NFDC recently organised the first Directors Lab. One of the participants of the lab, Vasant Nath, Director, Sebastian Wants to Remember (SWTR), writes about his experience of this 2-week residential workshop which was held in Pune recently. And since many of us had doubts about its fee, he also clarifies on that front – was it worth it? If so, why and how.
Vasant Nath’s drama SWTR found an Indian co-producer in Kartikeya Narayan Singh’s production house The Film Café. SWTR is the story of an aging photographer who loses his memory and must embark on a daunting journey with his wife in search of his past. It was selected for NFDC Screenwriters’ Lab 2011 and Co-production Market 2012.
Over to him now.
(Click any of the pics to start the slide show. Hold your cursor on specific pic, details will pop up)
I did not go to film school, I learned whatever I know of filmmaking on the job and through self-study. Working in production for five years gave me some technical skills. Working on other people’s screenplays as a creative assistant to another filmmaker taught me the basic mechanics of screenwriting. Making some short films put me on the path towards finding a personal voice. Meeting a dead end in my career as an assistant made me try working independently. That was five years ago – when I wrote my first original feature-length screenplay – ‘Sebastian Wants to Remember’.
‘Sebastian’ has had a long (but necessary) development process – eight drafts till date. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some excellent mentors during this process, and the steady effort has borne fruit. The screenplay is in good shape and should serve as a reliable blueprint for the film’s realisation. However, ’Sebastian’ is by no means an easy film. It’s a road movie with a 70-year-old amnesiac as the lead character, and he doesn’t talk much. The story structure is interspersed with flashbacks that introduce a cocktail of emotions to the protagonists each time they happen. Over the many rewrites, my second character has started competing with the primary character for point of view. And there are some tough sequences that I have blithely written without the slightest inkling of the challenges they will present when I have to film them.
I’m very happy that I did not let such anxieties limit the writing process, but now, as the time to step out of the secure confines of the writing room draws near, I am visited by a recurrent nightmare where I’m on set as director with a large crew looking to me for instruction…and I have no idea what to say to them! Initially, I drew comfort from the thought that things would take care of themselves once I start making the film, and that doing was the only way to learn. Of course there is truth in this, but this film – even looking at it just in terms of scale – is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I will have to be extremely well-prepared, and I’m going to be of no use to anyone if I go into the whole thing cowering like a scared rabbit.
Indian filmmakers live in very fortunate climes today – because Marten Rabarts is in the house. As Development Consultant to the NFDC, he has streamlined the organization’s agenda to work on our filmmakers from the roots and has fuelled its engine with the best development talent from across Europe. This, coupled with the environment for exchange and collaboration that NFDC’s Film Bazaar provides, is extremely fertile ground for new voices to flourish and for a film like mine to find the support it needs to get made. By the time I applied for the Director’s Lab, I had already been a sort of crash-test dummy for the other NFDC labs – usually one of the first to apply, usually to be found in the front row taking copious notes once they happened. By the time I heard of their Director’s Lab, I already had great faith in such endeavours: the NFDC’s 2011 Screenwriter’s Lab I participated in represents perhaps the sharpest learning curve I had experienced till then.
Udayan Prasad is both a teacher and a director – known for his films ‘The Yellow Handkerchief’ and ‘My Son the Fanatic’. He teaches this director’s lab in the UK, sometimes at the National Film and Television School, and sometimes in London as a three-week summer school. Here, he had crafted a two-week program that fell somewhere between the longer and shorter versions of his usual course in Europe. Before arriving, I had wondered how much ground he would be able to cover in this short a time, but there was no way of telling beforehand. However, once it started, Udayan’s lab was like a feeding frenzy. Every day of the twelve days that we were there (cooped up in the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in the middle of Pune) we were encouraged to repeatedly bite off more than we could chew with the assurance that the digestion would happen later.
This was the NFDC’s first director’s lab, and – except for maybe three of us – most of the participants were at very early stages with their films – some of them didn’t even have first drafts yet. I initially feared that I was attending another (very expensive) script lab, because the format of the first two days was more or less identical to that of the opening of the screenwriter’s lab I had attended in 2011. In both scenarios, it was necessary for the participants to share their stories and visions with each other with as much honesty as possible. It is a very testing task – both the sharing and the listening. While telling, you feel that you are suddenly admitting a whole bunch of voyeurs into your head. While listening, you feel embarrassed for being held privy to the intimate inner worlds of eleven strangers. But eventually, it turned out that this had immense payoffs for the work we had come there to do. In my experience with labs, it has been quite clear that any sort of filmmaking workshop can only succeed in an environment of trust. Through this process of sharing, we grew to recognise the common craziness that united us and brought us there. As neophytes filmmakers, we all knew something of the anxieties each of us suffered because of the familiar challenges our work presented. Constantly encouraged by our mentors, we were really starting to trust each other by the time we got to the real meat of the workshop.
