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Friday, October 15, 2010

Q&A with Jonathon Myers

We recently shared the news that Snovi, a short film co-written by Jonathon was screened at the Sarajevo Film Festival last summer. As a follow-up, we thought it would be fun for Jonathon to expand on this unique experience.

The writer hard at work
There's a lot of BU energy around this film (co-screenwriter John Bernstein is the director of BU's screenwriting program, and producer Claire Wasserman is a BU alum as well). How did you all initially connect?

To answer this question and the next is really to describe the process from my perspective while giving due credit to the leader of that process.  All of the connections in this project are through another BU alumnus: the director, Reshad Kulenovic.  As the director (and essentially the director of production) he has always been the center of the entire project.  Reshad was in the MFA program in Film Production and I was taking screenwriting courses with Professor John Bernstein after my MFA in Playwriting.  Reshad and I became friends who participated in the writer/director cliché of having deep philosophical conversations over coffee at the Espresso Royale near BU Central.  It was a good combination; his focus on imagery and cinematic qualities connected with my focus on character, dialogue and story.  My play Little Red Hen was an ACTF regional finalist that came out of workshop days with the CFA.  When it was produced at BPT by the Useless Theatre Company in January of 2008, Reshad saw it and liked it.  John Bernstein suggested to both of us that we start collaborating as a writer/director combo.

We decided to enter a competitive event that challenged us to fully produce a 5 minute digital movie in one week.  Unfortunately, our schedules were tight and despite a ready script and some pre-production we need to shoot in two locations and fully edit a cut in less than three days.  I had to take up some Director of Photography duties at times and we had to work together seamlessly.  At one point -- about 50 hours into the process -- when together we had a total of around 2-3 hours of sleep, we questioned the project and considered giving up.  Thankfully, we persevered and completed the project on time.  The result had some issues, as one would expect with that schedule.  The sound in particular was rough, and ultimately that final product feels a little like a student film with better than average visual execution.   But I think we gained some respect for each others’ work ethic after that.  We vowed to work on another project again in the future.

Due to these experiences, I appreciated Reshad’s directing and he appreciated my writing.  That mutual admiration kept us connected.  I was always looking to contribute my writing to his projects and like a good director he was always looking for the good stories and writing.  Over the next year Reshad and I worked on a few different stories and I wrote multiple screenplay drafts and revisions for these shorts, ranging from incomplete drafts of a few pages to grossly overwritten drafts at around 40-45 pages.  Overall, I easily put out several hundred pages of writing and rewriting.  (My experiences of rewriting at BPT served me well.)  John Bernstein was mentoring, so he was reading the drafts and providing feedback about what wasn’t working and what needed to be rewritten.

The main themes in all our false starts were 1) memory as haunted past images, 2) the internal conflict of a traumatic aftermath, and 3) a man dissociating from a lover.  For example, an early idea we pursued was the story of a student who becomes possessed by a famous ghost and how the student slowly changes into someone his girlfriend no longer recognizes.  Another story involved a photojournalist who covers New Orleans directly after Katrina and can’t get the images out of his head, which then leads to a decision to breakup with his girlfriend rather than move to New York with her by taking a job as a fashion photographer.  By this point, it became evident that Reshad wanted to focus on the Bosnian Conflict and make use of these themes to serve that topic.  The photojournalist was Bosnian, and that character had changed his original name in an effort to assimilate, but the result was a burying of the past and of his own awareness of the Bosnian trauma.  In much the same way that the character’s visit to the aftermath of Katrina had awakened awareness in him, a similar discovery occurred to Reshad and me about the future of his project.

