Bella Vendramini, Jana Wilkes & Cat Commander
Bella wrote a book, it became a best seller. Jana read it, and decided to make it into a film. Cat has just finished writing the first draft of the screenplay.
Bella Vendramini (centre) is a best selling author, award winning journalist, actor, and filmmaker.
Jana Wilkes (left) is an actor and film producer juggling an advertising career, while studying natural medicine.
Cat Commander (right) is a writer, actor, director and producer.
I met Jana while training at Howard Fine Studio here in Melbourne, and was thrilled to be cast in the first reading of the draft screenplay for Biting The Big Apple. It was a magical evening where 16 actors, brought Cat’s adaptation of Bella’s story to life for an audience to provide feedback, on what is at this stage a work-in-progress, an audience that included Bella, members of her family and friends.
Naturally when I got the opportunity to chat with not one, but all three of these amazing women, the old inner critic had a few things to say. “You can’t do this. You have no idea what you are doing. Why would they talk to you?” So I asked…
Tania: How do you manage the ‘inner critic’, that voice that says, “You can’t do this”?
Bella: In terms of overcoming lack of confidence, my advice, would be to risk it, risk it all. Yes, you’ll fail, yes you’ll make mistakes – but they won’t kill you (unless you want to be a parachute jumper!) Your mistakes will lead you to that next added jewel on the necklace of your self-confidence. Never fear to risk things.
Jana: For me it’s helpful to visualise that voice as a character. Some people talk about the monkey on your back, or with depression it’s the black dog. Giving it a persona or a name lets you look it in the eyes and say ‘no, I’m not listening to you today’ or to have the moment and ask ‘why am I doing this?’. Brene Brown’s work has been so inspiring and helpful. She says, when you do have those feelings of worthlessness, question them and have the courage to ask why am I feeling this, where does this come from. Because the more you ask those questions, the more you can understand and rationalise it, and you realise that voice is a waste of time.
Tania: Bella, you’ve enjoyed success as a writer, an actor, a journalist and a filmmaker, your list of achievements and awards is extraordinary, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Bella: Early on in my career I worked day jobs while I was acting or writing. It took a lot of motivation to get up daily, work at a job I disliked and then write or rehearse on my off hours. I suppose it’s a rite of passage, and in truth it does make you stronger and gives you interesting experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t have had. All of which, ironically, makes your art better.
I battled with depression back then and working those jobs didn’t help. The contrast of working at something you love is mind-boggling. It changes everything; your inspiration, joie de vivre, excitement, curiosity. I suppose at the heart of it; when you’re not engaged with something that you love, your happiness levels wither.
Tania: How do you deal with that?
Bella: The challenge is to look at those times in a different light. Flip them. Instead of seeing it as an awful day job – look at it as an opportunity. What can you learn? What can you discover? How can you help? Every single experience makes you richer.
Tania: Is it important to you that your work inspires others to follow their dreams?
Bella: It’s my primary motivation in many ways. I’ve been inspired by so many people myself and I wanted to pass on a bit of what I’ve learnt to other women.
My intention in writing the book in the first place was to encourage women to take a chance and follow their dreams, because the pay-off is unbelievable. When people first set out, they can be plagued by doubts or insecurities and sometimes give up on their dreams. I wanted to encourage them not to. Because seeing your dreams come to fruition gives you a sense of confidence and joy that can’t be rivalled.
Tania: Jana, Tell me about the moment when you knew you had to make this book into a film?
Jana: I was doing Bobby Galinsky’s course on producing your own work. Bobby was talking about the story inside of you, or a book you might have read, and I thought back to a few years ago when I read Bella’s book and loved the shit out of it. I couldn’t put it down. I was sick in bed that weekend, and was meant to be at Golden Plains so I was really upset, but I read this book and laughed out loud and could see the pictures jumping off the page. It was in that moment that I thought, I do have a book in mind!
Tania: So you decided to option the rights. Where do you start when you’re embarking on a project like this?
Jana: This is where Bobby was helpful. My first step was to put together a one pager on why I thought this was a good story.
Tania: A pitch?
Jana: Yes. So, Bella’s book is a bestseller and it has a lot of great reviews. I pulled together snippets of those and I thought about who would play each character and my vision for the film. Then I gave that (pitch) to Bobby and said where do we go from here? He helped me draft an email to the publishers. I introduced myself, asked if the rights were available and shared my passion for the project. From there it’s as simple as ‘yes or no’. You just have to ask. If they say ‘yes’, great, onto the next email. If they say ‘no’, ok, someone else is making it, which is awesome regardless.
Tania: How did people respond when they found out you were doing this?
Jana: Most people in the industry went ‘wow that’s amazing’, and then started telling me about screenwriters or directors I should get on board, but I have a very strong vision for this film so I kind of pushed that aside in the beginning. People who aren’t in the industry, their eyes light up in awe of the magnitude of the project.
Tania: So it’s all been really positive?
