Up-Close And Personal With The Co-Writer of Liar Series
Co-Head Writer Of The Award-Winning Liar Series Talks About Her Craft
Mayang Al-Mohdar is the co-head writer behind some of the most gripping TV series and movies to hit Malaysian screens of late, including the award-winning series Liar.
She is a Yale graduate in economics and a mother of one daughter. Mayang finds scriptwriting rewarding and spoke to LisAffair recently about her craft. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mohani: Hi Mayang. What are some of the latest TV series and movies that you have been working on?
Mayang: The latest TV series is called Liar, a thriller shown on Astro. It’s about a man and a woman who go on a date, and then the next day, they have differing accounts of what happened on the date.
The series covers the aftermath of this. The audience doesn’t know who’s telling the truth and for quite a few episodes, they have to figure it out.
Liar received the silver prize at the Content Asia Awards 2023 and had very good audience numbers for Astro. It also won big at the 2023 Asian Academy Creative Awards.
The one that’s coming up soon in November is for Amazon Prime, a series for which I was the head writer for called Entitled. It is a corporate drama about a rich family who has a business.
Two brothers are fighting over who’s going to take over the business, but unbeknownst to them, there are actually three generations of secrets and scandals that are about to undo everything that they’re doing. So it’s kind of like a violent family drama.
I have also just been a part of the writing team for Dawn Raid, the film about the Guthrie Dawn Raid. There has been a trailer for around six years, and it’s never been made.
Finally, we’re at the stage with a workable script and enough funding to make the film which should come out next year. I expect a lot of buzz on that one.
It’s a big historical film and it’s going to be patriotic. It should be very interesting because it sets up some of the things that Malaysia has done in its own way that pioneered certain ways of wealth management that other countries later on, especially that of the global south, modelled on. It will be a feature film and will be shown in cinemas.
Mohani: How did you get into scriptwriting and what motivates you to continue working as a scriptwriter?
Mayang: Sometime around 2005, I started working in TV and video-making in general, mainly as a researcher and a producer in London.
It was all in documentaries. I worked for the BBC and National Geographic, and also on various documentaries for all kinds of TV channels in the UK.
But I was a little disillusioned with documentaries as I find them quite manipulative. I started slowly preferring fiction because it has a certain honesty as everybody knows it’s made up – there is no idea that anything you see is remotely true.
So it’s a fair contract with your audience.
But what really pushed me at the end to writing is prior to that I wasn’t really writing. I did a little bit of documentary scripting.
But documentary scripts are not the same as fiction scripts. I knew that my daughter was coming.
I wanted to move into a job that would allow me to be a little bit more flexible with my time, and also that I wouldn’t have to run around all the time because production can be a very physically exhausting job.
So, I slowly transitioned from production to writing, but the truth is, writing for film and TV or perhaps writing in general is not easy to get into, especially in film and TV as there are a lot of barriers.
For instance, in TV, even though there is actually a lot of content now in Malaysia in recent years because of online stuff, such as Netflix and Amazon, it has created a huge boom in content.
There’s actually a lot of work out there, but the problem is because people watch things online, they don’t necessarily pay for TV or Astro.
Budgets can be relatively tight. Therefore, production companies are very picky about writers and will not really hire writers unless you have already got credit for TV shows.
But that means new writers never get a chance. If no one’s gonna ever give them a chance, how do they get credit, right?
So you’re kind of stuck. It’s actually quite difficult to get your first foot into writing.
But I was lucky because of my production background. I had a friend who was an actress and a showrunner.
She was going to become a showrunner for her first TV show and she needed somebody to produce and I said no, I don’t want to produce anymore – I’m getting ready for a new side of my life [with my daughter].
And she said, well, actually, I need a head writer because I need somebody that not only can write but somebody that can work across all the writers so it’s closer to being like a story producer.
I said yes. And that was what allowed me to get started. So I was the story producer, head writer and staff writer for a couple of that series called Devoted, available on VIU. And once I had that credit that opened the door to other TV shows, from then on, it was quite easy to get other jobs.
Mohani: What makes a good script in your view?
Mayang: A lot of writers write from a place of passion and interest – they love TV or film.
I’m not saying I don’t love TV, or I don’t love film, but for many writers, that’s their focus. That’s the thing that makes them want to write.
Whereas, the head writer is very close to being a producer – you have to have that creative side but you also have to be a problem solver.
