the writing studio exclusive interview
"… my work has been judged …"
The screenplay Phumzile's Beads, which was developed through The Writing Studio over a period of 3 years, was a finalist in the American Moondance Festival, and is currently read by 2 New York Producers, A German producer, and a local production company … Daniel Dercksen spoke to screenwriter Marian Shinn about her exciting project.
how did the writing studio help?
It was crucial. Without guidance on the structure of the story and the discussion of ideas it is unlikely that this script would have got as far as it did.
do you think it is important for young writers to attend workshops and develop their work with the help of a studio such as the writing studio?
Absolutely. There is little point in having a great idea unless you acquire the guidance and discipline to put it down in a way that makes the vision come alive. I've often listened to budding writers beat about the bush basically discussing an 'environment' or 'situation' or 'social condition'. The story is in there somewhere but the nub of it only becomes apparent after much discussion and setting it down before the essence of the story is revealed. Sometimes it eludes us altogether, but the process helps focus the search.
your work has been exposed to international producer … what did you expect at first?
I expected more rejection than I got. After the response of producers and agents at Sithengi, who made it clear that there would be little interest in my script because it was 'historical' and could not easily be updated and located in an anonymous Westernised environment, I was not optimistic. So when I was chosen as a screenplay finalist at Moondance I was ecstatic. My work had been judged by script consultants working in the US movie industry and found to have some merit.
what do you think international producers are looking for?
Most of the producers attending Moondance were multi-skilled individuals wearing their producer/director/writer three-cornered hats. The workshop presenters I encountered - Linda Seger (top script consultant) and Meg LeFauve (former president of Jodie Foster's production company Egg Pictures) stressed that the mainstream movie industry believes money-making movies need to be aimed at 15-year old boys. Almost anything else, particularly material aimed at intelligent, thinking audiences, should be made for TV or festivals.
what advice do you have for young writers?
Recognise the writing is a solitary task. It takes discipline and perseverance to read for insight and inspiration, and to put down the words. Don't wait for the muse - just get it done, and once there is a body of words, ponder and polish.
every creative being needs inspiration … where do you find inspiration?
My inspiration for Phumzile's Beads came through reading a book on the early days of colonial Natal. Three paragraphs - a passing reference to an incident in a man's life - struck me as being a brilliant idea for a movie. Not a book, a movie. The potential of the story came to me in pictures and music. I read more history books and biographical stories about pioneering women and their hardships in 'opening up' the land. I attended script-writing courses at the University of the Witwatersrand and one by Syd Field when he came to SA many years ago. This all gave me a broad understanding of how a movie should be structured and what makes a movie good. I wrestled in my mind with how best to tell the story, who's point of view I should take, and how to coherently show the passage of time necessary for the story's context. For some years I didn't really know how to start to write it. When I came to Cape Town about four years ago I attended workshop presented by The Writing Studio and then chose to be mentored on an individual basis. This worked best for me because I didn't need to waste time listening to other people's stories while waiting to get help with mine. This process meant I could get the movie down, writing mainly at weekends, in about 18 months. Getting recognition for the script through Moondance has made the process worthwhile. I feel the work has been validated and is worth something in the real world. But the real reward will be having the script made into a successful movie.
what motivates you?
Believing that I could write a story a movie as good as much of what is out there. There is so much story-telling material all around us it's a waste not to do anything with it. I just wish it didn't take so much time to spin it together and that I didn't have to work to pay the bills.
where do you find inspiration?
Newspapers. Overheard conversations. Personal angst. Books. Friends' dinner party chatter. And sitting watching the sea crash over rocks.
do you think it's important to work with an organisation such as the writing studio - or in isolation?
Different people need different things. I know it was important for me to have guidance in structure and feedback on progress. Having my completed script read by others who've worked in the industry has been vital in helping me believe that the script and story are worthwhile. But there are others who work in total isolation and shun contact with other writers. Maybe they're more experienced than me. If that works for them that's great.
what do you think is the secret of capturing the heart and mind of a producer?
