Award-winning film-maker and journalist Janet van Eeden has launched a crowd-sourcing campaign for her film A Shot at the Big Time, inspired by the story of her brother, Jimmy, who took his own life rather than fight in the apartheid Border War, a war he didn't believe in.
Van Eeden, who wrote the script for the internationally acclaimed White Lion (2010), has taken nine years to write the poignant story about her brother’s experience and is now ready to put it on the big screen.
“I've launched a crowd-sourcing campaign on IndieGoGo.com to raise production funds for this film after the conventional fundraising platforms didn't help me,” she explains.
“This film is timeless, a film about the young men who gave up their lives to fight in a war they had no desire to fight. Every white boy in South Africa in the seventies, eighties and early nineties was conscripted into military service. After three months of brutal basics they were spat out on to the border to kill their so-called enemy.”
A Shot at the Big Time traces the life of her brother and one of his black friends who just wanted to play music. “They had no interest in waging war against each other - they just wanted to be rock stars,” she says. “Then Jimmy received his call-up papers. Forced into the brutal regime of the military, with a sergeant who had it in for him, and after a fatal accident, he had a mental breakdown. He was removed from service and placed in a mental home to recover. He had just started to find his feet again when the army drafted him again and sent him into armed combat on the Angolan border with the instruction to seek and destroy. His broken heart couldn’t do this. So instead of fighting, he released the bullets from his rifle and walked straight into the line of enemy fire, strumming his gun, like his beloved guitar.”
“We need funding!” enthuses Van Eeden. “But we're not asking for money for nothing. Even $10 will get you a co-producer's credit and $100 gets you a copy of the novel Width of a Thread, which is based on the screenplay, and a Radio Rats CD. Then $1 000 gets you all of the above, plus a chance to appear in the film in a crowd scene, as well as to send in your auditions for the roles. The main roles will be auditioned online.”
A number of songs have already been written by Jonathan Handley of the Radio Rats, who was so moved when he read the script that he recorded songs which can be viewed on the IndieGoGo website.
Janet says, "We have crowd-sourced some amazing people so far. I didn’t realise how much crowd-sourcing is as much about finding incredible people to help on this project as it is about money. So far we have: Paul Dwyer’s graphic design company working on the poster in Australia through the skills of Justin Webber; communications/PR consultant Sharlene Versfeld doing stirling duty as our press agent; and wonderful Mayan Films’s producer Magda Olchawska keeping me on my toes and thinking big – just what I needed. Recently joined, last week, Cal Harding is now working his wizardry with the Shot website. This coming week Don van Orr is going to shoot the new promo piece to go on the opening page of this site. He is an award-winning young director, so I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. Did I mention these are all pro bono? Can’t believe what good people there around. We’re going to make a great movie.”
Janet van Eeden in conversation with Naomi Meyer
Janet, you have written lots of different kinds of material - what is different about A Shot at the Big Time?
Naomi, do you know that I wrote six stage plays, five or more radio plays and nine screenplays before I started writing Shot. The great critic Robert Greig, who used to be the arts editor at The Sunday Independent, saw the third of my Savage trilogy of plays, which he liked very much. We had a conversation over coffee afterwards and he said to me, “When are you going to write about you?” I told him there were so many tragedies in my past that I didn’t think I wanted to go down that route. He said he loved my plays, but didn’t see me on the stage as such. I was very reluctant to begin writing this script. It meant I had to go back to a time when my heart was broken at the age of twenty by my brother taking his own life on the border. It stopped me living for seven years after it happened. I just survived. He was my idol. And he had disappeared.
So when I tried to write the script, it was a very painful experience reliving the darkest time in my life. It was only twenty years after the event that I could even contemplate writing about it. (Interestingly enough, all the films about Vietnam also began to appear only twenty years after the war.) The first two drafts were awful! A complete mess and so much emotion you couldn’t find the story if you tried. So I threw them both away, brought out my trusty Hero’s Journey and began to write the story as if it had nothing to do with me. I wrote a good story and the fact that much of it was true was by the way. Someone once told me that a writer should never let the truth get in the way of a good story, so I put events together in a more dramatic format and used poetic licence to tweak the reality without losing the integrity of my brother’s story. His character stands alone as the one which is 100 percent accurate, and the family surrounding him are mostly based on real life. The character of our father is a composite creation, however. So are the band members, and other people that impacted his life along the way, based on those who played in his band over the years and the few friends of his from the army. The character of Petrus is a composite character as well, based on a young boy who spent many years of his childhood with us when we were small.
This film has taken me nine years to write. Only once I thought it was in a good shape as a story did I take it to script editors. I had two wonderful script editors work on it along the way: Brian Miller and Jenny Hicks. Both of them said how strong the story was and that the film must be made. The actual facts of my brother’s life are so powerful that author James Whyle said once, after doing a quick pass on the script, that it was “Jim Morrison meets Jesus Christ”. Those facts have not been changed. His life was tragic in an Oedipal way and that is why I’ve always felt compelled to tell this story.
It’s also one which I’ve had to maintain creative control over so that the story won’t become someone else’s story about their experiences in the army. A few directors and producers along the way wanted to change certain elements and I couldn’t let them do that. The elements were too intrinsic to the truth of my life, never mind my brother’s story. So this is the reason I finally took this leap of faith launching Shot on 11.11.11, Remembrance Day. And the wonderful people who have come on board through the crowd-sourcing campaign are all there for the right reasons. They believe in this story 100 percent. In fact, Magda Olchawska, the producer of Mayan Films, who is now producing with me, said this is “the best film script I have ever read”. I feel very lucky to have found the people involved so far.
