Actor Jason Chan gets 'drafted' into boot camp - Part 1

Most of us know Jason Chan as an actor or even ‘Mr Power Ranger’ but less of his interest in writing. Jason shares about his experience being part of ‘The First Draft’ - a boot camp where ‘recruits’ work intensively and get guided closely on writing a screenplay.

Jason: Even when I went to drama school I was interested in how to tell a story. Many actors would simply do whatever they were meant to do – they focused solely on their role – but I was always interested in the whole process of telling a story. I remember in 1st year drama school asking everyone back to rehearse our play. We stayed well into the night rehearsing by ourselves – trying things, experimenting with what worked and what didn’t. I remember doing this on many occasions with plays even in Singapore – sometimes staying up late to re-write scenes or suggesting the moving of several scenes to make something more dramatic.

This of course led to directing and I’ve directed a few plays since with a company I run with a friend: “The Ensemble”. That was a liberating step but I’ve realized that I want to take the next step and write and direct my own stories. My goals are to have a media company developing original content in all areas.

We already have one arm developing media for corporate companies and businesses: This has grown over the last year to us conceptualizing, writing and directing short videos that help to tell the stories of businesses.

We’re at a stage now where this can fund our dreams – to make original stories for film, tv or the next big stage: the internet. I’m loving writing – I think it’s biggest challenge and if I can write well I think the sky is the limit to what we can produce even in my little corner of Singapore.

The First Draft

It involves two live-in, 5 day intensive camps. The first teaches everyone about screenplay structure, characterization, genre and most importantly, the process of discussion and analysis with fellow writers.

Then every month you continue to develop your treatment, slowly increasing it’s length and depth, with monthly meetings. Bi-monthly we have private phone calls with our tutors to work in detail on our latest draft. In September we have a second camp which will teach us how to begin converting our treatment into a screenplay. Monthly meetings and phone calls will continue after that until March the following year when we should all have a first draft of our screenplay!

Jason: I’ve dreamed of writing a screenplay for quite some time (hasn’t every actor and director?). I think there’s a certain sense of glamour associated with “ writing a screenplay”. Just about every production house is “developing” movies nowadays – that’s their sole purpose for existence; while making corporate videos, ads and tv “on the side to pay the bills”.

Problem is – it’s a very hard process and most of us have had no education whatsoever in storytelling. The second problem is that because we’re able to watch a lot of bad tv and film and can pick holes in most “good” Hollywood films – we assume it’s easy to write a screenplay.

This is equivalent to watching a lot of basketball and thinking you can play with the NBA – or at least coach from the side. Maybe I’m the only na├»ve one but I’m discovering this is simply not true. Even after reading the usual bibles of screenplay: McKee, Christopher Vogler, Linda Aaronson I was still struggling to put together a decent story so I jumped at the opportunity to work on a script for a year with some experienced tutors on: The First Draft screenwriting programme.

The Journey Begins

After two weeks of thinking about what I want to spend a year on – I’ve decided to just write. We have to hand in a one page treatment of our film idea. A treatment is basically a plot by plot description of your film. I’ve decided to write about a time of my life that I remember vividly – working in a hospital when I was an intern. I worked a ward where there were young people dying of cystic fibrosis. Back then it was a chronic disease that led to death around the age of 25 (this may well have changed with more modern medicine). I want to explore what someone of that age is going through –having known all their lives that they have a limited existence – in particular I want to explore a love story with this ward as the background.

Ok so I’ve done it. Wrote my one page handed it in – wrote a couple of example scenes as well. Passed the interview and onto the next stage – the 5 day live-in camp where we will work intensively on screenwriting. Awesome!

5 day intensive

I thought there’d be nowhere I could really escape Singapore while still being in Singapore but Changi is pretty close to another world. We’re at Aloha at Changi and I’m amazed at my sense of isolation: a wonderful place to focus on writing. We’ve spent the first few days learning all the ins and outs of screenwriting: basically a crash course on film and screenplay.

Our tutors, Tessa and Kelly, are superb. Half expecting to be a little bored at times I’m constantly amazed at how much material we’re covering and how both of them can give practical applications to all the theory they’re throwing at us. There definitely is a complex set of skills involved with screenwriting. On top of that they’re teaching us HOW to be imaginative – to open up our ideas to lateral or tangential courses whilst still keeping it along one line of argument. This is damn hard! Even though it’s the third day we’re finding that already we’re speaking the same language – we can now analyze each other’s treatments with tools that actually help move it forward.

Everyday we are forced sit to silently whilst 5 other members of our group deconstruct and analyze our treatment. Very difficult at first – but once you accept that you can’t defend anything you open yourself up to new, often very interesting ideas. The art of listening is powerful. My treatment isn’t going anywhere fast BUT I now have a ton of ideas to play with – from characterization to mood and genre to life changing events for my protagonists. One more re-write before we finish this first intensive. I’m excited – I’m energized by the possibilities. Writing is such a cheap and incredibly liberating way to experiment with so many aspects of your final film. I can’t believe I haven’t been doing more of this.

Lesson learnt so far: be open to possibilities – take them on board and play with them sometimes to the n-th degree.

Don’t be scared of opposites: a tragic-romance CAN be a comedy or musical or horror.

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