As a child, Boman Irani would head to Mumbai's Alexander Cinema after school every day. Since the cinema could only play a new movie if it received the reels from a nearby theatre on time, he'd confirm whether the film listed was really playing. Only then would he head home to drop off his bag and tie and then return. "Mum would say, 'Going to The Alex?' I was there every day. I knew the manager, the usher, the projectionist," he says.
Alexander Cinema was owned by Ardheshir Irani, the producer and director of India's first talkie, Alam Ara (1931). It was he Boman was thinking of when coming up with a logo for his recently launched production house, Irani Movietone. "Alam Ara was produced by Imperial Movietone. Then there was also Wadia Movietone, all these big Parsi companies. I went back to my earliest memories and that logo reminds me of that bygone era." The old-school, nostalgia-inducing logo is also meant to reflect a return to the basics, he says. None of its effects have been created digitally.
What can we expect from the production house? An emphasis on great screenwriting, says Irani. To that effect, it was launched with a day of workshops by Alexander Dinelaris, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Birdman (2014). He and Irani met six years ago in New York, where Dinelaris teaches a Master's course in film directing at the School of Visual Arts. Irani says he asked Dinelaris to teach him even back then and kept returning to the US four times a year to attend his workshops. "I wanted Alex to come to India. He was so interested and inquisitive about our culture, movies, people. We've been working on a script for many years now and we just thought it would be perfect to launch the company with a workshop for writers. It was as wild a party as it can get. People were intoxicated. Their minds, their hearts were dancing. I can guarantee you, those students will go back tonight and write a couple of scenes. They were so charged," he says.
Dinelaris, whose NY-based firm Lexicon was also founded on the idea of "Screenwriters first", says he's looking to empower writers both in the US and in India. He and Irani spoke about the books and films that have influenced their work, whether formal education has a role to play in storytelling and the one piece of advice they'd give aspiring writers:
Boman, since writing is a solitary art, how did you maintain discipline? Alexander, you wrote Birdman with two other people – did you find the collaborative process more helpful?
AD: Writing Birdman was the first time I collaborated in a writing process. Most of my writing was with a guy called Nicolas Giacobone, who was my writing partner. The four of us (including director Alejandro Iñárritu and writer Armando Bo) would discuss the story and then Nico and I would go away and write the script, then bring it back and talk about it. It was the first time that I had a partner and he was the perfect partner. So I was blessed that way. As for working with Boman, he brought a script to New York and then we started doing the same back-and-forth and we got along really well. I've been lucky in collaborations so I'm going to say I like them so far.
BI: You're right when you say writing is a very solitary pursuit. It's solitary before you get to a meeting, which is a collaborative process. You're just thinking about something and then you spill it out when you're collaborating. You're thinking alone – in the night, when you're by yourself, when you're bathing. So you collaborate, but you're also inventing by yourself in a solitary way. And then you put the idea together and bounce off people, you fight over it, you joust over it. This is the beauty of being collaborators with people who are like-minded and like each other.
AD: That is the best part. We have an example from just two days ago. I got here and we started working – just because we can't help ourselves.
BI: We started working from the airport.
AD: Boman came to me with an idea he had for a film and it was a really good idea. And the advantage of when you're thinking the same way – as we have been – is that there's two like-minded people going in the same direction. It can only be better. But you have to be like-minded, you can't just be arguing with one another.
How do you gauge if an idea is good enough to become a film?
AD: An idea is always good enough to be a film. You just have to be able to craft it well enough. You could have the craziest idea. Think of all the insane movies we've seen. And you'd say, "Well that would never work." Birdman's a good example. Who would've ever thought a man floating in his underwear, who has magic but doesn't have magic, would work? Any idea can work, I think. They're all valid.
What's the best piece of advice you'd give to someone who wants to write a film?
AD: I would say: Learn the craft. I think too often people just take inspiration and they think, "I can write a film." And maybe that's possible. They say everybody has a good book or a good film. But they won't be able to repeat the process unless they learn the craft. And there's a lot to that. There are no rules per se, but there are the rules fo storytelling and you can use them to your advantage. So craft, craft, craft.
