Screenwriter’s Chat | Ian Harnarine + Frieda Luk

| November 3, 2014

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For this Screenwriter’s Chat, we sat down with two talented emerging screenwriters to talk about their craft. We wanted to hear these writers spill the beans about everything screenwriting- from their writing rituals, to following their artistic instincts and of course, how to get out of a writing rut. Frieda Luk is the screenwriter for Delicacy, which premiered at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival and was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. Ian Harnarine is the screenwriter for Doubles with Slight Pepper, which won the Best Live Action Short Drama at the 2012 Genie Awards (the Canadian Academy Awards).

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Ian Harnarine (left) and Frieda Luk (right)

Aldo Mora-Blanco (Film School Shorts) :  Welcome to Ian Harnarine and Frieda Luk to our screenwriter chat!

Emma Dudley (Film School Shorts): Yes thanks so much for joining!

Ian Harnarine: Thanks! Happy to be here.

Frieda Luk: It’s a pleasure.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Great! On the chat with us is budding screenwriter and our former Film School Shorts intern Emma Dudley. Emma helped organize this chat, as screenwriting is one of her passions.

Ian Harnarine: Very cool!

Aldo Mora-Blanco:  @Ian, we’ll talk a bit generally about the screenwriting craft, but also specifically about your featured films. Would you both tell us a bit about [your respective films] Doubles with Slight Pepper and Delicacy ?

Ian Harnarine: Doubles With Slight Pepper is about a young Trinidadian street food vendor that has to decide if he will save the life of his estranged father.

Doubles for screenwriting blogpost

Doubles with Slight Pepper

Frieda Luk: Delicacy is about two gourmets who go on the ultimate foodie escapade.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: So to both Ian and Frieda, tell us about the circumstances of how those screenplays came to be developed in your respective universities?

Ian Harnarine: The screenplay took many forms and drafts, but really started after a night of helping my father at home in Toronto, who was was really sick at the time and in and out of the hospital.

Frieda Luk: I wrote the screenplay to fulfill a rather last minute deadline for a class and what came to me as I was constructing the story was what I was drawn to at the moment: foodie culture and unicorns.

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Delicacy

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Ian, how does one adapt a personal event into a narrative with a strong arc?

Ian Harnarine: My father had Alzheimer’s Disease and so there were so many changes that were happening both mentally and physically. So it became like I was meeting him for the first time and the story began there, trying to capture that moment or feeling, of what it would be like to meet your father for the first time, even though you might already know them.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Frieda, it’s to my understanding the class involved swapping screenplays. Can you tell us about that?

Frieda Luk: Each student had to write a script and the point of it was to pitch to the writer in order to direct it. The process helped foster collaboration between writer and directors as well as learning about working with material that was written by someone else.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Frieda,so from the beginning, you knew you weren’t going to direct Delicacy, correct?

Frieda Luk: That’s correct. However when I write, I still have to write with the visualized story in mind.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: For both of you: when you sit down wherever and start putting letters to paper, what are some structured tactics you folks use. Practical tools (outlines, cards, etc).

Frieda Luk: For me the first draft is fairly intuitive and then for subsequent drafts I make sure there’s an adequate/clear inciting incident, rising tension til the crux of the story and that the characters and environment are fleshed out.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Would it be fair say: instinct first, then structured refinement?

Frieda Luk: That’s exactly it.

Ian Harnarine: For Doubles with Slight Pepper, (and for most of my other writing), I usually THINK a lot about what I’m going to write and then I write all out in one big stream-of-conscious type thing. It turns out to be a big mess. I’ve tried and tried several times to use index cards/outlines, but it never worked for me. With that being said, after that initial “first draft” mess, I usually then make an outline with copious notes.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Do you think, that with the way films are made in 2014 as opposed to years ago that those traditional tools (cards, etc) are becoming ‘extinct’? I should say, smaller, intimate films….

Frieda Luk: I certainly don’t think so if you’re talking about the traditional screenwriting structure. The traditional tools work and if you look at say Pixar movies they are constructed strictly with those tools.

Ian Harnarine: That’s a great question. Most people that I know do work with outlines/index cards. Final Draft does have a type of index card system, which is what I’m trying to use right now with my feature.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Pixar is a great example: they have narrative structure down to a fine oiled machine.

Ian Harnarine: I think what index cards (whether physical or digital) do, is that they force you to think about what a scene is really about, or what piece of information is important. If you can’t nail it down on an index card, it probably doesn’t belong in the script.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Do you folks have any rituals when you work? I’ve always heard the story of the Los Angeles screenwriter who’d say bye to his wife, take a walk around the block, lock himself upstairs, then walk around the block and say, “Hi honey, I’m home.”

Frieda Luk:  Very much so. However I do think that adhering completely to the screenwriting bible takes something away from the final product. It’s interesting you ask that. I recently read the book called Daily Rituals about the work rituals of prominent writers and artists.

Ian Harnarine: I’ve learned that the only places I CANNOT write are in the best places: i.e. my home and office. So I’m usually writing in the public library around the corner, or I do get a lot of writing done on the subway.

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Doubles with Slight Pepper

Frieda Luk: I am still trying to fine tune my ritual but what I do need is to write in an enclosed space without distractions – motel rooms work well for me.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Screenplay readings with actors (not the ones you’ve cast, if you’re the director)…are they helpful?

Frieda Luk: Yes. I like to feel out the dialogue and I feel that good actors help with that process.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: From my experience, sometimes a terrible performance at a reading really highlights a bad line of dialogue and, conversely, highlights a great one: like, if you screwed up that reading so badly that it STILL works, then it stays.

Ian Harnarine: Absolutely. There are so many things that sound great on paper, but when transposed to real life, are not so good.

Frieda Luk: Agreed.

Ian Harnarine: I’ve also found the table read is extremely useful as a director, probably more useful than as a writer (but that’s for another hangout!).

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Good point! For both of you: the dreaded writer’s block. How to overcome?

Frieda Luk: I like to get away from the material for a little while do something else. However on a deadline the Don Draper solution works too: a nap and whiskey.

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Delicacy

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Nice.

Frieda Luk: I’m a big fan of naps. I think the Spanish have it all figured out.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: lol.

Ian Harnarine: Writer’s block is hard to overcome. However, it usually indicates that I don’t know what’s going on with a character or the story. That’s when I’ll usually get in touch with a friend and talk about what’s happening, or have them read what I’ve done. Based on comments I’ll get back, it usually inspires me, or gets my brain thinking in a different way.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: That’s a good point. Like why isn’t that character doing what I want him/her to do….oh right, because I don’t know what they want, how could they?

Frieda Luk: I agree with that. Friends or people who are sounding boards are great with solving that block.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: Any parting words for folks like Emma: budding screenwriters still in college with a wealth of stories to tell?

Emma Dudley: I’d love to hear any advice you have!

Frieda Luk: Write as much as you can. Be fearless!

Ian Harnarine: For me, its about having the confidence to write from the heart and to be truthful to yourself. I mean, that sounds sooooo cliche, which it is…but it’s also kinda true. And remember, only you can tell that story, so make it uniquely you.

Aldo Mora-Blanco: I want to thank both of you, Ian and Frieda, for taking a solid 45 minutes out to lend advice and hopefully inspire.

Emma Dudley: Great advice!

Frieda Luk: Thank you for having us on.

Ian Harnarine: Thanks so much! You’re all doing great work over at FSS!

 WATCH DOUBLES WITH SLIGHT PEPPER:

 WATCH DELICACY:

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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