Scriptwriting

Below is All About Writing‘s Q&A with Michele Rowe where she discusses how to get into the film and television industry.

How did you get into writing for film and television in the first place? 

I just sort of fell into it really. I came from an art background so I began by working in the art department. At that time the tv commercials industry was very open, there was no unionization or standardization of skills, so you would just give your friends work on set if something came up. Cynthia Schumacher, the painter, who had worked with Vivienne Westwood and was a very talented and highly regarded costumier at that time, brought me on board as a dresser on a tv series, and that was my entree into the film world.

I had always been fascinated by film, and had spent a good many years in London living in art house cinemas devouring all the films that we never got to see in South Africa. South Africa under apartheid was a cultural desert, and being exposed to film and art and music and literature like that- well to punish the metaphor, was rather as if I’d been dying of thirst and only found out when I came across an oasis of palm trees and cool fresh water. I could not get enough of watching film. I was especially fascinated by early expressionist films of Fritz Lang and Murnau, and the painterly quality of the Italian films from the 60’s and 70’s, Bertolucci, Visconti.

But then I became interested in the actual structure of the films, the dramatic narrative. I had always enjoyed writing, and I became really gripped by the experimental story telling of 70’s German filmmakers like Wenders and Fassbinder, and the American new wave directors like Ray and Mike Nichols and Altman. I think because I realised how complete that creative experience could be: that a director could also write his own film, create his own idiosyncratic visions.

Later I developed a passion for campy sci fi drive in movies from the 60’s with early SFX, and would go to these all night marathons of Roger Corman films at these filthy fleapits. I think they thought he was a porn director. I was inspired by the whole low budget approach. It sort of gave me hope that I could also make a good film on a shoestring.

I also devoured melodrama, films with strong women antagonists, especially Douglas Sirk’s movies, and I’m fascinated by psychosexual suspense, so I’m a great fan of film noir, and most especially of Hitchcock. I think all those films have had an abiding influence on the way I write and the subject matter that interests me.

What would you say the highlights of your career have been? 

It’s difficult to say. I have written many scripts, some of which have even managed to win awards, but the industry can be very constraining. I would say that writing my first film, which was a low budget campy supernatural psycho sexual thriller, in which I played the lead, this sort of inhibited librarian who falls under the spell of a demonic book lender was actually, in retrospect a highlight for me.  It was at the time when underground post punk film makers like Jim Jarmusch were making films. We shot it on Super 8. It was a pretty unwatchable effort but because I had no idea of what I was doing and I was just playing around with the form, doodling almost, there was complete freedom in that. And I also did the art direction so I could control the way it looked, which was terribly important to me. One seldom gets that freedom in the standard film industry unfortunately. The industry has a tendency to pigeonhole you, you are either a screenwriter or a production designer or a producer or whatever. It can be hugely frustrating.

Another highlight was the time I spent working on drama with Free Film Makers. We developed low budget dramas, with great actors like Arthur Molepo and Patrick Shai and the late Ramalao Makhene, and again, we had this tremendous freedom to make whatever we wanted.  My advice to people who want to begin writing movies, is to find a great independent producer who shares your tastes and try and make the films yourselves.

What keeps you at it? 

Well I have to pay the rent! But besides that necessity, I love film and I love story and every new project is a challenge, and I thrive on challenges. Every time it’s like starting all over again with the same questions. ‘What is my story about? Who is my protagonist? What am I trying to say?’ I never tire of that. It’s enormously invigorating.  It’s a way of life, who I am. I could not imagine a life without story telling in one form or another.

Is it possible to earn a living writing for film or television in South Africa? 

Certainly. But if you really want to make a good living you should own the means of production. I think being a writer/producer is the way to go, or being in a partnership with a creative producer who believes in you and wants to make the same kinds of films.  That way you keep some creative control. On your own, it can be tough. I have been very fortunate to have worked with great producers. They shield their writers from a lot of the rubbish, and they push for you, but they are also pragmatic about the money and professional relationships. Writers tend to be a bit touchy and volatile. That’s a generalization maybe, but it’s been my experience. I think the creative person always feels under threat by the so called ‘real’ world, where people have real jobs and retirement annuities and medical aids, and often what we do is alchemical, unmeasurable in real terms. Most people do not appreciate the sweat and blood that goes into creative work, so artists tend to feel rather undervalued, and therefore a bit prickly.

What qualifications are necessary? What skills would be helpful? 

I think qualifications are the least important part of it, quite honestly. I think you need passion and you need perseverance, and you need courage and integrity. All of these things will make you a good writer and a great human being. No pressure! No, seriously, if you are one of the fortunate whose parents can afford to send you to UCLA or put you through a film and media studies degree, that’s great. But it will not make you a good writer or guarantee you success. Successful screenwriters come from all walks of life. It’s a craft first and foremost.

In fact if someone asked me what the best qualification for a screenwriter would be, I’d have to say an architect, or an engineer, or maybe even a builder or cabinetmaker. Because screenwriting, like all writing, is structure structure, structure. And that is something anyone can learn. Of course you need to be fascinated with human beings and their behaviour, and have a love of film. But qualifications don’t count for much in the end. A good basic course to can get you started and then its up to you. Discipline and determination will do the rest.

So how does one get into writing for film or television?

I think there are many ways to penetrate the industry. As a writer it is difficult to come in clean. Its easier if you get into the industry and learn the ropes, even starting off as an unpaid gopher or someone’s apprentice. Then get involved in the scriptwriting side if you can, even if its only making tea for the writers. Involve yourself with editors and sit in on the cutting process as well. It really teaches you a tremendous amount.  The film industry is very hierarchical and people will not take you seriously unless you have put in the hours.

Also like most creative industries, it is relationship based. People like to be convivial and there is an open exchange of ideas, so being able to connect to people is key. But having said that, there are people who write their first screenplay and it immediately opens doors for them. What I would recommend is that you always have a piece of solid sample work available to show, should the opportunity arise. A full screenplay is best, very impressive, but most people would rather just read a treatment anyway.

What are the real opportunities for scriptwriters in South Africa?

Where there is tremendous opportunity, I believe, is in the terrain of our many untold narratives. We are bursting with stories, stories no one has been able to tell for centuries. It’s the greatest opportunity we have as writers in this country. A massive untapped resource. But we have to be realistic.  I think it’s an industry severely constrained by forces largely out of its control. There is not enough independent funding or state support for development. That goes for the arts generally.  But there is a real drive among committed filmmakers to try and grow the industry. There are individuals who display tremendous fortitude and determination, sometimes for years, who have such love for film that they never give up. As a result of their efforts, we are seeing more and more interesting films being made.

Visit All About Writing‘s website to view the details of their course A Basic Introduction to Scriptwriting