Discover Your Creative Power & Carve Your Own Path: An Interview with Netflix 'Bard of Blood' Creator, Bilal Siddiqi

Thursday, 6 August 2020



I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Bilal Siddiqi, Author, Screenwriter & Creator of Netflix's Bard of Blood, and he is giving us one hell of an interview today! 

Bilal spoke with me about his writing journey, sharing his top tips for discovering the emotional heart of a story and carving an unconventional path in the industry.

Hi Bilal, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Into The Script to talk about all things storytelling with you!

 

As an author, screenwriter and creator of Netflix’s Bard Of Blood, you certainly have a wealth of experience most can only dream of. 

 

Can you share with us, what you consider to be the most important elements of creating the emotional heart of a script that connects with the audience, and specifically are there any differences between mediums? 


Hey Olivia! 


Firstly, I'd like to thank you for considering me worthy of being featured on 'Into The Script'. I have been following it closely and the stuff you and the members write and post on it is outstanding. I firmly believe that we writers as a community need to remain supportive of each other. Only then can one grow as an artist and a person. 



While I thank you for saying that I have a wealth of experience, I still believe that I have a lot to learn. Any writer or artist does for that matter, because unlike other professions there is no way to gauge when's a good time to believe that you know everything. 


On certain days one's self-confidence soars... On others it flatlines... And you realise how little it is you know and how much there is to learn. However, from my limited experience and understanding, I am going to attempt answering your questions in the best possible way that I can.


I believe that every story has been told in one form or the other. 


We need to just keep reinventing them with characters and settings that are unique and mask the fact from the audience that they have seen this story before in another form. The better you mask it, the more skilled you are as a writer. 


The emotional heart of a script, however, is what is unique to every story and I think it will always be the characters you create. They handhold the audiences through the theme of the film/show/book... So in Bard of Blood, when I first wrote it as a novel, I knew that my protagonist is a guy weighed down by his own ghosts. 


Ghosts of being responsible for his comrade's death through a faulty decision that he made on the field several years ago. Soon after which he was disavowed by his agency and sought refuge in Shakespeare's works... And since he had to sustain himself financially, he decided to work as a Professor in a college where he taught the Bard's works. 


The storyline after that was one where fate handed him a chance to right his wrongs and exorcise his ghosts, so to speak, by going on another unsanctioned mission (which of course is where the plot kicks in). 


But what I felt was the emotional heart of the story was the protagonist's pains and tribulations that were in many ways self-inflicted... And that naturally lent itself towards themes of revenge, redemption and even resurrection.


As for mediums, yes, I feel that each medium comes with its own set of rules. 


A series is a lot like a novel. You start a series to spend more time with the characters more than the plot itself (This is not to say there are some fantastically plotted shows which make great use of stock or archetypal characters). A film is more dependent on it's plot, since you have a limited amount of time to spend with the characters in comparison to a series. I could be completely off the mark here because it does seem like a gross generalisation. 

But what I am essentially trying to say is that every scene in a film is designed purely to push the plot forward. Character sometimes tends to fall second. But these are also genre-films in a way. There are beautiful films like Prisoners for example that makes you feel the emotions of the characters in a way that you don't realise things haven't moved plot-wise for a scene or two. Again, this could be a wrong assessment on my part.


So to try and answer the question in a nutshell - yes, medium plays a very important role. You need to know what format your story lends itself best to... A novel? A film? A series? It's just something you know instinctively when a story idea forms in your mind, I think. 


 

2) What advice do you have for writers looking to write a story that satisfies audiences in 2020?


 I don't think there is a way to satisfy an entire audience. 


People tear down the work of some of the greats... So I am far from that. But here's the thing, if you are genuine about the story you want to tell and are realistic about the kind of audience you want to reach through the format (book, movie, series), then you must leave no stone unturned in giving that audience a good experience. 


Bard of Blood, for example, was a spy-thriller meant to set the adrenalin in the audiences going through plot-heavy twist and turns and action. There are people who knew the tonality of that show before they got into it and enjoyed the ride. 


Some expected something different and perhaps didn't. 


It's a matter of perspective. But unless we as storytellers aren't satisfied with our story, we shouldn't allow it to materialise. 


The first audience we owe something to lies within ourselves! That's something I've learnt with time. Four books and one series later...

 

3) Whilst we know that there is no one route to a career in the film industry, can you share with us your incredible experience of creating a hit Netflix show, for others who also aspire to work for such esteemed companies one day?


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Well, my journey has been rather unconventional. 


I always knew I wanted to write, right since I was in sixth-grade or something. But I didn't know it would materialise the way it did. I was in college, about 18 years of age, when we had the renowned Indian journalist-turned-author S Hussain Zaidi visit us for a lecture on journalism. 


