LISP Short Screenplay FINALIST, BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN BY Helen Adams
-Can you please tell us about you and your daily life?
I live in Dublin, just a short cycle ride from the city centre. Since the first lockdown, I created a working space for myself in a shed at the bottom of our garden. Up until then, it was used as a dumping ground for unloved things and was suffering from serious neglect. Space and quiet suddenly became valuable commodities and it’s now my haven. I work on an old tilted drawing board belonging to my partner from his student days. I like its deepness and I can spread a lot of mess around myself. I recently qualified with the IIOC (Irish Association of Celebrants) so I share my time between getting a small business going, trying to create new screen ideas and managing the bustle of family life. The screenwriting life though is very recent – my short screenplay BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN which I wrote at the beginning of 2021 has changed everything.
When and how did you get into writing?
I’ve always been interested in the playfulness of words and the power of images. It was only when I got into my twenties following a crazy year in Toronto when I set up a theatre company with a bunch of friends that I realized I wanted to explore my own creativity in a more formal way. I trained as a Dramatherapist and then took an MA in Contemporary Theatre at the University of Essex. It was a very immersive course with some exceptionally talented visiting theatre practitioners. I remember feeling really inspired and decided to write my first play SHINGLE which I directed at the Lakeside Theatre on the university campus. Shortly afterwards SHINGLE got longlisted for the Allied Domecq Playwright Award at the Bush Theatre – that was the late 90’s. I was invited to join a group of Bush Theatre new writers and they also put me forward for a few things including a residency which resulted in another play ELELCTRIC HALOS. I directed a production of ELECTRIC HALOS at the then Cottesloe at the National Theatre as part of InterNational Connections in 2001. The play opened up conversations with artistic directors, literary managers, agents, independent producers and BBC producers. I was even supported by World Productions to enter the BBC Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award. Ultimately and heartbreakingly, I had to put my writing ambitions on hold - it was proving impossible to break through the commissioning ceiling. That was a very difficult and frustrating time. I turned my attentions to teaching, taking a PGCE at Goldsmiths and taught teenagers in South East London what you could do in an empty space.
By the time I moved to Dublin in 2006 to be with my partner and start a new life, I was convinced that my writing days were over. I continued to write a few short stories for myself and wrote some short plays for my students to perform at a local drama school which I’d set up – but that wasn’t the kind of writing I really wanted to do.
“Waking the Feminists” exploded on the Dublin theatre scene in 2016. The honesty, courage and collective effort that surfaced at that time had a profound effect upon me. I was one of the many women who contacted Lian Bell (theatre designer, arts manager, chief instigator, activist and all-round maverick behind the whole movement) and I attended the Abbey Theatre on that historic day. For the first time in a long time, I actually believed I might be able to write again.
In 2018 I very unexpectedly got selected to attend an intensive weekend of seminars and masterclasses with some of the best theatre practitioners in Ireland. The experience forced me to write the first play I’d written in a long time. Feedback on my work from a few experienced writers got me thinking about writing for the screen. I wanted that challenge and I wanted to see what I could do in that space. I read books, followed podcasts, attended webinars and panels, listened to the masters and enrolled on a screenwriting course. During an introduction to screenwriting course led by actor/writer Barry McEvoy at Flying Turtles Productions in Dublin, I wrote a short scene for a homework task. That scene became the starting point for BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN.
Just before Christmas 2020, I spotted a new screenwriting competition at the Catalyst International Film Festival in Limerick. The festival’s ethos of diversity and inclusivity appealed to me and I thought my story would fit the brief. I just wanted to see if I could write a short script and if I could get my head around FilmFreeway. Being awarded anything was very far from my mind. BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN became a Finalist and then Runner-up in that competition. I was stunned.
My Runner-Up Award encouraged me to enter BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN into a few other screenwriting competitions, so I am really delighted to be here as a Finalist at the London Independent Story Prize.
How often do you write? Do you have a writing routine? And what inspires you to write?
I’m only recently getting into anything like a more settled writing routine now the children are back at school. I have a few things that I’m dying to get stuck into over the next few months. Very soon after the Catalyst Award in March 2021, my mind was a merry-go-round of what comes next. Do I try to get a producer? How does that work? Who do I know who can help me? People were also telling me to write, to write more and to have several projects on the go at different stages. It was thrilling, daunting and confusing to have all this going on in my garden shed whilst I still wasn’t able to meet anyone or go anywhere. I got some very encouraging feedback from all sorts of people and have since found a very supportive producer who has now optioned BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN. We hope to share our film at some point next year. I have a feature screenplay idea LYRA which I’d like to write next which is thematically in a similar territory to BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN, as well as some TV ideas.
