Interview With Janet
I sat down with Janet to ask her about her role as Head of Screenwriting for the Susan Mears Agency. Most of all, I wanted to find out what her job entailed, and what the qualities are that she believes necessary to become a successful screenwriter, in today’s ever-changing landscape of film and television.
“Being a screenwriter is not just about being a good storyteller – yes, you do need to have a natural flair to be able to tell a good story, but that’s not all. You will also need more than a vivid imagination to succeed in today’s industry. A screenwriter is responsible for the concept, idea, and initial vision for the film. It might be an idea that’s been rolling around in their head, they may have soft-pitched the plot and characters to friends, or they may be conceptualizing how to put what is in their imagination onto paper. They may work with a co-writer, they may work solo, or they may work alongside a studio or producer. So, the initial story idea is the responsibility of the screenwriter.
One of the aspects of my role that I particularly enjoy
is adapting a book into a screenplay.
It’s an often rewarding collaboration between the author and myself.
Once a screenwriter has an idea or concept, it’s time for them to map out their script as a film treatment, or a synopsis which is shorter in length. Usually, a screenwriter takes their idea and writes it out, long-form, pen to paper. Sometimes it will be detailed, and other times it will simply include the pivotal moments in the plot, and it can also be a long-form storytelling of only a few sentences long. The screenwriter may use index cards or a computer program, or they may use pen and paper, however, as someone who has helped develop hundreds of screenplays over the last decade, I can’t express enough how important it is to give yourself the space to allow yourself whatever style works for you so that you can work through your initial idea. It’s in this space that we develop our characters and map out an internal storytelling structure. We can also spot any plot holes, and it is time to ask ourselves questions about the script. This planning is 100% the screenwriter’s job. The more creative hands that dip into the pot, the less likely it will be that the screenwriter’s initial ideas will be observed to the letter; yet, without this initial step, screenwriters will frequently end up with a messy story that will be not only hard to pitch and sell, they will also be tough to make into movies.
A good screenwriter should be aware of who the protagonist is – inside and out – before even attempting to write a script. They should know how their lead will react – physically, emotionally, and verbally – in any situation, including the character’s likes, dislikes, motivations, fears, anxieties, emotional IQ – just about anything that makes the protagonist tick. Often, screenwriters will say, ‘I let my character develop as I write…’ Listen, you do you, but a screenwriter who hasn’t fully fleshed out their protagonist before typing ‘FADE IN’ is about to set sail on a course of many rewrites. Sure, they may still eventually get there and know who their character is by the time the final draft is done, but the process will inevitably be arduous at times. My advice is to take thirty minutes to go through the plot planning process and map out your protagonist. Do yourself a huge favour – map out all of your characters. How will they change? What will the journey teach them? What is your protagonist’s super-objective (you know that thing that when they achieve it, ends their journey)?
Most importantly, when developing characters outside of your own life experience (with regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, etc), it is the screenwriter’s imperative responsibility to ensure that the character accurately reflects the life experiences and motivations of that particular group of society. It is 100% your obligation as a screenwriter to go the extra mile to write representative characters, maybe hire a diversity consultant, and have your script read by willing creatives whose life experience you have included in your story, and to research deeply. Screenwriters must do their homework. Anything less is perpetuating a system of biased and stereotypical storytelling. If you aren’t willing to recognize your privilege and seek to write representative characters, screenwriting is not for you.
Understanding what it takes to become a successful screenwriter sounds pretty logical, doesn’t it? You may be thinking that what is written here are things that you already know as it’s just common sense, however, you would be surprised how many scripts I receive on my desk that just don’t make any sense – story-wise. The truth here is – the screenwriter has not done his/her/their homework. Either they’ve skipped over the basic research requirement and have themed their script around a trend that went out of date with Noah’s Ark, or their story world is based upon personal opinion rather than the bigger picture, which tends to alienate their characters and prevents character growth.
Having a great story and being a good writer is not enough to become a successful screenwriter in today’s industry. You should also master the technical side of the profession if you want to succeed. It’s shocking, though, how many writers dive into a craft without understanding the tools of the trade. Knowledge of succinct descriptive writing, snappy dialogue, cohesive slug lines, effective act breaks, and the use of an industry-standard screenwriting program such as Final Draft, are all the responsibilities of a screenwriter. I always say, “Anyone can tell a story, not everyone can be a screenwriter.” Valuing the mere visual of a completed script — the effective use of economy of words, the showing not telling, copy editing, spell-checking, taking time to understand the basics of screenplay format — it’s all going to elevate your script and it’s your responsibility to ensure your final draft is a professional document.
