Writer Snapshot: Q&A with Screenwriter Jo Hannah Afton
At Upward Media Partners, we’re in search of stories that break out of the cultural norms that have dominated Hollywood storytelling since the start of moving images on screen. So when we connected with the award winning and produced screenwriter Jo Hannah Afton – we knew our stories and missions were aligned and we’re excited to work with her on two new feature film projects in development.
Jo specializes in female driven narratives for film and television. She holds a BA in Theater and Mass Media. Her first produced feature, KILLER NIGHT SHIFT (2018) with co-writer Tom Freyer aired on Lifetime, and she has multiple projects under contract and in development, including Indigo Sky, Old As Bones (a TV series), and About Chase. Her work is often dark, exploring the inner world of her characters, their deepest fears, and most precious dreams. Otherworldly, supernatural and psychological themes appear frequently in her scripts, as do fringe dwellers and socio-political subjects.
In this Q&A we learn more about Jo’s tenacity for the screenwriting craft and her inspiration for the character stories she brings to light:
1. Where do you get your inspiration from for your character’s screenplays?
Jo: That usually depends on the script. Sometimes, a character will pop into my head while I’m out hiking, or listening to music, as a simple image of a person. If I like the character, I’ll explore them a bit, write down details about who they are, what motivates them, what scares them, what demons they battle inside themselves. I’ll search around on the internet for photos of people who might look like what I see in my mind and keep digging deeper.
Once I get to know the character inside and out, then a plot might begin to emerge from their character story. It’s an organic process, and I try to relax and just let the character speak to me. Other times, I might meet someone in real life who intrigues me and I'll form a character around that real-life person. That’s rare, though. I don’t generally use people from my life to create my characters. They usually arrive from somewhere unknown in my imagination.
I have done several projects where the characters were already created by other writers (such as OLD AS BONES), and so I must get to know them intimately by talking to the other writer(s). And, as can be expected with any writer, I suppose, all my characters contain small bits and pieces of me, my experiences over my five decades on this planet, and the many people I have loved (or hated!).
2. When did you start to truly believe that you could make it as a writer, and what is your encouragement to other writers to stay committed?
Jo: My first stage play was written when I was 19 years old, in college. It was pretty terrible, but I received a lot of encouragement from my professors to keep at it, as they saw something in my writing that they liked. The same thing happened in my English Lit classes. I can’t stress enough how powerful teachers and mentors can be to writers. We need a lot of encouragement, as the process is long, demoralizing, and flooded with rejection. I stepped away from writing while I was parenting children. It was just too hard to concentrate! But I came back to it after my children were grown, and jumped in with both feet, taking screenwriting classes for 2 years, writing many, many scripts to practice. I didn’t take my work out to producers until I felt more confident in my craft (5 scripts!), and I had begun to place in screenwriting contests.
I was encouraged by notes I received from judges in those contests, and then began the process of working one-on-one with a consultant for another year to help me focus on my areas of weakness. I don’t think I really thought much about “making it” at any point, since the process of writing was such a joy for me, that I decided early on (perhaps a defense mechanism against all the rejection?) that I would simply write, market my work, enjoy the process and let the work go where it wanted to go, or not. It didn’t matter. It still doesn’t matter.
I have two activities I do no matter what: tend my garden and write. I would advise new writers to see it this way, as a privilege, a calling, something you do regardless of what anyone else says about your work or whether it sells. Remember that there will always be people who have a negative reaction to what you write. Forget those people. They are not your audience. Find the people that love what you have to say and lean on them when you need to, but mostly, lean on yourself. Do it because not doing it would be tragic to your pursuit of happiness. And, if you find that you cannot write without great difficulty or stress, don’t write. Come back to it later. If you are called to write, the characters that want to be birthed into this world will find you, and they will keep you up at night.
3. What keeps you inspired?
Jo: I am most inspired when I am relaxed. Stress is an inspiration killer. So, I do what I have to do in my life to maintain calm, remove stressful situations and people from my day-to-day life, and carve out time alone whenever I can. It’s in the stillness I find the seeds of stories. I need to daydream.
