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Being a Story Custodian: A Conversation with 'Rise' Screenwriter Arash Amel

The Antetokounmpos family story couldn’t have been placed in better hands than with screenwriter Arash Amel. The 'A Private War' writer, through artful storytelling and characters cemented in their values, quietly and confidently conveys a story of hope and victory. He didn’t seek out the story, it found him.
A scene still from Disney's live-action RISE, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A scene still from Disney's live-action RISE, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sports movies are inspirational because they tap into man’s primal nature and promote triumph of the spirit. During Roman gladiator games, human titans had to fight for survival. Though the battles were usually stopped before someone was killed, the threat of death prompted feral fighting. The Russell Crowe starrer Gladiator displayed those rituals in all their brutal glory.

The first competitive sports game was polo. Reserved for the 1% in Persia, it took place 2,500 years ago. Lacrosse was a sport Native Americans played in the 1600s and is the first recorded team sport in America, witnessed by Europeans. These forms of play were certainly more civilized than the gladiator encounters.

In modern times, the nexus of popular team sports revolves around football, basketball, and baseball. Unlike football and baseball, basketball didn’t evolve from other games. It was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith. Springfield, MA is the birthplace of the perennially popular game.

The National Basketball Association, the NBA, was born in 1946 and carries on the tradition of fostering b-ball warriors. One of the most inspiring stories to come out of this arena in the last few years is the story of the Antetokounmpos family. It is a tale of heart, determination, and faith. The family emigrated from Nigeria to Turkey to Greece, barely making ends meet. They strived for Greek citizenship but encountered brick walls due to a system that didn’t want them to thrive. Parents Charles and Vera, played with clear-eyed sincerity by Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki, respectively, in the upcoming Rise do whatever they can to survive and keep their family together. Once their sons Giannis (Uche Agada) and Thanasis (Ral Agada) start playing with a youth basketball league, they soon encourage their sons dreams of achieving more in the world of basketball. One doesn’t have to love to watch or play basketball to appreciate the story. It’s a prime example to youth of how love, hard work, and determination can help you capture your dreams.

Directed by Akin Omotoso, Rise premieres on Disney+ on June 24, 2022. The story couldn’t have been placed in better hands than with screenwriter Arash Amel. The A Private War writer, through artful storytelling and characters cemented in their values, quietly and confidently conveys a story of hope and victory. He didn’t seek out the story, it found him.

Arash Amel

Arash Amel

"The project was submitted to me via Disney and Bernie Goldmann, who was the producer. It was shortly after A Private War came out. It was late 2018 and it just popped up one day in my inbox. I was extremely intrigued."

The Iranian-Welsh producer and screenwriter isn’t averse to a challenge. He frequently tackles stories about real people, mining the stories for universal truths and the characters’ emotional algorithm. It’s quite a departure from writing about fictional characters.

"The biggest challenge is balancing truth and drama. Sometimes, there are elements that don’t work from a dramatic perspective. So, you might end up with a five- or six-hour movie that you have to start compressing and compacting and making some creative choices. Or dramatically it's not heightened enough and there are no setups and payoffs. The challenge is trying to mine the dramatic elements while at the same time staying true to the events as they happen and the spirit of how they happened.

With Rise, this was the first time in my career that I have worked on a true-life story where the story is actually continuing. The day that we wrapped shooting, June 20, the Milwaukee Bucks won their championship with Giannis. It didn’t affect historical elements of the story; it did affect other elements in the story. That was the challenge on this occasion. With posthumous or historical projects, you have more leeway. You have to be lighter on your feet when it’s something that’s more current.

This is a sports story that’s really the story of a family. The biggest challenge was how do you construct a story that can play at two levels? It was marrying the two storylines of a family that was working against the odds to achieve an impossible dream, while at the same time portraying the intensity and the stakes of the basketball that became the tool to the family’s growth."

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Many writers have a writing process that is failsafe no matter what project they’re working on. Arash is an “outliner” and follows a particular routine that works for him no matter what project he’s working on. Being a parent has altered his routine a little, but he hunkers down in his office from noon to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. He’s not one of those people who believes you have to constantly be at the keyboard.

"I purposely don’t write on the weekends. Writing is a process that needs to germinate. I wrote the script for Rise pretty quickly. I had my first meeting on it in January of 2019. After that meeting with Bernie Goldmann and the Disney Executive Chaz Salembier, I wrote down six or seven bullet points stating what the movie should be. It took us eight or nine months of research. I was with the family extensively and they were extremely open. I delivered my treatment at the beginning of the following year, January 2020. The treatment took six to eight weeks and was twenty-five to thirty pages. The first draft was delivered in March of 2020. Then we went into a pandemic…! The entire process was fourteen to fifteen months, with the bulk of it being the research.