At this point, I moved to Los Angeles to participate in the BU in LA Writer in Hollywood Certificate Program.  This meant, unfortunately, that I didn’t have as much time to devote to collaboration.  Reshad drafted a story involving three soldiers and this brought back into the scenario a military conflict setting.  (One of the very first scripts he had sent me involved a Bosnian man on the run.  The character was escaping from Serbian military captivity.)  We discussed the newest story and script and I offered feedback but didn’t have the time to do any writing on the project.  Instead, I became a consultant for Reshad whenever he had new material for me to review.  Reshad then met Claire Wasserman at BU during that fall semester and she became interested in the project.  At the time, Claire was a senior looking into post-graduation opportunities in PR, marketing and promotions.  (She is now employed in that industry in NYC as a Development Associate for Chess-in-the-Schools.)  Her connection with Reshad would lead to her involvement as producer and publicist, lending an incredibly professional touch to the promotional materials, such as the poster and web site for Snovi

Also during that fall semester John Bernstein became more involved.  He shared with Reshad a story involving a character who is lost in dreams that sweep him through an uncertain world of imagery, including what appears to be the dream of his own execution at the hands of a Nazi Officer.  I wrote up some feedback on the script for Reshad and he began to revise drafts that were crafted toward his own scenario in using the Bosnian conflict as the traumatic memory backdrop for this dreamer’s imagery.  A few drafts and feedback discussions later I had finished with my Hollywood internship and moved back to Boston, enabling me to once again meet one on one with Reshad and devote myself to writing for the project once again.  The multiple drafts that Reshad had written were pointing in a few different thematic directions.  I noted the difficulty of working directly with a dream-like premise and set about to pin down a structural integrity within that surreal cinematic world of imagery.  As a solution, I read the latest draft, re-read all 4 or 5 previous drafts, and generated a new draft that attempted to combine the strongest elements and moments of all drafts.  What emerged was a back-and-forth temporal structure in which a memory fixation involving the officer responsible for the character’s past trauma ultimately causes the man’s memory and dreams to mix and (as a result) pulls apart a present day relationship with his lover through his futile pursuit of an absent or imaginary nemesis.

In a flurry of creative energy, Reshad and I went back and forth every day for about a week while I turned out a new draft nearly each night.  We chopped off scenes, rewrote what was there, and added scenes and images where necessary.  One afternoon we sat down with a new script printout, a pot of coffee and a bottle of wine.  We went over it all line by line, moment by moment, image by image and word by word.   Somewhere in the middle of this Reshad and I almost entirely “switched hats.”  I generated and focused on images and how they changed, thus opting to cut or condense just about any and all dialogue; whereas Reshad became a protector of dialogue who felt the actors’ lines were crucial to the expression.  (Imagine that, a film director treating dialogue as more sacred than a playwright!)  That week is mostly a blur to me now, but by the end of it we had a solid 20-page short script that we felt was good enough for Reshad to use.  When he took the draft to John, our mentor was “impressed.”  John did some additional dialogue rewrites to bring some distinct intellectual and philosophical focus to the story.  We finally had a complete and polished script that was good to read and showcase.  This was the script that Reshad would send to others for potential funding while he also gathered crew and actors with talent of the highest possible quality for the lowest possible budget.  In film, a director’s desire and initiative to tell a story, when coupled with a great script, can make the impossible happen.

Reshad traveled to Bosnia to make the impossible happen.  He wanted to shoot it on location near Sarajevo, and many times this decision was called into question by others.  However, Reshad showed incredible determination because he, John, and I knew that the location would be crucial to the credibility and authenticity of the visual story.  Slowly and surely, Reshad would pull together funding, a production team, and incredibly talented actors.  To assist further as a writer on the project, I drafted a one-page synopsis of action and we determined a logline and simple summary.  In addition to a script, these were tools Reshad could use to quickly describe or present the ideas of the project to others over email or during the meetings and phone conversations to which he lent all of his time.  This is the point in the process at which, as a co-writer, I became simply an observer hoping for the best.  A screenwriter’s job is to provide a script and do rewrites as necessary or as requested, so when it comes to later phases of production and post-production (e.g. editing) a writer’s input is limited and/or non-existent unless they have stepped into a different role for that particular project.

