What is your name and where do you live?
Catarina Cesar. I’m from a small fishing village in Portugal, named Moita. Where nothing ever happens and everybody knows each other. Although I love my country, I am looking for other places to live, and I’ll explain why:
Portugal is a small country that survives with tourism and football. To me, this is an extremely beautiful country with a curse. There is more unemployment than the numbers can tell, most adults live in their parents’ house after they’re 30, surviving with their pension, knowing that they’ll probably never have a good pension for themselves in the future. There are not enough jobs for all the qualified graduates and it often lacks financial opportunities to support culture, which leads to nepotism, corruption, and a certain snobbism and stigma among artists as well.
We even have a word that has not the right translation in other languages, “Cunha”, which means someone who puts in a word or pulls some strings to give another person the job, instead of applying with his qualifications, – which happens all around the world, but we officialized it!
Once, a banker from Canada contacted various professionals to know their thoughts before investing in a Film Hub that would provide secure jobs to hundreds of professionals, and he was interested in either Portugal or Spain. I immediately start “selling” my country, and witnessed his constant tries to contact our ministers and their secretaries, and failed for months to have even a 5 minutes call with a minister. Some secretaries couldn’t speak English, and the minister of culture required him to book a flight ticket just to schedule a meeting in person, to someday in the future, which might or might not happen. Even without any security, they did it. Nothing could be scheduled online and they didn’t reply to emails. Portugal lost the investment and the investors came back to me, saying they did everything they could just to have a confirmation of interest and had never seen this kind of attitude in other countries.
I am blessed for being in one of the safest countries in Europe. In many ways, we are better than others. However, there’s something I don’t find in other countries, there’s a sick comfort in the air of things that never change, a peaceful limbo where people got used to the “it could be a lot worst” idea, or “it will always end up bad, so better not trying”.
Portugal urges to freedom and change, but hates it silently. There is a contagious sadness and a formatted mindset that hurts the artists. Its spirit bleeds profoundly, making the use of new ideas very difficult.
What is the title of the screenplay you entered?
(TV Period Drama, Thriller.)
How many screenplays have you written?
I’ve written many screenplays since 2012. It is difficult to say a number, however, Darkest Kelly is my first TV pilot, and is also the first pilot I write in English.
What’s the logline and how did you come up with the concept for this screenplay?
“ In an isolated Abbey, in the 1700s. An obstinate young orphan is lured into witchcraft and plans her escape to Dublin, a town threatened by political instability, secret societies and mysterious deaths.”
I came up with this concept when I was in Ireland and heard about Dorcas Stuart Kelly, who was executed in 1761 for being a witch, brothel keeper and the first Irish serial killer. I immediately felt pulled by her, almost like a past-life experience, and start writing about her life as a young girl, mixed with Irish mythology, folklore and a Celtic atmosphere. While the details of her death were documented, nothing is known about her life which I find a great opportunity to get creative and break not only the stigma against paganism which still exists today but also to dive into a dark period of Irish history. A period of silent wars in a country divided by religion (protestants against Catholics); where women were second class citizens and victims of unfair trials; the high class are above the law, controls, torments and take over the underclass and the line between right and wrong was very thin. I like to imagine their inner world, as a moment where they must have questioned life, the world and their identity.
Where did your screenwriting journey begin?
Although I write since an early age, I only start writing screenplays in 2012 when I began my first year of studies, in the north of Portugal. Before going to a public university, I tried to apply to Film School (ESTC), where I was never accepted. I failed the interview, and after talking with other applicants, I concluded that the application process does not evaluate the applicants’ knowledge, or if we had an artistic vision, instead, they asked me how many Opera’s or Theatre plays did I went to the year before, and my answer was “none”. Because my village does not have a Theatre, my short films were made with a friend, zero budget and one single camera. Not everybody from small towns shared the same experience, however, this kind of elitism is real and it should be talked about more often.
This was just the first of many rejections, which all artists should be used to. I applied for a public University, in an isolated town surrounded by mountains, – and there I spent the best years of my life! Public schools focus more on Theory, mostly because they don’t have a lot of film equipment. I remember we had only 3 Canon’s for all students. We learnt all stages of Film from script to screen, as well as all fields, not only Screenwriting or Directing, or Production, while other schools allow you to choose. For various reasons, I prefer this system.
My screenwriting teacher, João de Mancelos, was very strict and often sarcastic. I failed my first exercise by adding quotation marks in the dialogues and that was enough to ruin that first impression, and with that, the rest of the academic year. From my perspective, I was immediately considered a lost cause, but that also motivated me to show him that I can do better. I rewrote entire acts and sequences in minutes, in hours, and yet, the small sign of exposition and grammar mistakes was enough to throw me to the scaffold. When I improved those, he would go through even the smallest details, like, double spacing when it shouldn’t be, wrong commas, etc. It didn’t matter how much I try, I was always failing. There was a constant feeling of fear and frustration in the air, the typical feeling of emerging artists that were born in the wrong place, the dream is ephemerous and there’s no future ahead. This is also reflected many times in some of our teachers as well, who once were students like us and are still trying to have their foot in the door. Losing the magic of film and give up was very easy, and I think I didn’t lose mine because I had something to fight for, I had something to prove to that teacher and myself. His severity helped me a lot because it forced me to always push myself.
For our final screenplay, our teacher decided to be helpful and wrote 3 different concepts that usually never work, and should be avoided. I was sure that I would be failing that too, so I decided to be bold and include in my script those exact 3 points he told us that never work in a story. In the end, he said he never read a script with 1 of those 3 points that were good, couldn’t imagine the nightmare of having the whole 3, and yet, there was one student who did it today, and this is the future of screenwriting.
