The Arc Procject Update #1 – AI And Screenwriting

As an aspiring screenwriter I am drawn to all sorts of cunning methods and systems to get my stories together.  When completing the most recent draft of a story, I found myself taking advice from a well known screenwriting book: Save The Cat: “….Once you have your idea and identify the genre, ensure you watch as many films as you can within that genre”.

My story was about a journalist who must decide whether to publish a story of government corruption or not. Easy, right? I dug up a dozen films about journalists. When I viewed them all I noticed patterns, even cliches, that appeared over and over. I wondered if what I was writing would fall into the category of ‘over-familiar’. Or worse: un-inspired. Panic is an almost weekly emotion the screenwriter comes to terms with. Especially in the early phases of the writing process. And the middle. And, yes, the end. But this panic was special as I asked myself that hard question: write something familiar and people might connect to it. It’s like music: successful songs are echoes of ones we have heard before. And that familiarity could increase my chances of getting a script produced. The film industry, despite being a risky enterprise at the best of times, is at its heart quite risk averse. To write something a little unfamiliar means more fun in writing it but will that approach help me stand out from the other scripts in the pile?

To really answer this conundrum I had to assess my ideas with much more context. Were there other films about journalists that did not have cliched characters, and predictable storylines? What were they? How does my storyworld compare to films from the.. 1900s? (There I said it.) The Insider, Ace In The Hole, All The President’s Men, The Post etc, all accomplished and gripping movies. But if I found other, more unique films about journalists, would it be beneficial to see them all solely through my own perspective?

Cut to CERN, Geneva Switzerland. My last short film, a documentary about LIGO, played at the Cineglobe Film Festival. On the closing night, an AI scientist named Mohanty Sharada, CEO of research company The AI Crowd, conducted an experiment on stage. A Colombian pianist, plays a springy little jazz-infused ditty. A computer to his right, programmed by Mohanty, complemented the melody. I was stunned. The audience actually liked it. It was just a bit of fun, nothing that would break out on Tiktok. But it got me thinking how one could write with an AI.

Mohanty and I began to talk and we came up with the idea of perhaps writing a script together with a human writer (or writers) and an AI program, like the musician did.  We would need to feed a lot of scripts into an AI program, then start to play. It would be not unlike operating in a writer’s room. With ideas and shards of inspiration coming from left field, a duel with the writer would perhaps generate something  enjoyable, maybe moving, out of a story idea. I felt convinced such a process could only push a writer creatively but also take them a step towards escaping that prism of a single perspective. While we value the auteur lens, in the writing process we want to step back at certain points and know we are connecting with something outside of ourselves. Like, you know, an audience. An AI may not react like an audience, but it is drawing its calculated conclusions from scripts that have connected with an industry and with movie-goers. To me that is invaluable insight towards making a film that works, and making sure writers continue to write more films.

But I immediately ran into some resistance:

“AI? Oh. Oh, no.” said my friend, the cinematographer.

“Do you want to be hated by every writer in the world?” Said a fellow screenwriter.

“What scripts will you feed into the AI? Will this just be a repeat of a sexist and prejudiced past in movie making?’ asked another writer.

There was resistance and curiosity which had to be explored. So we held a workshop just before Christmas with local filmmakers Fison Ali, Andreas Climènt and Måns Thunberg and Mohanty’s team.  We worked together for a whole day to help the research team understand the writer’s process, their struggles and their fears. And along the way we think our writers felt a bit closer to the AI world too. The highlights from this workshop will be published on this blog. Along with a series of interviews I will conduct with experienced film practitioners and technologists in Sweden and internationally to get their perspective on AI in the industry. I want to understand how AI is being used as a tool, and confront the myths and fears around AI head on.

Technology is being used to produce films the world over. The streamers embrace it, distributors pay for data and visual effects houses run on AI. As writers, if we do not come to terms with and grasp the role technology plays in movie making, and thereby culture making, we might find ourselves much more vulnerable to progress that we like to admit.

Over the next few months, I will share information, observations and notes on this journey. Into AI and screenwriting. This is an experiment, rooted in exploring how to enhance our creativity. The routes and discussions that we discover  will surely mean more questions will emerge. Like a compelling film, sometimes it is good to not know where you are in the story. Let’s see where we end up.

Hussain Currimbhoy