In Jana’s own words: I did not have a pretty childhood; but it made me the person and writer that I am. I was raised in Arizona by a single mom; my dad had been a small time con man and grifter and my mom tossed him by the time I was about six. We had constantly been one step ahead of the law because of his schemes, but he was also a fabulous and gifted story teller. Once her fourth child was born, my mom put her foot down and refused to ever move again – this is how we ended up in Phoenix; more by accident not design. My mom was a amazing gal in many, many ways – somehow managing to make ends meet on a secretary’s salary and raise five girls in the process.
In college I discovered an intense love of photography and enlisted in the U.S. Navy… not that unusual for poor, working class kids. I worked as stills photographer for the base newspaper, in El Centro (more desert!) and also as high-speed motion photographer for the Parachute Design Engineers. This involved the use of high-speed film cameras and a lot of flying – which was hugely cool ! I flew in a lot of the top military aircraft of the day – and some really old clunkers from WWII.
Towards the end of my enlistment the Navy discovered I was a lesbian; and I discovered they were misogynist and so we bickered and then agreed to part company. At the time, I had nothing to lose and so packed all my stuff and went to an airline counter and asked for a ticket to somewhere different …. but not TOO different. The airline person said, “Oh, why don’t you try Vancouver? It’s just like here only they speak French!!” NOT!
Since I moved here, I have been involved as a volunteer in any number of ways for the city I love. I was a member of the Big Sisters organization for seven years. As well, I was a key organizer for the Gay Games held here in Vancouver in 1990. A TWO YEAR volunteer effort in which I was joint chair of a five day Literary Festival (which saw 60 authors from around the world participate.)
After moving to Vancouver I found work first in the publishing industry, and then when I started writing seriously I talked my way into the film industry. I worked for a number of years as a VFX and Post coordinator which gave me a great overview of how the film industry as a whole works. Post & VFX have really influenced how I write screenplays. My teaching style is very pragmatic. Screenwriting is a craft… and the more diligently you study it the more thoroughly you will acquire the skills. But first and foremost, the act of creation is a JOY. Start with that thought and everything else is gravy!
You can learn more about Jana at the following sites:
What are THREE adjectives that best describe YOU?
Self directed, disciplined and passionate.
I have been to your official writer website, and I can see you are very diverse in your writing – dramas, comedies, street teens, history. Why do you feel compelled to write what you do?
I am really interested in communities outside the mainstream. Hollywood hasn’t figured this out yet; but we’re not all only interested in stories about rich, white males! I’m most interested in stories from the myriad sub-cultures that really make up who we are as a people; gays, street kids, bi-racial folks – people who constantly straddle a line to create a meaningful life.
Talk to us about your journey as a writer; as a screenwriter, what have been some of your major accomplishments?
Although I somehow manage to make my living as a writer/teacher…. the things I consider milestones are oddly non-paying! The FIVE DAY literary festival that I spent 2 years of volunteer labour organizing for the Gay Games in Vancouver. 60 authors from around the world…. it was FAB. Simply placing (1/4 finalist) in the Nicholl’s Fellowship. I had loved the screenplay I submitted and it was validating to think they did, too!
Frankly, I think most writers’ lives are like this; but especially screenwriters. You invest so much emotion & hope in creating a script because an idea simply won’t leave you alone…. and then, like your child – it goes out and creates a life all its own. Your script finds directors and actors and maybe even a distributor some day – but by the time ALL of that happens YOUR attention is somewhere else. You have a new idea that’s demanding your attention – and that is the thing that is really compelling and gratifying right now. And I wonder if that’s not the way it’s supposed to be…. when the focus is creation…. and craft.
What are things you’re doing now to get your work into the right hands?
All writing in this culture is something first and foremost you must do because you love it. That way the rewards happen right away! Writing for film in particular is very ‘relationship’ oriented; I believe because film is so collaborative. Your script is only a springboard for other really creative minds to bounce off of. You must begin ‘marketing’ knowing that and never lose sight of it.
At first, I was a ball of fire…. inundating everyone with synopses, query letters… blah, blah, blah. Now, not so much. What a beginner CAN do is…
#2 – CREATE a stellar LOGLINE & synopsis for each of your scripts….
#3 – AND THEN, begin to market re: contests, pitch fests, film festival ‘Industry’ events & NEVER to be underestimated – WORD OF MOUTH & personal referrals. BUILD relationships with other film people.
What is your fave movie…and why?
ONCE WERE WARRIORS (New Zealand, I think) a haunting, horrifying and yet UPLIFTING film about present day Maori people surviving the impact of European decimation of their culture. Why is it my favorite? It hit me like a ton of bricks that as an abuse victim I AM NOT ALONE…. nor tremendously special in my angst. It changed me in a way no self-help book ever did and moved me past self pity. If you can stand watching it – it’s incredible!!!
