“To figure out structuring a novel, I decided to take a screenwriting class, and I adapted my unfinished novel into somewhat of a screenplay. By the time I’d done that, I was hooked on screenwriting. So I wrote another script, and another, and on and on. Screenwriting is what I mainly do now.” — Joan Macbeth 5/10/2022
Who is Joan Macbeth?
Joan Macbeth is a screenwriter, director, and producer who splits her time between Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland. She’s the co-creator of the digital series Honestly Charlotte, based on her award-winning short film of the same name. She also was co-writer and executive producer on the documentary My Shanghai, and worked with LA producer Michael Gruskoff (My Favorite Year, Young Frankenstein) on the script adaptation of Jennie Shortridge’s novel, When She Flew. I first met Joan maybe ten or twelve years back over a cup of tea after a writer friend suggested we get together to talk screenwriting and filmmaking. Joan and I also worked together on various projects for a local writers organization in Portland.
John: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?
Joan: I’m from a hillside place in Oregon called Chehalem Mountain. Now, it’s part of Pinot Noir country, but when I was growing up it was plain ol’ farm country. My father grew strawberries until I was about five, and all around, the neighbors had berry fields and orchards – walnuts, apples, cherries, peaches. Those were the last great days of child labor, and my brother and I spent our summers picking fruit. Life felt pretty free, despite the labor, because we found plenty of time to roam the fields, woods, and our imaginations. We had a black-and-white TV that coincidentally broke every summer, but during the rest of the year old movies were our favourite thing to watch, along with politically-incorrect cartoons. My mother was a stay-at-home-mom, which in those olden times was known as a housewife, or homemaker, as she preferred. I remember her reading aloud to us at bedtime – the classic, gritty children’s stories like Black Beauty, Heidi, and Bambi – the real Bambi, not the Disney stuff. In school, I had an early interest in creative writing, first with sweet little poems and later, some rather whimsical short stories. In high school I abandoned writing for awhile, to pursue drama, both in class and a bit in real life as well.
John: A few years back I interviewed a couple winemakers who grow grapes on Chehalem Mountain, so yeah, it’s definitely Pinot country now. I think I would have preferred the orchards and berry fields of your youth, but maybe that’s because you’ve painted such a lovely pastoral feel with so few words. What a natural storyteller you are. I also identify with the black and white television, the inappropriate cartoons, and the books, but nobody ever read to me that I can remember. Although I do remember crying when I read Bambi. That one was hard on me. But drama… in class and a bit in real life… that sounds like fun. Tell me about that experience. Is that what led you to screenwriting and filmmaking, or was this a brief foray that faded and then resurfaced some time later in life?
Joan: Along about freshman or sophomore year in high school, we had to write career reports. No internet in those days. Books. Magazines. Encyclopedia. At the library. I could not find anything on how one would go about becoming a writer, as a career. Someone maybe should have pointed me towards journalism? But I was more into fiction. Not finding any material to use in the required bibliography, I chose to complete the assignment by writing about how to become a teacher, since there was plenty of material on that career. It was, I suppose, my first longer work in fiction, since I had absolutely no intention of becoming a teacher. I wrote a small companion piece, based on Jo March in Little Women, on how a writing career required a proper garret to starve in, while learning to cope with rejection.
Anyway, shortly after that, I discovered the drama class and it was so much fun – it didn’t seem like school work at all. The first drama teacher left, and we got a new one who was even better. I don’t think we wrote anything, except I remember we studied Theatre of the Absurd and had to come up with some ideas for absurd stage business. We did some one-act plays in the high school’s little theatre, and I played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and one of those witchy girls in The Crucible. I really thought acting was the thing for me, and I figured at some point I’d move to New York and be an actress. My father was the one to insist that a life in the arts would require “something to fall back on” and made sure I took typing and bookkeeping. I wouldn’t say necessarily that the drama class led me to screenwriting and filmmaking, but it was certainly part of the mix.
John: That’s a fun story! And, yeah, those ’no internet’ days… what a generally pleasant, albeit occasionally frustrating, challenge. But somehow you managed to find your passion nonetheless, so that’s good. Did you ever make it to New York? Also… did your work in drama lead to the stage or the screen first?
