2015 Grand Prize Winner Nadeem Rajwani Screenwriter Interview

Nadeem RajwaniIn April of 2016, Fresh Voices named Kenyan born screenwriter, Nadeem Rajwani, the Grand Prize Winner of the 2015 Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition. His Nairobi set screenplay, “City In The Sun”, took home the Grand Prize Award, and in addition won three Fresh Voices Spotlight Awards including the “Culture & Heritage Award”, “Best Ensemble Cast”, and “Best Foreign Script Award”.

The story is an interwoven tale of two men from very different backgrounds, providing for their families in profoundly different ways. It explores the family dynamic from these two divergent perspectives and touches upon such powerful themes as domestic violence, its effect on the family for generations to come, and the uplifting message of the limitless heights we will go to for our loved ones.

Additionally, the film is a portrait of Nairobi; an international city still struggling to shrug off its third world past. As such, the narrative investigates such timely and relatable social themes as police brutality, corruption and points a finger at the social injustices that remain between the have’s and have not’s. While Kenya may seem like a world away, it is very much a story that plays out in our own neighborhoods on a frighteningly regular basis. The climax of the film is a story of two worlds colliding in completely unexpected ways.

The deftness with which the script is written, and the confidence in how such a complex story plays out, is surely that of a writer we wanted to know more about.

Below is an interview with 2015 Fresh Voices Grand Prize Winner Nadeem Rajwani on how he came to screenwriting, how he came to Fresh Voices, and how he came to win!

FV: What was your inspiration for City In The Sun and how long have you been working on it.

The story was loosely based on a couple of true events that took place in Kenya about five or six years ago.  In the case of one of the threads, I knew the people involved. The other was based on a story that made the news and gossip rounds. 

The script was my first completed feature and was written about four years ago as a graduation piece for film school.  At the time, it was developed over a period of about a year and a half.  I gave it a final polish right before entering it into Fresh Voices.

FV: How long have you been writing and how did you become a writer? 

I’ve been writing short stories and short films since high school. My ambition has always been to direct but I decided to commit to screenwriting in earnest about 8 years ago.  It was a means of learning to professionally express ideas on paper for films I couldn’t find anyone else interested in or capable of writing. 

FV: Did you go to school to study film or screenwriting?

I’ve been to film school twice:  Once to the Vancouver Film School to study Film in general and later to the National Film and Television School in the UK to earn a MA in Screenwriting.

FV: Have you taken any classes or workshops?

Aside from film school, nothing for screenwriting.

FV: Do you have any favorite screenwriting books?

I have the usual titles many screenwriters have on their shelves:  Syd Field’s Screenplay, Robert McKee’s Story, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and a few others.  I wouldn’t consider any one a favorite as I regard them more useful for reference than anything.  I don’t they can really teach you to write as they are quite prescriptive, but they do each contain some insights that are of value. 

One title I do recommend is Developing Story Ideas by Michael Rabiger.  The emphasis is more on developing ideas that are reflective of your individual creative identity and it contains some practical information on process.  

FV: What’s your mentality/ philosophy as a writer?

I’m not sure if I really have a clearly defined philosophy. I try to write things I myself would want to see.   I try to shun cliché and reliance on lazy or overly formulaic storytelling techniques.  I also think your stories often tend to find you and in my case, they’re generally ones that present perspectives few others seem interested in expressing.  I’ve always felt obliged to tell meaningful stories that leave some sort of lasting impression on the audience, much the way good literature can affect or become a part of one’s evolving outlook and thinking.  And I believe you can accomplish that and still produce commercially viable work.

FV: What’s your writing process? Do you outline, write treatments first?  If so do you deviate or stick strictly to the outline?

I start small and then expand, which I think is the obvious way of working. I’ll usually have a document onto which I can note down arbitrary scene, action, character and dialogue ideas.  And I always outline.  If it’s a longer piece, I write a treatment or a more detailed beat sheet. From there, I expand and flesh out the script without being overly critical of my first rough draft.   I find the editing process to be one of the most enjoyable steps because you quickly discover that good writing really is rewriting. 

I think an outline is bound to change but, if it’s well conceived and edited, perhaps less so during the writing of your first draft.  I also don’t necessarily always write scenes in the order they appear in the outline.  Sometimes some scenes just feel easier to write and are more clearly formed in your mind, so I might start with those as opposed to working linearly.  It helps to get words on the page rather than procrastinate and struggle with scenes that may need more time to gestate.  It pays to be organized while bearing in mind that writing is an organic process and being overly rigid or schematic can deprive your script of an essential creative vitality.

FV: How many hours do you spend writing a day/ week?

I try to aim for about three to four hours a day, four to five times a week.  More if I’m on a deadline.  And whatever additional time I can manage, I try to study good scripts and films and read more broad analysis and articles or essays about filmmaking.  

FV: Do you submit to a lot of screenplay competitions?

Over the past eight years, I’ve entered maybe eight to ten competitions, the majority of which were entered into last year (2015).

FV: How often do you enter competitions? How did you do? Did anything materialize from any of the previous screenplay contests you placed in?

2015 was the year I really made a consistent effort to enter competitions.  I probably entered around seven or eight with a variety of scripts, long and short.  I placed as a quarter-finalist and semi-finalist in a few and then was fortunate enough to win Fresh Voices.  The same script didn’t even get past the quarter-final round in a couple of other competitions. 

Seven, eight years ago, I’d entered a short screenplay competition in the UK twice, once finishing as a runner-up and the second time as a semi-finalist.  The runner-up placement earned me an interview at the National Film and Television School and that prompted me to purse my MA.  I am where I am today because of that first runner-up placement.

FV: What was your experience like with Fresh Voices – Communication, Quality of Feedback, Prizes?  

I was very pleased with the level of communication and feedback.  The Prize package is probably one of the most generous if you compare it to other contests.  And I genuinely believe they are true to their name.  They really do seem committed to identifying new and unique screenwriting voices and I think my case, more than anything else, exemplifies that.

FV: What was it like winning Fresh Voices?

It was a wonderful, validating surprise.  And it felt like a real vindication of my persistence and sacrifice in pursuing what may not be the most practical of career paths, especially coming from where I do.  It came at a good time and it’s renewed my motivation to keep pursuing my ambitions.

FV: What has happened in the weeks since winning? 

I’ve had a few meaningful industry consultations.  And the chairman of the competition, Joel Mendoza, has been very generous with his time in trying to help figure out ways of advancing my career given my particular circumstances as an African screenwriter. The win has also lent me a lot of credibility in relation to my existing projects and collaborations.  And I recently conducted a couple of screenwriting workshops with film students in two refugee camps in Kenya for FilmAid, the charity Fresh Voice was supporting this year, which proved to be a very positive experience.

FV: What’s next for you? Are you writing a new script?

I’m raising funds to shoot a short film, hopefully by the end of the year.  It’s about poaching, poverty and the ivory trade.  Fresh Voices were kind in enough to read it and it scored even higher on the initial evaluation than did City In The Sun, which I take as very positive indication.  I’m also currently working on my second feature commission, which is a UK/German co-production of a political thriller set in Iran.