You have to make everything fit in, including the timelines and budget. Whatever story you’re doing has to mesh perfectly with all the practical sides of making a TV show or a film.
What makes a good script depends on who the script is for. Why you are writing that script will determine what kind of script you’re going to do, and therefore gives you the parameters to judge whether it’s a good script or a bad script.
Some things are very, very simple. It’ll be like running time. For example, if you’re writing a TV series, you have got 10 episodes, they’re 45 minutes each, so don’t give me a two-hour-long script. I can’t do anything with it.
Things like an intimate understanding and mastery of structure are really, really important as well.
Yes, there are some extremely amazing scripts that are very loose in structure, but they tell the story really well. If you don’t understand the structure, you won’t be able to write a good script.
Because if you understand the structure, then you will also understand how to break the rules of structure. It’s to make sure that your story and your characters can still come through and still be strong and connect to people even though you break the structure.
Writing is communication. Actually, in some forms of communicating feelings, you’re communicating plot, you’re communicating character, and what a person goes through.
If you’re only thinking about yourself, then you cannot communicate. By definition, communication is an act of sharing with someone else.
So the receiver is, in many ways, just as important as the giver. If the receiver does not understand what you’re trying to say, then it is pointless.
Mohani: Do you gauge the quality of the script through feedback such as reviews and ratings?
Mayang: No, not necessarily. I mean, sure, you put something out, and you hope that people like it but I don’t think you need to go that far.
You have to already know how to do this before you can make a film, you cannot go in and go “I don’t know how to communicate.
I’m just gonna write this and I will go to Astro and say please spend two hundred thousand or seven hundred thousand on this.”
Be a good communicator first. There are many ways to learn how to do this. You can learn by yourself, there are so many online courses now and you can write short scripts for yourself first, and practice.
But like any other skill, it requires practice and mastery in understanding why. So when I say structure, it means very simply like a three-act structure, and knowing how it works.
Would you allow somebody to fix your car based on potential? Obviously not. Or give you open heart surgery? It’s just not gonna happen.
The other important thing is character. Your audience needs to know who these people are, why they do what they do, and that their actions are consistent with the character that you have already developed.
Without character, you have nothing. You can have a film or even a short story that’s all about a character with barely any plot and barely any structure.
If that character is strong, you will still have plenty of people that will be into it. Because they can feel the connection to another human being and believe in this person. Something like the movie ‘Lost in Translation’.
Mohani: How lucrative is scriptwriting in Malaysia? How much can a good script fetch in this country?
Mayang: It really depends. For TV series, wages have stagnated for a long time, especially with COVID. It’s not an easy industry, especially in recent years, it’s a lot of work but not necessarily a lot of money. But you will generally be paid about an absolute minimum. You’ll be paid around the RM4000 mark for a half-hour to 45-minute script. But that’s the low end.
In reality, it will probably be closer to about RM6000 per script. For TV, you might write three or four scripts to two to four episodes generally – you wouldn’t write all of it because you can’t.
It’s not physically possible for you to write all the episodes. In a series, you will have a writer’s room with three to five writers depending on the length of the season.
You will need a larger team of writers. Writers generally write between two to four scripts per season.
Mohani: Can you run us through the screenwriting process a bit?
Mayang: TV is more straightforward much more structured and much more stable, as far as income and as far as how much time goes, especially for someone like me who has a child.
So the process will be once a TV show has been greenlit, by a company, say, TV3, Astro, Amazon, Netflix or whoever, they agree this is the budget, the number of episodes and most importantly, the money and time.
That’s when the process starts for writers. Once that happens, the production company will start looking for the people that they need, including writers, directors, post-production actors, locations, etc.
Although with locations and stuff, you’re mainly waiting for the script. But a lot of the other stuff you might prepare early.
Then you get your head writer or story producer, who’s going to be taking care of everything.
And then that head writer, together with the producer, the producers, and anyone else will start bringing together your staff writers – i.e. your team of writers that will be writing the episodes for that season.
You’ll be looking for four to six people, you will be telling them how much they get paid per episode, you will be telling them roughly what the show is about and what time is required, etc.
This is so that the writers can make sure that their schedules make sense and whether to accept the job or not.
Then you have your writer’s room, which will run for a few weeks. You will all sit together in the room every single day and basically go through everything that the show will contain.
In the writer’s room, we all sit together usually with a producer as well to help us with some of the logistics.
But fundamentally in that writer’s room, what you’re doing is you’re creating a Bible for the whole show. And your Bible is made up of the same two parts — essentially, the first part is character.
