Janet van Eeden discusses A Shot at the Big Time

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A Shot at the Big Time is a film inspired by the true story of Janet van Eeden's brother, Jimmy, who took his own life rather than fight in the Apartheid Border War, a war he didn't believe in. Van Eeden spoke to LitNet about this project.

Hi Janet, how’re things?                   

Things are as they always are, Henry. Busy. Very busy! I always seem to have so many things on my plate and not enough time to do them all. That seems to be the story of my life, though. It’s just the way it is for me, I think?

I've seen some of the videos and pictures concerning A Shot at the Big Time. At what stage of production is the film right now and when will audiences be able to view it?

We’ve shot the short film of A Shot at the Big Time and it’s now going into its second draft edit. The first draft was a rough cut and now it’s time to refine it. It’s amazing how much work goes into making a short film. Can’t imagine how much more work the feature film will be. We hope to have the final online edit done by mid-September. We’ll then take it around the international festival circuit, assuming it’s accepted of course, and use it to market the feature and raise funds for full-scale film production that way.

If you’d like to view a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the short film, take a look here:

Tell me about the title. It's quite striking ... What makes it appropriate for this film?

I must give credit to Roy Blumenthal, a writer friend, who helped me come up with this title. It’s particularly appropriate as it refers to the well-known phrase of “a shot at the big time” which refers to the fact that Jimmy, the protagonist, has a chance at making it big as a rock star when an agent asks him to play at his club in Johannesburg. The word “shot” also has resonance to the story because it is a shot from a rifle which kills Jimmy in the end. This is what one looks for when creating a compelling title. You want to make it as resonant and far-reaching as possible.

The film tells the story of your brother, Jimmy, and how his passion for music conflicted with his conscription in the defence force, ultimately leading to his death. What was Jimmy like before he first left for the border? What were his passions, what kept him busy?

This film is based on the life of my brother but it’s had to move into the realms of fiction, for obvious reasons. I don’t know the exact details of who he met in the army and how they reduced him to the point of stealing a rifle and going AWOL during his basic training. So I had to move into the realm of what the French call “docu-fiction”. However, my brother’s essential character is 100 % authentic. He lived, breathed, ate and drank music. He wanted to become a rock star. He dropped out of school when he decided there was no point in staying at school when all he wanted to be was a rock star. We had a rough childhood, suffice to say, and he always said that everyone around him could take everything away from him, but they could never take away his music, as it was part of his soul. That, in one sentence, embodied my brother.

There was an incident concerning the death of a homeless person at a rubbish dump, which led to Jimmy's breakdown. What exactly happened there and how did it affect him?

Something led Jimmy to leave the army during his basic training, running away AWOL, which was a huge offence at that time. Not only did he go AWOL, he also stole a rifle with ammunition. Something very traumatic must have happened to him during his training to make him do something which was extremely reckless even for him. He arrived home with the rifle and couldn’t wait to show it to the members of his band at that time. All of them went to the rubbish dump and took turns, apparently, to fire rounds into the dump. They thought it would be safe there as they didn’t expect any people to be around. A few days afterwards, a newspaper reported that an unidentified woman – obviously homeless – had been killed by a ricochet bullet from the rifle Jimmy was carrying. One member of the band went to the police immediately and reported Jimmy. The death of the woman affected Jimmy very badly. Even though he wasn’t the only one who’d fired shots that night, he felt it was he who had killed the woman. That and something he suffered during his basic training caused him to have a spectacular breakdown. He was tipped over into schizophrenia and was put into a mental institution. He was there for many months and the army classified him as mentally unfit for military service. Unfortunately, a few years later, he was reclassified as fit for military service and was called up for border duty. Three days after arriving at the border he was dead. The official version was that he was killed by a ricochet bullet. The irony of it overwhelmed me, even though I didn’t believe the official version at all.

The story of the way Jimmy died strikes up a very profound image – “strumming” his gun in the face of enemy fire. How was the story of his death relayed to your family? What do you think motivated him to do this?

As I said above, the official version of the way Jimmy was killed was that he’d been hit by a ricochet bullet. He was given a military funeral by the army. However, I didn’t believe this at all. My gut reaction was that the truth was being covered up. When I met a close friend of my brother’s soon after his death, he told me that Jimmy had begged his commanding officer not to send him into active combat. He didn’t want to carry arms and go into battle, as he was still devastated by the death he’d caused inadvertently all those years before. The CO refused him and said that all riflemen were duty-bound to carry arms and go into combat. The friend told me that Jimmy went out into the bush with his rifle, smoked a pipe and shot himself. I tend to believe that version rather than the official one.

However, my mother can’t brook the thought that Jimmy killed himself. In the screenplay I respect her wishes not to make Jimmy’s death an outright suicide. So after much thought I decided to have him release the magazine of his rifle and then walk into the enemy fire while strumming his gun. Jonathan Handley, of former Radio Rats fame, wrote a number of songs for the film after reading the screenplay. One of my favourite songs which will be used in the feature is “Strum my Gun”. Jonathan had it recorded and placed on YouTube here:

It's been thirty years since Jimmy's death and it is said that you've been working on this project for nine years. Why has it taken you so long to finish this project? What were the biggest personal challenges you experienced during the process?