Mind - that they have. Heart - not so sure. As I've captured neither I'm not in a position to say. But having heard some of this breed tell their war stories - both South African and Hollywood (Meg LeFauve) - I'm amazed they stay sane and sober. (A presumption on my part). Being a producer must surely be one of the most sanity-endangering vocations known to humankind. That any film ever gets made is a miracle - and I doff my hat to those who get movies made - and make money out of them. Producers' risks are huge, their stress is overwhelming, their tactics are venal and, if it all comes together, their rewards must be a major high. Producers want material that is not going to be a logistical and financial schlep to make, and keep animals out of it. They also want a story that entertains, because to get people to go out and pay to see a movie it "must be a ride" - to quote Meg LeFauve.
is there an easy way of writing a screenplay?
I presume the folks whom Hollywood frequently relies on to turn mediocre scripts into Oscar-winning magic might find it easy they've done it so often.
any tips on writing a screenplay?
Just get started - give yourself deadlines and targets. Don't procrastinate by waiting for the muse, a video machine and a library of well-written movies, printouts of Oscar-winning scripts pulled off the web, and a good red to loosen up the inhibitions.
how important is structure - the so-called hollywood formula?
Some successful movies have bucked the Hollywood formula as explained by the likes of Syd Field. Story-telling is an ancient art and if the three-act structure works, why change it? One of the Moondance delegates declared it was her life's ambition to destroy the three-act structure as imposed on the world by Greek men. Good luck to her. She also insisted on wearing a full real-fur coat, which went down like a lead balloon in eco-conscious Colorado.
what makes a screenplay work?
Eight essential ingredients - suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex and a happy ending. This advice comes from the script of The Player - Robert Altman's movie about Hollywood.
what is death to a screenplay?
Ignoring the above, pushing a message and forgetting that a story is about people, not issues.
how do you see the future for writers in south africa
There seems to be more opportunities - local content TV programming helps. And there are genuine endeavours to create opportunities and initiatives. So it can only get better.
how do you sustain the passion for your project?
With difficulty - particularly as I was unable, before Moondance, to get anyone to read it, give considered judgement and constructive feedback. I believed I had a good story to tell. It has universal appeal and will therefore find an international audience and make money. I phoned most SA production companies and found the doors closed to me because I was unknown, they didn't read unsolicited scripts, were "too busy" to take on new projects, etc, etc. I pitched at Sithengi and learned that the world was not interested in stories that are too obviously South African. But I had earlier sent my script to a family contact, an assistant director, in the UK movie industry. He gave me encouraging feedback, felt it was better than many of the scripts that got UK government funding, and that it could be made into a worthwhile movie for an average budget. He made suggestions on re-writing the ending, pointed out what bits were confusing. He's since dropped out of the movie industry to sail around the world for a while, declaring himself not cynical enough to survive the movie industry. His comments made me realise that someone, somewhere might be interested in making my movie. I browsed the web in search of worthwhile international script competitions which I could use as a 'door-opener' if I fared well. There are plenty of competitions, but few seemed to have much credibility. Then Moondance came along and I entered.
a highlight at moondance?
Having a brief opportunity to discuss my script with Meg LeFauve. We agreed up front that my movie was unlikely to be made by an American for American audiences. I knew that while writing it. Having reached that understanding, we then went on to discuss the story and the structure. She's smart, quickly pinpointed a problem with the second half, suggested a cure, and was most encouraging.
what is happening to phumzile's beads?
It is being read by 2 producers in New York, a German producer who has read the script, has offered to be my manager and search for folks to finance and make it, a local production company has now read it and has declared interest in being involved in taking it further if I can find financial backing and distribution interest. The doors are opening, thanks to Moondance. Since returning from Moondance I've been too busy catching up on the activities that pay the rent to make any considered decisions about signing away my rights. But I'll get to that soon.
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