I can be inspired by anything that I see, hear or read. If I’m thinking about something that bothers me, angers me or worries me, I tend to get a bit obsessive. I can go down too many rabbit holes with my obsessions. Occasionally though, an obsession can trigger an idea. Something new that I’ve started doing is when I have a notion for an idea, I like to listen to music that’s related to the idea whilst I’m walking. For example, I’m going to try and tackle a TV pilot over the autumn that’s set in the early 80’s. I’m loving the music research for that!
How does it feel to have your work recognized?
To be honest, everything that has happened with my writing just recently feels surreal. The lockdown and restrictions have amplified that feeling. I’m really looking forward to properly meeting people in the industry. Nevertheless, I’ve made some great connections online and had some very helpful zoom sessions. Occasionally, I feel a sense of panic that it’s not quite real and that it’s happening to somebody else. I think I’ll have to see my work on the screen to know that it’s fully recognized.
What's the best thing and the most challenging thing about writing a Screenplay?
The best thing by far is the thrill of letting your imagination go wild. I’m probably not the tidiest person in the world and I think this is how my imagination operates too. I love busying around in the mess and trying to pull something out. Since I was a young girl, I’ve always been a charity shop forager. I’ve always been attracted to rummaging around, trying to find a real treasure, something that you instantly love. I think writing is a bit like that for me. The execution of the idea, however, is quite a different thing altogether.
There are many challenges to writing, to start with just sitting down and getting on with it. I don’t feel experienced enough to comment on the most challenging aspects of writing screenplays. I do know that the idea of finishing something always feels very distant for me. TV pilots and features are going to be my next challenges so I think I need to start understanding my endings and big story arcs better, to make the journey to getting there more manageable.
How did you come up with the idea for your LISP selected story? Is there a story behind your story? And, how long have you been working on it?
As I mentioned earlier, BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN came from a scene that I wrote in a screenwriting class. As soon as I’d finished it, I knew I’d fallen for my main character Dina. I loved her willingness to be supremely vulnerable and audacious at the same time. Dina is in her 70’s, recently widowed and feels patronized by her over-protective daughter. The alchemy of her sadness and wrath drives her into doing something extraordinary. When someone you love dies, that suddenness of a light just going out, is so wordless and yet so full of emotion. I wanted to try and capture those feelings in action. I wrote the initial scene in December 2020 and set about incorporating it into a short screenplay in January 2021. I played about with the structure of it a lot in my head whilst walking. When I thought I’d worked it out, I wrote it quite quickly. It’s still not perfect, and we’ll have to do more work on it before going into production. At the core of BUTTERFLY MOUNTAIN is a desire to express deep loss whilst also celebrating life – for my character Dina and myself as a writer.
Can you please give us a few tips about writing a Screenplay?
Based on my limited experience, I would say, don’t be afraid of your ideas, any ideas. If the idea has arrived, there’s usually a very good reason for it, so let it be there. At the early stages of an idea, I like to write things in a notebook in a very uncensored kind of way. At this stage there are no rules, guidelines, formats or structures to conform to. It’s a time to be very free with your thoughts. Also, there is something about the flow of writing with a pen at the beginning that I like. If you go on to develop your project you may find that the notebooks from the early days can be really helpful.
A basic level of understanding of screenwriting craft and presentation is really important. There are industry standards for entering competitions and standards for what is considered acceptable for producers to read. However brilliant your idea is, it has to be crafted into a story that works on the page and on the screen, for a reader initially and then for a viewer.
What's the best thing and the most challenging thing about competitions?
When you submit a piece of work into a competition, you’ve no idea of the outcome. I’ve had my disappointments as well as my surprises. Nobody puts up a social media post when they’ve not advanced in a competition or received yet another standard rejection email. We’ve all been there. I try not to over-celebrate the good outcomes and not to dwell too much on the losses. You just have to remind yourself that it’s a journey and that it’s not a straight road.
Lastly, do you recommend the writers give a go on LISP?
The London Independent Story Prize competition is a great opportunity for writers to test out their work and ideas. There are so many competitions out there and it can be really overwhelming to know where to begin. It’s brilliant to have an interview and then have that published as a Finalist. Not only does that become something for you to share with potential future collaborators, but it gives you an opportunity to reflect upon your own process and practice. That is where LISP stands out amongst other competitions.
Thank you to LISP for acknowledging my work and good luck to everyone who gives it a go in the future.