Cut to the chase: Scriptwriting for beginners – an interview with Janet van Eeden

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Cut to the chase: Scriptwriting for beginners
Janet van Eeden
Modjaji Books
ISBN: 978-1-928215-91-2

Buy the book from Graffiti

Janet van Eeden talks to Naomi Meyer about Janet’s book, Cut to the chase: Scriptwriting for beginners.

Congratulations on your book, Cut to the chase: Scriptwriting for beginners. You have written plenty of articles and reviews for LitNet – mostly on books. But would you tell our readers about your background? You have studied literature, you have written screenplays, you have written movies, etc. Please elaborate.

Thank you so much, Naomi, for the congratulations. The little book that could, has had a really long journey. I first wrote this scriptwriting manual 11 years ago as a guide for my UKZN students, as I was teaching scriptwriting to drama students for the first time. I felt that they needed a guide, as screenwriting is nothing at all like playwriting. It’s a craft I’d taken years to learn by then, and I’d made every mistake on the journey, as no one had taught me how to do this very specialised form of writing. I wrote Cut to the chase so that students wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

I first wrote this scriptwriting manual 11 years ago as a guide for my UKZN students, as I was teaching scriptwriting to drama students for the first time. I felt that they needed a guide, as screenwriting is nothing at all like playwriting. It’s a craft I’d taken years to learn by then, and I’d made every mistake on the journey, as no one had taught me how to do this very specialised form of writing. I wrote Cut to the chase so that students wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

Professional filmmakers often keep the secrets of the trade to themselves, and when I first started, I’d been terrified by such seemingly arcane terms as a “treatment”, for example. Once I’d found out what these terms meant, I felt compelled to let other wannabe screenwriters in on the secret. There are a few simple but very definite rules when writing screenplays, and, judging by the many scripts I evaluate for the KZN Film Commission, people still don’t know what these rules are.

As for my literary background, I have always loved literature, and I buried myself in books when I was enduring an awful childhood in a dusty town in the then Orange Free State. I was incredibly shy and my home life was traumatic, so I hid away and read to escape reality. I will thank the librarian of the Welkom High School forever, as she brought books into the library which I’m sure were on the “subversive” list of the national government. Mrs Parks introduced me to the delights of Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Sharpe, Ken Kesey and Joseph Heller, all of whom criticised authority in the most anarchic ways. I adored English lessons, and my beleaguered English teacher, Mrs Gray, told me I was her only hope to get an A in her subject in matric. I devoured Shakespeare – Hamlet spoke to my tortured teenage soul as nothing before had done. I did her the favour of being the only person in that year to get an A in the whole year’s group for anything. It was also my Latin teacher (incredibly, the little mining town school still taught Latin!), Mrs Coucoumbras, who asked me where I was going to university. I was completely taken aback, and told her that no one in my family had ever been to university. She said it would be a crime if I didn’t go. For the first time in my life, attending university became a possibility in my mind. I began to make enquiries with the only person in my hometown of Odendaalsrus who’d gone to university. His mother helped me fill in the forms, and I applied for a Chamber of Mines bursary, as my mother was a switchboard operator on the mines and my stepfather was an electrician who worked underground every day of his life. Fortunately, the Chamber of Mines awarded me a bursary on my second try (they only awarded six in the country each year), and I enrolled at Rhodes to study journalism, because I wanted to write. I left the course after six months, as we were required to write within a specific political perspective, and I found it too restrictive for me. I didn’t know what I thought myself, so didn’t want to spout any political ideologies which were imposed on me. I continued to study English, speech and drama, and psychology. I fell in love with drama. It was what I’d been looking for all my life. I felt I’d come home when I set foot on the stage at the Rhodes Theatre. I was too shy to act, of course, but years later, after I’d had a dream when I was almost 40 that I had to write screenplays (I had never seen an actual screenplay in my life, mind you), I began to write plays and screenplays like a possessed person. It’s such a long story how this came about, but, to cut to the chase, I was able to produce plays myself with funding from the National Arts Council. I really wanted to make my own films, but screenplays were really difficult to fund. I took six plays to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown/Makhanda in the early 2000s with professional actors. For the first time, I felt I’d made my voice heard. Slowly, I began to focus more on screenwriting, but I still love literature, drama and the exquisite ability of words to move people through writing in whatever form.

This book is for everyone interested in writing scripts for movies and television. I smiled at this sentence: “Having studied speech and drama at Rhodes University and living a life so full of drama it wouldn’t be believed when put into production, I felt entitled to write a screenplay.” Who is your ideal reader of this book – is this a handbook for drama students?

Yes, my life has been exceptionally dramatic, and Robert McKee said that the only qualification one needs to be a good screenwriter is to have had a traumatic childhood. I’ve had that, so yes, I’m definitely qualified!

