Friday, December 16, 2011

Crowd-funding - what in the IndieGoGo am I doing?


Crowd-Funding/Sourcing – Is this the new way to make your movie?

I was lucky enough to encounter Peter Broderick at the Producer’s Forum at the Durban Film Mart this past weekend. He was talking about crowd-funding/sourcing. Peter is President of Paradigm Consulting in the United States, which helps filmmakers and media companies develop strategies to maximize distribution, audience and revenues. He has been an advocate of the ultra-low budget feature film movement and is a passionate advocate of digital film making.

The following piece is put together from notes I made during his impressive presentation at the DFM.

Crowd-sourcing/funding is a concentric way to make money but it is vital that you think of your AUDIENCE before you start you funding campaign. Remember that you have to do everything you can, use every marketing tool in the book, to create AWARENESS of your project. Broderick quoted some examples of how to do this:

• One producer incorporated a number of educational grants into his funding campaign so that the charity aspect of his drive could be emphasised and used to generate goodwill.
• Another successful group put their trailer online and invited people to remix it.
• A woman who wanted to fund her around-the-world yacht trip offered different rewards for certain amounts of money. If people donated $10, she promised them a Polaroid photo taken along her journey. $50 earned them a coconut sent from one of her destinations, and so on.
• Jennifer Fox, who crowd-funded her very personal project called My Reincarnation, sent personal thank-you letters to every single person who donated funds, from the smallest amounts of money to the largest sums.
• Some producers offered Co-Producer Credits for a certain amount of Euros.

What is most important, however, is that the website you create to raise funds has to be FUN and encourage people to come back to the site. The more visitors you attract, the better your chances of raising funds. Don’t fall into the trap of making your website nothing more than a press-kit. NOTHING is more boring than the unchanging dynamic of a press-kit site. Broderick emphasised that it is imperative you keep the following in mind when creating your crowd-sourcing website:

• Fewer words, more PICTURES
• Rich VISUAL content relating to the movie
• Content must be constantly UPDATED – i.e. it must be dynamic
• Harness VIEWER’S INPUT in some way – people want to contribute
• Website must be PERSONAL and written in the first person
• A good VIDEO documenting the journey of the project is a must
• HUMOUR wins the day every time
• Utilize SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES to create awareness of your project

The filmmaker must give actual information about the project on the site. Remember, piracy isn’t your prime concern here but obscurity is. Broderick showed a video example from a Spanish project which raised its funds through crowd-sourcing. The project was called The Cosmonauts and used humour and youthful energy to introduce the genesis of the film to the future audience. He also quoted an example of Neil Gaiman’s The Price which used social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, especially utilizing the #BoingBoing hashtag to create awareness and to raise funds for production.

Broderick referred to a project created by self-confessed Finnish “nerds” who wanted to make a feature which was a spoof of Star Trek. They wrote a rough outline and put the rough draft online. This soon attracted a writer. They then asked for people to contribute special effects skills. In the end, 3000 people across 300 countries contributed to this project which resulted in a 108 minute feature called Star Wreck. 30% of all the images contributed to the film were donated by people around the world who were happy just to be associated with the project. They all received screen credit. The project cost 23 000 Euros in total. The makers of the film knew their audience. They appealed to a niche core audience of like-minded “nerds” such as themselves who would be delighted to contribute to a project they believed in. The final product is free to download but the makers of the film earned 20 times their original budget in revenue through DVD sales. Remarkably, even though everyone could download the film for nothing, people still wanted to own their own copies, especially if the film contained their names listed in the credits.

Another production which used crowd-sourcing successfully was an animation feature produced in Australia about global warming called Coalition of the Willing by Simon Robson. Twenty different companies produced different segments of the film which was made in thirty different sections. Even though each section has a different style, the film fits together as a cohesive whole.

Broderick emphasised that the best way to get people to support a project is if they contribute to the making of the project in some way. It allows them to feel part of something as large as a film.

Broderick spoke at length about host websites such as www.kickstarter.com and www.IndieGoGo.com both of which provide a platform to host crowd-sourcing/funding projects. Both sites set dates for budget targets to be reached. Kickstarter takes a certain percentage of the income as payment but IndieGoGo doesn’t.

Advice for a successful crowd-sourcing website:

• Write the website in the first person to build awareness of the film
• Create a vision for the website that may be bigger than the film
• The website must take on a life of its own
• Make things you can sell that relate to your film
• Create some sort of payback for visitors either through allowing them to download video streams or buy DVDs to related topics or even buy books on your site if they are of similar topics. (Broderick suggests you buy goods wholesale that you can sell retail on the website)
• Try to come up with give-aways or incentives to encourage donations
• Remember your objectives for the site are to build AWARENESS of the project and to RAISE MONEY. Bear this in mind at all times.

Broderick closed the seminar by referring to one of the first ever cases of crowd-sourcing. The first Oxford English Dictionary was a literary example of the crowd-sourcing. People came together from all walks of life to contribute words to this enormous literary work. It is almost certain that none of them was paid.



References:

http://www.peterbroderick.com/bio/bio.html

http://coalitionfilm.blogspot.com/

http://www.wreckamovie.com/

http://www.kickstarter.com/

http://www.indiegogo.com/

Monday, December 05, 2011

Daily News

Daily News

Fantastic post - the lead story on The Call Sheet!

Shot at the Big Time is going great guns!

Yippee!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Shot at the Big Time - Bulletfilm

A Shot at the Big Time - Bulletfilm

A Shot at the Big Time featured on Bulletfilm today.

Catch more details about Online Auditions on http://igg.me/p/49173?a=206977

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Eve's Apples: 'A Shot at The Big Time' - Janet van Eeden's dedic...

Eve's Apples: 'A Shot at The Big Time' - Janet van Eeden's dedic...: A Shot at the Big Time.     by  Janet van Eeden Clarence Hutton, Jimmy and David Parkin  In the centre, Jimmy aged 16 going on 17... Our S...

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Shot at the Big Time on Indiegogo - Day 59!



A Shot at the Big Time fund raising campaign was launched on Friday at the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month in 2011, Remembrance Day.

More big donations have come in this week from Australia and Johannesburg. So touched that people believe in this film! I've also been interviewed by Magda of http://www.bulletfilm.com/ who is featuring a link to the Indiegogo site on this website.

Wonderful Paul Dwyer, one of my former students at the Wildlife Film Academy, donated the services of one his brightest young proteges at his Graphics Design Company, Justin Webber, to create the poster. Not only did Paul do this but he also donated $1000 to the production fund! How generous is that?

Watch this space to see the poster.

There is also a new development which is under wraps for now but I'll let you know as soon as I can.

It's surprised me how much it moves every time anyone contributes $10! It humbles me to think that other people believe in this project as much as I do.

Thank you for all the viewings and comments and reposts and. of course, contributions. I'm sure we'll get somewhere close to the target although it was a very ambitious one, but even if we get a quarter of the proposed target, it will be a wonderful start to the production funding.

Please keep reposting!!!





Thank you so much.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Interview on LitNet


Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards: Janet van Eeden is the Columnist winner for 2011 (Northern/Southern region) by Naomi Meyer on 2011-10-05


Favourite quotes
“The only people who succeed are those who don’t give up.” No idea who said it, but it keeps me going through hundreds of rejections a year.

My own personal favourite and the inspiration for my play The Savage Sisters, from Jane Austen’s Persuasion: Anne Elliot defends Captain Harville’s attack on women’s constancy by saying: “... no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. The pen has been in their hands.” This quote made me title my Masters thesis “Putting the Pen into their Own Hands”. The thesis was based on writing the play The Savage Sisters. This is what I aim to do in my own work in its every incarnation: to put the pen into the hands of women.

Favourite book
So many! Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea for lessons in perseverance and not focusing on outcomes.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet for writing about my own psyche 400 years before I was born.

Jane Austen for Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, for being the first woman to write wittily about the enduring nature of love.

All Lyndall Gordon’s exceptional literary biographies, most recently of Emily Dickinson and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Every book I’ve read for LitNet over the past few years has had merit of some kind. And I look forward to the millions of books I’ve still to read.

Congratulations on winning Vodacom’s prestigious journalism award with your blog. Your various pieces of writing cover a multitude of topics and genres – writing for LitNet, poems, reviews, scripts. In one of your previous blogs, written in August this year , you wrote about ideas being “meat” to you and that this is what “gets you up in the morning”. Which impetus inspired this specific article and did you think of it as more fresh or relevant than any of your other projects at the time?

Naomi, if I’m not compelled by a very specific idea to write something, a work becomes quite tedious to me. I’m not too sure why that is. I could get airy-fairy about it and say that I am an “artist” and need to be inspired. But in reality so much of what I’ve done has been to apply my bum to the seat and to meet the deadlines required of me using all the skills I’ve acquired as a writer along the way. A film script which I was asked to “turn around” in two weeks and which I delivered yesterday is a perfect case in point. I had to fix a wildlife film using my experience gained by writing the screenplay for the feature film White Lion. So this job required me to utilise scriptwriting skills and knowledge of good story-writing. Hopefully I’d get inspired along the way while I wrote. (I did get a few inspirational gifts, thank goodness!) But it wasn’t my impetus or idea which started me writing it. This is my daily work.

When it comes to the columns, my own scripts which I’ve written either as plays or films, the impetus behind those is the idea, the inspiration, which “gets me up in the morning”. I quoted the artist Delacroix in one of my Savage plays. He said that “men of genius are inspired not by new ideas but by their obsession that what has already been said is still not enough”. I’d like to amend that comment and say that people who are artists have an obsession that what has been already said is still not enough.

I’ve been writing opinion columns for some years now for both The Witness and The Sunday Independent. I’m often struck by the absurdities of life, and when these strike, I’m compelled to write about them. Sometimes the columns are about things which amuse me and I try to write them in an entertaining way. Sometimes they’re about trying to survive in a world when everything goes wrong. This particular column, however, was ignited when my teenage daughter and I drove past a huge billboard with a semi-naked girl spread-eagled on it. My daughter asked what the billboard was advertising. It was hard to see the tiny company logo in the bottom corner. Her dismay that a near-naked woman was used to advertise a mobile phone made me think about the number of times women are discussed or portrayed as gratuitous sexual objects in the media. In a country that has one of the highest rape statistics in the world and where the crimes against women and children are at epidemic proportions, I felt outraged that advertisers continue to bombard us with images and words that reduce women to mere objects for gratification. And I had to write this column.

