“Write Without a Censor” Veena Sud on Quibi’s ‘The Stranger’


Quibi entered our small screens with much fanfare as filmmakers and viewers alike tried to figure out the correct way to hold their mobile devices – vertically or horizontally. More importantly, how does this viewing configuration affect the storytelling process? We spoke with Veena Sud who is no stranger to gripping television.

What intrigued me about the Quibi platform was the other type of sandbox it offered as a storyteller,” said screenwriter Veena Sud, who is best known for her work on Cold Case, The Killing, and Seven Seconds. 

What I loved about the Quibi is the idea that we are so organically attached to the devices in our hands. The device offers a way to tell a story that offers two things: interactivity and a radically different type of palette.

Quibi is a short-form mobile platform co-created by Jeffrey Katzenberg, producer of movies like Shrek, The Prince of Egypt, and The Road to El Dorado and tech CEO Meg Whitman.

Phones are designed to be held in our hands, and thus the screens will be held vertically, so I had to be ready when we shot [The Stranger] in potentially having an audience member screen on the polar opposite of this aspect-ratio.

The challenge for Quibi creators is to make content that can be viewed horizontally or vertically (Quibi changes the aspect-ratio when you turn your screen, so vertical isn’t just “the middle”, but what the creator intended you to see).

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Veena Sud (Photo by Angela Lewis for The New York Times)

So, the challenge then became: how do you create an experience that is fascinating, lush, propulsive, and intriguing, on that size screen as you would on a traditional horizontal screen?

For this challenge, Sud reached out to Paul Yee, the Cinematographer behind The Fits and Colewell. “His camera movement in The Fits was very lyrical and beautiful. That’s what I sensed I needed on The Stranger – a camera oriented on movement.”

Instead of thinking of East and West, like widescreen, we had to think of depth.” With all of these viewing parameters in mind, Sud created The Stranger, a story about an unassuming rideshare driver who picks up a nightmare passenger.

Writing The Stranger

In a previous interview, we spoke with Sud about “slow-burn storytelling,” which applied to the rhythm and tone of our work. The Stranger, of course, is somewhat the opposite of her previous formula because it is told at a faster pace.

The Stranger was definitely more of a hybrid of television and movie,” she said of the 13-episode series (episodes range from about five to fifteen minutes each). “We shot it like a movie and edited it – to some degree – like a television show. We wrote both ways.”

Specifically, Sud wrote the story with a three-act structure in mind and then went through the full script to see where she was at every ten pages or so. For the most part, it wasn’t quite this simple, so Veena had to re-think the act structure.

“In television, the number of acts has changed over time, but the acts that I’ve worked with on the last two shows have usually been about ten minutes each, so thinking about ten-minute increments felt natural.

The screenwriter broke the episode up sort of like episodes of the show Kiefer Sutherland-led show 24, with each episode earning a title like “7:00 PM” or “6:00 AM.” Then, the challenge was making sure it didn’t feel repetitive.

The outs [or episode endings] would feel repetitive if I kept doing the same thing,” she said. “It would feel like a one-trick pony, so I had to be mindful and use the out of, ‘Is the hero a reliable narrator?’ or ‘Is our hero in fact, crazy?’”

Specifically, this meant making the audience wonder if Dane DeHaan’s (Valerian) character was real, or just a figment of Maika Monroe’s (It Follows) character’s imagination. “So, there were definitely different points of excitement.

Weaponizing Audience Technology

Another interesting aspect of this particular story is that Sud weaponizes two things the viewer has with them during the viewing: their mind and their phone.

Ultimately, the story itself is about being watched and followed by someone who has access to you because you walk around with a phone, which for the most part, we all do. The truth is, technology is moving at such a hyper-speed, we don’t have time to think of the ethical implications before the technology is developed.

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Maika Monroe plays Clare in The Stranger (Photo by Ryan Donegan)

Veena Sud is known for deep research (she interviewed Trayvon Martin’s mother for Seven Seconds), so she sat down with AI developers to discuss the implications of AI, where one person said they felt like Oppenheimer with the atomic bomb (“Now I have become Death, the Destroyer of worlds,” said the physicist about his life’s work).

Elon Musk, among others, is concerned with what might happen when AI is truly unleashed, so Sud naturally wanted to address these ideas in small ways in her show. “For example, social media can predict patterns in addiction and relapse, which is a real thing.

There’s an interesting meta to the series, where you’re watching a woman being tracked by a lunatic on her phone, and learning as you watch, that your phone is making you pretty vulnerable in ways that you never suspected.”

Fast-Paced Storytelling

I have come from my own ethos of slow-burn. I like the contemplative story and I like being able to spend time looking at the screen and spending long amounts of time getting to know the characters. The challenge of this was that I didn’t have the time.

Viewing the work as somewhat of a writing exercise, Sud said the fast-paced narrative and the platform helped shape the story. “It was trying a whole new set of muscles, to create a story that’s hyper-propulsive and keeps you on the edge of your seat.”

Sud felt the limitations were freeing, rather than restrictive. The story is thematically focused on dystopia, technology, feminism, radical anger, toxic masculinity, and also elements of “female rage.”

Take all of that and put it in the space of six minutes was a huge challenge and also really satisfying.” On top of all this, since the show mostly takes place at night, the crew had to reverse sleep schedules to stay awake for the five-week shoot. 

