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Filmmaking

Filmmaking Within Confines – A Conversation with ‘Zinzana’ Director Majid Al Ansari

Anyone who knows me or has seen a single film of mine knows how much of a fan I am of contained films or genre films in general. And being a filmmaker in UAE, I always found genre films extremely lacking on a feature film level. So imagine my surprise when one day I stumbled upon the trailer of Zinzana, a slick looking neo-noir thriller that takes place entirely in a prison cell. I’ve been connected with filmmaker Majid Al Ansari ever since I watched his short film ‘The Intruder!’ in 2011, which was another genre piece that was unlike anything else from this region and now his new film has acclaim internationally.

As the film gears for its Middle East Premiere this Thursday at Dubai International Film Festival as well as releases in cinemas across the country, I took the opportunity to have a conversation with the director himself. Forty minutes later, we happened to connect over our love for genre films and passion for filmmaking. He’s truly a filmmaker who has earned his way up and has a unique vision that I can’t wait to see more of. Here’s the exchange below.

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Majid Al Ansari, director of Zinzana.

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World War Z: Why It’s Always Worth Going Back To Fix Your Movie

After a lot of bad buzz and reactions, Brad Pitt’s ‘World War Z’ released right in the middle of the highly competitive summer season and surprised everyone by not only getting very positive reviews and word of mouth, but also standing tall at the box-office with a hefty $65 million opening weekend. The momentum followed as the film continued to make impressive box-office numbers for weeks to come and became the number 1 film worldwide for weeks. Currently, it’s made a grand total of $517 million and counting! The bad buzz mentioned earlier was about the film’s production woes, mainly the very costly seven week reshoot that was done by Paramount and Brad Pitt which included an entirely new third act written by Damon Lindelof when the studio and filmmakers realised that their third act flat out doesn’t work. Though reshoots are slowly becoming a very common occurrence in tentpole summer films, one that shoots an entirely new third act to an already finished film admittedly raised a lot of eyebrows. But it only took one viewing of the film for audiences and critics to embrace the restrained third act that World War Z provides. And here’s why it’s a classic example for us filmmakers of why it’s never too late to go back and fix your film.

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Lessons Filmmakers Can Learn From Iron Man 3

Lessons Filmmakers Can Learn is an ongoing series where I will derive filmmaking lessons (for better or for worse) that I learned after watching a recent film, in terms of writing, directing and editing. For our third edition (and we really have to do this more often), we have the Marvel’s big superhero film ‘Iron Man 3’.

With Joss Whedon contributing his writing and directorial talents to making ‘The Avengers’ a critical and especially financial success, Marvel’s ‘Phase 2’ began with a three-quel to the most popular superhero in their canon and the face of Marvel at this point – Iron Man. But they had to be very careful not to make the same mistakes they did with Iron Man 2, a sequel that did deliver financially but is mostly seen as one of the weakest Marvel films with glaring flaws thanks to a lot of creative meddling and a lack of new ideas.

But with the hiring of writer/director Shane Black and a drive to make this a definitive sequel that matters, Iron Man 3 is smart, action-packed and almost as good as the original. A shining example of a superhero film done right.

And there’s a few lessons filmmakers can take from it as well.

Note – Major spoilers for the film ahead.

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Filmmaking As A Race – An Interview with 48 Hour Film Project Dubai

Defying Filmmaking Logic

We all know that making a film takes time. Lots and lots of it. That’s what we’ve been told in countless filmmaking books, seminars and even practical experience for most people would dictate the same. Spending enough time in pre-production is paramount to a quality film. Spending weeks writing and then rewriting the perfect screenplay to your short film is even more important.

But what if there’s a filmmaking competition with a particular set of rules that fly in the face of filmmaking logic? What if I tell you that you not only need to write, shoot, edit and score a film in 48 hours but you’ll no prep time since the elements you need to have in your film will be given at random a few hours before? What if I tell you that this project is already a long running and globally popular one embraced by filmmakers worldwide?

48 Hours To Make A Film

Enter 48 Hour Film Project – a film competition already known to filmmakers around the world for a long time, but only appeared in Dubai in its first edition last year in 2011. The idea is simple – you register as a team to take part and appear at the launch event a day before it begins. There, you’ll be asked to handpick four things – a genre, a prop, a line of dialogue, and a characters name. Based on that, you now have exactly 48 hours to go and write, shoot and edit a film with that criteria in mind which is between 4 to 7 minutes long. And by 48 hours, they mean exactly that. Even if you’re a minute late, you’re disqualified. But no matter, the eligible films as well as the late films will all be screened in public and there will be an award ceremony covering achievements like acting, directing and promising filmmaker among others. And the winning film goes forward to win prizes, a trip to Hollywood with his film at Filmapalooza, and the best films go to Cannes Short Film Corner next year (where my film ‘Perfect Living’ played last year).