In your article you refer to the Sex and the City generation, and raise such an important point: that this programme was written by men, like the openly gay Michael Patrick King. This verified the nagging little problem I had with the television programme. At the time there was sometimes ground-breaking dialogue, but at other times it felt altogether false. In a programme aimed at mostly female viewers, we always saw so many naked boobies and one or two male buttocks. But is this really the way female sexuality works? Was Sex and the City a television series about gay men played by female actresses, maybe? Or do you find this altogether too stereotypical – the fact that men react to physical stimuli when it comes to sex and women prefer the mind or the psyche to be turned on? When you write that society should get over itself, do you actually mean that men, women, or both should stop making such a big fuss about sex?


This is such a difficult question, Naomi. I agree that Sex and the City portrays women as wildly promiscuous and their relationships are all about the physical, but I don’t want to generalise or stereotype gay men. That’s a dangerous road! I do believe that most women aren’t turned on only by the physical, but by so much more to do with emotional connections. Perhaps because of the bombardment of programmes like the above, as well as the almost commonplaceness of porn, young women have begun to think that physicality is all there is. I may be in the minority here, but I’ve always felt that sex is so much more than just a physical attraction between two people. That attraction can carry you a long way, make no mistake, but in the end, that burns itself out quite quickly. What worries me is that people are encouraged by the media to go from one person to the next, looking for the physical spark, moving on as soon as someone else more attractive appears on the horizon. This is not conducive to good mental health, never mind anything else. Granted, there are probably a few years when we all have a bit of a wild time, experimenting with sexual freedom, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to longevity of relationships, though, the physical approach is very risky. But this isn’t really what I was getting at in the column.

The point I wanted to make in this column is that there is so much more to life than just sex, and somehow popular culture has reduced life to a complete preoccupation with just this one thing. Just spend a morning watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians if you don’t believe me. For my sins I’ve done it as a penance! Also, the portrayal of women in the media is so demeaning much of the time. The DJs on the radio I was referring to are just one example. The tawdry jokes about female body parts are deemed completely acceptable for public airing. Those two male DJs are on the East Coast Radio Breakfast Show and the few times I’ve caught their programme their jokes have been in a similar vein. And women in this country are just supposed to accept this kind of treatment? This is not okay. This country’s rape statistics are a result of women being treated as men’s rightful “playthings”. The crimes against women, and usually female children, show that some men regard women and children as their rightful property and the lack of respect for women as intelligent human beings in the media reinforces this approach. That’s the point I was trying to make. And when you get down to it, especially after I’ve written and judged and edited many wildlife films, sex isn’t such a big deal in the complete scheme of things.

Your thought-provoking article made me think for the umpteenth time how much people (men and women) love to talk about sex (indeed, the act of having sex, all the graphic stuff) but never really about the methods of construction behind all the sex people are talking about or are (not) having. A couple of weeks ago somebody wrote a letter on LitNet regarding gender stereotypes, incorporating quotes from Naomi Wolf and the thoughts behind advertising. Nobody responded to this letter. Your own article, which won an important award, did not get many comments. Why is there such a huge big silence surrounding a real engagement in conversation about men using women as “recreational figures ... to relax with”?


Yes, I love the letter you’ve referred to above, Naomi. Especially when she quotes from Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth: “The last thing the consumer index wants men and women to do is to figure out how to love each other. The $1,5 trillion retail sales-industry depends on sexual estrangement between men and women, and is fuelled by sexual dissatisfaction. Ads do not sell sex – that would be counterproductive, if it meant that heterosexual women and men turned to one another and were gratified. What they sell is sexual discontent.”

This is very true. Regarding my column, the response was very mixed online. Women generally applauded its sentiments on Facebook, but when I asked a few people on Twitter to re-tweet the column, one man refused on the grounds that it was “too political”. As you can see, the only comment made on the blog site is from a man who says he thought that Rousseau was right and that women should be used by men to “relax themselves”. I didn’t think it warranted a reply. Perhaps some men are threatened by the fact that their stereotypes are being challenged. On the other hand, there are wonderful men out there who welcomed this debate. They tend to be more silent, though.

My column isn’t meant to polarise the sexes into “good down-trodden women” and “bad abusing men”. This is putting women’s liberation back by a couple of decades too. There are many men in my life who deserve love and admiration, not least my two wonderful sons. My middle son is an exceptional artist and his work often confronts gender stereotypes. He is also quite proud of the fact that one of his favourite words in matric was “misogyny”. But when it comes to talking about crimes against women in general, I find men polarise themselves. There are the sensitive souls who can hardly bear to think that men could do such horrendous things to women and feel personally responsible and guilty on behalf of their sex. Then there are the less-evolved people who think they have the right to do whatever they want to women. I may sound harsh here, but I had a student argue in one of my classes some years ago that rape should be legalised. He actually meant it. Those horrifying men are out there and our rape stats and crimes against women and children prove that they are.

I think I still haven’t answered your question, Naomi. Perhaps the media don’t think it’s cool to talk about emotional love, as the magazines such as FHM and Cosmopolitan, for example, are all about “Getting her to Orgasm in Three Easy Steps” and “How to Give Him His Sexual Fantasy”. I don’t think they’d sell as well if their covers bleated stories about “Emotional Intimacy. Do You Measure Up?”!

Your website, janetvaneeden.com, elaborates on all the writing you have done or are busy doing. How does all the writing feed into your blogs – is it very different to write a play, or a blog or a review for LitNet?


You do ask difficult questions, Naomi! Writing a play is such a delightful experience as it relies on saying what I want to, in the way I want to, in a format which I just loved, using a character I’m drawn to as a vehicle. I went to Rhodes to study journalism, but was disillusioned by the heavily intense political writing I was supposed to do as a journ student. I’m so pleased I dropped the subject after six months, as I’m not a political person per se. My writing may make political points, but I am driven by the artistic and creative impulse – call it a muse if you like – to say what I have to say. I studied drama and English and psychology after dropping journalism, and the minute I walked on to the Rhodes Theatre stage I felt like I’d come home. I just love the dramatic format. Another joy of playwriting is that the possibility of getting your work out there is so much greater than it is with a film, a medium I’ve grown to love too over the past fifteen years. I was funded by the National Arts Council (blessed be they forever!) for every one of my plays and this gave me the freedom to take them to the Grahamstown Arts Festival and beyond.

I love the short, sharp impact of the columns, though. They give me the freedom to make points I’d like to make about the craziness of the world as I see it in a very accessible format. I also like meeting deadlines and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to meet a deadline so easily with a column.

My work for LitNet came about when I read wonderful work by South African writers and poets and felt so inspired that I had to write about them. I began to contribute to LitNet years ago because I felt it was so important to share how strongly I felt about our growing South African literati. This writing has now become more regular and, at its best, it’s a joy to read an inspired work and then to find out more about why the author or poet created that work. I love knowing the writer’s back story. I think this springs from my love of theatre and film, where the dialogue reveals only part of the character’s subtext. I love to know what motivates people and I tend to take that approach in my journalistic work too.

You received a journalism award for this blog. How is journalism different on the internet from old-fashioned printed-on-paper journalism, and would receiving an award for writing this blog make it feel more real to you?

The blog is an extension of my print work, Naomi. I usually post columns that have been published in the newspaper on to the blog, except for my posts about film issues, as I’ve been doing more recently. So the award wasn’t exactly for the blog, but for the column as it appeared in The Sunday Independent. I’m of the generation that really values print. And even though I’m a complete internet junkie, I have folders full of all my print articles too. When I finally get a Kindle, as I’d love to sometime, I’ll never remove the enormous mountain of books which surrounds my life.

What makes Janet van Eeden tick?

Family has always been paramount to me. My three children gave me the will to live again when I’d lost both my brothers and my father. My two sons and my daughter are wonderful human beings in spite of life being quite hard lately for all of us. My work keeps me going too, even when all else fails. There have been only a few times in my life when I haven’t been able to write. In the past three years there have been a few long spells of these barren patches. When life has been at its very hardest, though, I’ve learned my deepest truths. And I’m one of those rather sad searchers after truth, which I need to express through my writing.

I also love animals and find the more I know about human nature, the more I love my own animals. That’s why I loved writing the screenplay for White Lion so much.

You are very active on Twitter. You just received an award for an online journalism piece. But, as is also clear from all your writing on LitNet, you are a book lover as well. Will the printed word ever be something of the past?


As I said earlier, Naomi, the award was for the printed word. I’d be extremely honoured to receive an award for my online work, though. I think the internet is the new sidewalk café. I love the interactions I have on Twitter and as I live in a bit of a backwater as far as screenwriting is concerned, I’ve made the best screenwriting group in the world online. It’s literally the best in the world as we have members from Estonia, UK, USA, Germany and South Africa. We Skype when we have scripts to discuss and have group discussions on Sunday night #Scriptchats on Twitter. I also wrote a column about the amazing support I received for my stepfather when he had a heart operation earlier this year. It’s really the most powerful social support platform and can be used for good or ill. In my life, it’s a great way to “be” with like-minded people.

I really hope the printed word never loses its popularity. I wrote about the e-book for LitNet here and think I’ll never, ever stop loving my real books. When I travelled around the world when I was first married, I was happy as long as I had my children, my animals (yes I really took my two cats and a dog with me across a few continents) and all my books. My husband was obviously also included in my list of essentials. Everything else was optional.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Get over yourself - after all, it's just sex - The Vodacom Columnist of the Year Winner for North/South Regions


Is it just me but is there just way too much sex around at the moment? I’m not talking about the actual act of having it, you understand. I mean, let’s not get silly now. But every time I switch on the radio, turn on a television, open a website, read a book or pass a billboard, there are people talking about sex, people actually having sex or describing the sexual act itself.

Just this morning I switched between three radio stations while I drove. One DJ was talking about masturbation. Another was telling a gross sexist joke about female anatomy (why are these men still allowed on national radio?) and a third was droning on about prostitution. I almost drove into a lamp post to avoid listening to another word. My young daughter was in the car with me at the time. She felt as embarrassed as I did hearing the way women and sex were described. The male announcers talked about sex as if the activity itself and women in general were some sort of recreational action figures for men to use to “relax themselves with” as Rousseau wrote in the 1790s. Yes, he really wrote those words in relation to women. So has nothing changed? Have our attitudes not moved on from Rousseau’s? And is sex now placed in the same category as the type of beer you drink or which sports programmes you watch on television?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t believe sex is a spectator sport. Perhaps it all stems from a job I had as a vacation student within the organisation which gave me my bursary. I had to work for the company over every holiday. On one of the holidays I worked in the small television department which made training films. One day my then boss decided to lock me into the mobile unit to get me to “check” films he was recording to “ensure there were no mistakes in the footage.” I watched innocently as the film rolled while he went out for a while. Of course it was a porn film. And of course he popped in halfway through it to caress my shoulders excitedly, while asking me if I found the footage interesting. I told him exactly what I thought. It was the most boring thing I’d ever seen. It was on a level of watching people eat with their mouths open. After all it was just sex. Animals do it all the time without the salacious fuss. He was very disappointed, but to his slight credit, he didn’t try to force the issue or anything else on me that day.