Who are your characters? Who are they? How old are they? What are they like? Why do they do the things they do? What is their backstory? What is their relationship with the other characters?
The second part of it is the beats for every episode according to the structure – i.e. act one, act two, act three, etc. And then you will work out what happens, your plot lines in each act.
When you’re working out plot lines, you have to think: “Okay, does this make sense to the character?”
Once you have worked all of that out, which takes a very, very long time, then only you decide amongst yourself who wants to do what episodes.
Mohani: Can you tell me the most interesting aspects of the job?
Mayang: What I like most about scriptwriting is that I’m able to be creative. I enjoy work. I enjoy crafting stories. I enjoy thinking through what a character might do.
I enjoy embodying these people. I think it helps me think about humanity, and how people do the things they do. It helps me understand society and other people.
It helps me be more empathetic to other human beings because I spend so much of my time thinking about why people might act a certain way, even when they act badly.
What is it that motivates them to act badly? And what are they feeling? How is it affecting the world, right? I really, really enjoy that. Writing allows me to do that.
Writing for TV shows and stuff allows me to investigate the human condition in a fun way. I guess that’s why I love writer’s rooms.
Mohani: Do you think you’re a good scriptwriter?
Mayang: Yes, I think I’m a good scriptwriter.
Mohani: Can you tell me the least interesting aspects of the job?
Mayang: Money. I think everybody should get paid more. It’d be much better if there was more funding for the development aspect during the period before you turn on the camera, which is where the writers mainly come in.
If we had a longer time period, and more resources put into how we can develop the show, we could make it better.
But when we’re rushed, and we have to develop all the characters and write all the scripts in a few weeks, then there’s no way it’s going to be good.
So there’s always this really frantic crazy push at the end, to get everything in on time, and it makes everything messy and we’re not at our best. That’s the part I don’t like. There’s a lot of stress, anxiety and pressure that really just comes from a lack of resources.
Mohani: What are some aspects of the scriptwriting process that people don’t really know about and would be surprised to know about?
Mayang: That it is not very glamorous at all. The best writers are the ones who are able to balance the practical side and needs of a good script, and the creative heart.
There is this practical element. I don’t know whether this is surprising, but for me, I love the idea that you can come up with something amazing, even though you have what looks like tight parameters and barriers such as budget, rather than no parameters at all.
Mohani: What inspires you in your scriptwriting? Is it by reading other people’s scripts? Do you consume a lot of media?
Mayang: I consume a wide range of media, and I do read scripts sometimes. I feel happiest writing TV scripts, to be honest. Because I like the kinds of expectations I get on TV. In film scripts, they tend to be wishy-washy.
It’s great if you have that capacity. Wonderful.
But the reality of a working writer is that you have to deal with the parameters of what you have – for example, I’m sure everybody has their dream house, but you don’t cry every night that you’re not living in that dream house, right? You turn the house that you have into the best thing that you are given.
And very often, it can be even more amazing than that dream house. Parameters can often be really good. It forces you to be creative.
Much of creativity is actually problem-solving. If I throw you a problem, if I force you to do something that you don’t necessarily want to do, you will come up with a creative solution to do so.
Mohani: Which script of yours is your favourite so far?
Mayang: The one that’s going to come out on Amazon is called ‘Entitled’. That’s the one I had the most fun working on. It was difficult, but they’re all difficult.
I enjoyed the writer’s room because we had a good balance of people from different backgrounds. We were able to think about certain issues, and in some ways, we were able to break the rules a little bit.
Mohani: Last question. What is your advice or tips for those who want to enter scriptwriting?
Mayang: Number one, you need to find a way into those writer’s rooms. Try to hone your skills of writing, write, go on online courses, and go to classes. Practise a little bit. Maybe make a short film and find somebody who wants to shoot it.
It’s very hard to get into writer’s rooms. You end up in this circular situation where you’re never gonna be able to get in. So look around for opportunities to do that and to shadow people and intern, depending on the type of writing that you like.
When you begin to enter the industry, try to be as curious and as open as possible, rather than have preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to be like, and what you’re supposed to do. Go in with an open and curious attitude and just do it first.
Eventually, you’ll figure out what you like, and what you don’t like. Whatever task you’re given, just do it openly. Just look at that opportunity and go, “Okay, how do I do this to the best of my abilities? How do I do this?”.
Explore, explore, explore!