I find walking in nature, gardening, and listening to music to be a great way to relax my mind and allow my subconscious to rise to the surface. I also like to learn, to investigate, and to analyze the world around me. I make time to take classes online, learn some new skills, or dive into a new subject matter, which often leads to a new understanding of human nature or history, which makes my writing palette richer.
4. What are some of your favorite movies and why?
Jo: I enjoy dramas with simmering subtext (THE LOST DAUGHTER, PHANTOM THREAD, THERE WILL BE BLOOD), some sci-fi (WESTWORLD), absurd and dark comedy (KILLING EVE, BURN AFTER READING, THE LOBSTER, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING), and mind-bending thrillers (FIGHT CLUB, INCEPTION, GONE GIRL). I judge a work by the skill with which the writer and filmmakers can keep a viewer guessing along the way, weaving in clues as they go, never underestimating the intelligence of the viewer to figure things out, and then pay it off with a spectacular reveal at the end.
I also enjoy works that give me insight into a world I have not experienced myself, and if the writer is able to evoke empathy in me, or educate me about someone else’s perspective, I appreciate that writer for their honesty and contribution to my understanding of others. And then, there are those films I simply love because they’re entertaining, absurd, silly or outrageous. But above all else, I enjoy films that do one of three things: 1. Make me feel; 2. Make me reflect; or 3. Make me laugh.
5. Who are some of your favorite writers who inspire your work, such as book authors or screenwriters and why?
Jo: My favorite book author is Donna Tartt, and I often read passages from her work when I am writing novels. She’s in a class by herself, as she writes with such vivid detail, enticing the reader by throwing down mysterious breadcrumbs for us to follow. As for screenwriters, I appreciate Aaron Sorkin for his ability to write colorful, fast-paced, intelligent dialogue and storylines; and David Lynch (don’t hate me!) is a favorite mainly because I love the way he plays with reality, twists our expectations, weaves in multi-layered metaphors, and then leaves everyone guessing what his stories are about. I love that he lets the stories be whatever the viewer wants or needs them to be. Not everything needs to be explained! Henrik Ibsen is my favorite playwright, as he had insight into the female psyche well before the rest of society, and his plays are rich with symbolism and universal truths about human nature.
6. When did you first decide to start getting into writing, was it at a young age?
Jo: I first began writing poetry in high school. I don’t know why I started doing it, just that I had a need to get some emotions down on the page. That medium has remained a private writing therapy for me, and I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it. I read a lot as a child and was placed into the gifted programs at school by the 3rd grade where I was given a lot of freedom to read and write on my own. This shaped my love of books and writing early on. In college, I double majored in both mass media and theater, and began to write for the stage. I was hooked.
7. In addition to writing screenplays, what other creative projects are you working on?
Jo: I have a fantasy/sci-fi novel series in the works. The first book, EMERALD, is finished and off to my agent for marketing to traditional publishers. I started the series as a love letter of sorts to my daughter, and since then, it has taken on a life of its own as I continue to develop the fantasy world and sci-fi concepts in the story. I’m excited about the potential for writing more novels, as I like the creative freedom, the direct to reader experience, and the ability to expand and contract the work as I like, instead of being chained to page length and a formal structure, as is required with screenwriting.
I’m also a nature photographer, and recently set up a full studio to do my visual work, which at this time, is mainly macro photography of flowers and feathers. I might add shells. LOL! That work is just for fun, and I do have an Etsy store where folks can purchase a digital download, but I don’t pay much attention to the marketing side of that venture. I simply like doing it, working in Photoshop, and filling my house up with the art I made myself. It’s an indulgence, but satisfying, and as I mentioned earlier, one more way for me to carve out time alone to be still and relax my busy mind.
8. Any final tips for fellow writers on your own writing-life experience?
Jo: I have done extensive international travel, which has led me to an understanding of the world, different cultures, and the diverse ecosystems on the planet. I think anyone who wishes to write should expose themselves to as many variations on the human condition as is humanly possible.