So I know that my attitude towards graphic sex in the media puts me in the minority in today’s Sex and the City generation. But seriously, Sex and the City is written by gay men. And if women feel that being liberated is about being able to shag as many men in a week as they have cups of tea, then I really think they’ve missed the point about liberation. True liberation is about not having to shag someone six times a day to feel justified as a human being. Shag someone if you want to, of course. But being liberated does not mean that sex is the ultimate goal in life. We remain at the level of the Victorians if this is the way we behave. Their approach to sex was to make it the ultimate forbidden fruit and, of course, their attention was completely captivated by it. Hence the popularity of the repressed but wildly passionate bodice-rippers and vampire stories which infiltrated their book shelves.

I’m not saying that sex doesn’t have a place in films, literature and so on. But there’s a world of difference between a well motivated sex scene and a gratuitous ‘Romp and Pomp’! So I believe that if we want to be truly liberated, sex should just be that: just sex. Our pendulum has swung so much in the opposite direction of the Victorians that sex has to be mentioned constantly in every medium. I really wish society would get over itself. After all, it is just sex. And I’ve always believed that those who talk about sex the most are the ones who do it the least.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Intellectual Property


Intellectual property is the stuff we, the writers, produce. It is also the stuff that movie directors and producers treat as their own as soon as they get their greedy little hands on it. I’ve been approached so many times by directors/producers who want to make a film, have no idea what to make a film about so they want an idea from me. As a writer, like all of you are, you’ll understand that ideas are meat and drink to me. That’s what gets me up in the morning. So they want ideas? I have more than enough ideas to keep me going for the next fifty years.

I therefore give them my ideas in the form of a script and within minutes it’s become “their” film. Most directors/producers barely remember my name once they have the script. In fact, one director from hell actually removed my name from the script entirely as he went into the shoot and put a large “Adapted By A-Hole” title on the front of it. All he’d done was little more than adding a comma to one sentence! Did I mention at the start of this blog that I am as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore? Well, that’s still true.

Another director and I talked for a bit about the story I’d given her – remember she had NOTHING before I came along – and we decided after a conversation on the phone that I would add a small sub-plot. The idea came about after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between us and resonated strongly with something I was going through personally. So I took it and wrote a sub-plot into the script. Of course it was a matter of seconds before she came back to tell me that the script should read “Written by Me and Herself.” Dammit, she already had the director credit as well as the producer credit and hadn’t actually touched the script in any way at all. I refused to add her as a writer because writers, well, write. I gave her a “Script Editor” credit instead.

So the question I want to ask you is this: why do writers have to fight so bloody hard to be given the rightful credit due to them? It’s unheard of in any other part of the industry and, remember, they would have NOTHING to work on if it wasn’t for your script. Somehow, the egos in the film industry are enormous, and the higher up the hierarchy you go, the less credit you give to anyone else around you.

In case I haven’t made myself clear, your simple little script is the foundation on which all their egos are built. The Actors would look rather silly without your lines. The Director couldn’t throw his/her weight around without your script. And the Producers couldn’t drive snappy little sports cars if it wasn’t for your words. This is what I mean when I talk about Intellectual Property. Just because everyone can write an email, people in the film industry more than any other, underestimate the amount of skill it takes to put written words into the right order. Also an idea from a gifted writer is just that: a gift, an inspiration. It is not an email. A director who is not a writer would NEVER come up with the same idea as you have. A producer, unless he or she is also a writer, wouldn’t be able to write the same script you have written. Not in a million years.

So here’s my advice. When I heard that the A-Hole director mentioned above had taken my script and put his own name on it after removing mine, I became very good friends with a lawyer. I then sent a very sweet and “feminine” letter (see Pushy Women above) to the director and the producer asking them to clarify for my lawyer’s sake exactly what my credit on the film would be as it was my script alone which green-lit the film. I cc-ed the lawyer and told the Dirs/Prods that this was just a formality and wasn’t meant in bad faith at all. After all, I wasn’t trying to be confrontational at all…  I got my credit in the end. It wasn’t where it should have been according to filmic conventions but hey, after the blood bath of the long production which had heads rolling throughout its torturous shooting schedule, I’ll take it.

So, in case you didn’t get it the first time: You own the INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY to your film. It is your legal right. Without it, the film would not exist.

Get a lawyer, read Joe Eszterhas’s book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood to man up, even if you are a woman. And get TOUGH. After all, writers have rights too.

And here is a quote from the book mentioned above. Elia Kazan, who ended up directing his own work as well as writing it, said: “Writing, in case you don’t know it, is much harder than directing films. It may be the reason why I, perverse I, do it.”

Writers must no longer be soft about owning their own work.


“Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made. The publisher and the play producer are showmen too; but they exploit what is already made. The showmen of Hollywood control the making – and thereby degrade it. For the basic art of motion pictures is the screenplay; it is fundamental, without it there is nothing. Everything derives from the screenplay, and most of that which derives is an applied skill which, however adept, is artistically not in the same class with the creation of a screenplay. But in Hollywood the screenplay in written by a salaried writer under the supervision of a producer – that is to say, by an employee without power or decision over the uses of his own craft, without ownership of it, and, however extravagantly paid, almost without honor for it.” Raymond Chandler - http://www.openculture.com/2011/07/raymond_chandler_theres_no_art_of_the_screenplay_in_hollywood.html




Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crowd-Funding/Sourcing – Is this the new way to make your movie?


I was lucky enough to encounter Peter Broderick at the Producer’s Forum at the Durban Film Mart this past weekend. He was talking about crowd-funding/sourcing. Peter is President of Paradigm Consulting in the United States, which helps filmmakers and media companies develop strategies to maximize distribution, audience and revenues. He has been an advocate of the ultra-low budget feature film movement and is a passionate advocate of digital film making.

The following piece is put together from notes I made during his impressive presentation at the DFM.

Crowd-sourcing/funding is a concentric way to make money but it is vital that you think of your AUDIENCE before you start your funding campaign. Remember that you have to do everything you can, use every marketing tool in the book, to create AWARENESS of your project. Broderick quoted some examples of how to do this:

• One producer incorporated a number of educational grants into his funding campaign so that the charity aspect of his drive could be emphasised and used to generate goodwill.
• Another successful group put their trailer online and invited people to remix it.
• A woman who wanted to fund her around-the-world yacht trip offered different rewards for certain amounts of money. If people donated $10, she promised them a Polaroid photo taken along her journey. $50 earned them a coconut sent from one of her destinations, and so on.
• Jennifer Fox, who crowd-funded her very personal project called My Reincarnation, sent personal thank-you letters to every single person who donated funds, from the smallest amounts of money to the largest sums.
• Some producers offered Co-Producer Credits for a certain amount of Euros.

What is most important, however, is that the website you create to raise funds has to be FUN and encourage people to come back to the site. The more visitors you attract, the better your chances of raising funds. Don’t fall into the trap of making your website nothing more than a press-kit. NOTHING is more boring than the unchanging dynamic of a press-kit site. Broderick emphasised that it is imperative you keep the following in mind when creating your crowd-sourcing website:

• Fewer words, more PICTURES
• Rich VISUAL content relating to the movie
• Content must be constantly UPDATED – i.e. it must be dynamic
• Harness VIEWER’S INPUT in some way – people want to contribute
• Website must be PERSONAL and written in the first person
• A good VIDEO documenting the journey of the project is a must
• HUMOUR wins the day every time
• Utilize SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES to create awareness of your project

The filmmaker must give actual information about the project on the site. Remember, piracy isn’t your prime concern here but obscurity is. Broderick showed a video example from a Spanish project which raised its funds through crowd-sourcing. The project was called The Cosmonauts and used humour and youthful energy to introduce the genesis of the film to the future audience. He also quoted an example of Neil Gaiman’s The Price which used social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, especially utilizing the #BoingBoing hashtag to create awareness and to raise funds for production.

Broderick referred to a project created by self-confessed Finnish “nerds” who wanted to make a feature which was a spoof of Star Trek. They wrote a rough outline and put the rough draft online. This soon attracted a writer. They then asked for people to contribute special effects skills. In the end, 3000 people across 300 countries contributed to this project which resulted in a 108 minute feature called Star Wreck. 30% of all the images contributed to the film were donated by people around the world who were happy just to be associated with the project. They all received screen credit. The project cost 23 000 Euros in total. The makers of the film knew their audience. They appealed to a niche core audience of like-minded “nerds” such as themselves who would be delighted to contribute to a project they believed in. The final product is free to download but the makers of the film earned 20 times their original budget in revenue through DVD sales. Remarkably, even though everyone could download the film for nothing, people still wanted to own their own copies, especially if the film contained their names listed in the credits.

Another production which used crowd-sourcing successfully was an animation feature produced in Australia about global warming called Coalition of the Willing by Simon Robson. Twenty different companies produced different segments of the film which was made in thirty different sections. Even though each section has a different style, the film fits together as a cohesive whole.

Broderick emphasised that the best way to get people to support a project is if they contribute to the making of the project in some way. It allows them to feel part of something as large as a film.

Broderick spoke at length about host websites such as www.kickstarter.com and www.IndieGoGo.com both of which provide a platform to host crowd-sourcing/funding projects. Both sites set dates for budget targets to be reached. Kickstarter takes a certain percentage of the income as payment but IndieGoGo doesn’t.

Advice for a successful crowd-sourcing website:

• Write the website in the first person to build awareness of the film
• Create a vision for the website that may be bigger than the film
• The website must take on a life of its own
• Make things you can sell that relate to your film
• Create some sort of payback for visitors either through allowing them to download video streams or buy DVDs to related topics or even buy books on your site if they are of similar topics. (Broderick suggests you buy goods wholesale that you can sell retail on the website)
• Try to come up with give-aways or incentives to encourage donations
• Remember your objectives for the site are to build AWARENESS of the project and to RAISE MONEY. Bear this in mind at all times.

Broderick closed the seminar by referring to one of the first ever cases of crowd-sourcing. The first Oxford English Dictionary was a literary example of the crowd-sourcing. People came together from all walks of life to contribute words to this enormous literary work. It is almost certain that none of them was paid.

