Four people walk into a room. For months, they bounce ideas and punchlines off each other, debate the merits and demerits of a scene and thrash out the finer details of character arcs. If all goes well and the magic moment of consensus is reached, they emerge with a compelling new season of your favourite show.
The concept of a writers room only developed in India over the past two to three years, but has quickly become responsible for popular mainstream shows on big OTT platforms. Now, many writers find themselves in the unique position of having to keep their shows going despite the national lockdown due to COVID-19. The good news is that it's a great time to be a writer. With little chance of shoots picking up in the near future, studios and OTT platforms are focussing on building a solid bank of scripts that they can quickly film once the shutdown ends.
Siddharth Khaitan, creative producer at Applause Entertainment, which has produced shows such as Criminal Justice and Mind The Malhotras, is part of one such ongoing writers room and has two more projects in the development stage. He says writers are now consistently getting calls offering them work. At home, writers have found that their productivity levels are up. Way up.
In the week since the national lockdown started, they're completing daily writing assignments in half the time and have even rewritten and polished scripts that had been stalled for years. "What has reduced is the travel time. Earlier, you'd have a meeting in BKC (in Mumbai) so you'd travel there, then to Andheri for another meeting and by the end of the day you'd be exhausted, especially if you're running two or three writers rooms. Now you're at home so you can schedule your time a little better. The quality of writing might actually be improving," says Khaitan.
But how does a concept that involves writers jamming together in a room work when you're under lockdown? Filmmaker Sudhanshu Saria, who has directed the film LOEV, is currently working on a young-adult fiction show with three other writers, a writer's assistant and the show's creator. Everyday they hold a virtual writers room from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm on the videoconferencing app Zoom. "We're living through the middle of an apocalyptic action film, pretending it's normal," says Saria.
Also using Zoom is Mumbai-based filmmaker Mansi Jain, who's working on a feature-length supernatural thriller with writers Vidhya Iyer (currently in LA) and Jhanvi Motla (Mexico). "Dude, I'm so upset, my family and I should've bought stock in Zoom months ago. It's gone up by 60% now," she says. The software lets the team share screens, record meetings, take minutes and share notes on a blank page. It's also free for the first 40 minutes of a meeting.
While the team's making progress and meeting deadlines, they agree that the energy and camaraderie of a writer's room can't be replicated on Zoom. A spotty internet connection and a lag of a few seconds can ruin the most promising punchline. "Sometimes when people get cut out of the call or they rejoin it – you stop saying everything what's on your mind. You start self-editing because you understand that bandwidth is precious," says Saria.
There's also a lesser likelihood of scenes being born out of banter or tangential conversations – video calls demand a more businesslike approach. Writeous Studios founder Sidhanta Mathur, who gets on Zoom for three hours daily, sends his team a list of pointers on what to discuss during each meeting. "It gets a lot more concise. So a 30-minute call is a 30-minute call about work as opposed to sitting in person and talking for 2 hours and 20 minutes," he says. He periodically checks in on the three writers developing an eight-episode dramedy for an OTT platform.
And as efficient as Zoom is, sometimes you miss the good old whiteboard to track plot points. On a call to Iyer and Motla, Jain found herself trying to explain how the show's rapidly shifting timelines might play out over the season. Without a whiteboard in the room, the two couldn't make sense of the chronology. "We had to take a lot of notes and reorient ourselves. It's just that extra bit of work," says Motla.
A workaround to this problem is professional screenwriting software WriterDuet, suggests Karan Anshuman, the showrunner of Mirzapur on Amazon Prime. The app lets multiple writers edit and format screenplays in real time. Unfamiliar with it? Don't worry, Google Docs works just as well.
Virtual writers rooms inevitably translate into an unhealthy amount of screentime. "If I was spending four to five hours a day looking at my screen, that's gone up to 15 hours," says Anuj Rajoria, associate creative director, scripted development at BBC. "By the end of the day, all I'm telling the others is: Hey! I can't look at the screen anymore, let's crash." He and three writers meet twice a week on Zoom to plot an action thriller they began writing just two weeks before the lockdown.
The increasing comfort with videoconferencing, however, opens up the possibility of collaborating with writers located in remote locations. "People will realize that it's possible to have a writers room without being physically present. Six months from now, they'll start asking writers in other parts of the world to join their writers room. Till now, they'd only operate in the capacity of a script doctor who fixes and suggests things at a writing level," says Khaitan. It seems like the day's not far off when writers rooms go global, an enticing prospect for a world currently working in isolation.