The Reel | Screenwriting 101
Jamaica has some classic films such as The Harder They Come, Dancehall Queen and Third World Cop, which helped lay the foundation of the local film industry. But contemporary local productions with 'classic' potential are few and far between.
Industry insiders chalk this up to the lack of competent screenwriting. While some local tertiary institutions have introduced film production to their curriculum, there seems to be a missing component: screen writing.
Lennie Little-White, creator of the long-running television series Royal Palm Estate, believes this is a weakness of the local film industry. "At the universities and other institutions, students are primarily trained in hardware - how to handle a camera, equipment, lights - but not storytelling." Speaking of his own series he says, "In Royal Palm, the shots might be weak, the editing may not be too good, but people like and remember the story."
Since Royal Palm Estate, there has been a vacuum. "Why was there not another series?" he questioned. "Why couldn't anyone else do it? I'm no genius. I have written more than everyone else, and not because I wanted to, but because I couldn't find people who understood the medium," he lamented.
He continued: "The writers keep thinking that we're in Hollywood. They think they're writing scripts that are going to be filmed in a big-budget studio. If you're going to write, you have to start with a budget. The screenwriter is like a quasi-producer - if the budget is $500,000, the screenwriter has to write within that. Know that shooting in broad daylight is cheaper than at nights. A bad screenwriter doesn't know that. You can write a boat chase or have someone falling from a high-rise building, but who is going to do those stunts? Which building is high enough? Such a script might work in Australia," Little-White said.
Film producer Justine Henzell shares a similar view. "To achieve longevity, you have to keep the story evolving to keep the audience interested. So the writing has to be done one step ahead of the audience's expectations." She says that the culture of scriptwriting that exists abroad is absent in Jamaica.
"Most television shows have writing rooms. It is many writers contributing to the scripts, not just one. It's many ideas bouncing around, which can help to keep it fresh. We don't have a culture of writing rooms in Jamaica yet, but I think we need to get there." This is the approach that was taken for Dancehall Queen. "The film was collaborative. When Chris Blackwell produced Dancehall Queen, (written by British Don Letts), he brought in other people to flesh it out," Little-White recalled.
Henzell's late father, Perry, is highly regarded for his work on the classic Jamaican film - The Harder They Come, starring living legend Jimmy Cliff. However, acknowledging Trevor Rhone's co-writer credit is often secondary.
Over the years, the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA) and JAMPRO's Film Commission have collaborated to host screenwriting workshops with international professionals. In 2017, they organised one with ScreenCraft Media with their Screenwriter's Residency Programme. Tony 'Paleface' Hendriks participated and thought it was a positive step in the right direction. "Between the Jamaica Television and Film Association, JAMPRO, and the British Council, they are helping us as writers, producers, and in terms of script development," he said. Hendriks is working on his craft as he is currently a part of the Real Jamaican Film Lab workshop, where feature-length scripts are selected for potential development. "They are bringing in people who focus on financing and getting distribution. There's another workshop about marketing in November," he revealed.
Famed French author and screenwriter Loulou Dedola was on the island recently, conducting research for his upcoming graphic novel, on the One Love Peace Concert 1978. During his visit, he conducted an immersive screenwriting workshop organised by Alliance FranÁaise for tertiary and high school students and their teachers.
The workshops were based on Dedola's experience as a screenwriter for movies, graphic novels and documentaries in France and Nigeria. "They were very interested to know about how to organise the stories. I taught them the model of an author like me, and they liked it," Dedola relayed.
He outlined his approach to screen writing, noting, "I always have action in my work," he said. After the action comes a solution, which is then concluded with a finale.
Hendriks believes that these workshops will help the local film industry as there is great talent in Jamaica. "Not to say that there shouldn't be a better programme at UWI or UTech. It is a technical science," he said.