Our time was interspersed with lectures, ‘workshop-y’ stuff, master classes given by established industry professionals, film viewings and individual consultations for script and production. Almost every minute of the waking day was taken up by these for twelve consecutive days. Whatever was left was spent (at least by me) nursing exhaustion. As Udayan kept telling us – we were getting what we paid for. It was only fair! The whole workshop was consciously kept non-technical and perhaps this came as a surprise to some of the participants who had come there expecting to work with cameras et al. Udayan focused instead on things that led to good technical choices – with an emphatic emphasis on using all tools available to serve the stories we wanted to tell – trusting that we’d be able to take care of the technical training ourselves.
Acting exercises made up a very large chunk of the workshop – perhaps the most hands-on and ‘workshop-y’ section of the whole experience. I have done other acting workshops before and what I learned here was that acting workshops oriented towards actors are quite different from acting workshops oriented towards directors; even though both start pretty much from the same place. A director-oriented acting workshop eventually has to serve the director’s requirement of giving actors the right environment they need to thrive in, and actor-oriented acting workshops do not go that distance because they do not need to. I found these sessions extremely useful. The exercises we did here allowed us to experience first what an actor does and then showed us what an actor finds useful in trying to arrive at the right sort of performance. It was all very practical and methodical – we got to test many tools and techniques even in the short time we had.
The acting exercises proceeded into another very useful section – Scene Analysis – where we had two very accomplished actors – Adil Hussain and Tannishtha Chatterjee – as our clay. Having already spent two days in the actors’ shoes, we had been sensitised to the challenges they face when receiving instruction from a director that just isn’t playable. Udayan had been drumming a discipline into our heads – to use verbs instead of adjectives in our instruction; to convey the facts of the script in a systematic way. With Adil and Tannishtha, we put Udayan’s instructions to work and watched in wonder how a basic line-reading of a script turns into a performance full of genuine feeling and surprise when an actor is provided with the right information, in the right quantity at the right time.
Very soon, we were thrown into the nerve-wracking scenario where we had to put these techniques into play with professional actors (mostly very generous acting grads from FTII) with scenes from our own films. This was probably the very first time any of us had realised anything from our pages, and it was frightening. But better to feel the shivers here than on set! I was given three young actors for a scene that involved two old people…and little else. The actors knew nothing of my film and I wanted to transfer all my knowledge of the story to them via firewire so that they could quickly enact the scene in my head and be done with it! But of course, that was not possible. What was possible, though, was falling back on the techniques that Udayan had taught us – basic principles of sharing information slowly and carefully, leaving room for the actors to bring something to the scene. As I got into the flow of the exercise, that’s exactly what happened. My actors brought a lot to the scene. In just a couple of hours, they were showing me things that I could never have accomplished while working alone on the page as I had done till then. Then another problem arose – they just kept on giving! I had gone from feeling very excited by a lot of new interpretations of my material, but suddenly it felt too much to work with. Then I took a deep breath and started making decisions…
I may never have five hours to rehearse a one-page scene in an actual shooting scenario. But the process of going through this exercise – feeling the fear, smelling the failure, being unsuccessful at realising the film in my head, righting myself, making decisions under pressure (even though simulated), trusting a technique, giving, receiving, disciplining myself to only give playable action – all this was f*****g priceless! Udayan was in and out of the room right through the exercise. He has this x-ray vision that could diagnose what we were doing wrong within a few minutes of watching our work. He didn’t go easy on us, and I am very happy he didn’t.
By the time I got through this exercise, the lab had begun to seriously work upon me. I was already looking at my material differently. It wasn’t that I was distrusting everything I had written till then, but I was recognising how far the writing had got me and where I needed to steer the process from here on. There would definitely be some re-writing – I came back from the lab and quickly shot off a fast polish to my producer – Draft 8.1! Suddenly, there were so many new things to think about. There was already a greater sense of empowerment when looking at the many difficult choices that lay ahead when I make ’Sebastian’. At least I knew where to start thinking about the things I’ll need to say to my waiting crew when my nightmare revisits..!