What is your fave beginning of a movie…and why?
Oh, complete polar opposite of the above title. LYRICS & MUSIC, the opening title sequence made my sister and I laugh so hard we nearly peed ourselves! Very fast and witty 1st ACT; all four main characters (actors) are really flawless. And the film is a great sendup of pop stars; and in particular pop stars and their fascination with RELIGION!!
After you contacted me, I was instantly drawn to you as a writer and as a teacher…pretty much because I have that insatiable need to teach what I know, too. Your need to teach has brought about your site WORDSMYTHE. What is the mission of WORDSMYTHE?
Truly, I LOVE helping people get their film idea out of their head and onto the page. We would have such a vibrant and exciting film culture in N.A. IF we could only cajole each other into telling our own stories with all the passion and heart with which we lived them!
WORDSMYTHE has products for both the new and the not-so-new screenwriter; talk to us about some of your more popular services.
CRITIQUES: Your rewrite can only be as GOOD as the feedback you receive. Gads, I have gotten some really lame feedback from industry sources. SO, I have a critique blueprint which shows you exactly what I’m looking for in my script readings so that we’re both completely clear about the criteria for assessment. That said, I won’t read every script offered me. Because I really engage with every project…. there are some things I won’t read: Slasher, horror (well campy maybe), revenge fantasies, misogynist stuff…. So, I usually start the process with a logline from students & or synopsis.
SEMINARS: I really love doing these…. So, IF you want one in your town help me organize it!! There can be 3 hour seminars but the best is at least a FULL DAY. Best of ALL is the 2 day WEEKEND INTENSIVE…. ’cause you really get time to develop your idea for a film.
COMING SOON: ONLINE SCREENWRITING TUTORIAL….
JANA WILLIAMS: THE SOUNDTRACK. What are three tracks that would HAVE to make it onto the soundtrack of your life?
Oh, gosh… this is a hard one! Moonlight Sonata, Ce Sera, Sera (Doris Day) and any kind of Sanskrit chant… but especially Heidi Groschler’s stuff (Hirdaya)
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Since my previous life, I think. My grandmother was an incredible storyteller… and so was my Dad – people could not turn away from him once he started! And I was always the kid in the family that invented story to distract us from our troubles – plays, songs, you name it, I made my sisters participate in it. How could I NOT have become a writer!!
What are three websites every newbie screenwriter should have bookmarked?
TED: Ideas Worth Spreading – WATCH THIS EVERY DAY that you feel unable to commit with passion and purpose to what you’re writing!! Also, does a good job of explaining Right brain/Left brain function. In my opinion every great screenplay is a balancing act of these two hemispheres of the brain – structure & creativity!
College Humor – Always remember sometimes LESS WRITING is MORE. Sometimes it’s what you don’t say in dialogue that makes the phrase work!
WORDSMYTHE: Screenwriting Tips – I know, it’s ME. But really, if you want to start writing screenplays or any other thing – find someone who is passionate about what they do and who will give you HONEST answers and feedback!
What are three books on screenwriting every newbie screenwriter should own?
Syd Field – Screenplay is pragmatic and to the point (sometimes redundant as he seeks to make his word count for his editor!)
David Mamet – On Directing Film, is the other extreme and a very good counterpoint to Syd!
And then, maybe – Adventures in the Film Trade or some other memoir to illustrate just what kind of ZOO you’ll be trying to pick the locks to enter!
What are three movies every screenwriter should have MEMORIZED to understand good storytelling and movie making?
I teach MONSTERS INC…. because animated films only RELY on their script – there’s no star, no super director to pull an audience into the world! Besides, if you’re going to memorize something it should be happy & this film tells us over and over again; LAUGHING is 10 times more powerful than scream!
The USUAL SUSPECTS is one of the smartest scripts I can recall and Kevin Spacey is brilliant!
THREE….. it’s so hard. ‘Cause there’s GENRE to consider, and humor and style and shoot!! Some Like it Hot – Billy Wilder is brilliant and so far ahead of his time! A long 1st Act by today’s standards but still wonderful!
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m completely absorbed in launching the ONLINE SCREENWRITING TUTORIAL right now. Also, I’m mentoring a number of private students – but in particular 2 young guys who are busy pitching their first TV series. And I’m hoping to find funding for a documentary we’ve shot based on our bi-racial family dynamic.
The project’s called 1O THINGS EVERY BROWN GIRL SHOULD KNOW. And coaching a group of screenwriting students in India…. Film really is so global now. I LOVE IT! And I have a story idea that’s burning a hole in my brain – but I really try to take summers off to hang with my little girl. Besides, then I’m all pumped for FALL with a new story idea…. so hey, that’s not so bad.