17th Berlinale Talents | 2019
Despina Ladi is a Greek scriptwriter and journalist based in London.
Hi Despina thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the Berlinale?
Yes, I look forward to it very much.
Are there any nerves ahead of the festival?
Not really. Just a feeling of excitement and anticipation.
What does it mean for you to be part of the 17th edition of Berlinale Talents?
I had applied some times in the past and especially this year I thought I wouldn’t get in as they received more than 3500 applications. So when I received the e-mail that I was selected, I was very happy, even more when I found out I was one of the six screenwriters to be selected in total.
On the other hand, I always try to remind myself that one should be humble about their successes as well as their failures. So I am ‘modestly’ excited.
What do you hope to get from this experience?
I have attended the festival and some Berlinale Talents events a few times in the past as a journalist, so I know it’s going to be an intense and exciting experience. I am especially looking forward to meeting the other participants and exploring this year’s theme of ‘Mistakes’.
Having also been selected for Sarajevo Talents in 2009 and having attended other screenwriting workshops, I know that you can often form lifetime friendships and collaborations with people and that’s what I love most about it.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work, how did you get into screenwriting?
I was studying Communications and Media at the University of Athens when I found out ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ was going to be shot on the Greek island of Kefalonia. I had never worked on a film before but I was convinced — with the unjustified certainty one has when they are young and ignorant — that I was going to work on it. It’s a long story but I ended up being Penelope Cruz’s stand-in and stayed on the island for almost four months.
It was an unforgettable experience and a great introduction to filmmaking as it didn’t involve any big responsibility on my part while allowing me to observe everything that was going on. At the end of filming, I remember telling the director John Madden that seeing him work made me realize that a director needs to be someone who can answer everyone’s questions and make choices all the time and that I couldn’t do it as I am very indecisive.
"...create the circumstances to be exposed to other art..."
Of course, being a writer also requires constantly making choices. After Corelli, I ended up working as a production assistant on Alan Parker’s film ‘The Life of David Gale’ in Texas, which made me realise a role in production was not for me.
When the film finished, I went to New York and enrolled in some screenwriting courses at the NYU and The New School. It was a very inspiring time - I would go watch films at the Film Forum, visit art exhibitions and then watch more films at home every night. I think that’s when I really discovered the French New Wave and other filmmakers whose work influenced me.
In a way, I think I got into screenwriting by discovering what I was not interested in, which is sometimes the way of discovering what really speaks to you.
What inspires your work?
My work is often inspired by personal experiences: my childhood, the people I know, things that have happened to me or others. At the same time, I am often inspired by something I might read, see or hear. Research has always been a big part of my work — as a journalist but also as a screenwriter — and it is often ‘responsible’ for sparking new ideas or ‘feeding’ existing ones.
What was the first film you wrote?
I think it was an animation short inspired by Edward Gorey’s book ‘The Gashlycrumb Tinies’. The story was about a girl who lives by herself and has never left home, observing life from her window until something happens that makes her go outside and explore the real world. A few months ago I saw there is a children’s book that came out recently with a very similar premise so it reminded me of it.
The first script I wrote that was made into a film was called ‘A Story of Love’. It was about a man and a woman who meet backstage of a TV dating show when they are not selected to participate, which was inspired by a popular cult Greek television dating show of the time.
Looking back do you think knowing you would do anything differently?
It’s a difficult question, because we can always find things we would have done differently with today’s knowledge and experience. Knowing more can take away some of our curiosity, our ability to be spontaneous and open to experimenting so at times I wish my young and inexperienced self would take over. The less you know, the more you feel anything is possible and that can be a great driving force.
What are some of the biggest challenges a screenwriter might face on a production?
I think one of the biggest challenges is getting to the heart of what you want to explore, of what really interests you in a story, a character or a situation. From the moment of that first idea to the shooting script, there are a lot of opinions and feedback you will be exposed to and it is easy to lose your way. On the other hand, it is important to evolve so the challenge is to know how to filter the feedback so that you keep what is useful for your story while recognizing what might ‘threaten’ your voice as a writer.
When I wrote my first feature film screenplay, everyone who read it told me it had a very distinctive voice but the difficult thing is how to keep that voice alive, genuine and interesting.
Have you always had a passion for screenwriting?
I always had a passion for stories — for listening to them, getting to the heart of them and for also being the ‘mediator’ of re-telling them, their ‘transmitter’. That is why I have always loved my job as a freelance journalist taking interviews.
For five years, I used to have a monthly column called ‘Life: 2,3 Things I Know About It’ in a Greek magazine, where filmmakers, artists, scientists and athletes would share their life philosophy. Each month I had to meet one and interview them. I really loved listening to their life stories and then editing the material so it would become a distillation of what they had said. I have to admit there were some occasions where I thought someone’s story might not be so interesting and every time I was proven wrong. It taught me that the saying ‘behind every person, lies a great story’ is really true.
So I think of screenwriting in similar terms, it is as if I am the ‘transmitter’ of my characters’ stories.
How important is the collaborative process in filmmaking for you?
Extremely important. Screenwriting might be a solitary job but filmmaking is exactly the opposite. And of course sometimes one might collaborate with someone even from the screenwriting stage.
In the last few years, I have been collaborating with British screenwriter Tony Grisoni. We are currently developing the story for two television projects together. Being by yourself in front of the page or laptop might be frustrating at times or make you feel the process is very slow, so having someone to brainstorm with or test ideas can be exciting and open up new storytelling paths.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
When I started out I was finding it hard to finish the first draft. Now I find it suspiciously easy, but I always find re-writing and editing my own work challenging in the sense that I can get lost among all the different paths a story might take or the different feedback I have received. As a journalist, it comes very easy to me to edit an interview — it is someone else’s words — but when it is your own words, then it’s a completely different challenge.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a feature film screenplay called ’Seventeen Moments of Summer’; a comedy-drama about four people in crisis while on holiday on a Mediterranean island, to be directed by Slovenian filmmakers Sonja Prosenc and Mitja Licen (who also directed my short film screenplay ‘Paradise’ which is currently in post-production) and produced by Rok Secen and Mono o productions.
As I mentioned earlier, I am working with Tony Grisoni on a couple of TV projects, which are both at an early stage of development. Together with my friend and photographer Olga Stefatou, we are working on a documentary short which is a portrait of my grandmother. I am also writing another short film and developing a few other stories.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips for any up and coming screenwriter?
I think it is really important to create the circumstances to be exposed to other art or to things that inspire you or can trigger something in you. That also helps you form your own voice as a writer. Our time can be so easily swallowed up by the demands of everyday life, our day jobs or social media, so it requires consistent effort.
When I was studying for my MA in Screenwriting at the London Film School, we had a class called The Writers’ Gym taught by Ellis Freeman, where he introduced us to the notion of the ‘artist date’; originally mentioned in Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way’. It’s a creative date you make with yourself once a week. You can take yourself to an art gallery, to watch a film, read a book, or for a walk, but you have to be by yourself and the activity has to be creative or inspiring in some way. So take yourselves out on a date and have a notebook so you can then write about how it went.