Motwane opens up about the execution of Netflix's first show in India.
By Netflix's own admission, Sacred Games (Netflix's first Indian Original) was the platform's most-watched show in India. The web series literally set the 'series' ball rolling in the country. Till then, Indians were used to watching full length feature films or long-winded soap operas on TV. This year at vdonxt asia, afaqs!' flagship digital video convention, we had Applause Entertainment's Sameer Nair and director, producer and screenwriter Vikramaditya Motwane deconstruct the challenge of creating premium dramas.
While the candid conversation started with how it all began, it touched upon several tricks of trade leading all the way to where it stands today. Motwane was the showrunner and co-director of Sacred Games.
We picked highlights from the interview and carved out Nair's questions alongside Motwane's responses. We have also included the video of the complete session at the end of this article.
Where did it all start from? There was a book..did they (Netflix) approach you or was it the other round?
I was in LA on holiday (in 2016) and I asked my agent if I needed to meet somebody before I headed back. He said that there was a company called Netflix. They hadn't launched in India yet and they were about to launch globally in 190 countries. I met them again two months later. I was asked if I had read the book. I lied and said that I had, since Vikram Chandra was the author. I had to speed read the 1000 page book in a week before heading into the meeting. I walked into the meeting room and Chandra himself was sitting there. That's when I realised that this was serious.
The month after that, they were in town, we were talking to writers two weeks after that and another couple of weeks later, we were already signed up. It was very quick and very aggressive. They knew what they wanted.
Tell me about the process, from a 1000 page book to adapting it...
There's quite a bit of deviation. It is a beautiful book but it is not written as a dramatic series. The most exciting parts were those clickbait-like cliff hangers at the end of those episodes. The water cooler conversations in offices four or five years ago would be about movies, and ever since Game of Thrones became a big thing, these conversations are about shows like Breaking Bad, Chernobyl, Mad Men...
I think when you are watching them, you feel like you are part of the curve. Like in case of movies, you hope that there is an audience out there but then you realise that they are all online instead of being in the theatres.
How did that play out as there were a lot of creative people involved, as compared to a film which happens to be more of an individual expression..?
I didn't know what a showrunner meant. But then, you figure out that you are like that constant creative voice and you are going to be supervising the writers and then the post production. We had already done so much of this at Phantom ( Anurag Kashyap's production and distribution company), it was not a difficult thing to do. We had another lead writer which meant I could sit back and not get my hands dirty unless I had to.
We lost our lead writer about a month and a half in and we had to bring in Varun Grover who became the new lead writer. He came in late and he had to catch up. But Netflix is strict on time. They offered to have somebody from the UK and the US come down and help us. I refused it.
So there was no 'international consultant' in the first season?
No, there wasn't. It was great working with Netflix as there wasn't a corporation, there were only three people. The feedback was one-to-one. The creative feedback would be - just pick up the phone and talk. We learnt a lot. If we had a consultant coming in, we would have a guideline that we would have to follow instead of doing it ourselves. We really aimed for a killer pilot. It was Netflix's first show in India.
Before we even sent it out for reading, we did at least eight to ten drafts. Both Saif and Nawaz responded immediately. It was two parallel stories running simultaneously. So, on a production level, to put a director from prep and shoot in one world to prep and shoot in another over multiple episodes is difficult. That's when we decided to split it. I would do one world and Anurag (Kashyap) would do the other.
With so many creative minds involved, who takes the final call?
The final call would be between me and Kelly (Luegenbiehl) (Netflix's vice president, International Originals). Although contractually they had the final call, it never came to that. It was more like one creative person convincing another.
Was it open from a timeline point? I mean, there was no fixed date...
There wasn't, but they were already under pressure as Amazon was already going to release two shows. We started shooting late (around September 2017) and had to launch in July 2018. There wasn't a lot of time.
You came from a feature film background but had a reasonable amount of control on the production, writing, etc... How much of a change occurred in your own thinking and approach?
You have to trust the writing and try and cut out all the fat from the script even before you shoot it . On a feature, you tend to keep a bit of the fat, but on a show, whatever is not required just has get out. Secondly, you have to start trusting your actors to be able to put in performances. On a feature, I will have to shoot a scene with 25 shots, but for a show, this has to be done in 10.
Can you tell us about the things that went wrong?
The wonderful part is, we really didn't know what we were doing and were just figuring it out along the way. You need to budget the show right in the beginning and you don't have the script ready. You literally cross your fingers and say a number. And then trying to make it work is like a roller coaster ride.
Season one was a smashing hit. We hear a lot about Netflix's data analytics and intelligence. What sort of inputs did you get from the platform for Season two?
Nothing actually. Season two's writing was already underway while we were in post production of season one. Anything we knew was the usual social media response. I wish we had more time on the writing of season two.
In India, we have creative people who have either made films or soap operas. We've never had our HBO moment. What are the challenges of matching the international standards and telling an Indian story?
The biggest difficulty is to tell varied and original stories with a consistent quality of writing. In everything that has come out since the start of streaming including Sacred Games has seen more misses than hits as far as writing consistency is concerned. Instead of going wide, we are going narrow with the type of stories. The way to be ready is to give writers and creators the freedom to expand the width of writing instead of being narrowed down by a network.
In other industries, they have 'technology transfer'. Do you think in our case we need to have more international collaborations to help us do it better?
We need really good, creative minded producers who are passionate and will put the project and the writing etc together. We are a very director based industry and there is a massive shortage of producers. Yes, we need some amount of guidance from the West.
Tell me more about your new one - Stardust.
It's with Amazon and it's a fictional take on the Indian film industry from 1947 to around 1989 and has around four seasons.
(This interview was conducted in Mumbai on January 29, 2020, at the 4th edition of vdonxt asia, an annual convention on the business of online video, organised by afaqs!.)