This is an interesting question, Naomi. At the launch earlier this month at Ike’s Books, people from all backgrounds bought the book. The book sold out on the night, and they had to order more for those who wanted to buy it. Many of those attending said they’d never written screenplays or anything before, but they wanted a guide to help them write something, whether a novel or a script – and one person even wanted to write an animation. The book guides the reader through a series of tasks after each chapter to help build up characters and the story, and it is just as useful for novelists and playwrights as it is for screenwriters. It would be wonderful as a handbook for students of English and/or drama, whether in matric or in university. It breaks down the elements of what goes into creating a good story. It teaches the elements of thoughtful writing. It’s also a bit of a memoir of my writing career, as I quote from many of the screenplays which I’ve written over the years. As the person interviewing me at Ike’s Books, Sir Roel Twijnstra, said, the book is very useful to teach people how to pitch, too. I go into great detail about the pitching process, which can be applied to advertising, business, scriptwriting or any creative project.

As you said, you are familiar with English literature (your PhD was in English literature – and it can be seen reflected in the amount of writing you have done for LitNet about books). What are the main differences between writing a script and writing a book?

Yes, Naomi, I love the English language in all its forms. Writing a script is very different to writing novels. I explain in the book how awful my first script was – 300 pages of characters pouring out their emotions through dreadful dialogue – it was really bad! It took a lot of advice from kind people in the industry like Richard E Grant, Ian Roberts, my agent Julian Friedmann and many published scriptwriting gurus to teach me that screenwriting is more about what you leave out than what you put in. In other words, screenplays deal with subtext much more than theatrical plays or novels do. In novels and even in theatre, a character can pour out long, expositional soliloquys about their innermost thoughts without anyone objecting. In a screenplay, this would be a waste of the medium of film. Filmmaking is famously described as “showing and not telling”. My favourite thing about it is that screenwriting is the art of getting a character to say something which reveals a completely different truth to the words they say. As Emma Thompson said when I had the honour of meeting her (it’s in the book!), screenwriting is the art of a character saying, “Pass me the butter”, when they really mean, “You have ruined my life”. Perhaps because I grew up in a home where there was so much passive aggression around me, where people were constantly seething with unspoken resentment, I learned to read subtext from context and situation so well. As I said, I’m perfectly qualified to write screenplays!

You know, Janet, life changes the whole time. Young children are now making movies on their iPads. Why is there a need for people to know how to write a movie nowadays? Do people still look for professionalism? (And if not, why should they?)

I have been thinking a great deal about the accessibility of access to movie-making in its broadest terms, as well as the arrival of AIs who are now able to write better screenplays than most third-year students. ChatGPT, for example, is quite terrifying. There is always the fear that traditional teachers/lecturers or even writers and filmmakers are a thing of the past. I’ve done a few experiments with ChatGPT myself and have been impressed with the results, especially a limerick about my son’s dog, which was ingenious. However, the comfort I can give myself and others who feel as I do is that the cell phones that allow one to make films, and the AIs that give you a quick script, do not have access to any material that is not generic. They use a template, mostly, and will be bound by those templates. TikTok is one example. An AI has access only to everything that has been written before. Neither of these platforms has the ability to create new knowledge. This is what I take comfort in. Those of us who want to create something that has never been seen before, or something which may enlighten humanity, with a bit of luck, have to rely on our own ingenuity, our own ability to make unusual connections, to break through the sea of anodyne content which threatens to overwhelm humanity. At least, I hope we can still do this!

Tell me about the different parts of your book, please.

The book takes the reader from the very beginning of the germ of an idea, with some prompts to help find an idea, and guides the reader to develop their own character to create their own screenplay. The book describes what a screenplay is, then moves on to discuss characterisation and then structure, focusing on the hero(ine)’s journey. I do touch briefly on the multi-protagonist structure, which is not the main focus of this book and which I will explore more in my next. There is an in-depth chapter on writing a pitch, which is essential to ensure the writer understands the fundamental essence of their character and story. The next chapter explains the treatment, which is a selling document used specifically for film. This document should be no more than three to five pages and should tell a producer everything they need to know about the film. No producers will read a full draft of a script. Deals are made on the strength of treatments alone. That’s how I got my first paying job as a screenwriter, with a five-page treatment for White lion. The next chapter talks about dialogue, format and style, and emphasises the vital importance of the need to stick to the standard format for screenplays. If a producer sees that a script isn’t written in Courier Final Draft, 12 point, for example, they’ll discard it immediately. Imagine, they have hundreds of submissions, so if a script isn’t formatted properly they will discard it as a sign that the writer isn’t a professional. It’s that important to know exactly how to format a script. Programmes such as Final Draft help a writer to write in the required format without too much trouble, but you have to know exactly what you are looking for. The industry is really that prescriptive and demanding if you want to be part of the international film-writing world. Finally, I have a chapter on crowdfunding, which is how I made my first short film. After many years, I couldn’t get funding for my most personal film, so I did a crowdfunding campaign and managed to make the short film of A shot at the big time, about my brother taking his own life on the border during the apartheid Border Wars. This short film was selected for Cannes in 2014 and really was the closest I’ve come to making the feature film. The book takes you right from the inception of a project to the completion – with a bit of luck – of the same project.

