When one of my publishers asked me to submit a 200 word biography for their authors' website, I thought about dropping the usual bio platitudes and submitting the following:
"Natasha Mostert is a spectacularly brilliant, raven-haired psychic who saw her first ghost at the age of four. She likes to take midnight rides on horseback and practises levitation twice a day."
Natasha Mostert is a South African novelist and screenwriter, who specialises in contemporary psychological thrillers with mystical and paranormal themes. She grew up in Pretoria and Johannesburg but currently lives in London with her husband, Frederick. She still keeps an apartment in the university town of Stellenbosch in the Cape province.
Educated in South Africa and at Columbia University, New York, Mostert majored in modern languages and also holds graduate degrees in Lexicography and Applied Linguistics. She has worked as a teacher in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and as project coordinator in the publishing department of public television station WNET/Thirteen in New York City. Her political opinion pieces have appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times, in Newsweek, The Independent and The Times (London).
She is an avid kickboxer. Click here to find out more about her involvement with the CPAU Fighting for Peace project, which teaches Afghan women how to box and feel empowered in their lives.
She is the author of six novels. Her fourth novel, Season of the Witch is a modern gothic triller about techgnosis and the Art of Memory and won the Book to Talk About: World Book Day 2009 Award. Her latest novel is Dark Prayer, a psychological thriller about memory, identity and the murderous consequences of a quest gone wrong. Please address all literary queries to Deborah Schneider at gelfmanschneider.com.
Aside from novel writing, Mostert has branched out into screenwriting and is a member of the WGAW.
Future goals include writing poetry, executing a perfect spinning crescent kick and coming face to face with the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe.
After ten years of writing novels, I decided to try my hand at writing a screenplay. It was going to be a breeze. After all, I'm used to hammering out 400 pages of text so how hard can it be to write 120 pages of dialogue, right?
Writing a screenplay is a wild, exasperating and challenging ride. For those of you who are interested in scriptwriting, here are a couple of thoughts on the adventure. (And no, the Nicholas Cage movie, Season of the Witch, is not based on my novel of the same name!)
1. Selling on or selling out?A few years ago I sold the movie rights to my novel, Season of the Witch. As I signed the contract, I had the same doubts that plague most authors who find themselves lucky enough to catch the eye of Hollywood. Would the scriptwriter understand my characters? Would the story be butchered/dumbed down/changed beyond all recognition? What if my novel ends up a B grade horror movie with shoddy production values? Is there any way I can retain creative control?
The answer to the last question is a resounding 'No.' The contract you sign is pretty much boiler plate and the one most authors are required to sign.
Once you scribble your name on the dotted line, you relinquish all rights. The film makers are allowed to change your characters, plot and even the genre. Your gritty drama may be turned into an escapist fantasy with characters brandishing laser swords. Your dark, poignant ending could be transformed into a relentlessly sunny one.
If you absolutely hate the movie, you may have the option to ask the studio to remove your name from the credits. If you are a best-selling author and the studio relies on your name to attract moviegoers, your contract will in all likelihood state that you are not allowed to do so.
So why take the risk?
Name recognition. This is probably the biggest carrot. An author's name recognition skyrockets after a successful film and book sales may increase substantially.
Money. The upfront money is usually not a fortune but it is still a nice windfall. There is also the promise of a bigger pay check in the future if the movie gets made, which is by no means certain. More about this later on.
The hope that the filmmakers will make a fine movie, which will introduce your story to a far wider audience than your book will ever reach.
Season of the Witch is still in development. If it makes it to the big screen I will be buying my ticket and popcorn along with everyone else. Fingers crossed.
2. How does it work when you write your own script?Two years after selling the rights to Season of the Witch, lightning struck again and another one of my novels was optioned to be made into a film. And this time I was asked to write the script. Happy days! I get to retain creative control. Right?
Ah, control. A lovely word, but not a concept, which features in the life of a Hollywood scriptwriter. This was the first thing I discovered — almost right off the bat.
The second thing I learnt was that even though you are paid to write the script, this does not necessarily mean a movie will be made. Hollywood's vaults are overflowing with commissioned scripts, which for one reason or another, never went into production. Who knew? Not me.
I also discovered I would not be allowed to talk about my good fortune and write about it in blogs and newsletters (half the fun) because writers are required to sign a contract with a clause, which forbids them to talk about the project until such time as the studio gives them the greenlight to do so.
The fourth thing I discovered was that I was going to have to learn to use Final Draft, the scriptwriting software, which is the Hollywood standard. Writers of screenplays do not use Word.
And last, but definitely not least, it dawned on me — rather quickly — that whereas a novel writer is pretty much queen of the castle, a script writer is low-woman-on-the-totem pole. A Hollywood script writer is a writer for hire.
What does this mean?