The saying, can’t see the forest for the trees, is especially poignant in this situation. When a reader is handed a screenplay that looks unprofessional, it’s hard to appreciate the content when distracted by the physical document. True, not everyone is computer savvy (some are even reluctant to attempt the good old-fashioned typewriter) but if this is an area of expertise that sets you running for the hills and avoiding at all costs, I suggest that you retain the services of someone who revels in the technical aspect of producing a script and let them turn your Word document into a fully-fledged comprehensive format. Failing that, if finances are restricted, take a year out from your story and enrol in a college or university script writing course. It may seem like a year is a long time to be absent from your story that is on your mind 24/7 and keeping you awake at night but, believe me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised because as you learn more structure and formatting skills, you’ll find that your story world will evolve naturally.
The final aspect and I often say is the most crucial requirement, is after you have done everything else – you’ve planned, you’ve character mapped, you’ve checked your bias, you’ve written an industry-standard screenplay, you’ve had it read by trusted creatives – so, now what? What do you do with this awesome piece of work that you have not only financially invested in but also emotionally invested in? Do you put it away into your desk drawer and just hope that someone, someday will knock on your door and say, ‘Hey I heard you have written a brilliant screenplay. Can I produce it for you?” Unless you are an A-list celebrity or have regular drinks with a well-established producer, that knock on your door is unlikely to happen. No, once you’ve finished your script it becomes the screenwriter’s responsibility to advocate for their work. A masterpiece that requires the attention of the industry. How? Well, if you have a team (a manager, an agent) it’s their responsibility to get this piece out to their network.
If you’re without representation, you can garner attention by submitting your work to contests and seeking opportunities for unrepresented writers like open writing assignments. Do your homework on producers and production companies, and network – network – network! And, simultaneously, start writing your next script! A screenwriter’s responsibility includes having a portfolio of work. No matter how great your screenplay is, it’s the responsibility of the screenwriter to have more than one script. Screenwriting can be your hobby or your profession, but like any development of a craft, some responsibilities are critical to acknowledge when it comes to both developing yourself as a screenwriter and developing your idea into a script, and it all starts at the building block, the basic story level. If you can keep these responsibilities in mind while writing your masterpiece, your journey to becoming a screenwriter will be both fulfilling and successful.
In my role as the Head of the Screenwriting Department, I oversee all screenplays that come through the agency. I work with other writers, producers, directors and even the set technicians. From lighting to costume design. Producing an award-winning film or television series is about being part of a team of equally skilled and talented creatives.
Every year I also attend the Cannes Film Festival as a representative of the Susan Mears Agency. I guide promising screenwriters through the pitfalls of the profession. Once I have finished reading a script for the first time, I prepare a script report which is a crucial tool to have, regardless of whether you are a celebrated writer, or this happens to be your first script. Consider me as if I’m a member of the audience waiting to watch your film on screen, not a critic. I ask the questions a writer may have unconsciously overlooked. ‘Does this story make sense to me?’ ‘Did that character need to do that?’ Not everyone agrees with my reports and some screenwriters might feel upset by my seemingly non-creative, cold, bullet points, however, at the end of the day, my report is not about preventing you from taking your vision forward, it’s just the opposite as it’s about helping you to make your vision visible to everyone.”
Janet Lee Chapman is a writer of Irish descent, born in Manchester, England. She is currently living in Kent, UK. She has been working professionally since 2013. She studied screenwriting at the University of East Anglia and Scriptwriting North. Writing has been one of her passions since her early teens. She ran a creative writing group in the 90’s. In 2016, she completed her first novel, “Mo Cuishle (My Heart)”, which she has adapted as a screenplay, set in Ireland.” From January 2014, Janet worked with KingPepe Films as a Script Consultant and Screenwriter and also as an Associate-Creative Producer with KingPepe Films since January 2014. She collaborated with Isabella Savic at KPF, successfully, on 3 documentary films, one of which won an award. Janet was involved with the creative process for the KPF production of “Celebrating Serbia”. Also, she was a co-writer and creative Producer on films, including “Moving Hearts – The Floods”. Most recently Janet was involved in completing the Pilot for an upcoming global TV series titled, “Wonder Women of Wine”.