My Attempt To Write A Simpsons Episode And A Few Other Experiences

You know, looking back it’s kind of laughable that my original intention for this blog was to write about my screenwriting career. In two years I’ve written a grand total of three articles about my chosen career path. Hopefully the other 236 posts I’ve published weren’t too much of a distraction!

So I suppose a little catch up is required. Previous posts told of the shooting of my first ever short film, The Right Choice; as well as its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Overall The Right Choice has done pretty well on the festival circuit, having played at four Oscar-qualifying festivals, and been accepted into 30 further festivals across the world.

Truth be told, 2018 has been a little slower than I though it would be in terms of screenwriting career progress. While I’ve pumped out 6 short scripts, most of the year has been spent paying back the debts I accrued in order to complete The Right Choice. No regrets of course.

Still, there have been two bright spots, one of which is that a small production company called Upwall Pictures has read some of my work and have expressed an interest in producing a few scripts. (It’s a terrible photo, I know!)

The second bright spot… Well, it’s a long story.

For those of you not up to date with The Simpsons TV show, last year there was a bit of a commotion over the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. An American comedian called Hari Kondabolu released a 45 minute documentary called “The Problem With Apu“; in which he criticised the portrayal of the Kwik-E-Mart owner.

Though I wrote an article about it at the time and stated my intention to view the documentary as soon as possible; residing in the U.K. unfortunately makes it impossible to access, even a year later.

One of the many reactions to the documentary was that movie producer Adi Shanker (of Dredd and the “Bootleg Universe” fame) decided to launch an unofficial screenwriting competition in an attempt to crowdsource a script that would take Apu in a new direction. He offered to take the winning script to The Simpsons writers; but if they refused it he would make it himself as part of his Bootleg Universe.

Now I’m going to be honest here, but I don’t agree with Shanker that “The Simpsons is sick” or that the portrayal of Apu is a “mean-spirited mockery.” And from the various clips I’ve seen of The Problem With Apu, I strongly anticipate that I wouldn’t agree with Kondabolu’s opinion of the character either. I like Apu and consider him to be a beloved character that I’ve enjoyed watching for many years.

Apu coverfly2

But as an aspiring screenwriter how could I not take advantage of this opportunity? After all, all good writers should be able to write for subjects they don’t personally agree with. I’m pretty sure Thomas Harris isn’t a secret lover of human flesh, despite him creating the world’s most famous cannibal in Hannibal Lector!

So I took a chance and spent a few weeks writing “Life of Apu” (LoA). And though it took quite a while, LoA was eventually selected as a finalist (and in turn became the above mentioned second bright spot!) I’m not entirely sure how big of an achievement becoming a finalist was, especially since I have no idea how many finalists were selected, or even how many total entries were received. But at least it was an acknowledgement that I had written something worth reading.

Alas the script did not progress to actually win the competition, which now leaves me with a Simpsons script gathering dust. So I thought I would throw it out to all of you to enjoy. Below is a little more about how I came up with the idea and my process of writing, but if you’d just like to read the script here’s the link: Life of Apu

(In fact, what’s written below might make a hell of a lot more sense after you’ve read the script. Also, when you click on the link, you don’t have to sign up for Dropbox. Just click the No Thanks button at the bottom of the popup)

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The seed of LoA was planted sometime in 2012/2013 while I was reading Apu’s Wikipedia page. Specifically I focused on the following line:

He graduated first in his class of seven million at ‘Caltech’ — Calcutta Technical Institute — going on to earn his doctorate at the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology.

I ended up misunderstanding the above line as it gave me the impression that these were two separate events. Basically Apu had come top of his class, came to America for some undisclosed reason, and only then decided to study for a Ph.D.

However, I now know that the episode Homer and Apu (Season 5, Episode 13) makes it clear that these events are connected, in that Apu specifically came to America to study for his doctorate. Yet being that the episode was broadcast in 1994, and I hadn’t seen a repeat in years, I assumed for far too long that there was some kind of untold story about Apu’s journey to America.

To be fair to myself that is technically true, as no episode has focused specifically on said journey. But I would spend the next 5-6 years checking the synopsis of each new Simpsons episode, wondering when the writers would tell this undisclosed tale.

That said, this desire to see Apu’s journey was nowhere near the forefront of my mind when Shankar launched the contest. Instead I planned to approach the screenplay according to the stated objectives given in the description of the competition:

“We are looking for a screenplay centering on the character “Apu” set in the world and cannon of The Simpsons that takes the character of Apu and in a clever way subverts him, pivots him, intelligently writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a mean spirited mockery and transforms him into a kernel of truth wrapped in funny insight aka actual satire.”

In other words they were looking for the actual character of Apu to permanently change for future episodes. But this fundamentally goes against the very core of The Simpsons in that once an episode ends, everything resets. I won’t deny that some changes have been set in stone (usually with character deaths). But for the most part, attempts to make major changes to the core of a character or to continuity is usually met with derision from fans. I still remember the public uproar when Seymour Skinner was discovered to actually be Armin Tamzarian in Season 9’s The Principal and the Pauper; or when a failed attempt was made to move Homer and Marge’s romance to the 1990s in Season 19’s That ’90s Show.