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Filmmaking 101: Elements Of A Great Story

The following is the second in a series of articles about filmmaking from the story to the release stage. Keep visiting the blog for more.

In our last article, we talked about how story is the most important element and how it can make or break a movie. But what are a few elements that make a compelling story?

Goal

You would be surprised to know how many films have characters with literally no goal at all. Boiled down to the basics, a story is about a character wanting to do something or achieve a goal. Name any movie and you’ll see that this holds true – a policeman wants to stop a terrorist attack, a guy wants to get the girl of his dreams, a group of people want to escape a maniac killer and so on. This goal begins the character’s story and whatever happens throughout the film, it pertains to this one goal. While this is the main goal of the film, a character might have to go through several smaller goals to reach it. For example, to defeat the mob boss of a rival gang, the hero might have to first gain their trust and go undercover, kill the thugs and then reach the main boss. Never have a story where there is no goal.

Never have a story where there is no goal. No one wants to see a character roam around doing their daily loves without any sort of a motive. Though there are some very rare exceptions, these sort of movies always seem much longer than they are and wear down the audience and end up being a very tiring watch.

Conflict

Read aloud some of the plot-lines that I’ve mentioned above and you’ll notice that there’s a real conflict based in them. The backbone of a story is that there’s conflict at the base of it and that drives the film. If ‘Titanic’ was about two lovers who fall in love on a ship and lead their lives happily ever after, we wouldn’t have an Oscar-winning movie but an extremely boring one. It’s the fact that the ship is the doomed Titanic that’s going to sink is the real conflict here and the entire film builds up to it. If in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, the FBI agent was given a clue by Hannibal and she went out and caught the serial killer the next day, it would be a laughably dull film because there’s no conflict. It’s because of the fact that Hannibal plays mind games with her and digs deep into her psyche while also planning out his own escape that makes the movie interesting. Add to the fact that the serial killer has kidnapped the Senator’s daughter and will kill her in a couple of days and you’ve got a very tense and suspenseful conflict right there.

A film where everything happens without any consequence or opposition is a fairy tale and a bad one at that. Because even some of the best fairy-tales in literature always had a conflict that drove them. It’s this simple aspect that will single-handedly make your film a much more compelling one to watch. As an audience, we are suckers for a tense situation brimming with conflict. How do you add conflict to your story? Make sure that your character has a goal and there are forces and obstacles on his way that are stopping him from doing so. As an audience, we are suckers for a tense situation brimming with conflict.

There’s a few things you can make sure your script has that will help give it lots of conflict:

  • Stakes – When writing your story, always remember to have stakes. What will happen if the hero doesn’t finish the task? This is one of the most important questions to ask yourself and the higher your stakes are, the more intense and important the goal becomes. In ‘Silence of the Lambs’, Clarice has to work with Hannibal in finding the serial killer but what if nothing happens if she fails? Suddenly, the goal is boring. But in the movie, the serial killer has kidnapped the Senator’s daughter and will kill her in a couple of days. So now if she fails her task, the Senator’s daughter and an innocent life will be taken because of that. That’s stake and that’s what drives conflict even higher as the audience knows that each decision is most important. In sci-fi, the stakes could be the world ending. In comedy, it could be the guy losing his job or facing major humiliation. In drama, it could be death or losing a loved one. In romance, it could be not seeing the girl forever. Always remember  to drive up the stakes whenever you can and you’ll have a very exciting and cinematic story.
  • Obstacles – If your protagonist has a goal, make sure there are obstacles of every kind coming in from every corner trying to stop him from doing so. This makes for a very exciting story as the audience is never really sure whether the plan will succeed or not. If your hero has to win a boxing match to win the girl of his dreams and he’s already a muscular guy with the opponent being weak, there’s no conflict here and it’s a boring movie. Make the hero a skinny accountant who has never thrown a punch in his life. Make the opponent a World Heavyweight Champion. Make his boss someone who constantly blocks him. Adding such obstacles will make the hero’s journey from a loser to a champion not only much more worth it but a pleasure to see. Obstacles make conflict.
  • Time Limit – This is more of a necessity for an action-oriented film but it’s important nonetheless. The sure-fire way to add tension and excitement to your story is adding a time limit after which the plan will fail. The world ends in 5 days, a bomb will explode in 2 hours, someone will be killed in 24 hours, the bad guy will arrive in an hour etc. If your main goal has no time limit on it and can be done anytime of the year, it saps out tension and suddenly isn’t so major. Movies like ‘Crank’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘Back to the Future’, and even recent hits like ‘Fast Five’ have a time limit in which the action must be done or it fails.