What inspired you about Peter Broderick at the Durban Film Mart this year?
It’s not often that I have the feeling that I’m in the right place at the right time. But this year it was difficult to get to the Durban Film Mart, as I’d broken my wrist just a week before and it was in a cast. So I had to choose just one day and ask my husband to drive me there for that day. I live an hour way from Durban. I had no idea what was on that day and walked into the first seminar just after it had started. Within minutes I knew I was in the right place at the right time. For nine years I’d been trying to get this film made according to my own vision. A film writer has very little clout in this industry, as directors and producers often ride roughshod over our work and change things to suit their own needs. There is little respect for the written word. What annoys me intensely is that none of these people could write the screenplay in the first place, and they don’t have a single thing to work with until they have the screenplay, but when you read anything about a film, the director is mentioned as the person who made the film. Yet without the written screenplay there would be nothing!
So listening to Peter Broderick was like having a light come down from the heavens. I’ve produced all my own plays, raising funding for them and so on. I’ve supervised-produced two short films and have been trying to raise funds through conventional sources for years, but no one in the tightly knit closed world (which also happens to very male- dominated) would give me a break. But here was Peter Broderick telling me that I could make this film. I had the ability to take the reins into my own hands and put it out there. After all, I knew the material was really good. And I was tired of waiting for someone else to help me, as that really didn’t look like it would ever happen. I then thought I had to launch this campaign on the 11.11.11, which would be remembered around the world for the fallen in war. So when the day approached I logged on to IndieGoGo, very nervously I can tell you, feeling rather unprepared. Fortunately a good friend, Jonathan Handley, had been so moved by my script that he started writing and recording songs for the film on his own. All for the love of the story, as I had no money to pay him. He’d recorded two of the songs for YouTube at his own expense and I used those as the opening pieces on the site. We recorded a promo where I was forced to talk to the camera – not my favourite thing – and that went on the home page.
So I started the campaign not too sure of what I was doing or where I was going. I just knew in my heart it had to be launched on that day. And I’ve been blown away by the response. Not only money has come in, but the most wonderful people have come on board. From international director and producer Magda Olchawska, to an Australian graphic design company designing the poster, to a young award-winning director offering to do the promo for me and a superb web designer designing the website. The poster is nearly done and I saw the first draft today. I started to cry. This story has moved people around the world and caused them to give of their time and talents purely on the basis that they are so moved by Shot.
What is crowd-funding, or crowd-sourcing?
Naomi, I wrote this comment on Facebook after people were objecting to my “asking for money” on the page of the town where the film is set – maybe this explains it best: “This is my answer for anyone else who thinks that the internet isn’t the right forum for crowd-funding. As to raising funds on the internet, I attended a seminar by the top USA Crowd-Sourcing expert at the Durban Film Market this year, Peter Broderick, and the new way of raising funds for independent film is through Crowd-sourcing, and its sole means of getting funding is through the internet. This is the new way of getting films made. I’m one of the first people to do it in this country so it's a bit of a shock for some. But take a look at the websites Indie-GoGo.com and Kickstarter.com They raise funds for independent films and projects of all sorts. It's the democratisation of funding just the way the news has now been democratised through Twitter and Facebook and other online channels. Governments are being taken down by social media sites such as these. Film makers are finally freeing themselves of the control of Studios or official funding bodies who make only a handful of films a year. This is the new way.” It may also help if I directed you to the article I wrote on my blog about Peter Broderick and crowd-funding.
You obviously care so much about this story that you have spent nine years raising funds. Why, do you think, should other people care about this script?
What has amazed me about this film is that every time I’ve pitched it with the tagline “He was a small town rock star with a big time future, but the army smashed his guitar with a gun”, young audiences of all races have responded to it immediately. It’s rock and roll, it’s the individual against the machine, it’s the universal message of being true to yourself even though the world tries to force you into being something you’re not. Everyone who has read this story is deeply moved to it because it’s based on a tragic truth. Sometimes the machine strips everything away from an individual, but in this case the individual holds on to the only thing he can: his music and his integrity. Even if it meant taking his own life.
Creative control is an interesting concept. When is an idea the heart and soul of a piece of work - and when is it a little darling, something you have to let go?
That’s a very interesting and difficult question, Naomi. I’m the least precious writer on the planet and you can ask Ian Roberts, who directed my first stage play, to vouch for that! He was amazed at how I was happy to change parts of the play that weren’t working. But I’ve got a lot of experience now, and at this stage of my career I’ve developed a sound instinct for what works and what doesn’t. So when I read something I’ve written and it bores me, I know it’s time to throw it out. When I read something else for the hundredth time and I’m still moved by it I know it’s hit a universal truth and is resonating on a deeper level. Those moments of story are gold. You never throw those away.
What can people who feel inspired by your story actually do in concrete terms?
There is so much they can do, Naomi. Firstly, if you go to the IndieGoGo web page and feel moved by the story you can tweet or repost the link and tell others about the project. This is the foundation of crowd-sourcing. If you are an actor and read the roles required on the updates, you can submit a YouTube video of your audition and be considered for one of the roles! If you feel you want to be more closely connected to the production of the film you can donate about R80 ($10) and get a co-producer credit and updates about the film. If you are rich and want to help even more J you can donate R800 ($100). You get the co-producer credit, a copy of my novel Width of a Thread, on which the film is based, and a copy of a Radio Rats CD of the soundtrack.
If you are mega-rich and want to donate about R8 000 ($1 000) you get all of the above plus the right to be on set of the movie, be in a crowd scene as an extra, and become an integral part of the movie-making process by giving your opinion on the online auditions.