So my dilemma was this: How do I change the character of Apu without changing the character of Apu?

I quickly realised that the best way to do this was not to change the character, BUT instead change audience’s perception of the character. That may sound like it’s the same thing, but there are huge differences between the two. The former is a purposeful change, moving the character from one depiction to another. But the latter is done by presenting previously unknown information in order to influence the audience’s perspective; all the while keeping the character exactly the same.

The natural fallout of this decision meant that I couldn’t tell a story in the present day. Instead I had to set the story somewhere in the past. And that was my eureka moment. Here was a chance to tell that story I wanted about Apu’s journey to America, and yet still evolve the character in some positive way.

This may be surprising to some, but I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what South Asians or Indian-Americans would think. When writing the screenplay the main priority were Simpsons fans. You may wonder why, considering the reasons why this entire endeavour kicked off. Nonetheless I realised that, even if by some miracle my script become a finalist, won the competition, was accepted by The Simpsons writers, and became a critically and publicly acclaimed episode; none of this would lead to an increase in Indian-American viewers. Sure they would watch for that one episode, but there is no way that there would be a significant increase of people watching the show. (Especially considering Indian-Americans only make up just over 1% of the American population.) But the 2-6 million people that watch The Simpsons every week? They’re the ones who are spending their time and money supporting the show.

Because of this somewhat skewed priority, mixed in with my own beliefs, it meant that LoA purposely did not address many of the issues that Kondabolu or Shankar had a problem with. For example, I made no mention of Apu’s accent or his name. Neither did I address the idea of characters being voiced by actors who are of a different race. In fact, Apu barely changes at all. He’s still a simple Kwik-E-Mart owner when the credits roll. Considering the contest objectives clearly stated they wanted Apu to change, it’s somewhat surprising (hell, a borderline miracle) that I even became a finalist.

(I suppose this technically makes me a terrible screenwriter as I ended up writing something that completely ignored the stated stipulations.)

Instead I focused on one issue that I definitely agreed with: that the success of Apu had a negative effect on how Hollywood and the U.K. chose to portray South Asians over the last 30 years. But I don’t believe this is the fault of The Simpsons. This is the fault of numerous writers, directors and casting directors outside of The Simpsons who have chosen to rely only on that one cartoon portrayal. As a result, the insane difficulty that South Asian actors and actresses must overcome ended up becoming the emotional centre of the story. To illustrate the South Asian desire to have new experiences and to stretch yourself in an acting world that is satisfied to merely pigeonhole you.

With all that said, there was still one other aspect that was crucial. It was important to me for Apu to remain a Kwik-E-Mart owner and not suddenly become a wealthy or successful man.

“Sacrilege!” I hear you cry. “Racist!” I hear you roar. But there is a method to my madness. There’s a reason why Forbes’ “The World’s Billionaires” list is one of the most widely anticipated publications every year. It’s because, unfortunately, we live in a world where the accumulation of wealth trumps everything else. Where being a good person or being a great family man is not considered a sign of being a “success”.

While it was important to me to show that it was okay to spend your life being a shop owner (as I’ve known many real life people to do so); it was also essential that Apu was considered a success because of how he treated his family. It wasn’t about the number of shops he owns or the number of buildings that have his name on them (as Kondabolu has stated he would like to see). Instead I wanted to show that true success is about looking after those you love and making sure you do everything you can to make them a success. Just like my grandparents did for my parents. Just like my parents did for me. And, maybe one day, what I will do for my children. It’s why, along with the South Asian actor problems I mentioned above, LoA very heavily focuses on family and the sacrifices we make to ensure that those we love can lead better lives than we did. The true definition of “success.”

I am, however, still in two minds about the script’s comedy. I am not a comedian. I can’t tell a joke to save my life, so just imagine how bad I am at writing one. So I’ll leave it up to much wiser people than I to determine whether or not I was successful. (Again, here’s the link: Life of Apu)

Still, LoA ended up being a most enjoyable pitstop on that long windy road to screenwriting success and I hope to do it again sometime.

Until next time, my screenwriting fellows.

Vijay 🙂

 

The Tragedy Of George R.R. Martin And His Future Books

[Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 1-6 and the entire Song of Ice and Fire Book Saga]


On its release in 2011, Game of Thrones almost immediately became one of the most groundbreaking pieces of modern day television. Never before had TV tackled such an epic version of political intrigue on an utterly monumental scale.

But while the TV show has taken the franchise to new heights, it can’t be denied that the book series it’s based upon, A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), was a massive success in its own right. A series of five books that have so far made the New York Times Best Seller list, won a Hugo Award, sold well over 60 million copies, and been translated into 47 languages.

