Thu | Feb 20, 2020

Welcome to Traytown - Literature leads to screenwriting

Published:Sunday | February 9, 2020 | 12:30 AMLetay Williams - Contributor

For a long time, my relationship with literature, and especially with writing, always felt like I was having a secret love affair. I could not talk about it with anyone at the risk of being dubbed weird, despite something that felt so natural and freeing, where I could express myself creatively.

I was reminded at every turn by my family to get my head out of the clouds and focus on the school books they worked hard to buy, instead of the novels I couldn’t help reading and which led to stories I couldn’t stop writing. When my time at Holy Childhood High ended, I followed my parents’ advice to go on the hunt for a job that guaranteed financial stability.

No surprise, due to societal misconception, this did not involve the arts, which I was slowly discovering was where my passion lay. By then I knew I loved writing stories, and I loved watching movies, but I could not picture a reality for myself where I could combine these two passions.

I worked at a full-time job while pursuing a business degree part-time. Two years in, I decided my heart was no longer in it. Looking back, I think my heart was never in it to begin with since I spent that time mainly completing all the Humanities-based courses for which I was eligible.

With my mind selfishly made up that if I was going to be the one paying for and doing a degree then it had to be for me and not for my parents, I joined the Department of Literatures in English at The University of the West Indies (UWI) in 2014. That was the moment when my relationship with literature no longer felt like a dirty secret.

Three years of academic writing consisted of literary analyses of works of poetry, drama, prose fiction, as well as the analysis of films, which strengthened my ability to think, read and write critically.

But the department’s creative writing courses were what nurtured and helped me to find my voice as a writer. What helped me to figure out exactly what I wanted to write was a course taught by Storm Saulter in 2015, “Creative Writing for the Screen and Stage”. For this course, I needed to come up with an idea for a script and submit it along with the synopsis, a treatment outlining each detail of the script and the log line, which is a one-sentence summary of what the script is all about. Storm gave a single instruction: set the project in Jamaica, a place we knew like the back of our hand, and which might increase the likelihood of getting the film made one day if we decided to see it through.

Tell a story

I wanted to tell a story about politics and romance set in and around a garrison community. I created Power Struggle, in which “Jamaica’s youngest member of parliament must prove herself to the Jamaican people in order to dispel rumours that she is milking her dead father’s legacy. She unknowingly finds herself in an unconventional relationship with a journalist whose brother was given the order by his don to execute her father.”

For Power Struggle, I became the inaugural recipient of the Department of Literatures in English Perry Henzell Award for Screenwriting, and the following year, I won the department’s Erna Brodber-Velma Pollard prize for Creative Writing – Prose Fiction for a short story on human trafficking, which I wrote in another creative writing class.

The presumption that once you complete a Literatures in English degree you are heading straight to the classroom was one I had to correct on a regular basis. It was Dr Rachel Moseley-Wood – current Head of Department and one of my lecturers at the UWI – who asked one day what I would like to do once I had completed my studies. I expressed an interest in screenwriting, and shortly after that, she shared information about an inaugural film lab workshop that would be hosted by JAMPRO, the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA), and the British Council. I was reluctant to apply because the workshop was aimed at film professionals, and I was just a final-year university student with no film experience. What I did have was a feature-length version of Power Struggle, now renamed Traytown.

I wrote Traytown after Storm’s class had ended, mainly because I fell in love with the story, and the characters just wouldn’t leave me alone. Despite finding out about the workshop two days before its deadline, I took a chance and applied for the opportunity, deciding that the worst that could happen was that they would actually pick Traytown.

They did. That workshop ultimately led to JAMPRO’s Investor Forum where I pitched and won $500,000 in funding towards the film. With Nadean Rawlins as producer, Traytown, the short film is slated to wrap production this month.

Since completing the B.A. in Literatures in English and Film Studies in 2017, I have worked in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, Insurance and now in the Tourism industry. My degree is flexible and my skill set transferable. My experience in the Humanities opened my eyes to a world of possibilities I scarcely knew existed and has changed my mindset which has, in turn, changed the way I look at life and the way I view the world of work. I do not have to hide my love for writing anymore. As for my parents, they’re coming around in their own time. The other day, my dad asked about “this writing thing” that I do and wanted to know at what point he would see my name in a movie. I told him at the beginning, where it says “Written by Letay Williams”.