My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script "Dinner With Friends".
Geeta Malik wrote the original screenplay "Dinner With Friends" which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Geeta about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.
Today in Part 4, Geeta and I discuss the daughter-mother relationship which lies at the heart of "Dinner With Friends" and some movie associations with the story:
Scott: It's really quite an interesting structure that you have because it is at the end of the day, if you were to look back on it it's a mother-daughter story or a daughter-mother story, I guess, from the perspective of the protagonist. Yet, the way you handle it, its very depth, it's not obvious that that's the story.
There are movies where it's right up front you know it's a mother-daughter thing. But, there's all this other stuff that's going on in Alia's life. It doesn't become quite apparent that that's the central focus, in terms of relationships and, actually, the plot until about midway, when she starts I think it's around 65 or something she starts to discover this past about her mother.
Was that a conscious choice on your part to soft pedal or ease your way into that mother-daughter thing, or was that just an organic thing?
Geeta: I think it was organic. It wasn't an initial choice to do it that way. I think it just flowed that way because I was telling Alia's story, initially. There was a lot more emphasis on her with these two guys, and her coming back from college, and trying to deal with her parents' failing relationship.
With the discovery of Sheila's back story, I thought a lot about Monsoon Wedding, which is one of my favorite Mira Nair films. Structurally, the big relationship reveal happens well into the second act — maybe even the beginning of the third act. It's so interesting because you get to know these characters intimately before you realize how deep the conflict goes in their lives.
Then, when the reveal happens, the relationships are strong enough to withstand it, which I thought was very cool and very clever writing (and directing). It was a gutsy way to structure it. It's tricky because you also don't want these plot points to feel like they're coming out of nowhere. In Dinner With Friends, it's important that Sheila's back story doesn't feel like it's coming out of left field.
Scott: I think it worked. It's one of those things where I was sitting and reflecting on it after I read the script and going, "You know what? I could look back and stitch together those scenes between Alia and her mom that were taking place during the first act and the first half of the second act," where you're really establishing the mom's character.
At first, she's seemingly very surface oriented but, slowly but surely, you dimensionalize it. In a way, the way you said it is the way I experienced it. You gave us enough of the relationship so that when the reveal came, this big reveal that she was a feminist, a really ardent feminist way back when in the past, I think it works. It wasn't a surprise. It didn't come out of left field.
It felt like it was supported very well. Again, what I'm saying, I guess the larger point, I would say, is just one writer to another is it didn't come off as this heavy-handed thing. It was very depth. It felt like it was this…I said soft pedal. I don't know if that's the right phrase, but it feels like…It worked very, very well on the page.
Geeta: That's good! Good to know.
Scott: Another movie association, which…Now you got the little girl, so maybe you're familiar with this. May seem a bit of a stretch to you. I'm a big Pixar freak. I love Pixar movies, so the mother-daughter relationship brings to mind their movie Brave.
Geeta: I love Brave. Yeah.
Scott: The relationship between Alia and her mother, Sheila, versus the relationship of Merida and Lady Elinor. Any resonance there?
Geeta: I haven't seen Brave for a long time — I think I actually saw it pre-kids! I didn't reference it consciously, but if that French critic ever asks, I'll say that I did!
Scott: No, but it might be fun for you to go and watch that movie again, particularly with your girls, because there is that thing where Merida says, "I don't want to be like my mom," and she thinks her mom is a certain way. Then, they go on this journey together where she realizes that her mother does have this kind of power inside of her, this inner strength.
Anyhow, it just was an interesting point of comparison. I think you might find an interesting kind of a resonance there.
Geeta: Yeah! I should watch it again.
Scott: There's a quote that Sheila has when it's uncovered that she had this activist, feminist background. Of course, Alia thinks it's awesome. Sheila says, "Yes," this is to the society that she was a member of. "Yes, the society meant something to me. It meant everything to me, and I lost everything because of it.
"You do these things when you're stupid, and reckless, and young, and then you get tired, and then, you grow up. Grow up, Alia." Do you remember writing that?
Geeta: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I do, yeah.
Scott: You could sympathize with her at that point?
Geeta: Yes, definitely. For some of us, after having kids, things do end up seeming less important — things that you once considered to be a permanent part of your identity. It's exactly as Sheila said: when you're young, you're full of idealism. I was, anyway. In college, you think you can change the world. You're powerful. You have time and energy on your side. And Sheila was actually fighting for something real. Me, I was at UC Irvine, yelling about them closing down our local bar! We just wanted to drink and go clubbing. Sheila was in India in the '80s, and the political situation was intense, and the rampant violence and sexism were real.
But because she was so militant about what she stood for, she ended up losing her family, her community, her friends. She got tired of fighting. She gave up that part of her identity to live a peaceful, pampered life, and to avoid the conflict that had earlier torn her apart.
Scott: You've got a fun little inversion, there, because after that comment from Sheila, Alia says, "You were bad ass once. And, God as my witness, you'll be bad ass again."
Geeta: [laughs] Yeah. She wants her mom to reclaim that power and to remember who she was and get that integrity of character back.
Scott: Yeah, that's my theory about movies, is that so many of them, there's a central question and it's "Who are you?" and both of these women confront that question. That the mom discovers that it may have been in her past, but it's still there, right?
Geeta: Absolutely. It's buried deep inside her, but it's still a fundamental part of who she is.
Scott: At least there's a very nice twist in act three, at the ending. It's just terrific. Was that the ending you always had in mind, particularly where Alia inspires her mom when she does the thing with the hair and all that?
Geeta: Yeah, that ending has been there since the earliest drafts.
Scott: The last side, that was quite interesting. Alia says: "Words are powerful. Sometimes, it's nice to just be quiet." She's been so verbal throughout that I thought that was such an interesting place for her to end up. Almost like, "I've said everything I need to say. I can just kind of settle in and be."
Scott: Is that kind of where you were at?
Geeta: Yes, for sure. The movie begins with Alia's voiceover, talking about the gossip that permeates her community, and how words have a lot of power. This constant worrying about what other people will say — that keeps people trapped, and that's what she ends up seeing with Sheila. First, Sheila was punished for speaking her mind as an activist, and then she herself used words to cut other people down to size. At the end, everyone settles down in the security of knowing that it's okay not to talk — that they can just be who they are and live their own lives.
Scott: I hope that when you make the movie, you can keep that side. I've interviewed a lot of screenwriters where I've said, "Wow! That was such a great line," and they go, "Yeah, we had to cut it." "Oh, no!"
Geeta: Hopefully not.
Tomorrow in Part 5, Geeta goes into detail about her Nicholl Fellowship experience including what she was doing when she received 'the call'.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Part 2, here.
Part 3, here.
Geeta is repped by Paradigm and Luber Roklin.
Interview (Part 4): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.