Jana: Mostly. I don’t know if it’s me judging myself, but at times I do see people looking at me and feel their eyes are saying, ‘you're a bit crazy' or 'you’ve got no idea’. My family had doubts and questions at first, but now they are really excited and keep sending me more books and project ideas to look at.
Tania: That’s wonderful. What about you Cat, how did you get involved in this project?
Cat: Jana approached me at a time when I was struggling with another script. That is always the best time to ask me to do something because I'll jump at a chance to procrastinate!
Tania: Don’t we all!
Cat: Yes, although I'm being hard on myself here, because it often takes a different project to show me the way in the work I'm having difficulties with. I’ve learned that that's part of my process. I had been writing plays, and had adapted a friend’s idea into a short screenplay so I thought, why not! I love a challenge, and it was something Jana was passionate about, which made me want to jump on board.
Tania: What was it about this project that excited you most?
Cat: There’s a sense of honesty in Bella's book that drew me in. I've predominantly used material from my own life to create scripts because I think that truth can be more interesting than anything you could fabricate, so why not start there. A smart but complicated female protagonist who you could be sympathetic towards, but who was also flawed was a major drawcard. She is the hero, but it doesn't mean we don't see her struggle. I liked that.
Tania: How do you approach adapting a novel for the screen?
Cat: I think taking a step back and looking back at the narrative as a whole and thinking, what is the story that needs to be told, and how little can we use to tell it, how succinct can we be.
Tania: To condense a book into a 90 minute film?
Cat: Yes, the book has so many great stories, and a lot of travel, but in the end many of those scenes went because even though they were fun, the story didn't need them, and you have to think about budget too! There is also the challenge of this being a memoir, so there are a lot of real life people that you are writing about. On the flip side, it's pretty amazing to actually get to meet them and see how that affects the way you write them.
Tania: How long did it take before you had a first draft that you were happy with?
Cat: The first draft that I sent Jana took about six weeks. Structurally it had issues, but I look back and I'm proud of the way I found a through line and picked out all the most important characters and scenes. It then took about fourteen months of refining and asking a lot of questions about what kind of impression we would want the film to leave people with, to get to the draft we had a reading of.
Tania: What did it feel like, approaching the first read?
Cat: It's become easier and easier to hear drafts read aloud, but it’s still difficult! There are always going to be little problems you feel you haven't solved, and then if stage directions are skipped over or someone coughs, you're like, ‘No! Listen! That bit was important!’ But I've learned to enjoy it for what it is and be grateful for the time that the actors put in and for the audience's attention. I was more nervous about this, having Bella and her family there - but Bella had read the draft so it wasn't going to be a complete surprise to her, I would have been much more nervous if that had been the case.
Tania: And now that it’s done?
Cat: I feel really grateful to be trusted with someone's story, and to have someone really believe I can deliver on something I’m yet to prove capable of doing. I'd love to see the film developed further and go into production, then to sit in a cinema while people watch it! It's so exciting to think of the possibilities.
Tania: What’s it like for you, Bella, entrusting both your work, and your story to another artist, is it difficult to let go?
Bella: In short yes, it can be difficult, because it’s not just my work, it’s my life, too. Initially when my agent spoke to me about the option a few years ago, I decided to be minimally involved for various reasons. A creative collaboration is a delicate process. However, a year or so ago I wrote to Jana and offered my input – and I’m glad I did. It has been a wonderful experience. Jana is deeply respectful of my work, professional, talented, determined and also turned out to be an infinitely lovely woman to boot.
Tania: What do you love most about doing what you do, and what keeps you going on the days when it gets really, really tough?
Bella: I love being an author. I get to join the wider conversation and comment on issues that I’m passionate about. I wrote in my journal from age ten and still do. Journal entries are what Biting The Big Apple grew from. It’s a wonderful way of working through your thoughts and emotions. Writing can be tough sometimes. When you are madly trying to express an idea or thought that is too nebulous to put into words. Sometimes the reason is because I am being too self-conscious instead of simply writing what I really think. Being honest with yourself helps immensely and gets you back on track.
Cat: I love creating something that didn't exist before, knowing that it's because I sat down at my computer and found a way to express what I was feeling, or in the case of Biting the Big Apple, finding the best way for Bella's characters to exist within the structure of a film and tell a story for people to enjoy and learn from. That's what keeps me going, that I can have an effect on others and make them feel something that helps them understand something that they've gone through themselves
Jana: I love that I never know what's around the corner, and that with this project in particular, that serendipity continues to surprise and delight at every turn.
Tania: And when the going gets tough?
Jana: Oddly I’ll get a phone call or an email from someone asking about the project or for advice which prompts me to reflect on what I've achieved so far. After the reading I had a moment of ‘Oh my god. I’m in too deep, can I keep going?’ and literally moments after, I got an phone call from a girl I hadn’t seen in eighteen months, asking me for advice on how to option the rights to a film. The more I spoke to her the more I realised how far I’ve come, how much I do know, and how I am doing a good thing here.
And judging by the response of the audience at the end of the read, a good thing they are doing. I personally left feeling incredibly inspired and honoured to have been able to contribute (in a teeny, tiny way) to this exciting project.
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