Nkem-Eneanya: In my screenplays, I try to be each of my characters
Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya is a screenwriter and filmmaker. She is also an author. She attended Queen’s College, Yaba, Lagos, and went on to train as a lawyer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the Nigerian Law School. She recently bagged a filmmaking certificate from the Le Cinefabrique, Lyon. In this interview with GERALDINE AKUTU, she shares her journey into screenwriting and more.
Growing up, what movies inspired your creative passion?
I grew up in a strict household, where our movies were vetted; so, I cannot say movies inspired my creativity. On the other hand, I had unlimited access to books via my father’s library and courtesy of my mother, who was the head-teacher of a school with a well-stocked library. We mostly watched reruns of Seven Lucky Kids, Bed knobs and Broomsticks and Mother India. My first introduction to Nollywood was through films like Rattlesnake and Nneka the Pretty Serpent.
How long have you been writing?
Since I could string words together. The first story I remember though could have been written when I was seven or eight. It was about a doll, which danced until she fell into the freezer and froze. I even illustrated it for effect, which is probably why I remember it so clearly.
What were your initial challenges and how have you been able to overcome them?
After writing, you need people to read your work and that’s where the challenges of publishing, publicity and marketing arise. Of course, with the advent of social media, it has become easier to self-publish and get your work in front of an audience. My first solution to this challenge was to self-publish and subsequently, to utilize online platforms like Kindle.
What is the first story you ever wrote?
The first story I put together was never properly titled. It was written in my Queens College exercise book and passed from classmate to classmate until it disappeared. It was a romance story and pretty explicit. My first published book was ‘Golden Apples in a Silver Basket,’ a collection of short stories, essays and poems.
Give us an idea of what your writing process is like?
My writing process is pretty basic. Eat, sit, open a laptop and write. Most times, though, I have scribbled some notes, a logline, breakdowns or synopsis on my phone or notepad. Matter of fact, my notepad is filled with story ideas. As soon as an idea hits me, I flesh it out in a logline and type it on my phone. Better safe than sorry. If the urge is really intense, I will write a synopsis or breakdown and file away until I am ready to write. I am blessed to be able to write anywhere and in any ambience. I have written in airplanes, airports, offices, bedrooms and churches.
What experiences from your childhood influence your characters?
Everything. Every single thing about my life and childhood filters into my characters in one-way or the other. My fears, hurts, complexes, challenges, friendships, fantasies and relationships. My mother’s parenting technique, for instance, has reared its head across several of my screenplays.
How emotionally involved are you with characters you create?
When I write screenplays, I try to be each of my characters. I talk like them, laugh like them, think like them and if you are watching, you might think I have gone quite mad.
What is the most important aspect of building a great character?
Know them deeply. What are their fears? What makes them different? Why should anybody root for them? What do they want? Why do they want what they want? How have their experiences affected their pursuit of their desires? How do they react to adverse circumstances whether internal or external? What will they do when they are pushed to the wall? Know them, almost as well as you know yourself.
What makes a screenwriter good on the job?
Learning. A never-ending loop of learning. Learning by consistently writing, reading, watching movies and the hundreds of movie critics on YouTube; teaching and attending writing classes on or offline. I run a writing hub -iCanWrite Hub- and teach a screenwriting course at icanwrite-hub.teachable.com.
Who are some of your influences?
My influences are a blend of my faith, my family, relationships and fantasies, ideas gleaned from a thousand experiences, an over-active, creative mind and inevitably, the challenges in my society. I’m unapologetic about writing stories and creating strong female roles in my screenplays. However, I do not obfuscate or typify women as saints and saviours. As a matter of fact, it gives me great pleasure to peel away the layers in which womanhood has been shrouded and tell stories of women who have been good, bad and ugly.
Aside from being a screenwriter, you write books. Which do you prefer?
I would say that books are harder to write than screenplays although they start off on the same principles of Who, What, where, When, Why and How. I have been writing books longer than I have been writing screenplays, though. I must confess that there is a zing that comes with writing a screenplay. Maybe it’s the realization that this screenplay will go beyond the words on paper and come alive. Maybe. I shall stay true to my first love, however.
What is the biggest misconception about screenwriters?
That they prefer to work in the shadows and are shy/withdrawn people who spend their time sulking around a laptop in pyjamas and endless cups of coffee. I hate coffee.
What new thing are you working on currently?
As always, I am working on several things. My debut novel titled Big City should hit the bookshelves next month. My media and production company, ‘Amaranthine Media’ is set to launch. My first cinema movie Zena hit the cinemas on May 3.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
The plan is to co-own and run one of the biggest multimedia companies in West Africa, which also develops a rich variety of content suitable for African children and teenagers.
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