Boman, at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival, you'd said: I missed out on formal training, and I gave myself as much training as I could when I was in school, and I would read as many books as possible. Alexander, you're part of the Masters program in film directing at the School of Visual Arts in NY. How important is the role of formal training in storytelling?
AD: Just as long as you learn. If you learn from books, you learn. If you learn from an instructor, you learn. There's no right or wrong, just as long as you learn the craft.
BI: I find that learning is one thing, applying is another. Other people read every book on the planet, but the application is completely missing. So you know what to do but you don't know how to do it. Work with it. I truly agree with Alex – craft is everything. It's like saying, you've hit the ball very well. That might not be the same ball you're going to get on the cricket field. You could get a curveball or a googly. You need to perfect your craft to deal with all kinds of balls. Because it just takes one ball to get you out. You might be a great hitter when the machine is sending one ball at a time to you. How are you going to deal with 50 different bowlers? I wrote a whole draft, six or seven years ago. To me, it read very well scene-by-scene. But I'm not so sure I could've held the interest of the viewer or even the reader. It was the craft that wove it together. Read, apply, take crucial advice on how to apply the craft.
Boman, what kind of stories are you looking to tell? What's the one thing people pitching to you should know?
BI: A story that has some resonance, that could be universal, is interesting and never heard before. Or one that's been heard before but told in an interesting way, with proper craft. It could be anything, even a story about this interview going on for two-and-a-half hours. It doesn't matter as long as people can feel that there's some part of their soul in that story and they can identify with it. There might be something that they fear, something that they empathize with and something that they might want to emulate.
AD: For me, it's something that moves me. If I hear the idea and can see a part of myself in it, whether it's a fictional piece or drama or anything. It could be the story that moves me or the passion of the storyteller, the person who's pitching it and is passionate about it. They should be, because they're going to have to live with it for a long time and we're going to criticize them, a lot. If they're not passionate about it, they'll stop. That's what generally happens.
Alexander, you've said screenwriters in India are lower in the pecking order
AD: In the world, not just in India.
You were right though, writers here are just beginning to be credited on film posters
BI: Can you imagine that?
Is there a way you're planning to change this, Boman?
AD: I think Boman is taking the first step. Just because you're doing a new type of film, just because you have a company that cherishes writers, doesn't mean you're gonna change the system. Everybody's going to get nervous. A traditional Bollywood movie will still be a traditional Bollywood movie. It will be wonderful, as well it should. Another point of view is that the minute two, three, four content-driven films are successful financially – they don't have to be mega hits, they just have to be strong performers, do well for themselves, have people like them – the more the culture changes and the more the screenwriter is valued. Nowadays, with the overwhelming nature of Netflix and these companies that are coming in for content, the demand for writers is increasing. As long as writers take responsibility and they don't allow themselves to be stepped on, then they're going to have a stronger position and things will slowly change. Nothing changes in a moment. Hollywood has Birdman and the commercial movie – they both have a place. And I think that can happen here as well.
Is there a film you go back to time and again just because the writing is so great?
BI: Network (1976). Everybody should go watch Network.
AD: Anything by William Goldman. He wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President's Men (1976), The Princess Bride (1987), Misery (1990). And I keep all of the scripts at home for when I need inspiration. I read them over again just to feel energized.
Are there any fiction or non-fiction books that have influenced your work?
AD: For craft, the books by William Goldman inspire me because they're real and practical – Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? They tell the story from a cranky insider's point of view. They're honest.
BI: I read a lot of those "…For Dummies" books because you have to start somewhere. They taught me the rules, the cookie cutting. That started me off on this journey. We tend to say, "Now I know a little more so now these books are rubbish." They aren't. They're useful.
AD: The illusion of screenwriting is that it's a skill that doesn't require craft. You could have the most spectacular imagination as a painter, but if you're not familiar with colour or a brush or a canvas, what's the point? My eight-year-old daughter has a wonderful imagination but I'm not going to be able to sell her paintings, not for a while. So why would this be the one discipline that doesn't require craft?