I never thought about writing my story when I first began to write plays and screenplays. I wrote about everything and everyone else except my own story when I first started writing, which was quite late in my life. Then one day the arts critic of The Sunday Independent at the time, Robert Greig, who’d just seen one of my plays, asked me when he was going to see my story on stage or screen. It was then I began to think about putting down the events of my early life, which had changed the course of it irrevocably. It was extremely difficult to approach the story at first. The first two drafts were awful – they were just sobs on a page! I threw them away and then decided to put on my scriptwriter’s hat. At that stage I’d already found an agent in London and had been through development hell for years with producers and directors in the UK, so I’d really earned my stripes as a writer. So I used that craftsmanship to write a good story which just happened to be based on the life of my brother. Even now, I have to compartmentalise my own experiences with my brother to be able to keep moving the project forward. I think of it as a project. Sometimes, however, I can’t keep the compartments tightly shut all the time. Working on the short film was quite an emotional experience, especially as the lead actor playing Jimmy, Brad Backhouse, looked so much like my brother and brought so much depth of emotion to the role that I had to leave the set a number of times.

The project was funded through a “crowd-funding campaign”. Can you explain what exactly that entails and how effective it was for funding the project?

I heard Peter Broderick, a US crowd-funding expert, at the Durban Film Mart a year ago and this inspired me to launch my own crowd-funding campaign on IndieGoGo.com on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 2011, Remembrance Day, in honour of all those fallen in war. There are two main crowd-funding websites at the moment: Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, which encourage independent film makers to launch short-term campaigns to try to raise funds for their projects. You set a target and have to post as many video clips and so on as possible to attract traffic to your site.

It was at a time of personal turmoil for me when I launched the campaign and I wasn’t too sure I knew what I was doing, but I posted the YouTube clip of Jonathan Handley’s “Strum my Gun” and put it up alongside the, by now, well-honed treatment of the film. I had no idea of the response this film would receive. When I came back to my computer a few hours after posting the very basic campaign, many people had already commented and donated money and offered services of all kinds. The story touched a chord in so many hearts of people around the world. I was humbled by the response. Not only were people donating money, they were also donating skills. A film producer from London, Magda Olchawska, offered to come on board and give her services for free. A graphics design company, Visual Graphics, from Australia offered to make the poster. Money came from the most unexpected sources. A former student of mine who was working as a full-time director in Australia volunteered to come over to South Africa to direct the short film in July. We had actors sending in audition tapes online from around the world. There was such an enormous interest in this project. It was then I knew that this film had universal appeal and just had to be made.

Brad Backhouse was cast in the role of Jimmy “at the last minute”. How did this come about? How were the rest of the cast and crew lined up and what were the highlights and challenges of working with them?

We’d cast someone else in the role after he’d submitted an audition online at IndieGoGo.com This actor, who shall for evermore be nameless, messed us around a lot about the shooting dates, which were scheduled specifically to meet his busy July schedule, about the fact that we couldn’t pay huge salaries to everyone, and also quibbled about cutting his hair for the role. When he finally told us, just a week before we started filming, that he couldn’t do the role, I was furious.

However, it all turned out far better than I could ever have imagined. Brad Backhouse had been cast in a supporting role in the feature film, but his character wasn’t featured at all in the short. He wanted to be part of the film so badly that he volunteered to be a non-speaking extra. He asked to read the feature script, was so incredibly keen (and had even Skyped with Stephen, our director, via Australia) that it took Stephen and me all of ten minutes to decide to go with Brad as the lead. It was the best decision we’d made for the film. Not only did Brad look more like my brother when his hair was dyed blonde, but he has the emotional depth required for the part. The other actor couldn’t have acted a fraction of the intensity required for this role. Watching Brad on stage performing at the “town hall gig” I felt completely overwhelmed at how much he embodied my brother.

Brad’s performance was beyond my wildest dreams.

The story seems to be not only about Jimmy, but in the broader sense also about the conscription system and the fate of young men forced into a war they didn't necessarily understand. What is the broader message or collective narrative in the film? Did it turn out as you'd intended when you first started working on the project?

The thought of writing something which had a broader appeal wasn’t in my mind when I wrote the first two tear-stained drafts, I have to admit, Henry. However, when I began to rework the drafts I started to focus on my favourite films for inspiration. My favourite films are usually about man against the machine, the spirit versus the material world, for example, as well as humanity’s inhumanity to humankind. Some of my favourite films are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Apocalypse Now, Gallipoli and similar films. That’s when I decided to make this an anti-war film in the classic tradition. I also insisted on making this film through the eyes of the younger sister who plays a vital role as the observer of the events. It puts a completely different slant on the film and takes it out of the realm of yet another border-war story. I also think it’s important to document the events of the border war in some ways for the younger generations of this country, many of whom have no idea that enforced conscription was the norm for young white males. There are also many middle-aged men who feel disenfranchised because their experiences have become unpopular due to the change of the regime. There is no way this film justifies the war in any way. It does, however, show that the boys, most of them only 17 years old, had no choice when the army called. 

You're well known as a versatile artist and writer, working on columns, book reviews, film scripts and stage plays. What's your favourite medium to work in and how do you balance all of these endeavours?

To be honest, Henry, I love writing for film, working on film, watching films, lecturing in scriptwriting and talking about films more than anything else on the planet. This isn’t the most lucrative career, however. Not yet, anyway! So I do the columns for fun and the book reviews for interest and the stage plays just to get my vision made visible with a smaller budget. It’s not easy to balance everything, especially as I put being a mother above all my other interests and I have children who still need me very much. I’ve learnt to work very quickly as I usually have so little time to work on my own. Perhaps it’s an advantage. I don’t have the luxury of pondering which word to use in a sentence of dialogue in a screenplay. I have to think about the work I’m doing while I’m doing loads of chores. When it comes to writing, I write the work which is almost fully formed. I can’t imagine having two days to think of one line of dialogue. Perhaps I’d die of boredom if I had acres of time to myself. I don’t know. I doubt I’ll find out for quite some time, though.

- Visit www.shotthemovie.com for more information.

- Click here to read Naomi Meyer's interview with Janet van Eeden.

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