As many of the book and TV fans are aware, the small screen version has long surpassed the material it was based on. While season 6 gave away significant plot details, the march into the final two seasons will more or less reveal all the major plot points and twists for the two final books: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring (both working titles.)

It’s this issue that actually makes me feel rather sorry for Mr Martin and his decades long quest to tell the story of Westeros and its peoples. But first, let’s cast our minds back to when A Game of Thrones was actually published. Do you know when?

1996.

Insane, right? I can’t imagine starting to read a book in the mid-90s and not knowing how the story finishes twenty one years later!!! Just to try and put it in some kind of perspective, when the first book was released the following did not exist:

  • Facebook
  • Youtube
  • Snapchat
  • Twitter
  • Smartphones
  • The Matrix Franchise
  • Bluetooth
  • Skype
  • The Star Wars Prequels
  • The nation of South Sudan
  • And the entire child cast of Stranger Things!

Nations and governments have literally risen and fallen in the time its taken Martin to write these books. And that’s assuming you ignore the fact that he actually started writing ASOIAF in 1991, when the World Wide Web wasn’t even available to the general public!

Now I am not a reader of Martin’s books, so the reason I bring up this length of time isn’t to gripe about the delay. Rather it’s to illustrate how long these ideas have been peculating in his mind.

And I can’t help feeling sorry for him. He has worked so hard to create these intricate stories and detailed worlds; and yet the end of his story will not be told in the method he intended.

Arguably what’s happening to Martin is unprecedented. There has never been an author who’s had the climax of his magnum opus taken from him, and then revealed to the world in a completely different medium. Especially a medium said author only indirectly controls.

Don’t be mistaken, Martin does hold a little responsibility for the situation he finds himself in. After all, he was the one that agreed to the TV show, and he was the one that was unable to complete his story before the TV show caught up to him.

But as a fellow writer (and yes, I’m really stretching the comparison there!), it’s hard not to feel a sense of sympathy for dear old George. A life’s work and investment thrown aside for a few short seasons of television.

It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but lets, for example, take the story of Hodor.

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© 2016 HBO. All Rights Reserved.

From the tragic events of the episode titled The Door, we’ve learnt exactly why dear old Wylis was cursed to spend the rest of his life only being able to utter the word Hodor.

For us it was an incredibly emotional climax to a beloved character’s journey, while in turn drastically changing our perceptions by adding a sci-fi element to the world of Game of Thrones.

But now imagine it from Martin’s viewpoint. He came up with most of that ending in the EARLY-90s! And, slowly but surely, over the next two decades and five books, he would add various clues, hints and plot points to lead into that ending.

But now that was all in vain. The scene will still appear in his books, no doubt. Maybe even in a slightly different form. But the surprise, the shock, the tragedy. That’s all gone. It’s impossible to replicate. And it’s only going to get worse as more and more revelations from the final two books are instead revealed in the final two TV seasons.

This type of problem is incomparable to anything that has happened before. Even after extensive research, the closest I could find was the occasional unauthorised leak of a manuscript, such as in Stephanie Meyer’s book: Midnight Sun.

Because of this, I have an unpopular theory…

A Song of Ice and Fire will never be finished.

To be fair, there have been incomplete book series’ before. But this is usually down to the death of the author; such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. But the reason I think ASOIAF will never be finished is because, as time goes by, both the pressure and the drive for the final two books will diminish.

The pressure from book fans will drop somewhat as a portion of them (but not all) will be satisfied with some form of ending. And with Martin, the drive to tell a magnificent and groundbreaking story would have disappeared.

Remember, he will have to spend the several years of writing A Dream of Spring listening to people ask him questions about the ending and saying how much they loved or hated it. After a while I think he will honestly feel like everyone already knows the ending. And after that, what’s the point in continuing?

Just imagine, say, J.R.R. Tolkien releasing The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers to great acclaim. Those books are turned into beloved and successful films. But then, The Return of the King is released in cinemas before the release of the book.

Would it not be somewhat difficult for the film not to automatically become the defining ending of Lord of The Rings? Even if the book version was released soon afterwards? Hell, would Tolkien even be interested in releasing the third book?

In the case of ASOIAF, even if the 6th book was released in 2018 or 2019, there would still be a significant wait until the final book. Assuming that Martin takes around five years to complete it, that would mean A Dream of Spring would be released in around 2024.

But the final season of the TV show will most likely air in 2018 or 2019. So that would make a solid 5-6 years where millions of people get to dissemble, debate and interpret the ending of the story before the author even gets his version to the masses.

For a writer, that sounds like the seventh circle of hell.

That said, I do think the release of The Winds of Winter will still take place. He’s already written so much of it, I can’t imagine it not being released. But A Dream of Spring? Never gonna happen.

On the other hand, maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe the differences between the books and the TV show will be enough to keep the fans, and Martin, going long after the broad ending of story and characters have been revealed to the world.

Either way, I wish dear old George the best of luck.