Prolific Cape Town scriptwriter, Dennis Venter, who attended one of The Writing Studio's first workshops for scriptwriters, and writer of Home Affairs, Interrogation Room, Stokvel, Madam & Eve, has optioned his screenplay The Fubars to Hollywood-based Original Content Productions. The Fubars will mark the directorial debut of Nick Powell, who started his career as a stunt director and later move to second unit director (Braveheart, The Bourne Identity, The Last Samurai, Cinderella Man, The Hours, Magdelene Sisters).
DANIEL DERCKSEN shared a few thoughts with DENNIS VENTER
We first met when you attended one of The Writing Studio's first workshops six years ago. How did the workshop help you as a writer?
I guess, mainly, it helped me in analysis of produced films. You're very good at that, and you helped me to look at scenes with a critical eye - why is this happening, how does it further story?
You mentioned that your unsolicited query letter grabbed the attention of a producer, who requested the script. What do you think drew his attention and made him say yes?
A combination of his personality, the fact that I have a fairly substantial list of credits locally and a query letter, I suppose, that caught the tone and mood of the script.
Tell me about your commitment to the writing process, your discipline, and what motivates you?
I'm a professional writer, that means I write. Virtually every day. Even when it's the last thing in the world I want to do, even when my muse is dead drunk in the gutter somewhere. Word after painful word, virtually every day. What motivates me? On one level, if I don't write, I don't get paid and my kids and I go hungry. On another level, I feel like something's missing when I'm not writing. It's something I have to do.
Why do you think most beginning screenwriters think that success happens overnight and tend to ignore the writing process?
Same reason people believe if they buy a ticket they'll win the lotto. They can, because someone does. And in scriptwriting lore, we've all heard of the guy from Outer Mongolia who wrote a script and sold it for a million bucks. The reason we've heard it because it's by far the exception - 99.9 % of others really have to work at it to become successful. I wrote for five years without earning a cent from writing (I sold books to pay the bills).Also, people don't understand how much work goes into the writing process. They believe because they know how to write, they can be a writer, which is akin to believing that because you can drive, you can rock up at a race track and become a professional driver.
What excites you about screenwriting?
I don't know if excites is a word I'd use. I love the creation process - but usually only after I've broken the back of a story. Because while doing it, it's very hard. I love the way characters come alive, sometimes so vividly they can actually take over your script and you need to reign them in almost like they're real people.
You are skilled in writing for television and feature film; what would you say is the main difference between writing for film and writing for television?
Well, they're similar in the sense that they're both visual media, storytelling in pictures. But as Alex Epstein (head writer on Charlie Jade) says in his books, whereas film flows, TV tends to pulse. In movies there tends mainly to be an A plot and a B plot working together to reach a mutual climax, so to speak. The one event leads to another which leads to the next, ie. flows to the next scene which flows to the next, driving towards the final climax. In TV, though, you tend to have more mini-climaxes and each time you reach one of these in a particular story, you cut away to another plotline, leaving the audience waiting to return to the original plotline. Of course it also depends on the show - something linear like CSI or House has a lot less pulsing to it than say something more character-driven like Friday Night Lights or The Wire.
What do you think producers are looking for in a script?
Good question. I think often they don't even know what they're looking for. As William Goldman says, "nobody knows anything". Beyond that - I guess they want something they can love (which means often choices are very subjective), with characters that people can relate to and empathise with, they want something original, but not too original, they want something they can sell, that'll make them money because in the end, it's show business.
What would say makes a script weak and boring?
Bad writing. Overwriting. Bland writing. Not knowing the format and technique of scriptwriting. No story. On the nose dialogue. Very importantly - lack of structure. Scriptwriting is one of the most technical of the writing disciplines and without structure, often all you're left with is a collection of unrelated vignettes. The queen died and the king died is not a story. The queen died and the king died of a broken heart, is. Lack of conflict - conflict is drama. The cat sat on the mat - not a story. The cat sat on the dog's mat - story.
Your views on the South African film industry?
Is there one? I think we're pretty good at servicing international productions because our technicians are very good. And we make some very good documentaries and occasionally some good TV. But feature film-wise, I think we're seriously lagging because we just can't get the funding on the one hand and we make very few movies that actually make money, (Leon Schuster being the major exception) on the other. I believe funding is something government can and should help with and they're remiss in not doing so.
Do you have a specific approach to writing a screenplay?
Firstly, I do the research if it's a topic I don't know anything about. But not too much, because I write fiction, not documentaries and I'm a firm believer in the "don't let the truth get in the way of a good story" school. After research, and as much as I hate the process, I outline the script in as much detail as possible. For me, this is the hardest part of writing and if possible, I'd skip it completely. But once the outline is done, the writing process is so much quicker and easier.
Any advice for beginners?
Write. I've seen so many wannabe writers who talk about writing, who read about writing, who buy scriptwriting programmes, and join web groups and soon, but who don't actually write. Seat of pants on seat of chair and write. Also, don't give up easily, but understand that while the craft of writing can be learnt, the art is something that not everyone has.
Any tips on making a script sizzle?
Don't overwrite, but don't be overly sterile. Inject a some of your personality into the action description without overdoing it. Read your dialogue out loud - preferably have someone read it to you and listen.
What happens now with FUBARS?
Now they try raise money. They're battling because it's dark with no obviously likeable protagonist and the studios in the States tend to want material that is safer. They've been offered $2 million budget (which in SA would be a very generous one) but are looking to at least double that. whether or not Fubars goes anywhere, I'm in negotiations to write another screenplay for the same company so it's at least opened the door to the international market for me.
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