Like all good hero’s journeys, my story started with a dream. After living in the UK for five years I decided to come back to my native South Africa after the first Democratic elections some sixteen years ago. Just before I left Britain, I had the seminal dream which ‘told’ me, as much as dreams can ever tell one anything, that I had to write screenplays and make films. I really thought it was one of those “in your dreams” moments and tried to ignore it.
But let me rewind a bit. In the UK I taught and studied drama, especially theatre, and my job in the UK involved me taking groups of school girls to London or Stratford upon Avon once a month to see West End or Shakespearean productions. I know, right? Someone has to do it. Seeing a full-scale, world class production once a month changed me. Not necessarily in the way you’d think. Yes, I saw plays which opened my eyes as to how things could be done with endless budgets and superb talent. But I also saw plays which had no meaning and no merit, in my humble opinion. They might’ve had the best actors in the world acting in them, but essentially, some of the plays I saw on the West End weren’t very good. Until then I’d been a writer who thought my work was never quite good enough. But those years in the UK brought about a profound change in me. With the arrogance only an artist has, I was sure I could write better than some of the mediocre playwrights I’d seen.
For a number of reasons I decided to come back to South Africa. Just before I left, I had the dream. I tried to ignore it. After all I’d never even seen a screenplay in the, um, flesh, as it were. It was ridiculous to expect to write one. The universe had other ideas though. I was nudged along the path through by another carrot in my path. Firstly a world-famous actor gave me helpful advice about my first script and encouraged me to keep writing. Then a famous South African actor wanted me to write a screenplay for him. My first radio play A Matter of Time was shortlisted by the BBC World competition from thousands of entries. The screenplay of the same name was then optioned, first by SA producers, and later by UK directors and producers. Even though all these encounters ended in development hell, my experience with the UK producer secured me a London agent, and I learnt my craft like never before.
Nine years after following my seminal dream, however, I was close to giving up. I still hadn’t had a film MADE! And if your film isn’t on the screen you can’t call yourself a screenwriter, can you? I’d consoled myself in the interim years by writing, producing and sometimes directing plays I’d written and touring them around the country. It was much cheaper than raising a budget for a film. But I decided that by the end of the ninth year, if I hadn’t had a film script actually made, I was going to give up and take up farming. At exactly that time a production company started looking for a writer to write the screenplay for a film an executive producer had always wanted to make. It was a film called White Lion using live animals but with a full-length feature narrative. The only other film made in a similar vein is L’ours (The Bear). After a nationwide call for writers to submit treatments, I was shortlisted to the final three and was asked by the producers, “Why should we give you this job?” I didn’t think for a second but answered, “Because I love lions.” Because I do. Love lions, that is. Always have, always will. Fortunately for me, the chief producer was also the man known as the lion whisperer, and the words I spoke touched him. I got the job.
Working on White Lion was one of very challenging. Suffice to say, it went through three different directors and took over five years to make. The fact that I was still standing at the end, working on re-writes almost right up to the final stage, made it all worthwhile. White Lion has been shown internationally and won a number of Awards and it convinced me that following my dream was the right thing to do.
But why do I say, in the promo on IndieGoGo.com, that it took twenty years before I could write A Shot at the Big Time? Well this was a particularly painful story to write as it’s about my brother who died on the South African border in 1979. All white males over the age of 16 were conscripted into the South African Defence Force during the Apartheid Government’s attempt to crack down on the black resistance party, the African National Congress and other resistance movements. As a young white male you had no choice but to go to the army. After three months of intensive Basic Training, the boys would be sent to annual camps, many of which were on the South African borders with Angola or Namibia. A guerrilla war was fought on the borders against the armed wing of the ANC and many atrocities went on. If a young man or boy refused to serve his time in the army, he was sent to prision. “From 4 August 1967, military conscription became compulsory for all white men in South Africa over the age of 16. Deferment to complete schooling or a university degree was granted, but hardly any white men were exempt from conscription.”
Jimmy was my idol. Only 13 months older than me, we’d grown up in a really dysfunctional family. Suffice to say that my father had a serious drinking problem and we moved around a lot, always one step ahead of the debt collectors. So when Jimmy learnt to play the guitar and become the lead singer in a band, it seemed as if he’d found his way out of the ignominy of growing up poor in a small mining town.
Very quickly he became the most popular young man in the region, playing gigs around the town of Odendaalsrus and in the neighbouring city of Welkom. Everyone loved his performances as he had bucket loads of charisma. He left school early to follow his dream of being a rock star. This was the era of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the anarchic conquest of the world through music and Jimmy had bought his ticket for the whole ride. Then the army sent him his call-up papers. And the subsequent events destroyed his life.