Joan: Stage, or screen… A rather tortuous journey. After quite a few fall-back years spent on typing and bookkeeping and related activities to earn an actual living, I retired in my 40’s to pursue my dream of writing a great American novel. (I was Canadian by this time.) Over the years, there had been some dabble in travel writing and short stories, and I did write a stage play that was based on my experiences dating a chorus boy. Nothing much came of any of those things. After working on the novel for awhile, I learned how little I actually knew about things like story structure. To figure out structuring a novel, I decided to take a screenwriting class, and I adapted my unfinished novel into somewhat of a screenplay. By the time I’d done that, I was hooked on screenwriting. So I wrote another script, and another, and on and on. Screenwriting is what I mainly do now. Eventually I was enticed into producing, and I co-wrote a documentary. Living in Vancouver, there’s a huge film community. People are constantly making short films. Finally, I co-wrote and produced Honestly Charlotte, which toured several film festivals. One being in Upstate New York, so I used that as an excuse to visit New York City.
John: I have such mixed feelings about tortuous journeys! They’re horrible, but it seems like they’re a standard part of writing… and for some writers, there’s a kind of pleasure to be found in the pain. Would you agree with that? And why do you think that is? Also, I kind of got started writing screenplays the same way you did. After a career in business writing, with an ongoing side of poetry, I was giving general nonfiction a try but wanted to try fiction and ended up in a screenwriting class, which is kind of like crack for writers with addictive tendencies. Plus, if you don’t mind adding to an already overly long list of questions, what did you think of New York? I used to love traveling there back in my business travel days. Unbelievable energy.
Joan: Tortuous journeys … reminds me of that Robert Frost poem, “… how way leads onto way…” I always find it difficult to decide which road to take, and often find myself thinking (ages and ages hence) about the road not taken. In retrospect, my journey to New York did seem long and winding, compared to my early expectations where I was planning to take Broadway by storm. Of course, I went to a Broadway show. I’ve visited many world-class cities and I think New York does have a certain energy. It was a quick trip, however, so I mainly stuck to the iconic tourist spots. I would definitely visit again. And see more shows.
As far as writers finding pleasure in the pain? Sometimes yes; I found that I could really only write poetry when I had a broken heart, for one thing. I suppose there was pleasure in producing some of that poetry, when the words came out just right. But I don’t think I necessarily need pain to find pleasure in writing. There’s already a lot of pain in the world; and of course in narrative writing, and maybe particularly in screenwriting, the protagonist must be put through a lot of pain of one kind or another in order to tell their story. I think it’s agreed that story-telling is part of the human condition – the reader or the audience can experience things through empathy with the characters, such as learning to overcome pain or other adversity. And yeah, there are some days that being a writer feels downright masochistic, and not in the good way. As 20th-century screenwriter Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
John: An answer like that one nearly guarantees that, at some point, I’ll be thinking about the road not taken when it comes to question follow-up, but regardless, right now I want to hear about the world class cities you’ve visited. I’ve visited a few that I consider world class, like New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai… and I’d put places like San Francisco, Kyoto, and Vancouver, BC in that group as well because they have an interesting international or artistic feel. What are your favorites, and what do you find special about them?
Joan: I’m feeling very nostalgic about travel lately. Of course, the CoViD 19 pandemic has made what used to be fun and relatively simple into something almost too uncertain to tackle. My favourite will always be Paris – I think I’ve visited there at least ten times – but I do love London as well. The European capitals with their amazing art museums are a big draw for me. I remember the first time I saw a Monet painting in London’s National Gallery and it felt like I was meeting a celebrity. All those cities you mention – although I have not spent a lot of time in Japan myself. And Beijing, not so much. But I was thrilled to visit Shanghai, after working on the documentary My Shanghai with Pam Wells. Of course, I’m lucky to live in the world-class city of Vancouver.
John: You have definitely visited a lot of world-class cities. I think it’s cool that you love to travel, and that you have had the opportunity to visit such wonderful places. But I’m reminded now of your comments about the road not taken, and that you also have some experience with that… with thinking (ages and ages hence) about experiences you have felt some regret about not pursuing. Can you share any examples of such untraveled roads?