It means that even though you are the scribe of record, your vision is almost always subservient to the vision of the studio executive and the producers. Producers have the right to remove you from the project whenever they feel like it and engage the services of another writer. It happens all the time and to the very best of writers. Think Gladiator, which started off with David Franzoni, who was then replaced by the great John Logan, who was then replaced by the great William Nicholson before Franzoni was brought back on board again. It is rare these days to see only one writer's name in the credits. So much money is involved that studios try to hedge their bets by attaching more than one screenwriter to the project — the argument being that if one is good, two must be better. By the time writers three or four get on board there may be very few of your precious words left. Remember, it is in the interest of these writers to try to change as much of the original script as they can in order to win WGA accreditation.
Once the producers have a finished script — after many, many, many rewrites — a director will come on board and will often exercise 'the director's pass.' He may stick the script under his arm, disappear into his cave and come out with something that bears scant resemblance to the screenplay, which had required such backbreaking work from so many different people over so many months or years. I am told the only director who shoots the script as is, is Clint Eastwood. Terry Rossio, the writer for Pirates of the Caribbean, once complained humorously about a film reviewer who commiserated with a director for 'struggling manfully with a pedestrian script' when in fact, it was the director who had turned a good script into a mundane one.
Pretty grim, huh?
Yes, but the process is also exciting and you get to work with talented and creative people. But it is true that you cannot allow yourself to get too attached to your source material
Do I always agree with the changes I am asked to make? No. But I also understand that it is so tremendously expensive to make a movie, that there is no way the scriptwriter will be allowed to dictate which direction the film should go.
If you're thinking of becoming a scriptwriter and feel you'll be compromising your artistic integrity by accepting the situation as outlined above, then this job is not for you.
3. There is no guarantee that your script will be made into a movie, even if the studio has paid good money for it.
I find it extraordinary that there are many writers in Hollywood who have made their living over decades selling scripts — but who has never had even one of these scripts turned into an actual movie.
Even the most illustrious screenplay writers have sold scripts that went nowhere. When I attended a lecture by William Nicholson at a BAFTA event I was startled to learn that he had written eleven screenplays, for which he was paid very well, but which never went into production. Nicholson calls them his 'stillborn children' and says he had to make peace with the fact that they are buried in the vaults of studios all over Hollywood with no hope of resurrection.
Before you sign on to do a screenplay, therefore, ask yourself if you'll be OK with working long and hard on a creative project (even if you get paid), which may, in the end, never see the light of day.
4. Scriptwriters have to network more than writers of novels.
If you're a scriptwriter you have to make contacts. Check out e.g. events at BAFTA. The London Breakfast Club hosts luminaries of the scriptwriting world. Here is a piece I wrote about legendary Frank Spotnitz – he of X Files and Man in the High Castle fame.
Frank Spotnitz on the Writers Room and Ten Pieces of Supernatural Advice by Natasha Mostert
5. Are authors better at adapting their own books than professional scriptwriters?
The sad fact is that authors often suck at adapting their own books. You'd think it would be exactly the opposite. After all, I know my characters as intimately as if they were my relatives. I know their shoe size, their neuroses and their most private thoughts: including the ones they do not share with the reader.
But authors can be very wordy. We forget that screenplays and literature are two wholly different things. We forget that a screenplay is never going to be read for its own sake. Literary merit is not what makes a good movie, which is probably why Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald did not shine when they slummed it in Hollywood.
A screenplay isn't even about dialogue. It is about the picture. True, there are lines that come to define a movie: 'Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,' and even 'Hasta la vista, baby' but a movie is not theatre. Words take second place.
6. Is it easier when you adapt someone else's work?I have since also been asked to work on scripts based on another author's work. In this case the challenge is twofold:
a) do not change the original story so much that you will alienate the author's fan base
b) do not — because you are intidimidated by the success of the novel — stick to it so rigidly that it turns into poor cinema. Some scenes and concepts simply do not work on screen. Get rid of them.
In other words, be sure to square the circle.
Useful links for aspiring scriptwriters
Check out THE BLACK LIST and subscribe to its newsletter. THE BLACK LIST also now offers screenwriters the opportunity — for a fee — to upload their script for review and rating.
John August's blog is a great resource for aspiring scriptwriters and covers almost all aspects of the life of a working writer in Hollywood. August also does a regular podcast with fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin. Find it on iTunes.
Terry Rossio: Wordplay. Another good resource, although Rossio doesn't keep his blog as current as August does. Whereas August is super short and sweet in his entries, Rossio likes to chat.
Final Draft. When you buy your Final Draft software (expensive) you also get to receive their newsmagazine, which is great stuff and gives you an overview of all the recent deals in Hollywood plus features written by Hollywood insiders.
- Looking for movie scripts to read from first drafts to shooting drafts? Here are a few resources:
BAFTA: To find out about events and lectures on screenwriting, visit the BAFTA website.
London Screenwriting Festival: Every year wannabe writers and those who have already made it get together at the London Screenwriting Festival