Hollywood, and more specifically the stories created, produced and written by those working largely within the famed Los Angeles suburb, have dazzled and mystified audiences for roughly a century. What appears to be a creative and cinematic mecca to most outside the industry is simultaneously one of the most competitive atmospheres currently in existence. Every year flocks of hopeful directors, actors and writers attempt to find a lucrative niche for themselves within the tightly sealed creative space that is Hollywood, but only the most ambitious and motivated succeed in doing so. Vidya Iyer is one such talented screenwriter who has used her experiences previously working in various industries across multiple continents to mold engaging stories meant for a global audience. By successfully combining these worldly experiences with some fiction and a drive to make others laugh, cry, or wonder, Iyer has cemented a space for herself within the industry and intends to continue captivating audiences for years to come. We had a chance to ask the accomplished screenwriter about her most notable achievements, her journey towards working in the movie industry, and where her career goes from here.
What initially inspired you to want to pursue screenwriting both as a career avenue for yourself and also to share stories with audiences across the globe?
Iyer: I had always watched a lot of TV, cartoons, Disney shows and even Hindi soaps I watched with my mom growing up in Nigeria. It wasn’t until I moved to India when I was 12 that I started watched American sitcoms. I was alone and unsupervised so I started binge-watching shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Friends and I fell in love with TV, way before it was ‘cool’ to want to be in TV. TV families became my family and I was raised by television. They made me laugh when I felt lonely and I wanted to make other lonely kids laugh. I started writing fanfiction when I was 14 for the CW show Smallville before I thought screenwriting was an actual career I could pursue.
Telling stories and watching characters I knew go on adventures and get in and out of trouble, made me feel less isolated when I was alone. I grew up across two countries, Nigeria and India, before moving here. I realized slowly the importance of seeing different stories and different perspectives, especially with the world we’re living in being smaller and people having more of a global identity. It seemed almost serendipitous that I’ve now lived in 3 of the biggest movie producing nations in the world. For me, writing stories that not only translate across international borders, but actually represent a global point of view became a no-brainer
What were some of the first major screenplays you wrote, and how would you say your writing has evolved as your career has developed?
Iyer: The first screenplay I ever wrote was a Modern Family spec episode. It was joke heavy and had some good moments that captured the characters in that show. It came easy, because I loved the show and it felt like writing fanfiction in a different format. After that I wrote my first original pilot which is what I applied to film school with. I got into AFI with it, featuring the story of an Indian-American woman who tries to save her tech company in New York City when the venture capital funding doesn’t come through. I wrote what I loved and I think I have internalized so much of storytelling because I watched sitcoms with ferocious dedication.
Since then, I went to the AFI Conservatory and there I really learnt to consciously work on structure, meaning the rules and guideposts for a great screenplay. I fell in love with feature films and actually ended up winning the Sloan tuition grant for one of my feature screenplays. My writing has become more deliberate and genre fluid. I think earlier I let the screenplays write me, but I have gained immense control over the narrative that I want. I’ve also had the amazing chance to get feedback from amazing peers which has helped me identify the things that I need to work on consciously and the mistakes that I make. I’m a confident and refined storyteller in both TV and features now. Most recently, I was hired to write a thriller for an India-US co-production and had the best time writing it. I could see the difference in how my first draft in itself was polished and required less tinkering than it would’ve even a year ago.
Can you tell us a little bit about the premise of your short film Raksha, as well as some of the film festivals at which it has been shown?
Iyer: Raksha is a film that asks the question – are we the product of our circumstances or is fate inevitable? A young woman is told that she is cursed from birth and she must cleanse herself before she succumbs to her ominous destiny. The protagonist has spent her life being told that there is something fundamentally broken about her. Because she’s treated differently she believes that there is something wrong with her. The day of her cleansing ceremony, she must protect her sister, but if she does, she proves the prophecy made about her right.
Raksha will be showing in the LAAPFF next month. Programmed in over 12 festivals so far, our festival run is ongoing. Raksha won the best short film award at the Delhi International Short Film Festival and received accolades at the prestigious academy-accredited Best of India Shorts Festival as well.
Why do you think Raksha has been received so well by critics, including winning the best short film award at the Delhi International Short Film Festival?
Iyer: I think Raksha is a film that asks a universal question that keeps a lot of up at night. How much agency to we have in our lives as individuals? Do the decisions we make matter in the big picture? Or are our destinies pre-determined? Set in a heightened reality and drawing on some fantastical mythology, Raksha leaves audiences with a feeling of uncertainty. While we root for the protagonist to get a happy ending, we don’t know for sure if she will get what she really needs, despite getting what she wants.
Do you feel that are able to positively connect with people belonging to other cultures and regions through comedy?
Iyer: Comedy has gotten me through the hardest of times. If you can laugh at something, it loses its immensity and it immediately becomes more palatable. Whether it’s an opposing point of view, or a terrifying dictator or just your Asian tiger mom, laughter is universal and the desire to connect is universal. Comedy is rebellion in its most entertaining form .
Does doing improv comedy develop your understanding of comedy as a screenwriter and help you learn what people find funny and what they don’t?
Iyer: Improv has been immensely helpful to every aspect of my life. As a writer, I spend a lot of time in my own head, often to the point where I script the next few days of my life and am extremely disappointed when the rest of the world doesn’t follow my script. It helps me keep my desire for control at bay.
Besides that though, improv has helped my writing leaps and bounds. Scripts aren’t the final product, and having the chance to perform comedy has given me a great sense of comic timing, honing dialog and has made me more perceptive about what will work when actors put my words on their feet and perform scenes that I wrote.
What would you personally consider to be some of the more emotionally engaging projects you have written and/or worked on, and why were these instances unique?
Iyer: The feature I’m currently writing is based on true events. At its heart it’s a story of a mother-daughter relationship set against the backdrop of an action comedy. I’ve found that I gravitate towards stories that explore unique relationships in different contexts, be it socio-economic, cultural or high concept worlds. Writers always bring themselves to their stories and I’m no different. I find myself in different characters in my story and I enjoy making them do things I wouldn’t have the courage to do in real life. Going on those adventures on the page almost always ends with me having a profound anthropological epiphany about my own way of viewing life and the choices I make.
My next project is a short film I’ve written and am going to direct. It’s a pretty intense drama and something quite different from what I usually do, I realized this was a story I wanted to use to delve into a visual style and lean into writing concise arcs for my characters.
Are there any advantages you feel you have as a screenwriter due to your experience living around the world having encountered a wide array of people and stories?
Iyer: Definitely! My experience is so unique to me and that’s always an asset for a storyteller. I have had an upbringing that straddled different cultures, and ones that were often conflicting. It helps me write with incredible specificity. In the details, there is universality. Audiences across the globe can relate to stories about relationships, but having different contexts and seeing these relationships from the point of view of characters that have never before been seen on screen make for engaging films.
Are there any particular directors you aspire to work with looking forward to the future?
Iyer: If I’m going to be super aspirational and shoot for the stars, I’d love to work with Taika Waititi someday in the future. He has a penchant for comedic storytelling with a lot of heart that has always left me thrilled after watching his films. I also absolutely love Dee Rees. I’ve had the privilege of hearing her speak and she is an incredible person. Her films are the most deliberately made pieces I have ever seen. Every element of every scene in every shot of her movies is there because she knows the world of her movie inside and out. I would learn so much about my own craft just being in her presence.