We touched upon various aspects of film craft – production design, cinematography (and point of view), sound – through master-classes and lectures. The master-classes did well in keeping the theory grounded. But even with Udayan’s lectures, I never for once felt that we were all sitting in some sort of ivory tower – everything Udayan talked about, he always connected to his experiences as a filmmaker or to the real-world experiences of filmmakers he knew or had studied. He often invited the professionals conducting the master-classes to comment on the concepts he outlined. In all sections of the workshop, Udayan’s teachings were a distillation of a very large cross-section of filmmaking traditions. He brought with him a clear understanding of where these traditions came from, how they could be applied, where they succeeded, where they failed, how they evolved, and – most importantly – what worked well for him in his experience as a filmmaker. All the theory was accompanied by clips of films that demonstrated the corresponding concepts in successful execution. The workshop was thus also very enriching in terms of the reading lists and watching lists that Udayan left us with.
The individual consultations for script and production were a very necessary component of the lab, since the participants were each in very different stages with their projects. I believe it allowed the mentors at least some room to tailor their guidance to each participants’ particular needs. More consultants were brought in for this – Urmi Juvekar, Priya Sreedharan, Shivani Saran – some of whom (along with Marten, of course) represent for me what I call “the NFDC ecosystem” – something that I have come to trust implicitly in my career as an NFDC Lab crash test dummy. This ecosystem is becoming better with each passing year, and hopefully – in the foreseeable future – when the corresponding production and financing side of the NFDC stands on steadier ground with as great a confidence as its development arm, we will witness a thriving harvest of great new films, in greater volumes, year after year.
By the time we pitched our projects again at the end of the workshop, the difference was apparent. Some of the participants had made some giant leaps with their material. They stood on surer ground, knowing exactly what they had to do next. For some, the leap was about being able to kill some of their darlings: things that needed to be unhinged before they could move forward – and imagine how deeply they must have been anchored in their darlings if it took two weeks to unhinge them!
Overall, a lot of ground was covered, but I missed a section on the role and dramatic purpose of Music, only because Udayan had been so comprehensive and enlightening about the other components of film craft that he’d addressed. Some of the participants were keen on squeezing in a session on comedy, but sadly there just wasn’t any time. Still, the whole group showed a very strong commitment to the workshop and its structure and I feel that this was one of the main reasons for its success. The ‘workshop environment’ dictated that every exercise we did was reviewed both by our peers and by our mentors. We became each others’ first audiences with the added advantage of being able to express and listen to feedback articulated after every presentation. And none of this would work without the trust I spoke of earlier, consciously cultivated by our mentors. Because of it, we were able to repeatedly fail before each other without fear.
For me – I left the lab with a greater, deeper engagement with my film. I remember that it felt almost exactly how it had felt when I finished the 2011 screenwriters’ lab with Marten as my mentor. Even though it had been such a sharp learning curve for me, it had taken a good two or three years of applying the lab’s principles in various screenplays before I acquired a confident, working knowledge of them. I take it that it’s going to be the same with Udayan’s teachings; I will have to apply them over and over until they set in. Apart from everything that he taught us about the craft of our work, I also thoroughly appreciate how Udayan kept telling us time and again about good work practices – simple things like acknowledging your crew at the start of the day, thanking them at the end of it; especially important in our country that subscribes so heavily to ‘the cult of the director’.
I don’t think I can end this review without a comment on the lab fee, because I know so many filmmakers who wanted to and deserved to do this lab but simply could not afford to. While I feel that the experience the lab afforded me was worth every paisa, Rs. 1.5 lakhs is not a small amount for anyone to pay, especially if their projects do not have funding. That said, I also think that it was a very brave move by the NFDC and the Lab team to actually take the plunge and hold the lab despite all the protests they must have received about the fee. I sincerely believe that it is a great precedent. Only time will stand testament to the actual success of the lab – in terms of how many participants end up making their films successfully – but I have a very good feeling about it. I do hope that some subsidies come into play soon that lower the cost for the participants, because it will really allow the lab to contribute more fully to the NFDC’s long-term development goals.
With regard to my co-participants’ responses – overall, I saw more smiles than frowns. I think we all knew that a mountain of work was waiting for us when we got back to the real, non-workshop world. There were some in the group who were still negotiating with the decision to commit fully to this perilous career – and I could feel their anxiety in the face of the big decisions that lay ahead. But I think that they knew that this was a good thing. Good workshops are meant to make you go green. The work that you do afterwards is the only effective antacid. I wish my co-participants a happy digestion! I thank Udayan, Marten and the NFDC – Leena who helms the their lab program, and Mayur who helped execute our twelve days so efficiently – for this wonderful learning experience.
(Vasant Nath’s ‘Sebastian Wants to Remember’ is being produced by Michael Henrichs of Berlin based Die Gesellschaft along with France’s 24 Images and Kartikeya Narayan Singh’s The Film Café. It is currently in financing, having received EU Media Development Support in 2013, expecting to start production at the end of 2014)