A good example of a positive website on Indiegogo is http://www.indiegogo.com/clowningaroundfilm

References:

http://www.peterbroderick.com/bio/bio.html

http://coalitionfilm.blogspot.com/

http://www.wreckamovie.com/

http://www.kickstarter.com/

http://www.indiegogo.com/


Friday, July 08, 2011

Adventures of a Wannabe Lion King



On my first day home from half way across Africa (well it felt like it, though it was only Polokwane) after lecturing for the Wild Life Film Academy, I missed waking to the sound of a five-year old lion roaring in the bush next to my tent. You see, he’d roared outside the camp and in it, every hour, day and night all five days I was there.

This was unusual behaviour according to the game rangers. It had never happened before on any of my previous visits either. But the rangers told me that this particular lion had been thrown out of his pride recently by the dominant male. So the poor soul had been wandering across the reserve lamenting the fact that he was without a pride since I’d arrived. After the initial thrill of fear I felt when I woke up to the sound of a lion very near my canvas tent on the first night, I grew accustomed to his resonating groans. In fact, I eventually found them reassuring and, on two occasions, quite a spiritual experience.

For example, on the third morning of my all-day lectures, I showed my students White Lion, the film I’d co-written about a lion which is cast out from his pride. The sound of the lions roaring on film must have travelled out across the bush, as sound tends to do in these otherwise silent places. Suddenly Jagadesh, one of my students from India, told me to stop the DVD and to listen carefully. Just outside our lecture tent the lonely lion was roaring his heart out. We crept out onto the deck and peered into the bush. There was no visible sign of him. Reluctantly we continued to watch the footage. Within seconds of the lions on screen beginning to roar, our visitor outside joined in again. It was one of the most exceptional moments of my life, watching footage I’d written about a lion on screen with the sound of a real lion roaring in the bush outside at the same time. The students and I decided that he must have thought he was close to a new pride and wanted to join it. We were overwhelmed by the rarity of the moment.

On my last evening in camp, in spite of a sore neck, I decided to join the students on a game drive. After all, it’s not often I get the opportunity to go for a drive into the bushveld. The students told the ranger she had to find the lions for me after our incredible experience of watching them on the screen and hearing the lion’s roars outside in the ultimate version of surround sound.

We drove along for about half an hour until we came up to three male rhino on a plain. The ranger decided to drive really close to them. It was at this point I regretted taking the front seat (which I’d done to protect my neck a bit). The front seats of the Land Rover, you see, had no doors. As the ranger drove alongside the three walking lawnmowers shaped like tanks I kept seeing footage of the rhino attacks I'd shown my students in a documentary the day before. I noticed the ranger thought nothing of driving me broadside to the large grey mammals. I looked at my flimsy corduroy jacket which I’d draped across my knees. I wondered how much protection that would be from a charging rhino’s horn.

The fear I felt then was real, but that was nothing compared to our next encounter.
After driving around for another hour, we saw him. We’d been driving off-road through plains of windscreen-high yellow thatch grass when we heard him. Our lost boy. The ranger drove towards the sound. Suddenly we realised he was behind us in a thicket. So Deanna, our ranger, turned the vehicle around and there he was - right in front of us - the most beautiful five-year old male lion I've ever seen and my first sighting of a lion in the wild. He continued to walk towards us, not more than two meters away, grumbling and growling to himself. He looked me straight in the eyes as he passed. Once again, I was broadside to him. I’m embarrassed to admit that my initial reaction was sheer terror again. He passed within a metre of my unprotected legs. I'm glad I didn't have a camera as I would’ve dropped it in fright. If I'd stretched out my hand I would have touched him. Even Ashwika, one of my keenest students, stopped her incessant camera-clicking behind me. She froze, even though she was relatively safe in higher seats behind the solid steel sides of the Landy. Fortunately she continued to click again once he’d walked past. These are the photos. I might add that she did not have to use a zoom lens.

Once I'd recovered from the shock of being so close to an unhappy wild lion, I could appreciate his beauty. He lay down just a little away from us on the plain in the shadow of the mountain. Deanna turned the vehicle around and we parked a few metres away from him, watching him roar, yawn, grumble, roll over on his belly and feel a bit sorry for himself for over an hour. As his roars echoed majestically off the Waterberg mountains at sun set, I couldn't believe how privileged I was to be alive in that particular moment.

He stared right into my eyes a few times and I tried to send telepathic messages of love to this lonely lion. Silly, I know. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the alpha male in the pride he's been rejected from will soon be old and he'll be welcomed back home again. All good things come to those who wait.

I lecture for the Wildlife Film Academy at Entabeni Game Reserve. Students from around the world come for a one month course to make their own short wildlife film in that time.

http://www.wildlifefilmacademy.com/

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

From Doorstop to Usable Script


"You will never write a good book until you have written some bad ones." – George Bernard Shaw.
I read this fairly simple quote in a group email this morning as I started writing this piece and it struck me as the best place to start talking about writing plays, whether they are for the stage or for the screen. My experience in play- and screenwriting comes from just doing it. Writing, that is. And I wrote a lot of bad ones in the early days.
I started writing plays and screenplays more than ten years ago after Richard E Grant (blessed be Reg forever) listened to an idea I had and promised to read the script if I wrote it. I did write it, and having never written a screenplay before – I had an intuition that I had to write screenplays and after a whiskey or two I’ll tell you why – it was a fairly monstrous creation. It was three times longer than it should have been; it was so dialogue-heavy that it would never have made it to the screen, and it was too soppy and personal ever to see the light of day. But dear Reg, (blessed be … etc) critted it honestly and gave me advice about how to turn it from a really good doorstop into perhaps a usable script.
That encouragement was enough to keep me going over the years. That, as well as a few small nibbles - such as scripts being optioned for production - stopped me from giving it all up and becoming a mealie farmer.
Having studied drama at Rhodes and having lived a life so full of drama it wouldn’t be believed if put into production, I felt entitled to write a play when I was exhausted by the eternal waiting for producers to make my films. Theatre put the power into my court. And, as Mike van Graan says in his online seminar, one sometimes has to become a producer, however reluctantly, if one wants one’s plays to be performed.
This preamble is just to say that my origins in writing are not really academic, and I am therefore not a purist by any means. But along the hard road of writing for many different producers – some in this country and some in Britain – I became aware of the need to learn a little more about structure. So I forced myself to read the scriptwriting guru of the moment, Robert McKee, who’s Story had become the stick with which producers beat beleaguered scriptwriters. I hate being told how to do anything by anyone, but I especially resented being told how to write screenplays by an American who’d never had one of his ten film scripts actually made into a film. However, I had to learn the jargon to survive in the slick world of British film production, and to my surprise, even I who hold the creative process sacred, had to admit that learning a little about story structure taught me a helluva lot more about how to write plays. I took what made sense from Bob (as I call him) and applied it to my work. As soon as I started to do this, my plays improved dramatically (pardon the pun). And screenplay writing didn’t feel quite as hit and miss as it had seemed before.
However, I still remain firmly averse to the pundits who insist that on page 27 I should have my first turning point and on page 65 the second act twist should kick in. (I’ve actually had a script editor phone me up and ask me why there wasn’t a twist on page 27. I couldn’t believe that she’d stuck to that template so literally.) That jargon, by the way, is classic Syd Field. He is another guru many screenwriters and producers pray to. I’ve only just succumbed and bought one of his many books, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. After almost dying of shock at how prescriptive he is, I’ve promised myself to go through the book when I'm calmer and extract what is useful in it. There must be something!
Another writer for writers who came on to my radar screen just after old Bob is Christopher Vogler. His The Hero’s Journey proved invaluable in finally getting my first (though by no means the first I’d written) screenplay into production. His work also led me to explore the originator of his theory, Joseph Campbell, whose The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a beautiful work which just happens to be a useful guide for writing stories. His idea that we human beings all have a similar mythical symbology in our make-up is well worth exploring.
When I was asked to lecture in scriptwriting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg I was delighted. Finally I could talk about the one subject which I think I know the most about. I don’t know much about many other things, but I’ve kind of earned my stripes and have paid my dues as a scriptwriter over the past ten years. When asked to write this article I thought I would explore the themes put to me in the way I would approach them with my scriptwriting classes. These classes cover both writing for stage and writing for screen and it is remarkable how almost all the rules of dramatic structure apply to both mediums.
The first question posed is why I chose drama over other genres. It’s a tricky one, especially as I am so biased in favour of drama. But to choose to write plays one has to have a passion for telling stories in a dramatic way, whether it is on the stage or in film. One of the ways to find out if you are really a lover of this art form is to see whether you like watching people and wondering about their motivations. This, to me, is the absolute joy of playwriting: putting people on a stage, giving them lines, and trying to obscure their motivations from the audience for as long as possible. Being obvious in the motivations of one’s characters removes the element of surprise for the audience, and is often referred to as being “on the nose” with one’s writing. People seldom say exactly what they are thinking or feeling in real life. Imagine how risky it would be to blurt out that (a) you are passionately in love with someone who is married; (b) you wish you could kill someone because (s)he is married to the person you are passionately in love with; or (c) you are bored to death by the person who is passionately in love with you.
One of my greatest joys is to find dialogue which conveys not only something of the subtext of a character but which takes one inevitably along the path of finding out exactly who that character is. As old Bob says, “True character emerges under pressure.” So if you like writing about how people react to situations in which they are under pressure, write plays. If you like writing deep, introspective reflections about how the character feels when under pressure, write novels. And remember the old maxim of drama: show (the reactions of characters), don’t tell.
The second question is about where one finds ideas for stories. Bob (sorry) says that a dysfunctional childhood is the perfect qualification for being a great writer. So I’m alright. But what if you haven’t had a terrible childhood!? I try to get my students to think about a character first before they find a story. I’ve used a number of ways to find a kick-off point for them. One very simple way to do this is to give each student an object while their eyes are closed. I’ve often trawled through my house and arrived with a bag of strange objects for them to explore using only their sense of touch. While they feel the object with their hands, they are also required to write impressions down. Legibility is a minimal requirement at this point. We’ve had wonderful characters emerge from this sort of exercise. The students then focus on how to build a story around them. For example, one student explored a soft razor-type object used to remove hair after a depilatory cream had been applied. The feminine curves of this object inspired her to write a play about a woman who rejects the imposed format expected of her life and, as a result, runs away from her impending wedding. Another student examined an electric plug and came up with a wonderful character who felt so disconnected from life that she kept trying to kill herself. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
Another simple way to find a character as a starting point is to watch people all around you. Try to imagine what sort of daily life the hobo on the corner sitting with his ancient, grizzled mother day after day must have. Or watch the woman struggling with two small toddlers and a wayward shopping trolley who looks as if she could have been a model if she hadn’t become frazzled by domestic life. If you are a writer, your imagination will kick in very quickly and you’ll have a hundred stories after one morning of watching people in a coffee shop.
I find characters are a great way of finding a story, but sometimes stories find you. If you are completely stuck, though, go through a newspaper and examine any one of the stories which grab your attention. Think of the story behind the story.
Or, if you are really lucky, you might have a technicolour dream to inspire you with a story. Some of my favourite plays have been based on absurd dreams I’ve had.
Sometimes you will be lucky and just have something you want to say about something. Then I advise you very strongly just to do it.
As for the developing the storyline in a play, I’ve become a great believer in teaching the classic three-act structure until students are adept enough to break the rules well enough themselves. It’s important to me to know that students can do the Aristotelian thing and create a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I start teaching my students that Act One (which can consist of any number of scenes) should be the set-up of the story; Act Two is the development of the set-up and should be the longest section of the play (with as many scenes as you need); Act Three is the pay-off, where all the loose ends are tied up and satisfaction is given to the audience (one hopes!).
Once you have mastered that structure without falling into deeply prescriptive territory you can break rules with impunity. One of my brightest students has just written a play which breaks all the rules and is a parody of storytelling itself as well as of The Hero’s Journey. It’s a very good play. But he had to know the rules before he could write this well enough.
If you need even more assistance in finding your path in a story, I really recommend Chris Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey, which need not become prescriptive but can really help you plot your path if you are lost. In fact, George Lucas attributes his success with the first Star Wars to discovering Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he was completely at a loss in his script. Both books are well worth a look.
Dealing with characterisation is quite a difficult issue. If characters are to be more than one-dimensional I can’t help thinking one needs to know quite a bit about the world and be a good observer of people. As I said earlier, people seldom say exactly what they think, so learning to be oblique in your dialogue is a really good art to cultivate.
Another really helpful thing to remember is that the most interesting characters usually have contradictory elements to them. Think of a conservative Bohemian; an obsessive compulsive psychologist; an ambitious hippie … I don’t know. You could go on all day. Bob, of course, says that Hamlet is one of the world’s most multidimensional characters, and I agree. At times Hamlet is deeply depressed. At others he is manically happy. Sometimes he is wise. At other times he is rash. He is loving and gentle one moment, then harsh and reproachful another. But yes, he is an extreme example. So somewhere along that continuum is the way to go to create a character who is not a one-dimensional stereotype. Bob also says that making Hamlet interact with different characters who bring out different aspects of Hamlet’s erratic personality is the secret of Shakespeare’s success. This is one of Bob’s cleverer moments and leads me perfectly to the next point.
Dialogue is so important in a play if you are to show many facets of a character. Film can show us a character doing a multitude of different activities to depict the internal world of this character, but it is theatre’s forte to use words and dialogue to do the same thing. I always say to my students that the minute they start to hear a character’s voice in their head, they are ready to start writing the play. I usually get the students to write monologues for the main characters as a way to make these characters come to life.
One has to be very restrained about dialogue, though. As someone who just loves dialogue I have been known to over-write speeches, especially when I first started writing. (And it is usually in the rehearsal process that this comes to light.) But once you have found your character’s voice, try to think of ways that the audience can learn more about that character when (s)he is talking to different characters. Think of Hamlet talking to Polonius as opposed to his talking to Ophelia. How is he different talking to best friend Horatio after he has just talked to his despised stepfather Claudius? Once again, listen to people and the nuances of speech and observe real life. There is no better teacher.
The final question is about production. This is all about teamwork, as everyone who ever writes about theatre (or film) should know. When egos get involved with Prima Donna attitudes all hell breaks loose. And this isn’t the exception unfortunately – there are big egos in theatre. And the bigger the budgets, the bigger the egos. That’s why films are so hard to get made! The ideal way for a scriptwriter to see his/her play get produced is to produce it him-/herself, as Mike van Graan has said.
I would suggest, though, that it is a good idea to get a director to direct one’s play rather than direct it oneself. It helps to have an external eye on the production and you’ll be amazed at the new insights a good director will find when directing your play. It’s vital, though, to choose someone whom you trust with the vision of the play. This is crucial. If you and the director do not see eye to eye at the beginning of the production it can only get worse.
If you are the producer you are also able to have a say in the casting, which is a gift. It’s wonderful to see your own words spoken by people who embody someone very like your personal vision.
If your play is bought or optioned (as it very often is when it comes to film) get down on your knees and pray that the director will see things as you envisaged them. There is nothing else you can do. You have written the best script you can, and now it is up to them to make it their production.
Good luck!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

