HER*STORY: Jo Hannah Afton
Hollywood especially is dog-eat-dog, and when the competition is fierce among the men, you know women will be required to fight like hell to get in the room. So fight like hell. And if you get in the room, open the door for another woman who is still in the hallway.
Jo Hannah Afton / Screenwriter / Age 51 / Mars Hill, North Carolina
I met Jo Hannah Afton online over a year ago when I was looking for a feature film script to develop for myself. I read hundreds of log-lines, synopses and scripts over the course of a year and was discouraged by the material coming my way…until I found Jo. Her writing blew me away and we formed a pretty immediate connection in terms of our taste and passions.
The first writer that I really connected with was Sam Sheperd. I don’t know why, but his stark, simple sets and underlying messages about family, life and economic hardship resonated with me. I still enjoy reading his work. Even bumped into him in a deli years ago but couldn’t get the courage up to say anything. Now, I think I most admire the writing of Joel and Ethan Coen. Their complex stories, dark humor, and outlandish characters are fabulous.
Jo is a fierce advocate for women in film and writes wonderfully compelling female protagonists. She’s just started the second draft for my feature and I’m so excited about how it’s turning out.
EXT. SADIE’S LOUNGE - AFTERNOON LAYLAH (30’s), a hard-working woman in cowboy boots, steps out of the Chevy. Her sweated-soaked hair clings to her neck. It could use a wash. Sadie exits, her hands on her hips. She wears her muffin-top like a blue ribbon.
Jo Hannah has been incredibly inspiring to me as an artist because of the way she began to pursue her dream in earnest after her children were out of the house and for the sheer volume of work she has churned out over the past couple of years. She started taking screenwriting classes in 2014 and is currently being mentored by Chris Soth, who has consulted on our script.
I…largely gave up on being a writer while I was raising children. It wasn’t until I married my second husband, and he encouraged me to write again that I took it up in earnest (in my 40’s!). His support has been pivotal for me in making a full time commitment to writing… both financially and emotionally.
Having babies was my biggest obstacle to writing. It’s hard to write when children are underfoot. As Virginia Woolfe reminds us… we need a room of our own. I tried. I wrote a novel and began a screenplay during those years, but rewriting, concentrating and getting the mental space to think without distractions was impossible. So I gave up and enjoyed my kids while I had them with me, and that was a good decision. They’re grown now and I miss them like crazy and don’t regret setting down my personal ambitions to be a Mom.
And oddly, the largest challenge I’ve had to date – the financial crisis of 2008 and the loss of everything I owned and my business – turned out to be exactly what I needed to start over as a writer. It was like a giant punctuation mark on my life that begged me to re-invent myself. And so I did.
As the Dalai Lama says… sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of good luck! So to answer the question about how I deal with obstacles is this: I deal with them by seeing them as opportunities, not obstacles. There is something to be gained in every life situation. I like to look for that something.
A friend asked me if we’d set a deadline for our second draft and I basically said that Jo doesn’t need deadlines because you can’t stop this woman from writing. A prime example: during one of our conversations she told me about some scheduling conflicts that would prevent her from writing for a week or two…and then the next day she sent me 50 pages.
Right now, I write a new script every two to three months and that feels like a healthy goal to have. But I’d let myself off the hook if I was busy on a film project or if I needed a vacation for a bit. I don’t punish myself with strict deadlines but I don’t slack either. I don’t prescribe to the “write every day no matter what” either. Some days I need to sit still. Or visit with family. Or stare off across the horizon and daydream. The writing comes easily to me and I don’t get “writer’s block” so to speak. And I think that’s because I’m fairly relaxed about how I go about it… and I don’t let excuses stop me from going about it. If that makes any sense.
I asked Jo how she handles those times when nothing seems to be moving forward, as well as the limitations and lack of opportunities that confront women in our culture.
I just love to write. I’d do it regardless at this point. Even if everyone I knew told me my work sucked and walked away from it, I’d still write.
I spend as much time as possible becoming a better writer. And then I tweet #stormthegates on feminist film articles. Lol. I also make my own opportunities, and try to involve and support other women in their projects as much as possible. I donated to more than 10 film projects in the last year, and am hosting a women’s only writer’s retreat at my house next month. I think it’s important that women help each other through the process instead of competing with each other. So, I’m doing that.
Have there been any women in your life who have set examples for you?
My mother, of course, was a good example for me in many ways. She values creativity and free expression herself, and is never short on encouraging me to live my own dream. My younger sister has been a fascinating example for me in perseverance and feminist grit. She might say the same about me, I don’t know. I think we both inspire each other to keep going. My other sister is an artist, and she’s been a good example for me as I watch her navigate her own challenges related to her career in the arts. I also had a friend years ago who taught me to write something every day just for me… she playfully created poems for fun and to share with others, and she was a tremendous lesson for me in learning to create for my own enjoyment, as opposed to writing for the purpose of publishing or earning money from the work.
How does Jo Hannah define success for herself and what does she have her sights set on in the future?
I measure my success by my happiness mainly. When I write, I’m happy. So, there is never anything to regret about doing it. But I also would like to see one of my scripts made into a film someday, and that would also make me happy. So I’ll say that any day I wake up and write for a short bit or a long bit, is a successful day, but my goal is to be produced someday.
I would like see my work produced, and when it is produced, I would like the people that watch it to enjoy it. That’s all. And if it gives them some insight into their own lives, or causes them to pause and think about life a tad more deeply, then that will be icing on the cake.
Which actress, dead or alive, would you like to play you in the movie of your life?
Oh Dear God. Please don’t let there ever be a movie of my life.
What are you working on right now? Do you have any current projects you’d like to talk about or promote?
I have four optioned scripts right now and you’re going to star in one of them! That’s all I can say about those, but I can say that I’m working on a tent pole fantasy for girls right now to help me showcase my imaginative side. If anyone would like to read my latest script, EMERALD QUEEN: RIVER OF TEARS, a fairy tale for girls, please message me privately and I’ll send it out when it’s done.
To learn more about Jo Hannah or to contact her about her work, please visit her website: www.johannahafton.com