Talking about the book’s structure: is there a need for structure in a film? Can it not just happen naturally, more organically?

When I started writing screenplays, I was deeply resistant to “learning the craft”, as many gurus called it. I believed I was a gifted creative and would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t give my creativity free rein. I wrote many, many feature scripts, which went exactly nowhere. It was only once I decided to study the craft of screenwriting, following the advice of a great writing friend, Roy Blumenthal, that I realised that one needed structure to create a decent story. Even in my PhD thesis, which set out to create a new structure for biographical feature films, I found myself creating a new structure in one way, yes, but it still had to adhere to the basic beginning, middle and end to ensure it made sense. I really believe stories are in our DNA. Even a child listening to a grandparent tell a story wants to hear a set-up, and then with “And then?” and “And then?” they want to know the pay-off of the story. I’m sure you can think of many stories, in whatever form, that don’t give the reader/viewer a satisfying ending. One feels cheated! For that reason, I believe structure is imperative, even though one can be extremely creative with it when the rules have been mastered. There is still room for creative genius within a defined structure.

Okay, so planning the movie is really important, I agree. Now: how to plan. What do you do when you plan a script? Do you write the ending before you write the rest of the movie?

This is exactly what the book is about, Naomi: how to plan your script. It isn’t essential to know the ending when you start. Very often, the ending will change as you develop the script. And I think I should add right now that unlike novels and plays, the first draft is never the final draft. I’ve been redrafting scripts for years, and there is almost never a perfect first draft. The adage in the industry is that scriptwriting is about rewriting, which can make it an exhausting process. White lion took five years from first draft to final draft, for example. The short script for A shot at the big time took 12 drafts, for just 13 pages! On some rare occasions, I’ve known the end when I start writing, either because the story came from a dream that left me with an unforgettable punchline, or else because it was based on a true life story. This is true of biographical scripts, a personal favourite of mine, when you know how the character’s life ends. The process brings many surprises, though. Even if you know the ending, the way one chooses to structure the script is highly open to individual choice. As Robert McKee (whom I resented for many years, but finally conceded that he made a few good points) says, “Form is the confluence of content and structure. With content in the one hand and the structure in the other, the writer sculpts a story.” I do like the image of a writer as a sculptor. I often think of the white-hot first draft as a barely visible shape in the block of stone. My first drafts are notoriously awful, but that is when the real work begins: one has to craft the story carefully, just as a sculptor chisels away at the rock until the final form is revealed.

Movies are made up of scenes, like books are made up of chapters. How does one plan the scenes? Do you think of this whole planning process as something mathematical?

It isn’t mathematical as such, but it can be logical if you follow the steps in the book. You build up your screenplay by the pitch, the treatment, and then you look at breaking down the beats, which then become a step outline, and that is when you flesh out the skeleton of your script. I learned the value of this process after spending five years in Development Hell with a UK producer/director who made me rewrite a script from beginning to end whenever he had a whim of some sort. I eventually got so sick with encephalitis that I told my agent in London that I couldn’t continue with this process anymore. Development Hell, by the way, is the term used when a producer options your script – with a full contract, by the way, and pays you one pound, in the case of this script – for the right to work on your script. The carrot is that there is always an enormous amount of money right there in the contract which is promised to you on “first day of principal photography”. What this means is that you will be paid an enormous amount once the film is funded and actually begins shooting on set. This happens very rarely, and it gives directors or producers the ability to (swearword) you about for as long as their egos like. As happened in the case I’m referring to here – and then the producer went on to make a completely different film. I was never paid a cent after five years of torment. After that, I swore I would never rewrite a script from beginning to end again, and I would insist that the producer/director and I sign off on a beat sheet, which follows the story events and structure, before I start to write the full script. It’s the only way to survive as a writer in this industry.

What are your favourite theatre plays of all time, and why?

My favourite play has to be Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as it deals with the deepest existential questions of being alive when the world is such a difficult place to be in for anyone who has sensitivities and compassion. I still cannot fathom how someone could express such profound insights into the human condition in the sixteenth century. I read it at a time when my older brother was going through life crises, and this play resonated deeply with me.