To e-Book or not to e-book


I had four plane flights in forty-eight hours last week. To make good use of the time in transit I decided to plan a story based on one of Jane Austen’s heroines or villain. So I took my tattered copy of Pride and Prejudice along to while away the in-between hours and to get into the right linguistic state of mind.

As I sat on the metal seats which are ubiquitous in boarding queues, I felt a need to be furtive when I took my yellowing paperback out of my bag. Alongside me people flashed laptops, i-Phones and even bright and shiny Kindles. I couldn’t help feeling a little envious as I glanced at the man reading on his e-reader. So I hid my book under cover of my laptop which I’d opened in an attempt to show that I, too, am a thoroughly adapted 21st century person.

Of course that started me thinking about books and whether they’re going to be extinct in a few years from now. Will my children laugh at me for giving them a book for Christmas? If I gave them an electronic book, would that automatically make it better?

Then there’s another development I noticed in a recent lecture to students. I’d asked them to write down their ideas for a film script they had to write during my course. The older members of the group produced pages of hand-scribbled notes within minutes. The younger ones, those who were in their early twenties, stared at me blankly for hours. No amount of coaxing could get them to scratch more than just a few words on their almost blank sheets of paper. I was anxious, thinking that this batch of students wasn’t going to produce the script required in their allotted time. So I decided to fast-forward the process and asked them to begin typing up their work – or lack of it - in the facility’s computer room. What a transformation!

As soon as the young students were seated in front of the beautiful Apple Macs they morphed into writers. Words flowed from their fingers and they caught up to the others with just a few swirls over their keyboards. That’s when I realised it: the younger generation think more clearly with a screen in front of them. Whether it’s a cell phone, an i-Pad or a laptop, their brains switch into gear as soon as they are placed in front of an electronic device.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? If the majority of reading and writing today takes place on a screen does it matter? I don’t think it does. Unless we run out of power on an international scale and all electronic devices become obsolete, of course. But until then, at least the youth are literate. In fact, some educationists say that even though some youngsters may use cell phone abbreviations when they write or text, they are much more at ease expressing themselves through the use of words than their parents’ generations were.

But why did I feel ashamed of my ancient book in the airport? Yes, it was a novel by an author who’s been dead for two centuries. And yes, it is a very tattered and yellowing book that it could merit a tag attached to it, explaining its origins like an artefact from the past. The thing is, I felt so much more comfortable reading my tired old paperback than I would’ve done reading an e-book on my laptop.

Books are a source of comfort and peace to me. My earliest memories of reading are of my mother trying to potty train me and my brother. She would give us a page of a comic book and tell us to sit on our potties until we’d finished “reading” it. Engrossed by the illegible words and bright colours, we’d stay seated until the deed was done. Those were rare moments of quietness in our busy toddler lives, even if there was an ulterior motive. We graduated to real books without any motive soon afterwards.

My mother would read to us at first and I devoured my way through my own choices as years went on. Books have always been a part of my life. I love their physicality and I’m not happy unless I have at least three stacked on my bedside table.

So although my old book may have looked out of place in the airport, I thank my mother for instilling a love of books in me. And I hope I can instil the same love of words in my children. Even they prefer to take their books electronically.

The Lesser Spotted Travelling Human

So there I was sitting at yet another airport on another weekend afternoon. It must be the most unpleasant place to be on a hot, long weekend. Perhaps this explains the bad mood of the passengers waiting for flights out of O.R. Tambo.

It’s the third time my flight has been delayed. I’m not going to mention the name of the airline responsible but it rhymes with Makula. The last flights of the day are backed up and hundreds of tired passengers are irritable as we wait in the endless boarding queue. We just know that the minute we leave the queue to get a coffee, the airline will open the boarding gates and take off without us.

So as we wait, ready to knee each other in the groin if anyone takes our place, I can’t help noticing how strange human beings are. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that I’ve just been in the bush for four days observing the behaviour of wild animals.

For example, there’s the lesser spotted red-breasted Mr Price Mannikin, his unmistakable Mr P. logo blazing across his R59.99 T-shirt. On his legs are his R69.99 Mr P. shorts with slight cargo detail to indicate individuality and his feet are encased in R49.99 slip-on shoes. Like other Mr P. Mannikin’s, these creatures aim to blend in, determined not to attract attention by idiosyncratic behaviour. Their general demeanour is one of benign friendliness, especially if a fellow Mr P. Mannikin is nearby. A sign of status in the male is a forward projecting hump, known more commonly as the “Boep.” These boeps take years to cultivate and show that the Mannikin has access to favourable grazing conditions. The boep serves as a means of recognition between males and creates an instant bonding process in which long discussions about other male bonding rituals, such as “rugby” ensue. These are the least aggressive males in the queue. Unless someone threatens their female.

Also spotted is the highly adapted Upwardly Mobile Yupster. The female of the species is usually more flamboyant, with nine-inch stilettos being their most recognisable characteristic. The gait of the female Yupsters is slightly compromised as they are forced to totter rather than walk, and their hips have developed an ungainly swagger as a result. Swirly skirts which accent the swagger are highly favoured, as are exceptionally processed hair-dos. Males of the species will not be seen dead without designer suits. The male’s hair is also highly processed and covered in what has been identified as “Product”. The males and females have two things in common: designer labels and their state of the art mobile phones permanently attached to their ear lobes. These phones are the most visible sign of rank and status is determined by the size (where smaller is better, surprisingly) and cost of these accessories. Unfortunately, these accessories result in an overt squawking into the attachment at all times. Another common characteristic is that the Yupsters automatically assume higher status over anyone else around them. A favourite cry is their “Do You Know Who I Am?”