Connections in Bosnia helped Reshad to obtain a Sarajevo-based production company while the script was being translated.  The Heinrich Boll Foundation pledged support to the project, providing further leverage.  A Cannes award-winning Director of Photography would next come on board.  After flying back to the US and then returning to Bosnia, Reshad assembled a stellar professional cast and generated enough funding to support the principal photography on location.  The lead actress, Zana Marjanovic, has since been cast as the lead in Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, which is great news for her, Reshad and Snovi.  Reshad was able to complete the majority of post-production editing in time for the short to be selected and screened outside of competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival.  I was able to view a cut of the short with John on BU campus.  There is now a new cut of the film with better sound mixing by a professional sound engineer, which I hope to see sometime in the next few weeks.  In retrospect, after over two years from conception to completion, I can’t pinpoint exactly how things turned out so great.  I can only look to my friend Reshad with admiration and say “Great job.  Way to see it through.”

Where was the movie produced, and how long did that take? Tell us a little bit about that process.

See above.

Were there any particular challenges to your collaboration? Any stories you’re willing to share?

It was sometimes difficult coming to terms with not being in charge of the story the same way that dramatists have control of a play’s story in the theatre.  I already knew this fact, and I had experienced it a few times before on small projects, but not at any professional level like this.  With plays, the author expresses the story and characters through written dialogue and simple stage direction for others to implement but the playwright never gives up ownership of that copyrighted intellectual property.  In essence, they rent it to theatre companies for production and receive royalties.  This creates a relationship in which the playwright has already made decisions about the play and if there are disagreements or requests for changes the playwright ultimately stays in charge of the story.  If someone else wants to make decisions that change the story of a play being produced, then the playwright must approve those changes and they have an absolute right to make the changes themselves.

With screenwriting things are different, even with Writer’s Guild contracts that grant a screenwriter the right to be offered first rewrite on a script that has been sold.  There is screenwriting that results in a script (spec or for-hire), there are draft rewrites, and then there are production rewrites that can happen right in the middle of shooting due to constraints.  After that, editing and piecing together footage in post-production is itself another rewrite of the story that can change the outcome.  Ultimately, being a screenwriter means not only limiting your dialogue and using visual description, but also learning to let go of your hold on the story being constructed.  This means viewing your own writing as a contribution to the larger project.  Until you see yourself as the interchangeable part of a larger whole – or as one leg of a relay race – it will be frustrating.  Sure, if your work isn’t golden and there is no good solid story at the outset, then it is extremely likely that the poor script will be a poor story on screen.  However, after you hand over your contribution (in screenwriting, this typically means pay in exchange for full intellectual property) then it is usually up to the next person to whom the script/baton has been passed.  Or the person after that.  Or the person after that.  You have to watch the rest of the race and hope for the best.  It’s easier if you’re working with incredibly talented people and a great director who keeps it all cohesive from beginning to end.

Working with John is great, because he’s a brilliant writer and communicator and also an all-around nice guy.  It inspired me to work with him.  Reshad was very lenient in the earlier scripting process, allowing me to do what I needed to do with my contribution on the project that he was directing and producing.  Once the script rewrites were complete and we had something finished, it became clear that it was then my time to step back.  Here’s an example: the first title was that of John’s story Dreams.  I didn’t like this because there are tons of short films titled “Dreams” each year.  Also, as the script developed it was less about dreams and more about traumatic memories mixing with present-day dream-like consciousness.  A friend suggested we call it S. after the antagonist character Officer S.  Reshad and I weren’t thrilled, but it was catchier and less obvious.  We put it on the title page of script (which had been blank for some time) and Reshad didn’t immediately get in touch with John to be sure this was okay.  Some weeks went by and Reshad used the script titled S. and when John and I talked about it on Google Chat I sent him the script.  John’s immediate reaction was that he agreed with changing the title but felt the same way about changing S.  We then had some three-way communication issues about the whole thing and I got extra worried because I thought fixing a title early in the process was important.  (Turns out it’s not.)  I chatted with Reshad about it and then John and I discussed the ultimate themes of the script and potential directions for a different title.  By this point, I realized that my contribution to the project was pretty much done.  It would really only make things more complicated to try to keep up discussion when something could change a few weeks later anyway.  (Or a few weeks after that…)  Since I was convinced that the project was in good hands and since John would be overseeing the project as a mentor, I told him I trusted whatever title he approved in the long run.  And it turns out that the translation of “Dreams” into Bosnian results in Snovi, which I don’t mind at all because it remains distinguished from the other English titled “Dreams” shorts out there this year.  Also, now that the processes of filming and editing are complete it turns out the dreamlike qualities of the cinematography are better suited to the title anyway.  This taught me a lot about notifying others about changes and also about knowing when to voice concerns versus when to keep my mouth shut.