Emotion

Think of all of your favorite movies. Movies that you’ve grown up with and are a part of your life. What made them your favorite? Ninety percent of the time, the answer is because it connected to you emotionally. The best sort of story is the one that the audience emotionally connects to. Depending on your movie, it could either be fear, laughter, thrills, drama or any specific emotion that you want the audience to feel. But remember – a film is most powerful when the audience connects to it. This is why it’s important that the characters you write are human and the audience can relate to them in some way or the other. Because if you don’t care about a character, you don’t care about anything that happens to him and that impacts the whole film.

What if  Jack and Rose were someone who had been introduced five minutes before the ship begins to sink in ‘Titanic’? Would you care so much about them drowning? It’s only the fact that we got emotionally connected to them in the film that we got touched by the tragic ending. And most of you remember ‘Titanic’ not for the amazing special effects, but for the love story that connected to you emotionally. Even though ‘The King’s Speech’ was set in 1940’s Britain that most audience members knew nothing about, it’s emotional connection to the audience was through the protagonist trying to overcome his crippling flaw. Behind an elaborate setting, it was a basic human story. Within all the plot twists and amazing visuals you have in your film, always remember to add a human element that audiences can latch on to and experience. Even if it’s an action movie that usually relies only on the thrills and stunts, adding a human story underneath will make it stand out for sure. While ‘Die Hard’ on the surface was about a man trying to defeat terrorists who have taken over a building, it was actually about a man trying to reconnect with his wife again. Great characters and an emotional connection are the two factors that take your script even further. Within all the plot twists and amazing visuals you have in your film, always remember to add a human element that audiences can latch on to and experience.

So what do you need to build great characters? That’s a whole new topic altogether.

In the next article, I will discuss how to craft great characters that serve your story well and connect with the audience. Stay tuned for more!

Filmmaking 101: Story Is Key

The following is the first in a series of articles about filmmaking from the story to the release stage. Keep visiting the blog for more.

What was the last big budget blockbuster you saw that you absolutely hated? Now try to think of the reason you hated a movie that cost around $200 million bucks to make. Chances are it wasn’t because one scene didn’t have the right special effects or you didn’t like the costumes. Even after being polished and big by all standards, the most likely reason you hated that movie because it had a weak screenplay. And a weak screenplay is directly the result of a weak story.

You Vs. Hollywood

As independent filmmakers, the one thing that we know we don’t have is a lot of funds. It would be foolish to try to compete with Hollywood at a production level, considering that the budget of some of their biggest movies exceed the entire GDP of a small country. They have a crew of hundreds, the best equipment and wizards in the world and a lot of money to throw at their projects. But there’s one thing that they have that you can absolutely compete with. In fact, you can defeat them at it – the story. Hollywood is running out of ideas since quite a few years now, and have been relying on remakes and sequels to run their slate. They are constantly on a hunt for fresh and unique stories that they can make into a film. But whether it’s a short film, a comedy, a horror movie or a mindless action movie – story is key.

But even after their best efforts, most of the time Hollywood movies suffer in the story department because they cost so much. The more a movie costs, the more people’s money is at stake which means there are more people constantly looking over the project and each of them has a say in it. This usually ends up with each and every one of them giving their own notes on the script and the film ending up losing its most original ideas and ending up becoming a generic mess made by committee. And as a result, even after the movie has lots of production values, the audience looks through it and realizes that the screenplay was sub-par. Watching ‘Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides’ this weekend might give you lots of production value and a sense of adventure, but you will also be able to detect that the story was lacking and it played it way too safe. But you don’t have to face that problem. Being an independent filmmaker, there’s no one there to stop you from making the exact film that you want to make. This is the real charm of an independent film and why they sometimes break out and earn even more at the box-office than the big-budget films – they are built on a strong story.

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Hashmic House Films

An initiative to bolster UAE filmmaking including tips, resources and thoughts about the industry.

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