We shot all locations in Los Angeles at night. Switching into vampire mode for five weeks was harder than I thought, but it was also really exciting because the characters are in this homage to Los Angeles, and parts of the city we don’t really see on the big screen.

Referring to “the lost LA” or “the mysterious Los Angeles,” she said, “While we were shooting the LA of yesteryear, we were in it – at night, at 2:00 am. Getting to know LA at night was fascinating, but hard physically.”

Short-Form Characters

Settings aside, the next obvious focus was character. DeHaan’s character Carl E. is extreme, to say the least. “I really wanted to create a character who is completely arrogant, who was entitled, who was absolutely one hundred percent sure of his dominance, and sure that he would win this fight…

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Dane DeHaan plays Carl E. (Photo by Ryan Donegan)

In the first episode, Carl E. messages Monroe’s Clare through a rideshare program. “It’s no accident this dropped [in time] for the upcoming 2020 election. Carl E. came from a lot of rage, for me. Post-2016 and post-Harvey [Weinstein], there’s a lot of amorphous rage that women are feeling.”

The screenwriter wanted this character to “epitomize the arrogance, entitlement and toxic masculinity that we’ve become so immune to,” she said, adding, “It’s horrifying that this is what is leading this nation. It is a revenge fantasy.

As a viewer, because Carl E. is so extreme (and because his name has the same letters as Clare’s name), there’s also an added element of wondering “is he real?” along with the questions of Clare’s mental state and history with mental issues.

Along with the realities of the present day, there are fable elements within the story, which include The Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, and other elements of moving from a “monochromatic world to a hyper-technical, surreal nightmare of neon Los Angeles.” Making note that there are coyotes and bears living in and around Los Angeles (Sud has a bear in her neighborhood), she said she also loves the idea of “the urban meets the wild.”

As for Clare, there are various elements to consider, but we know she’s new to the area, potentially coming from an unstable place, and yet, fundamentally stronger than she seems, even to herself.

I was interested in a woman who has to meet her worst nightmare and, in the process of one night, face all her demons. Whether that was not being believed or manifested in front of her with this man who hates women, I was fascinated with taking a woman who seems frail, weak, damaged, and seeing her rise to the occasion.”

Thinking about Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, Sud said, “there’s a sense of power [today] that we are capable of speaking the truth about what has happened in the lives of women, and having those people held accountable.

Stories From Headlines

Much of Sud’s work comes from the headlines and happenings in today’s zeitgeist. Logistically, she describes her creative process as “amorphous,” meaning she immerses herself in the work.

After doing a television show, I tell my friends it’s time to fill the well, which means nothing and everything. It means reading, watching documentaries without any purpose, just following what’s interesting to me that day.

Specifically, she’s exploring different aspects of life and looking for something that will “start a thought.” Sud said, “Many times, nothing comes from it. It’s just for pleasure. With Seven Seconds, it was turning on the television, where every night, another black man or child is killed by the police.”

I think that the world just comes in as the world is,” she said. “For me, it’s the notion and clarity that whatever I’m writing is something I may be doing for years. It takes time to develop something. It’s a very long process, especially with television, so whatever comes in has to sink deep, deep, deep in my bones.”

Then, there’s this magical thing about what I know I can commit to. This is a story I can commit to. It’s never something I seek. It’s on the voyage of looking around the world that I find it, or it finds me.

With this in mind, each story is a major responsibility, but shouldn’t be seen as an obligation. “As creators, we write and spend time with the stories and people that break our hearts, that are our truths, that speak to us in our DNA and cellular structure. There’s never an idea of obligation. I just feel it and know it. I know what it feels like to not be heard, or to be seen as not telling the truth, or to be a second class citizen. That comes from who I am.”

All writers write what we know to a certain degree, so that comes from a place of catharsis, to tell her story as that of redemption. Art is how we hope to see ourselves and how we hope to be the heroes in our lives.

Having said that, this is why it’s important in our industry to have diverse voices because all stories come from the heart and if you haven’t walked in the shoes of a person who is a particular member of society, it’s very hard to tell those stories in a way that’s authentic, true, and that resonates.

Secrets of the Trade

I absolutely suffer from writer’s block. I have found the best remedy comes when I’m not thinking about writing or feeling the obligation to do it. When I’m on a show, as a Showrunner, there’s so much going on that trying to write for three hours is not even productive.

Sud said she somewhat tricks herself into writing when she suffers the dreaded writers’ block. “If I have something that I have to do a rewrite on, I will go to be and tell myself, ‘Let me just read this.’” Since she reads before bed anyway, she’s physically and mentally in a position that takes the pressure off the work.

Even though she knows what she’s doing – meaning you can’t really trick yourself – the environment and mindset actually encourage her to write, without the restraint of sitting at the desk for a block of time.

Something about sitting up against a bunch of pillows and knowing my routine is just to read is helpful to me. I do that, and when I’m developing or writing full time, I will give myself a bunch of hours in the morning and try not to do much before it, so the censor hasn’t woken up yet,” she joked. “I can just write without any obligation. I usually hate it, but then look back and it’s not bad.

The final trick, she learned with a pencil and pad while on a five-hour flight. “The other trick I do and I can’t believe how useful it is is that when I’m really stuck, I’ll write long-hand. So, the theme for all this is: you’re not obligated for any of this to be any good, just do it. Trick yourself not to take things too seriously. It allows us to breathe without having to think with the censor jumping in and saying, ‘I will never be able to shoot that.’”

This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio interview here. 

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