Joan: I moved from California to Vancouver B.C. in my early twenties; a newlywed. The immigration protocols were fairly easy back then and I settled into my young and carefree life – until I was laid off a job. I decided to sign on for extras work at a talent agency – Vancouver’s entertainment industry was up and coming. I didn’t get any calls, so I kept on looking for “real” work. One day I saw an ad in the paper for an office job at a stock brokerage, and thought, “That sounds interesting!” I can still see that little classified ad in my mind’s eye. It was a turning point in my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.
I got the job, and had been working at the brokerage firm for only about a week when the talent agency called me. They had a special posting on a TV movie – better than being an extra. They wanted me as the stand-in for a quite famous actress. Oscar winner and all that. We were the same height. Plus, the other main role was a teenager who had been a well-known child actress. All three of us – same height. It wasn’t an acting job, but I would have been in the thick of it. I thought really hard about how could I possibly do the stand-in gig and still keep that office job. By that time I was in a situation where I really needed the steady income.
The road I chose was not really the one less traveled by – it was a safe road, paved with a good paycheque. Way led onto way and turned into a twenty-year career in finance. A twist of good fortune resulted in an early retirement, at which time I took up my pen. But I often wonder, where would I have ended up, had I chosen that other road.
John: It’s hard to say where a choice like that may have led. I imagine we’ve all had experiences like that. We’ve all had opportunities to live different types of lives for sure… not necessarily better or worse, but definitely different. Is that where nostalgia comes from, do you think? From our daydreams about how different our lives could have been by making different choices? Or maybe it’s more closely tied to memories of choices we did make that we were glad we made, but that we subsequently lost touch with. Are you a nostalgic person?
Joan: I suppose that I am so nostalgic as to be unaware of the existence of a state of non-nostalgia. Recently I happened upon this quote by the American journalist Doug Larson: “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”
John: Same with me… I’m unapologetically nostalgic. Have been my entire life. For me, nostalgia begins to set in on the drive home from the party and then never lets go. The good old days reach from childhood to late yesterday afternoon. Nostalgia is so much more than a file… it’s an entire toolbox of possibilities. It’s a drug that’s free to everyone. And so much of the time, the withdrawal pains are just as addictive as the imagined memories themselves. Poetry seeps through nostalgia’s cracks and oozes from the spots where we’ve rubbed the lamp too hard… too often. Nostaliga makes a mess of things. Just like honey. But, oh yeah… there’s supposed to be a question in here somewhere… does nostalgia come through in your writing? Is it something you leverage or try to steer clear of? What does it bring to your work?
Joan: Nostalgia, I think, is an inner layer that is ever-present and can be drawn upon as needed. Essential for poets – I expect your experience to be different from mine. I seldom write poetry, so for me I think nostalgia is especially useful in writing period fiction or memoir. Nostalgia can slip into character voice and narrative description, but maybe it depends on the genre. When I write comedic works, I would say that generally nostalgia doesn’t play that big of a role. Definitely something I would leverage when needed.
John: Being able to leverage what you need when you need it clearly shows the level of ability you bring to your craft. I suppose that’s what we all strive for… both in craft and in life… being able to leverage our resources to fulfill the needs we encounter. In terms of writing, what advice would you give to a new writer… someone just setting out on this path… to help them recognize and leverage the resources they will need as they continue their journey?
Joan: It is really nice the way you portray me as some kind of sage, capable of giving advice. As if I’d leveraged my way through life rather than just muddling. But, I’ll give it a shot. I think a good writer is a good observer. Imagination gets a lot of credit in writing, but I think the power of observation is what can ultimately connect your stories to the reader. And the thing to really observe is emotion. We were speaking of nostalgia, which is one emotion that can evoke strong feelings. Writers need to take notice of how you feel, or how others around you feel, when things get wrecked, or when everything is amazing. It might be hard to observe the wreckage in life, but if you remember it, add a little nostalgia for what might have been, and write it into a character’s journey … that’s what portrays the human condition. Unless you want to write comedy; then all you need is anger and a well-developed sense of irony. Oh, yeah, and subtext. Don’t get me started on subtext.