More prolific of late are the Tightly Packaged Hipsters. These creatures are also known for great attention to detail regarding their appearance. In contrast to the Yupsters, however, these details are not designed to show off wealth but rather their idea of being anti-establishment and “cool”. Males of the species are more highly decorated, with large tattoos on exposed arms and necks. Hair is also important and males have either tightly coiffed short hair or very well prepared longer hair where fringes over one eye are preferred. Black hair is de rigeur as is black eye-liner for both the male and female of the species. A new development is that some Tightly Packaged Hipsters are favouring the well-muscled look. This is an adaptation from the less successful Emo Hipsters who tended to fade and decline due to lack of interest. Most of the muscled variety, however, flourish and plumage is chosen to show off tightly sculpted pecs and abs. Females are still less muscled than the males but exhibit more signs of body adornment in the form of face piercings. These animals are not dangerous to others but are possible dangerous to themselves. Their addiction to piercing and tattooing can be hazardous to their health.
We are called to board our flight at last. Such a pity as I’d only just started identifying the Manic Mom variety of the species. Never mind. I’ll give David Attenborough a call when I’m home. The airport would definitely be unchartered territory for him.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Out of the Fry-ing Pan and into the Twitters-sphere



On a recent Graham Norton Show, guest Stephen Fry was asked about Twitter and the way he’s embraced it so completely. Norton was amazed that the phenomenon had taken off largely when the news broke that Stephen Fry, a true celeb, was tweeting all the time. Fry justified himself by saying that he loved new technology, and he enjoyed the immediacy of Twitter. Norton and the other guests mocked the content of many of the tweets, as people tweet almost every mundanity from their last meal to their recent bowel movements, Fry answered that it wasn’t called “Twitter” for nothing. If it was called “Deeply Intellectual and Philosophical Stream of Consciousness” for example, he said, then its content could be criticized. He argued that Twitter does what it says on the box: it’s a stream of twittering, much like the noise birds make in the early morning to make their presence felt.

I began to think that perhaps social networks are necessary to make people feel more connected to others and to feel affirmed by being part of breaking news. Has the Twittersphere, like the theatre of the ancient Greeks, become the new place to see and be seen?

There are many critics of social media sites. Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and Mixit have been cited as the cause of everything from teenage drinking to underage sex. These sites have also been accused of being nothing more than platforms for shameless self-promotion. Granted these platforms do give a voice to every idiot on the planet who wants to sell shower fittings for example. And yes, sometimes it is annoying to hear how many books a colleague has written while you’ve been distractedly playing online Scrabble. But the social network isn’t at fault. Its strength lies in how you use it.

Stephen Fry, as the best example, has been a pioneer with his 2 million followers. He started tweeting witty comments on a daily basis two years ago from an internal flight across the USA. He also tweets news and twitpix of his daily schedule, his and others’ television programmes, his attempt to lose weight walking across London and generally keeps us amused with pithy comments about the world. Last year, his alter-ego, Mrs Stephen Fry, made her presence felt on Twitter. Her Twitter bio states that she is “Edna Fry, Stephen's poor, downtrodden wife and mother of his five, six or possibly seven kids.” Her irreverent take on the world is often even more amusing than her so-called husband’s.

Then something unusual happened a few weeks ago. In contrast to his daily tweets to make you laugh, Fry posted a short, bleak tweet: “I am so, so unhappy.” It stunned me that a man of his stature was being so shamelessly honest. I, along with many of his other followers, am aware of his bi-polar disorder. So of course I tweeted an encouraging message immediately, along with thousands of others, I’m sure. He didn’t answer me this time. (He does follow me and has answered my tweets on occasion, gentleman that he is.) But a few hours later he tweeted that he was feeling so much better thanks to the influx of so many heartfelt and loving wishes from fellow tweeps, as they’re called.

And that’s when it struck me how powerful the social network can be. Not only is it a wonderful place to, well, network I suppose. It’s also a place for a never before experienced unity throughout the world. During the soccer world cup, for example, I watched matches along with the rest of the world, and we shared tweets about the games as they were played. When Obama was inaugurated, I tweeted with American “friends” and appreciated how much that moment meant to them. With the uprisings in Egypt and around the world, I learnt of developments first hand as they happened to people in the region.

But it’s not only global events which connect people on social websites. Stephen Fry’s sad tweet touched the world of his 2,25 million followers a few weeks ago. And when I tweeted that my father has to undergo unexpected open heart surgery this week, my social networks poured out tremendous good will towards my family. When I told my father that Twitters and Facebookers around the world would be sending positive thoughts to him during his four hour operation, he was deeply touched. He asked me to thank “the twits” out there on his behalf. For him, receiving good will on such a large scale is unheard of.

This experience of the kindness of relative strangers has made me realise that social networking may be good for people’s careers, but it is even better for their hearts. Long may it prosper.


First published in The Sunday Independent February 2011, and The Witness, March 2011

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Film, Comedy and Everything Else.


At a recent workshop in South Africa on some aspects of film- writing, making and acting, international stars Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Greg Wise interacted with an audience of the Who’s Who of South African theatre at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. The second day’s workshop was effectively an analysis session of All That Breaks with Thompson, Fry and Greg Wise acting out scenes from the script and asking for feedback from the enthusiastic audience.

One of the first aspects of film-making to be highlighted by Emma Thompson was that getting a film made takes a long, long time. Sense and Sensibility, the film for which Thompson won Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, took over fifteen years to be made. “I was brought in to write the script just five years before it was made,” Thompson said.

She also spoke about the specialized skill required of really great screenwriters. “Sidney Pollack, the producer of that film, taught me something of great importance. He told me not to think of Jane Austen’s novel as an outdated piece of nostalgia and, as such, to treat it with reverence,” she said. “One of the first things he said to me is that he was my audience. He was just an average guy from Indiana who hadn’t a clue about Jane Austen and her times. He needed to be drawn into a story about real people to whom he could relate. So I decided the best way to write the script was to wrap up as many of the exposition points in a joke of sorts. With film writing you have to keep the dialogue going to drive the narrative along without anyone noticing it. So you have to wrap up the exposition points like pearls in an oyster. One has to layer a script. Layer it and layer it so that the audience has to dig into the screenplay to find the treasures within. Sidney Pollock’s approach was echoed by the director, Ang Lee. As an oriental he approached the film very differently than we would have. He never required us to step outside the film and observe the period we were in at all. It had to work as a modern piece in some sense for him.”

Stephen Fry added that working on a period piece was always very interesting. Referring to his role in Wilde, the film about Oscar Wilde, he said that when one is acting in a period film, it was important not to regard oneself as being in a period piece. “If you filmed all of us in the theatre now, in about two hundred years time, we would call this very moment a period piece,” he said. “Yet you are not consciously aware of being in a period right here and now. Just so, when you are acting in a period piece, you would act as if the clothing and style of speech are completely natural to you. One has to be unselfconscious in performing as well as writing period pieces.”


Regarding the modernization of classics, Fry said he had no problem with the way adaptations are done to classic pieces of literature or even of music, some of them more liberal and less reverent than others. “You don’t want to preserve a piece of work in aspic, do you,” he asked. “And the original will always be there.”
Fry spoke about the difficulties inherent in dramatizing the life of a writer. It isn’t very exciting filmically to show a writer writing. “But at least with Wilde,” he said, “he put his talent into his work and saved his genius for his life so he was one writer who was easy to dramatize. As a rule, however, it is easier to dramatise the lives of artists such as Picasso or Dali for instance. A writer’s life is the very devil. Think of trying to write about the life of Henry James? He was such an introspective character that to write about seems a little unimaginable.”

Thompson suggested that in the case of Henry James it might be better to write something a lot less vast about his life and concentrate perhaps on just one single moment which was pivotal to him. Fry agreed.

“People do have a life moment, don’t they,” he asked of the audience. “There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to make a definitive choice. That moment defines their character and marks out the path of the rest of their lives in a sense. Showing that moment, creating a story about that moment, can become your screenplay.”

Greg Wise remarked on the importance of making the opening scene of a film completely captivating. “One can decide whether the opening scene will be a vignette – a small preview or tableau - of the whole of the film to come, or not. But what one has to avoid,” he stressed, “is what we in television call the ‘shit-click’ moment. If a viewer is watching a programme at home especially, and the opening few minutes don’t grab him, he will mutter, ‘Oh this is shit,’ and click it off or switch to something else. This is much more applicable to television writing as the cinema viewer does have more invested in staying at the cinema. So with film one can be more elliptical and keep audiences in the dark for a little longer than one can in a television show, but it is still important to grab the audience from the first scene onwards.”

Talking about adapting a novel into a screenplay, Thompson mentioned advice from Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala who adapted E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India amongst other novels. According to Prawer-Jhabvala., the best way to approach adaptation was to dramatise the whole book into events. “She said you should then remove the scenes which are the most dramatic and then re-plot the whole story,” Thompson explained. “Another useful thing to remember when writing any screenplay is, as Jim Sheridan said, always have a magnet at the end of the story which draws the reader or viewer to the end. The pull of the magnet should be felt from the very first scene.”

The importance of theme and subtext was also discussed, especially in relation to the screenplay from which Thompson, Fry and Wise had acted out scenes earlier during the morning’s workshop. In the screenplay, All that Breaks, a feature film in pre-production about the life of Ingrid Jonker, written by Helena Nogueira, Wise and Thompson had enacted a scene where Ingrid denies her real feelings for the love of her life, Jack Cope. The most compelling part of the scene was how neither of the characters had the courage to say exactly how they felt about each other.

Thompson stressed how a film’s dialogue has to convey the subtext of the characters without making the writing ‘on the nose’. “What you’re looking for in a screenplay are lines such as ‘Pass the butter, dear,’ which really mean ‘You have ruined my life,’” she said. “And by making sure that you have stayed true to the themes of your story throughout the script, the subtext of the characters should form a continuous thread throughout the whole film. This thematic subtext should form a compulsion – the magnet as I said earlier – which draws the viewer on throughout the film.”

Helena Nogueira had spoken earlier about the difficulties of writing a biopic. She felt that “the challenge of writing about a real person is not to lie about that person’s life, but to put as much of yourself into the writing as possible. One of my favourite biopics,” she said, “is Elizabeth, written by Michael Hirst and made in 1998. He plays fast and loose with the facts of her life but remains true to the essence of who Elizabeth was. That film to me is a successful transition from the facts of a life into a story about the life.”

Regarding specificity and generalizations in screenplays, Thompson spoke about the importance of specificity. “I don’t like generalizations in terms of character or even in terms of production,” she said adamantly. “Some directors can be so specific however, as to make you question their sanity, but it is better to be more specific than not. Pedro Almodovar is quite obsessive compulsive apparently. And I remember one scene I did for hours with Tony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day. We did the same take countless times and still James Ivory wasn’t happy. We had no idea what to do anymore, until he walked past us quietly, moved a vase on a table behind us just a few inches to the left and exclaimed, ‘That’s what I wanted.’ It was the vase causing all the problems!”

Perhaps that was specificity taken too far, she suggested. Better directing advice came earlier on in the workshop when Thompson and Fry acted out scenes from All That Breaks and then asked the audience for feedback. Two times Oscar winner, Emma Thompson, listened patiently while an apparent Drama 101 student lectured her as to how she could perform the scene more effectively. Thompson held her pose of rapt attention while the girl rattled on ad infinitum until the audience literally told her to shut up. After a brief moment of silence, Thompson turned to the girl and asked her if she planned on becoming a director. The irony was huge.