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That’s kind of my process, particularly with these true-life stories. The more you start to live in the shoes of those characters and in the details of the story, the more your story starts to gel. When it comes to the actual writing, the treatment becomes a structural process. Outlining is the beginning of that process. I wrote a strict twenty-five-to-thirty-page treatment for Rise. The structure and tone didn’t change when it became a script or when it was a fully fleshed-out film. It doesn’t work for all writers, but for me, this type of writing process has been invaluable.

I find the first forty pages to be the most important and the most difficult of a script. The entirety of a movie and good story structure takes place in those first forty pages. You can sell a script on a strong first forty pages."

[L-R] Yetide Badaki as Vera, Ral Agada as Thanasis, Elijah Sholanke as Alexandros, Uche Agada as Giannis, Dayo Okeniyi as Charles, and Jaden Osimuwa as Kostas in RISE, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

[L-R] Yetide Badaki as Vera, Ral Agada as Thanasis, Elijah Sholanke as Alexandros, Uche Agada as Giannis, Dayo Okeniyi as Charles, and Jaden Osimuwa as Kostas in RISE, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Every project can be a learning experience for a writer but sometimes the greatest lessons are in failures.

"I learned a lot with Grace of Monaco. It was a very well-received screenplay. It had a very public, infamous journey in terms of it becoming a movie and it’s a real cautionary tale. What I learned from that was that the screenplay is not the movie. When you’re a young screenwriter, what you start to see are the gaps between the screenplay as it’s written and the movie it becomes. I tell a lot of screenwriters that I work with and mentor that you have to start to look at the script as the movie it’s going to become and the production and writing challenges that you’re likely to face. I think you take your lessons from what you’d consider your failures and Grace of Monaco was the biggest lesson for me."

Selling a script doesn’t mean that it will get made. Often, that first screenplay sale is a calling card for representation or a better writing project.

"My first paid screenwriting gig was in 2011 and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was with 20th Century Fox. It was an idea that they’d brought to me. They wanted to make an epic gladiator-style movie with King Tutankhamun, the pharaoh. That was my first paid assignment. The way I got it was I’d moved to L.A. from England in the middle of 2009. I had a manager. I wrote a couple of TV pilots and a couple of screenplays. I managed to get the interest of CAA. There was one coordinator there who’d just become an agent who’s now actually my manager. He’s been so for about eleven years now. He really believed in my writing and in me. He really went out on a limb and convinced the 20th Century Fox executive to take a shot on me and he did. The movie didn’t get made but the script was well-received enough that it then continued to get me other work. It gave me the confidence to write Grace of Monaco.

It's important for screenwriters to have representation that believes in you. Representation for its own sake I have found doesn’t have a lot of value. I’ve had bad managers and agents in the past. I’ve been with the same team now for the last ten years. They’re my friends, confidantes, and allies. I trust them implicitly. You 100% need representation in this business, a writer can’t do it alone. However, that representation should be someone you’re close to in terms of trust and loyalty."

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In the wake of completing Rise, Arash has several other projects brewing. He recently realized that there is a particular type of character he gravitates towards when choosing to write a story.

"I just finished a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers biopic at Amazon with Jamie Bell and Margaret Qualley. I have another project at Disney that’s going to be announced imminently.

I find I like characters who are outsiders. They could be an undocumented immigrant family in Greece, like in Rise. A project that I just finished, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, which Guy Ritchie is set to direct at Paramount, is about the first Black Ops team that was created by Winston Churchill during WWII. That’s being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. That’s a group of outsiders who are operating against the odds.

Also, the power of faith also typically plays a role in almost everything I write."

Screenwriters usually fall in love with the movies at an early age. When Arash visited Disneyland and Universal Studios as a kid, he became fascinated with Hollywood and had to get his hands on any information he could about writing.

"When I was six years old, my father worked for Iranian television. After the revolution, we were planning to move to America. Unfortunately, my father didn’t get his visa. So, myself, my two-year-old brother, and my mom came to Los Angeles. My grandfather was here. We were waiting for my father to get his visa. I ended up going to Universal Studios and Disneyland. I’d seen my father make documentaries in Iran. Now, here’s Hollywood and I was like, ‘What is this place?’ My dad didn’t get his visa. We ended up having to move to London, where he did get his visa. Hollywood and American cinema had made an impression on me. I became obsessed with movies. This was late 80s, early 90s. I went to a bookshop in London called Foyle’s and got Syd Fields’ Screenplay and The Screenwriter’s Workbook. Then I just started writing." 

Rise premieres on Disney+ on June 24, 2022.