could also go mainstream. She was the first to show me that it was possible to be a film director and look the way we do. I also love Kurosawa, The Coen Brothers, Sergio Leone. Another favorite is Raj Kapoor. He was an auteur back in India, and he made these bold, audacious films, and he did it within the mainstream Bollywood fold. He used singing and dancing as tools to push the story forward, so they were seamlessly integrated into the narrative.

Scott: Where did the comedy come from? Was that just a natural instinct or was that a result of being exposed to Mel Brooks and the like?

Geeta: I think there’s some natural instinct, but being exposed to all that comedy definitely helped! My parents are immigrants — my mom grew up in Kenya, and my dad grew up in India, but both moved to London in their teens, so their formative years were really there. So we also grew up with a lot of British humor, like “Fawlty Towers” and the “Blackadder Series.” One of my uncles was a huge fan of “The Goons,” and he’d listen to the tapes of their shows with us, and tapes of Dr. Demento. My first concert was Weird Al.

Scott: You’ve got children.

Geeta: Yeah, I have two little girls, age 4 and 2.5. My husband and I were really good friends in undergrad. We’ve known each other for a really long time! We started dating right before I went to film school, and we’ve been married almost nine years now.

Scott: You’ve directed some short films. How has that been?

Geeta: I directed a bunch of short films in film school, and then a few more after I graduated. I love writing and directing, and I love being on set, so doing shorts is a great way to keep working between bigger projects. I did a feature in 2010, and right after that was finished, I got pregnant with my first daughter. I had two kids in two years, so that’s been a little crazy. It’s been a challenge to balance everything.

Scott: The kids have got you on your toes, I’m sure.

Geeta: Yeah, definitely!

Scott: I watched your most recent short film, “Shameless.” Is that right?

Geeta: Yeah, that was in 2013, between kids.

Scott: It’s great.

Geeta: Thanks.

Scott: It’s a provocative take on patriarchal culture, but it’s also a comedy. It’s funny. Those are similar dynamics that you’ve got a play in your Nicholl winning script, “Dinner with Friends.” I’m wondering, could you talk about how you, in your mind, maybe embrace both drama and comedy in your filmmaking and how that plays out as far as you being an artist?

Geeta: That’s a good question. A lot of the Indian movies that I grew up watching were known as “masala” movies. “Masala” is a Hindi word for a mixture of spices, and these films were always a mixture of genres — you got drama, comedy, singing and dancing for the price of one ticket. So now, when I sit down to write something, there are always elements of both comedy and drama there. It’s hard for me to write a straight drama without adding moments of levity, and it’s hard to me to write a pure comedy without adding higher stakes. They go hand-in-hand for me. I love satire, and I love dark comedy. I’m a very sarcastic person! Often, the voice of my main character is my own voice. It’s a way for me to comment on what’s going on around me, especially when there’s an actual issue that I’m trying to address without alienating people and sounding like a PSA.

Scott: Alia, your protagonist, she’s probably fairly well echoing your sarcastic tone?

Geeta: Yeah, that’s me at 19! And still now, a little bit.

Here is video of Geeta accepting her 2016 Nicholl Award in December of last year:

Tomorrow in Part 2, Geeta and I dig into her script Nicholl Award winning script “Dinner With Friends”.

Geeta is repped by Paradigm and Luber Roklin.


Interview (Part 1): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

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