At the end of his class, he wanted a few volunteers to work on the research team for his next book. I volunteered (as did at least a fifty other kids) and got through. Soon (and by that I mean after a year), he realised that I can write a bit myself too after reading a few initial chapters of the book that eventually became Bard of Blood. 


He asked me to work up a pitch and send it over to him. Little did I know that he had sent it over to Penguin publishers. Penguin wanted to read about half the book before they sanctioned it. I tossed away all the existing chapters and rewrote them with a clear goal to make this book materialise (unlike the scores of unfinished ideas that I had in my notebooks). Soon, Penguin read the manuscript and sanctioned the book.


While all of this was happening, I was also interning at a production house run by Mr Shah Rukh Khan (a huge huge star world over). I gave him the first copy of the book and he tweeted about it soon after. That was such a surreal moment, especially since you have the man you've admired since you were a kid supporting you that way. 


A few years later when Shah Rukh sir tied up with Netflix to produce content in India, it was his idea to pitch my book to see if it interested them. But we had to do it the traditional way... So we prepared a bible. Went over it several times over. And then it was greenlit about six months later! Oh and for surreal moment number 2... Mr Reed Hastings flew down to Mumbai and announced it alongside Mr Khan.


 I have a lot to be grateful for. It's been luck and hard work. I think both need to click for you to break into this industry. But I can tell you that I have been very persistent and while it may seem like I was living the dream, there were some very tough days to get to the finish line of putting that show out. 


I appreciate and admire the fact that others have had different journeys to get their films and shows off the ground. As I said earlier, anyone who manages to put down a complete story (whether published, made into a film or otherwise) is a winner in their own right. 


The real struggle is completing a story despite the odds, some of which are self-inflicted too.

 

4) What do you feel transforms a story into a great script and marketable concept? Can you elaborate on these elements?


Unlike a novel, for a film/series to be marketable, one must always be in sync with the market trends. So is somebody in India looking for an action thriller? Yes? Do you have one? Yes, I did... Albeit in the form of a book. No problem, I'll make the bible. But let's pitch it before the market trend shifts!


I think you need to be well aware of the ecosystem. 


After Joker, for example, I'm sure there are a bunch of executives scurrying around to make a 'dark, gritty, unsettling' version of what was otherwise a bubblegum superhero. 


Also, many times, you need to realise that while what you are pitching has to be novel and original, you also need to have a bunch of familiar tropes packaged in a way that makes executives feel safe about what they are greenlighting. 


I don't know, this is very subjective, and just one of my observations that might be wildly off the mark. But I know a bunch of shows that have been greenlit out here only because other shows on other platforms have done well. 


So each platform wants their version of the same story in a way. 

 

5) What advice do you have for other filmmakers and writers when It comes to networking and building professional relationships in the industry?



I am a bit of an introvert and a recluse myself. Networking doesn't come too naturally to me. 


So I think it's important to probably get an agent who can do that part of the job that you are not good at, perhaps. I think you just need to have a bunch of scripts, stories that people have read. And they should be good enough for them to talk about. Because if there's one thing that we can be certain of, it is that people talk. 


So if your work impresses them, it's sure to get around. Can even lead to your first deal. 


Personally, though, I equate excessive networking with being struck off the list for being annoying. Again, just a personal opinion.


It has worked greatly for some... But eventually, I think it is what you put down on the page that matters. 


And that only comes by virtue of patience, persistence and talent.

6) What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given for working in this industry, and would you mind sharing with us?

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Hussain Zaidi sir has given me a lot of advice and still helps me make a lot of decisions. Most of it is stuff that any mentor would tell their protege. But on a practical level, I think there's one thing that resonates with me the most... That is when you're working on a film, show, you are doing a job that strives on collaboration. Unlike a book, which is very personal and individually-driven. So you need to be open to feedback at all times... And even more so while working for an audio-visual medium, because you cannot afford to be rigid there.

From Shah Rukh sir, I have learnt that humility, dedication and hardwork is the only way you get to climb through the ranks. He has ruled the Bollywood industry as a star for about twenty-five years... But I see him show the same enthusiasm about his art every day. The day you slack with your art, is the day you are finished as an artist. That's something I have drawn just by observing him.

And third - from Emraan Hashmi, my friend and someone I look up to as a brother. (He's also the guy who played the protagonist in Bard of Blood), I learnt that no matter how many punches life throws at you, you need to endure. 

This is something I learnt while co-writing a biographical account of his son's battle with cancer (it's called The Kiss of Life). We we are all very lucky to be working in this industry... How many people can say they write, direct, act for a living? So through them, I've learnt that the passion for the craft cannot wear out... Because then you are out of the game too. 

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