What was the inspiration behind Snovi? What made you want to tell this story?

Overall, I was one person collaborating with others.  The original story came from John Bernstein and my participation was in the rewriting and adaptation of that initial story in different versions of screenplay.  I drew my inspiration, particularly of that related to memory and trauma, from my MFA course and readings with Elie Wiesel.  His course Literature of Memory stuck with me and had a profound effect on my writing.  I feel like I bring this inspiration into all my writing now, but it was particularly relevant to this collaboration.  I worked with Reshad on the memory and trauma themes even before John’s story became the centerpiece for Reshad’s project.  I think that ultimately my focus helped to anchor the script throughout various drafts.  I hope my contribution made the story better for the final product.

Were you actually able to attend the Festival?

Unfortunately, it would have been far too expensive to make it all the way to Sarajevo.  Plus, I need to finally get a passport!  If it screens in the United States I plan to attend, but it will depend on the timing and location.  We are hoping that it is invited to other festivals over the course of the next year.

What’s up next for Snovi?

Reshad and Claire are busy applying to film festivals both here and abroad, with a focus on Oscar-qualifying festivals. Sending out screener copies on a constant basis, they are trying to create buzz around Snovi while generating interest in both the project and Bosnia. They are organizing screenings in New York, and would like to do the same in Boston.  If they schedule a public screening in Boston, I’ll be sure to provide an alumnus update.

Some fundraising is still necessary, so they plan to use these screenings, foundation grants, and social media (with sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo) to raise important funds for the transfer of film, festival application fees, and the quickly mounting costs of promotion and marketing materials. Snovi is clearly a labor of love.
Reshad is currently writing a feature film and hopes to parlay the success of Snovi into future success as a writer-director.  I look forward to seeing his career thrive.

What are you working on now?

I still work on plays and screenplays, but over the past year I’ve become more and more involved in writing for video games as a part of the growing game development community here in Boston.  A lot of writers of literature may scoff at the thought of video game narrative, but in my opinion there is a serious artistic future in interactive narrative.  Story is a very different experience once the spectator/player is immersed and their choices can have an effect on the storytelling.  It’s not a hindrance, but a challenge to the writer.  This type of expression is still in its infancy, but in time I expect great things to happen.  Actually, one of the inspiring progenitors of interactive fiction is none other than our own Robert Pinsky!  He crafted the 1984 interactive fiction game Mindwheel.  Look it up.

Any plugs? (Upcoming productions, etc.)

There are plans in the works for a production of my BU thesis play Nostalgic Pumpkin Memory of Regret.  I hope to see that happen next October in 2011.  The play is set on Halloween, so an October production date is the ideal.  The venue didn’t work out this year, but there is a great director and a handful of dedicated folks who want to see it play in a full run.  During the MFA we were taught to keep cast sizes down, and like a silly rebel without a clue I wrote a play with more than ten characters.  The final result worked fine, thanks rewrite suggestions by Kate, and as artists I don’t think we shouldn’t accept cast size as a limitation.  However, I really wish I could sit down with my earlier self and explain just how difficult it is to get anyone to look twice at a large-cast play.  It is simply not economically feasible for most production companies out there.

Alums, share your news with us.

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