Thompson then continued. “All I can say to those of you who want to become directors, is to remember two things when you give advice to actors: 1) Keep it short and 2) be practical.” Amid hoots of laughter, she continued: “Sir Laurence Olivier was directing a young man who was completely lost as to how to play his character. He came up to Sir Laurence and asked him how to act the role. Sir Laurence turned to him thoughtfully and after a long moment replied: ‘Your character is very… hot.’ Masterful.”

In writing a screenplay and in acting too it is essential to keep one’s mind focused, Thompson continued. “Mike Nichols is known to say when we are working on something together that we have a lot of tone but ‘what’s the event?’ That’s what you have to look for in your screenplay and also in your portrayal of a scene as an actor: ‘What’s the event?’ For a scene to be good it has to have an event. Something of importance must take place.”

Thompson also spoke about how poorly regarded screenplay writers are. “The British playwright Christopher Hampton always goes on about how rude people are about writers,” she said. “They have no idea how difficult and delicate a task it is to create a good screenplay.”

In the afternoon session, comedy was the order of the day. Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks joined the three actors on a panel. Every comic actor of note in South Africa was in the audience, including the cast of recently released Bunny Chow. The panel was chaired by the erudite Alan Swerdlow.

Stephen Fry opened the proceedings by quoting his fellow comedian Ben Elton. “Ben says that being a stand up comic is so nerve wracking that one’s rectal circle ages twice as fast as the rest of one’s body,” he said. “So while a comedian might be forty five years old, his anus is ninety!”

The international stars paid tribute to the remarkable role played by Pieter Dirk Uys through his work during the Apartheid struggle. As Fry put it, “There are real uses to comedy. Comedy can contribute to the great boulder of history which effects change.” Thompson added that she’d always thought humourlessness was the path to fascism. She quoted Mark Twain who said that “You can push at humbug (mindless ideology) with drama and rhetoric but only humour can blast it to atoms in a moment.”

Uys agreed and said that his brand of humour was the great weapon of mass destruction in this country during Apartheid. Fry quoted another of his favourites G.K. Chesterton who said that “Comedy is truer than any other form of entertainment.” Greg Wise observed that comedy was the opposite of sex where “one had to come in soft and leave hard,” meaning that you have to beguile the audience and then give them a profound message when they least expect it. Wise also spoke about the fact that everything is political, and at last in South Africa, everything is ripe for all types of comedy.

“Comedy is always truer than any other form of entertainment,” Fry remarked. “G.K. Chesterton said that if you say something amusing people don’t take it seriously but it is always truer than most other statements. And once again good comedy lies in the specifics. The enemy of comedy is abstraction. For example someone asked Woody Allen if there is a God, but he answered, ‘Not only isn’t there a God but you can’t get a Dentist on Tuesdays.’ That’s comedy at its specific and absurd best. Comedy is about the very essence of where you live, from childbirth to lavatory paper. That’s why comedians are always so keen on ‘bottom’ jokes. Everyone can relate. Everyone has an arsehole but not everyone has a computer, you see.”

Emma Thompson went on to describe the way women and men approach humour differently. “Female rhythms in comedy are very different to male rhythms,” she said. “The male joke is a bit like the male orgasm. It starts off with a da dum da dum da dum da dum, and builds up to a giant climax with its punchline. The female rhythms of humour are more about ‘mmm that’s nice, and yes that’s nice too, and mmm that’s really nice and mmmm that’s really good.’ I don’t like traditional jokes. The burden on me to laugh at the punch line is so huge! Sometimes I have to fake it. The laughs, that is.”

“Comedy films are the most difficult to make,” Thompson continued. “They’re never given the credit they deserve. And they’re never taken seriously for all the right reasons.”

Fry talked about writing comedy in novels rather than in screenplays and said a lot of comedy has to evoke a physical reaction for him. “I suppose it’s a bit like pornography,” he laughed. “There is always a physical reaction of sorts. And a certain kind of comedy is like that. Cheap comedy tickles that easily accessible comic gland, like fart and bottom jokes I suppose. But there are more sophisticated forms of comedy just like there are more sophisticated forms of erortica. Anais Nin was one such sophisticated writer of erotica for example, writing passages that you never forget. And in comedy that is the kind of writing one values, the kind that you never forget. Great classic comic writers are Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse for example. In one essay Wodehouse wrote that the letters he received praising his work were mainly from people in prisons or hospitals. At one point he thought this fact was rather depressing, until he realised that there is no greater compliment than being appreciated by those who are truly in need.”

In conclusion, Fry summed up, “humour is one of the few things which is free and it is also one of the very few things left which nourishes the soul.”

First published in Screen Africa.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and me - one of the strangest days indeed.



So there I was sitting in the second from the front row of the Market Theatre in Newtown Johannesburg waiting for Emma Thomson and Stephen Fry to take an all day workshop on Comedy. Yes, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. In South Africa. And I was going to be in the same room. And I had a plan that was making my heart beat wildly.

It hadn’t been easy to get there. I’d just returned from Cape Town where I’d been flown by a producer to discuss turning two of my plays into an M-Net drama and a TV series that I received the press release about the workshop. Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry were coming to Joburg. The workshop was supposed to be about Comic Writing and there was something included in the press releases about the premiere of a film about Ingrid Jonker too. The workshop would start on the 13th Feb and would go on til the 14th and the premiere of the documentary about Ingrid Jonker’s life would be screened on the following Sunday night at Rosebank. It seemed too soon after my Cape Town trip and I was still broke after the Christmas drought and my scriptwriting lectures were due to start on Tuesday 12th Feb. But it was Stephen Fry and Emma! I’ve watched almost every film or TV series they’ve made. I couldn’t miss them.

But how could I afford a trip? Where would I stay? I don’t have anyone to stay with in Joburg now that Ian has sold his house. And I couldn’t bear to impose on anyone I didn’t know well enough. I couldn’t see how I could do it. But still, I answered the press release seemingly emanating from Ster Kinekor who organized the workshop at such short notice. Ever the optimist, I booked for the Thursday workshop when Emma and Stephen would be talking on comedy.

On Monday before the workshop I still had no idea where I would stay or even how I would afford the petrol for the trip. I felt it was all beyond me somehow. And then the phone rang and a sweet person on the line asked me if I would like an overdraft on my account. I told her she was an angel from heaven! I decided to increase my overdraft just enough to cover my petrol costs and two nights stay at the cheapest B and B I could find. And then I emailed the editor of Screen Africa to ask if she wanted me to cover the story for her publication. She said she would love me to write about it. This would cover the cost of my new overdraft. My cash flow problem was sorted out! Suddenly everything seemed possible again.

I left on Wednesday morning, found my B and B just off Jan Smuts Road and met a good friend for a late supper. We tired to ignore that we were surrounded by Valentine’s Day lovers drowning in each other’s eyes.

And then it was D-Day. I was in the Market Theatre in a seat second row from the front. After all, I didn’t want to appear too eager, although I was more than eager underneath my apparently calm exterior. Apart from being in the presence of the hallowed two and having to write an article for Screen Africa, I did have an ulterior motive: I had one of my best plays in my bag and was determined to give it to either Stephen or Emma to pass on to their agents. And how I was going to do that completely audacious thing made my heart beat three times faster than normal.

It was quite – I won’t say surreal – remarkable to see ET and SF in the flesh. They were accompanied by Greg Wise, ET’s dishy husband and his sister, head of the UK film council and producer Clare Wise, as well as the writer of the screenplay on Ingrid Jonker as well as maker of the documentary on her life, Helena Nonguera. And the strange thing was that no one sat in front of me in the front row. I had a direct line of eye contact to the revered ones.

People whooped with delight as their highnesses made their entrance. The Queen herself - the real one and not Helen Mirren - would have received no less an enthusiastic response. Malcolm Purkey, head of the Market Theatre, introduced them to the audience. And then the workshop was underway. Apparently, the prestigious panel had been attacked the previous day for being too “colonial” in holding court and “telling” the audience what they thought. All I can say is thank goodness I wasn’t there to see it. I would have died of embarrassment to hear these gracious and generous people accused of paternalism. To counteract the previous day’s attack, Emma and Stephen acted out scenes from Helena Nonguera’s screenplay based on Ingrid Jonker’s life and then asked for the audience to give them advice as to how to play the roles better. Two times Oscar winner, Emma, listened patiently while an apparently twelve year old drama 101 student lectured her ad infinitum as to how she could act better. I sank my head onto my chest and couldn’t help catching ET’s eye as I did so. I was mortified by the young girl’s arrogance. Especially as she was speaking such utter rubbish! Emma held her pose of rapt attention while the girl rabbitted on until the audience told her to shut up. After a brief moment of silence, Emma turned to the girl and asked her if she planned to be a director. The irony was huge.

Emma then continued. “All I can say to those of you who want to become directors, remember two things when you give advice to actors: 1) Keep it short and 2) Be practical.” Amid hoots of laughter, she continued: “Sir Laurence Olivier was directing a young man who was completely lost in how to play his character. He came up to Sir Laurence and asked him what to do. Sir Laurence turned to him thoughtfully and after a long moment he replied, ‘Your character is very… hot.’”

And Miss Thompson and Sir Laurence left it at that. Masterful. All potential grade twelve directors in the audience were silenced.

Another cringe-making moment in the morning’s workshop came when pompous ex-academics began to pontificate on the life and times of Ingrid Jonker. Seven syllabic words abounded as the academic high up in the audience made us aware of her doctorates and accolades. I turned to see who was embarrassing me yet again, catching Stephen Fry’s eye as I did so. We shared an ironic smile. I wasn’t too surprised to see it was an academic who recently left UKZN and who was secretly referred to as Miss Lavish for her self important ways. I smiled even more. Emma answered the academic’s vague question, and Malcolm Purkey congratulated Emma on not using the words Post Modern or Post Colonial once! Another shared smile between those on the podium and me in the second from the front row.

Stephen and Emma re-enacted the same scene again, taking the advice from those less pompous advisors and turned it into a very moving piece. The scene was between Ingrid and her father. She was telling him she wanted to go to University and he was saying that girls don’t need to as they will marry and have children. Ingrid also mentioned in this scene that her mother slit her own wrists. I had said nothing until this point, swearing that I would only speak when I had something life-alteringly important to say. Now, all I wanted to say was that the line from Ingrid about her mother slitting her wrists didn’t quite ring true to me. It was too ‘on the nose.’ People spoke about all manner of random things and I kept trying to catch the eye of Craig Higginson, Literary Manager of the Market Theatre, who was chairing the session.