The circumstances surrounding Jimmy’s death are still unclear. The army’s version of the events is that he was killed by a ricochet bullet three days after arriving at the border. Someone who was at the border with him at the time, however, said he’d shot himself rather than carry a rifle into combat the following day.
He had a mental breakdown after two unfortunate events in his basic training had traumatised him a few years before the fatal border duty and he’d been classified as unfit for service then. A few years later, the army seems to have “forgotten” about this classification as he was called up for border duty. By the age of twenty-one he was dead and my family had no explanations. We still don’t have his death certificate.
I was twenty when Jimmy was killed. I was extremely angry at the government and the world, yet completely impotent. My parents were destroyed by his death, as were my younger brother and I. I barely managed to finish my degree and found it very hard to focus on living, especially when my father died the following year, broken by grief and remorse. I began to teach drama as a way to heal myself, and so found myself in Britain, about to leave another teaching post and come back to South Africa. That’s when I had the dream about writing screenplays.
I never thought I’d write about Jimmy’s life. At first I wrote about other people’s real lives. My Savage Trilogy of plays focused on literary figures and the tragedies they’d faced in trying to stay true to their artistic integrity. In 2004, one of SA’s most respected critics came to me after seeing my play, The Savage Sisters. He said he’d loved the play but wanted me to write about my own life. When was he going to see me on the stage, he asked?
That was the first time I considered writing about one of the biggest tragedies in my life. I’d never quite recovered from the unjust circumstances of Jimmy’s death and thought it was time to address it. It was over twenty years since he’d died and I think there’s a reason most films about the Vietnam War were written twenty years after the event. When something so horrific is fresh, it’s far too painful to address it head on. One needs the perspective of time before one can deal with so much hurt.
And so I decided to confront the past. The first two drafts of my screenplay were horrible. I put both of them in the bin as they were too full of emotion and not good structurally. I had to take a step back from my emotional connection to the story and put on my professional screenwriter’s hat. I saw my brother as a character whose story had to be told according to good story-writing practice. That’s when I found my way into a good story, well told, which Robert McKee recommends we, as writers, aim for. I was lucky enough to be working with an excellent script editor on another short film and I asked him to read A Shot at the Big Time. Brian Miller, the film
writer from Hollywood, was extremely positive about the script. He gave me a few pointers which I implemented. I then came across another script editor, Jenny Hicks, from Australia, when Brian went back to UCLA to complete his Masters in Film. She contributed good insights and the script went through another few drafts. It’s now in its 9th draft and I’m really happy with it. People who’ve come on board with the project through the IndieGoGo campaign, such as the producer of Mayan Films in London, Magda Olchawska, and an international actor, Sean Michaels, have had nothing but praise for the script. Magda even went as far as to say that it was the best script she’s ever read. High praise indeed.
Getting the script to a place where I was really happy with it took about three or four years. Once the script was ready, I sent it to a number of different producers and also pitched it at two film markets. It always attracted positive attention from audiences of all ages and races.
During this time I was also working on White Lion and found out how difficult it can be to maintain your story’s integrity when faced with some directors’ egos. Maintaining my credit and my storyline was a battle of epic proportions and I won it only to a small degree in White Lion. I became all too aware through this process that some directors who take a script from a writer treat it with scant regard for the writer’s initial vision.
The first producer who optioned Shot wanted to get someone from outside SA, who didn’t know much about the bush war and isn’t respectful of writers generally, to direct the film. I was unhappy with this and made it clear. We parted ways. Then I approached a blue chip production company who loved the script and we signed an agreement. Unfortunately the proviso I’d discounted in the agreement was that the husband of the producer I was working with would have to direct the film. When we talked in depth I discovered that he and I didn’t agree on the vision of the script. He wanted to remove the sister’s POV entirely, which is a tiny but intrinsic refrain in the bigger scheme of the film. He also wanted to tell the story from the young black friend’s POV. I wasn’t happy with that at all as this film is a tribute to my brother. I didn’t want to make it politically correct for the sake of it. The story is intrinsically politically correct in that it rails against injustice in all its forms. So I parted ways with them too. Those two interactions took me a further four years down the line. During this time too, a musician from Welkom, the area my brother and I had grown up in, asked to read the script. He was so moved by the story that he wrote a number of songs which he recorded and which will be used in the film. Here’s the one he wrote for the end of the film where I have Jimmy walking out into enemy fire while strumming his gun like a guitar.