Another favourite play is Wit by Margaret Edson, for the same reasons as above. It’s a highly intelligent take on the human condition again – what it means to be sick and possibly dying – and trying to make sense of the world. It also deals with the way a person loses their identity when in hospital. A highly intelligent doctor of philosophy, as in Wit, is treated like a child by hospital staff, and their identity is obliterated. I’ve been life-threateningly ill many times before and have had many members of my family die. The reality of death changes one’s perspective on life irrevocably.

Green man flashing by Mike van Graan gives a balanced view of the South Africa we live in. Another spectacularly good South African production was Greig Coetzee’s play White men with weapons, which obviously spoke to me. Another play which broke through the democratic transition in South Africa was Fiona Coyne’s Glass roots.

What are your favourite movies of all time, and why?

This could be a long list! Firstly, I’d start with American beauty by Alan Ball. It’s a film which delves deeply into the human condition, my favourite subject matter, obviously. I simply love every line. It’s exquisitely written.

Another favourite is Little Miss Sunshine, written by the brilliant Michael Arndt. Its take on the dysfunctional family, in which each has their own journey, is a multiple-protagonist delight. The film also takes a swipe at the superficial horrors of beauty pageants and how wrong it is for parents to push their children into unnatural events, but it’s the most heart-warming film I know, as the disparate characters forget their own issues and come together to ensure that young Olive isn’t touched by the monstrosities of the pageant. It’s my favourite feel-good movie which has great depth.

Another example of exceptional scriptwriting is Saving Mr Banks, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, about PL Travers, the woman who wrote Mary Poppins as a children’s book. The biopic is structured so that Pamela Travers’s fight to maintain control over her creation, Mary Poppins, when Walt Disney buys the rights to make it into a film, is illuminated by scenes from PL Travers’s past, where she relives her childhood in the Australian outback with her beloved but drunken father. It’s a film which touches me deeply, as I feel my script A shot at the big time is also my attempt to redeem my brother, as PL Travers tries to redeem her father through her fictional creation. It uses the device of a mise en abyme, which I wrote about in my PhD thesis, and which my next scriptwriting book, What the fractal?, will explore in more depth. Simply exquisite writing!

There are some classics I value. For me, these are unmissable: Apocalypse now (written by Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and Michael Herr) for its depiction of the madness of war, and One flew over the cuckoo’s nest (written by Ken Kesey and Milos Forman) for its depiction of the horrors in psychiatric units. They were great inspirations for A shot at the big time.

I’m drawn to biopics especially, as I enjoy finding out how human beings cope with this difficult challenge we face called life. Even though these films do rely on poetic licence, there is always something inspiring about them. Some of the best I’ve seen are Shine (written by Jan Sardi), about pianist David Helfgott, describing the destructive effects of bad parenting on genius; La vie en rose, about Edith Piaf (written by Isabelle Sobelmann and Olivier Dahan); and The life and death of Peter Sellers (written by Roger Lewis, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), which is a masterpiece. A modern biopic I’ve loved is Bohemian rhapsody (written by Anthony McCarten), based on the life of Freddie Mercury.

As for South African films, I loved Red dust, from the book by Gillian Slovo; Tsotsi, written by Athol Fugard and Gavin Hood; Jerusalema, written by Ralph Ziman; and Hard to get, written by Thuso Sibisi, all for their portrayal of the grittiness and difficulties of the country we inhabit. Right up there among the great films is District 9. It’s a work of genius, written by director Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Black butterflies, about Ingrid Jonker (and written by Greg Latter), is one of our most successful South African biopics, in my opinion.

Contrary to what the choices above might suggest, I absolutely love comedies. I especially love satirical comedies, and Mel Brooks was a favourite with his Young Frankenstein, High anxiety and The producers, which were some of the first films I encountered many years ago in the Welkom Cinema, known un-ironically as The Alpha. It was the only cinema in town, so there was no competition and there was definitely no Omega. A more recent writer/director who reminds me of Mel Brooks is Christopher Guest, who has the same satirical and absurd wit, which I love. His best in show and This is spinal tap are absolute favourites. And I have to mention Richard E Grant’s signature piece, Withnail and I, written by Bruce Robinson, which broke the mould for me when I first saw it in the late ’80s.

My guilty pleasures, however, are romantic comedies. My favourite romcom writers are Nora Ephron, Nancy Myers and Richard Curtis, but the South African Happiness is a four-letter word, written by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele and Busisiwe Ntintili, and even Keeping up with the Kandasamys, written by Jayan Moodley and Rory Booth, are great fun, too. I also liked Toorbos by René van Rooyen.

When I feel like the realities of the world threaten to overwhelm me, a romantic comedy is the perfect antidote for me to believe that there is hope for the world.


Also read:

Janet van Eeden discusses A Shot at the Big Time

Filmresensie: Toorbos

A Shot at the Big Time

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