Higginson saw me near the end of the Q and A and said that he would take my question after the next script reading. I stated very strongly that I needed to be heard right then as it had everything to do with the section they had just done. “Please please please please,” I shouted. And he relented. And so I spoke for the first time that day.

“I love subtext in a script,” I said passionately. “And your comment earlier, Emma (she looked up surprised) about the woman saying to her husband at the table, ‘Pass the butter, dear,’ when she is in fact saying, ‘You have ruined my life,’ is meat and drink to me. I love finding the motivation behind lines of dialogue more than anything. And Emma and Stephen,” I continued boldly, “I just love what your work, but my question now is for Helena, the scriptwriter.” Helena looked very surprised as no one had spoken to her the whole day. “Helena, I love what I’ve seen so far but I’m just wondering about the whole idea of reality and interpretation. I know one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story but I’m just concerned about Ingrid being as blatant about her mother’s suicide as she is in the script as it’s written now. She states blatantly to her father, in a 1940’s repressive Afrikaner household, that her mother cut her wrists which is a direct contradiction to him saying her mother had died of cancer. That worries me.”

At that moment Stephen Fry interrupted both of us by holding up his script and saying querulously to Emma, “Emma’s been reading that line wrong all morning.”

Emma looked up very annoyed. “No I haven’t” she said.

“Yes you have,” he continued. “Look,” he said, holding out the script to her. “The father says of the mother, ‘She died of cancer,’ and Ingrid says ‘It was very sharp,’ and then her father asks, ‘What?’ and Ingrid replies, ‘It cut her wrists.’ You’ve been reading ‘She cut her wrists.’ That’s very different.”

“Stephen’s version’s much better!” I shouted from my seat in the second row.
“My script doesn’t have the new line,” shouted a wounded Emma.

It was a recently made change which Stephen’s script had and Emma’s script was still the old one. I spooked myself a bit realizing I’d picked up the single script change, made for the very reasons I’d objected to in the first place, in a four hour session. Emma still looked a bit miffed but looked at me thoughtfully.

I went on to discuss how much one should change one’s script to please a funder. For example a funder wants to sponsor my film about a real person but he wants me to change the ending so that the person who is supposed to be a martyr for his cause doesn’t die. Clare Wise went on to answer me by saying that you have to ensure that the funder has the same vision as you have. She spoke about the film United 93 which was made in Britain as the producers were sure they would be forced to make the plane not crash (even though it was about one of the planes hijacked on 9/11) just to make sure it had a Hollywood ending if they received funding from the USA.

I laughed and breathed again and watched the next session without saying a word, satisfied that I hadn’t made a complete fool of myself. Yet. I still had that script in my bag. And my heart raced at the thought of handing it over to the illustrious ones.

The afternoon continued with a so-called Comedy Workshop. Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks joined ET, SF and GW on the stage and the session was chaired by Alan Swerdlow. The audience was full to capacity now with comic actors of great stature in this country. Tobie Cronje, Bill Flynn, Grethe Fox, Desmond Dube, David Kau, Irene Stefanoui, to name just a few were there with the cast of the new comic film Bunny Chow which has just been released in Toronto. The Bunny Chow cast sat in the front row and included Kim Engelbrecht and Kagiso Mtwewa. The afternoon was about comedy in general and I made extensive notes for the article which I kept having to remind myself I was writing for Screen Africa. I was embarrassed a few more times. And the eye contact continued with the now tired looking Stephen, while Emma kept encouraging some of the younger actors to come on stage and strut their stuff. Some of them were the cause of the embarrassment, it has to be said. I think I will say no more on the subject except to say thank goodness for Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks. They showed their intelligence and didn’t make South African humour seem like a complete oxymoron.

Then Malcolm Purkey asked if any press were in the audience. Cautiously I raised my hand. Stephen then looked at me and said “A pox on the press!” with a wry smile. I shook my head at him and said a quiet, “Now, now, no need for that…” but he continued to smile and say rude things about the press. Purkey cleared the auditorium so that the rest of the press could come in, but I’d been there all day and just HAD to have a loo break. So I asked him to wait until I returned before he started the press conference. I know how monstrous the press is in Britain, and could never quite get over the viciousness of the Tabloid press in all the five years I was there, but I still felt a little wounded by Stephen’s comments. Especially after all those moments we’d shared…Shouldn’t eye contact count for something?

Anyway, as I rushed to the loo, realizing that the script hand over would have to take place as soon as possible after the press conference I felt abject fear. I knew it would be my only chance to make contact with people I felt such an affinity to, whose advice to young writers was exactly the same as that I give to my script writing students. And I had no idea how to do it. As I ran to the loo, I prayed to God, my ancestors, guardian angels, and any off duty positive deities who might have a free moment to help!! me!! As I went past one of the many Honours’ boards in the building my eye caught the name “Richard E.” It wasn’t Grant but it made me think of him. Aha! I had it! I should tell Stephen that I know Richard E. Grant! Of course! That would be a point of contact. SF had cast him in his film Bright Young Things. I thanked the deities for their advice and concentrated on getting into a very full loo, and back into the auditorium in five minutes.

Once back in my seat, second from the front, Purkey prepared for the press conference. Cameras had been there throughout the day with telephoto lenses the size of small planets and now there were even more. Stephen kept looking at me and muttering rude things about the press with a wry smile all the while. Mics were used now for people in the auditorium and the first person who spoke was a young girl from 5FM. She asked Emma something fairly innocuous about what she thought of South Africa. I can’t remember her answer. I was by now rehearsing my opening line which I’d planned days before.

Then it was my turn. I took the mic and looked at Emma and Stephen who were literally cringing on the stage. I suppose they expected me to ask them about their sex life and whether they frequented toilets in the hope of finding rent boys. I don’t know. But this is what I said.

“Hi. My name is Janet van Eeden and I’m from Horse and Hound.” I think Emma and Stephen must have thought I’d said a foreign name or something because they didn’t respond at all. But Greg Wise got it. He turned towards me and simply BEAMED! For the first time in the day, irony was coming from the audience. He got the reference to Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill when he poses as a journalist for Horse and Hound magazine. I felt encouraged.

I went on hoping that at least Greg would continue to get the irony. “I must say, however, that I have been deeply wounded by His Highness Mr Fry’s rude comments about the press.”(Frozen cringing from ET and SF on stage, much beaming from clever and dishy Greg) “Especially as I am a full time screenwriter and playwright and do journalism only to cover my costs, having come all the way from the provinces to be here for this workshop. In this instance I am writing for Screen Africa, the national film journal for whom I write quite often, and which is the final word on film in this country. And so – (addressing Emma and Stephen directly now) – Emma and Stephen, I WORSHIP your work, but I’m going to ask Screen Africa-type questions now, and I’d like to ask Helena how she managed to get Clare to produce her film, and what the production schedule is like, and so on.”

I went on to ask very business-like questions from Helena and Clare Wise – only the second time in the day that they’d been addressed – and Emma and Stephen sat in stunned silence.

The rest of the press conference rattled on and I heard Fiona Ramsey (Ohmigod did she hear me say such silly things!?) and a few other familiar voices ask very unthreatening questions. Then it was over. Just before Purkey thanked everyone, Stephen thanked the press for not being like the British Press, and Emma then said that we should be congratulated for not being like the British Press. I told them so, I said with my eyes.

And then everyone was supposed to go home. This was it. My moment. Almost incoherent with fear, I remembered that I still had to take photos with my tiny digital camera. Okay, so that’s the first step to get onto the stage.

I pushed through the people who were all wanting to touch the cloak of the famous ones, and finally made it to Stephen. He turned towards me and beamed hugely. I told him that in Afrikaans my state of the art (not) camera is called a Mik en Druk – a Point and Press camera so I had to get really close to take reasonable pictures. He beamed like the star he is. And that’s when I took my chance.

As he was packing up his bag I said casually, “I’m a good friend of Richard E. Grant’s.”

“Oh yes, Richard,” he answered warmly. “He’s from Botswana isn’t he?”

“Swaziland, actually,” I smiled forgivingly, “but it’s easy to get them confused. And Richard is the person who first encouraged me to write.”

“Is he?” he answered, still not completely bored.

“Yes,” I said. “And look, there’s no easy way to do this, but I’ve brought a script I’d really love you to read. I’m sure you would enjoy it.”

A little more wary now but still very kind. “Alright, as long as it’s not too long. I don’t have much time, you know.”

“Oh no, it’s great fun and it’s a really quick read. I promise you’ll enjoy it. I’ll just fetch it then?”

Remembering to take Greg Wise’s pic on the way of course. I turned to Greg and said something deeply meaningful like “I think you’re just wonderful,” to which he beamed as I snapped.

And then to Emma, who seemed to be having her ears pinned back yet again by another twelve year old girl. Maybe this one was telling her how to write this time? As I stepped towards her, Emma turned to me with what I think was relief. She also lit up and gave me 150% of her incandescent presence. She really is remarkable in that way. Also she’d spoken throughout the day about her feminist work, even when Stephen didn’t know what she was on about and told her to stop wingeing. But I related to it hugely. Now I said that I had to take her picture, and she gave me seraphic smiles. And then I spoke to her too. From the bottom of my heart.

“You are just iconic to me, Emma,”.I said. “Really.Your work has meant so much to me over the years and especially your feminist work. I’ve really related to it.”

She accepted my adulation with much grace.

“And,” I continued, “I feel like such an arsehole asking you to do this, but I can’t see any other way. I have an agent who won’t do anything for me because I didn’t sleep with him. And so I’m giving one of my scripts to Stephen to ask him to read it and I wondered, if you thought it was good enough, if you would pass it on to your agents? I know it’s a really terrible thing to ask but I’m desperate here. I have a script for you too if you’d like?”

“Of course!” she said warmly. “Don’t worry about giving me another copy. I’ll get it from Stephen – I’m with him all the time - and I promise I’ll give it to my people…”

“Would you really?” I said, almost crying with relief now.

“Yes, I will. Promise.”

And I think I thanked her and I remember giving my script to Stephen who said (a little grumpily now) that it looked very long and me telling him quite firmly that he could shoot me if he didn’t enjoy it and then getting Clare Wise’s business card before finally leaping off the stage. I left the auditorium as fast as I could to dash to the loo where I sobbed for a solid ten minutes.

I was so overwrought by the whole experience. And yes they could throw my script in the bin and yes perhaps they thought I was a complete idiot but I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t taken the chance. As my friend Ian said to me later when I sobbed through the re-telling of the whole story, it was a calculated risk, and I had to take it. And take a risk I did. It took me days to recover. And my work and the deities now have to do their bit.

As John Lennon said: "Nobody told me there'd be days like this... Strange days indeed."