During the years I’d tried the few funding channels open to South African film makers, on my own steam but had no luck. I’d almost given up hope of making Shot when I went to the Durban International Film Mart in July 2011 and walked into Peter Broderick’s seminar on Crowd-funding. I had the rare and overwhelming feeling that I was in the right place at the right time. I realised that Peter Broderick was offering me a chance to take the film-making process into my own hands. (I wrote about the seminar here on my blog.)
I read up more about crowd-funding which hasn’t been explored much in this countryand on Remembrance Day, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year, I launched my project on IndieGoGo.com in remembrance of my brother.
I was amazed by the positive response I received immediately. Everyone I knew on Facebook and Twitter began to tweet and repost the links and offer help. Magda Olchawska of Mayan films asked to read the script and loved it and offered to become a part of the campaign. A former student of mine from the Wild Life Film Academy, Paul Dwyer, offered the services of his Visual Graphics Company in Australia and had Justin Webber design the poster. I was blown away by his efforts. A web designer, Cal Harding, offered to design a website for Shot, the movie. A PR expert, Sharlene Versfeld, offered her services pro bono, and two young award-winning directors shot two different promos. Don von Orr shot a moving promo about the genesis of the story and Stephen de Villiers, who works as a director in Australia, shot the latest one while on holiday in South Africa. A former head of an NGO, Yvonne Spain, offered her services as an Admin Assistant.
The goodwill to the project was outweighed by much negativity from former SADF members who attacked me brutally when they found out about this film. They believe the war they were fighting was just. For a few weeks they managed to upset me by suggesting that I’d fabricated the truth of my brother’s life, even suggesting that he never existed. I came up with as much evidence as I could and posted the newspaper articles, photos of his tombstone and so on, online. It was distressing, and it involved my mother because she had to provide the evidence. It’s moments like these that remind me of the immense tragedy of my brother’s story. I tried to keep a professional mind when dealing with the nuts and bolts of the story but when I’m forced to look at the actual events I’ve written about, it’s still really painful.
We haven’t raised a huge amount on IndieGoGo so far (especially as the high target posted was a mistake!) but we’re going to shoot a short film and use it to raise further funds. What has impressed me most about this crowd-funding exercise is that there’s been so much positive support for the film and the story behind it from around the world. So many people have encouraged me and believe this story needs to be told. IndieGoGo definitely sourced me a crowd of incredibly supportive people who are rooting for me to succeed. With their help, I won’t let them down. We will make this film.
Janet van Eeden has been a writer most of her life. She wrote her first poem about a Tiger when she was eight. She has earned her living from freelance journalism, script writing and producing for the past thirteen years. She has written for many print media including The Witness, The Sunday Independent, as well as a few British magazines, including Scriptwriter UKand the websites Litnet and Twelvepoint.com.
Van Eeden has written eleven screenplays and six stage plays to date. She reviews books regularly for The Witness and Litnet. She has produced six plays (and directed two) and taken each one to the Grahamstown Arts Festival with funding from the National Arts Council each time. Her new play, In-Gene-Uity, premiered at the Grahamstown Festival in July 2009.
She was a supervising producer on two M-Net EDiT Films, “Smile” (2006) and “Commando” (2007), written by her film writing students, Johann Hyman and Stephen de Villiers, while lecturing at UKZN. A full-length feature film she co-wrote, White Lion premiered at the Durban International Film Festival in July 2009 and was released internationally in February 2010.
Van Eeden has her Masters in English (cum laude) and lectured part-time in Scriptwriting at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal for two years. She gives Scriptwriting workshops around the country and has given workshops at AFDA Johannesburg, for the Wildlife Film Academy at the Kruger National Park and at Entabeni Game Reserve. She has also given workshops at Wild Talk International Film Festival at the ICC in Durban in 2009 and at Spier Wine Estate in Cape Town in 2011.
She received a National Arts Council Grant in 2008 to write the novel The Width of a Thread.
Her stage play A Matter of Time was unanimously declared the winning entry by all three judges of the Olive Schreiner Award 2008.
She is currently producing her own film, A Shot at the Big Time, raising funds on Indiegogo
She also offers an online Scriptwriting Course which has attracted students from as far afield as the DRC and Europe.
She is currently doing her PHD in Media on Scripting the South African Film.
She has won the 2011 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award for the northern/southern regions as a Columnist for The Sunday Independent.
Please visit her site at Janetvaneeden.com.