The secret is not talent, but persistence, practice and knowledge. He was always pushing me to my limits because that is the way to succeed, regardless of where we are. Since that day, I never stop writing.
What motivates you to be a screenwriter or filmmaker?
Initially, writing always was escapism from a boring life in my small town. People generally see me as a very happy person, bubbly and fun, and I think this has to do with my writing because it’s another type of meditation, you travel to another world you didn’t know you had for a certain time, you can write comedy or romance, or you can expel your darkness in horror and thrillers, and then you come back from it, and see your own life differently, like coming back from a holiday.
Psychology is another field that grew on me, because my old cousin, who was studying psychology when I was a kid, transported me to that field. I was fascinated about how images and sounds could influence the brain, and therefore, how the 7th Art affects the subconscious and its audience, both short and long-time. I started being more analytical towards films and inspired by stories that exposed philosophical stakes, so I start writing my own stories which were often stories based on life experiences but with fantasy elements, towards horror, sci-fi, cosmic and surrealism. Then I asked people to read it, analyzed their reactions, and took notes of their feedback.
Travelling is another thing that keeps me motivated. Every new people and place I met has a story inside, real or fiction. Even though I come from a family of doctors and engineers, my cousin always inspired me to be an artist, travel and live in other countries to seek better opportunities, to be ahead of time, which was what she felt that someone should have told her when she was younger.
What’s the most important thing you want audiences to take away when watching your films or reading your screenplays?
I hope to be able to bring in something different with each story. Either bringing in or expelling something out, as in freeing something they had hidden inside, and couldn’t yet understand. I believe we can not only comprehend ourselves when we write because we’re travelling to the deep recesses of our mind but also understand each other, the world and our purpose. Cinema is such a powerful tool, that communicates with us, it can make us feel better when we’re at our lowest point, in particular comedies and animations, it’s like a companion and it transports us to worlds that can change ourselves and our lives entirely. Therefore, beyond transmitting strong values such as love, friendship and justice, it shouldn’t be about “what audiences take away” but “how much”, “or how deep” do they connect with it.
Ideally, where do you see yourself in 5 years? Ten years?
Finding an agent is not enough. Getting full-time work is not enough. I worked alongside with professionals who had it all, and even though, they all struggle.
Having the knowledge and being a writer, a producer, a director, all at once, it’s still not enough! Even if we feel a little comfortable now, it will always be temporary.
The industry urgently needs a change from inside-out, and it is important to fight against modern slavery and exploitation in this industry.
I worked for free to get that so-called “exposure” for years, sometimes 4 months in a row full-time with only travel expenses and coffee. I believe this must be fought against. There have been studies about Universal basic income in Finland and discussed in other Scandinavian countries which I strongly believe should be applied in the Film Industry, and other artistic fields. The study revealed that the basic income recipients were more satisfied with their lives and had less mental health strain. In a world where, unfortunately, Art does not make money, artists should be entitled to an unconditional basic income, which will then decrease the free work.
I am not very worried about where I will be in 10 years. The good side of working in Film is that it is possible to find work at any age, while most of the other jobs see the 30s like the end of the line. “The ’30s are the new ‘50s”. I do dream about having my own production company, write-produce-direct and teach, and include software engineers in my crew to create interactive films as well.
What’s your favourite film of all time? If you can’t single out a film, give us your top 3.
My top three films:
– The Fountain, by Darren Aronofsky.
– Mr Nobody, by Jaco Van Dormael.
– Interstellar, by Cristopher Nolan.
Favourite writers are Stephen King, Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) and Elena Ferrante.
Who’s your favourite cinema hero?
Multi-talented Alice Guy-Blaché, the first women director who was also a writer, producer, supervisor and made costumes. I cannot name a favourite, because I always feel pulled towards writers and directors/producers to whom it was difficult to start in the industry. Artists who come from small towns or had to leave their town to a place of no opportunities and overcome years of rejection until they succeed, transforming Cinema with their unique vision.
Who’s your personal hero?
My personal hero is my friend Tania, she’s an artist who grew up in Belarus, raised in a small family with values of the supremacy of work, seasoned by compliance to conservative norms of gender representation and behaviour as a matter of survival and matrimonial success, which she failed in to obey and lead her to abandon her country and family, and run away to Sweden with her baby and without knowing the language.
She was living in a place where she suffered the Soviet Union stigma, where people wrongly associated Belarus with Russia. She overcame various psychological and professional battles, poverty, two divorces, domestic violence, depression and she is a single mom of two beautiful girls. Even though her life was tough, that never destroyed the light inside her. She never gave up on her dreams and she is now working in the field she loves.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I work in Film Festivals and ONG’s. I listen to Heavy Metal, darkwave, Rock, Symphonic and Celtic music. I love singing, even though I’m not good at that. I volunteer for humanitarian causes when I can. I play video games with a good narrative, either lineal or multi-choice, and I like to look at houses in uncommon places and imagine that I live there!
I also enjoy advising people when they ask, either mentoring professionally or as a friend, listening to their problems. Some years ago, I signed in to a mobile app that allowed users to give advice and listen to other users that could freely write what was in their minds. I was expecting of reading about people who were struggling to find a job, or heartbreaks, but instead, I read daily suicidal thoughts that spread across that app. Because profiles were anonymous, people often felt safe to share horrible experiences from which they believed they would never recover. I spent most of my days writing to them, to help them and I will never forget a girl that I met there, which I talked with for hours, to convince her to not end her life at that precise moment. It was a very intense conversation. Days later, she came back to me and said that my words have saved her life that day.
This leads to this conclusion; If words can save lives, imagine what your screenplay can do to someone.