Spotlight: An Interview with Janine Pecenkova
Spotlight: An Interview with Screenwriter and Filmmaker Janine Pecenkova ("Missing Parts")
1. Janine, congratulations on winning Best Television Script for your fantastic pilot, Missing Parts! Before we dive into the screenplay, please tell us a bit about yourself. What inspired you to become a screenwriter and a filmmaker?
Good morning, I would like to thank you for your kind words. And the opportunity to speak for a great screenplay festival such as Festigious.
As far as I can remember, I loved made-up stories and enjoyed creating ones, too. As kids, my friends and I played lots of games outside. I used my fantasy to have a fun and create other, magical worlds that we’d pretend to be in. Later, in my teenage years, I used my dreams when I felt down. That was when I started to write short stories. This fantasy gateway helped me after high school graduation too. I went to University and focused at literature/creative writing. There, I met like-minded people. And professors - valued writers. I found out, it is the dynamic power of screenwriting, I love the most.
New York Film Academy
2. During your studies, you spent time in London and New York and then moved to LA for work. Can you take us through your experience participating in a writer’s room for a crime TV Series? What are some of your takeaways from being in the room?
After graduating from Kingston Filmmaking University in London and then completing a New York Film Academy program, I went back to my home country. In Prague, I tried to find a job in TV writing. It seemed to be a long process. So I started in translation, and it actually helped me out. A German production based in Prague was looking for English-speaking screenwriters. I tried my luck - and got in! In the writing room, we were a group of five people. Our job was to adjust a foreign TV show for Czech Republic TV. Our head writers were German and British. We’d add a taste of our country to the story, rewriting it for our viewers.
My first experience in TV writing taught me a lot. I learned how to create “lines” - short synopses in points. We’d then email these lines to other TV writers before getting our owns. Once we had these lines, each of us took one episode and started to work on it. We had to hold the prime concept but simultaneously rewrite it completely. I knew I had to work fast. Filming took place every day with new episodes needed. We were ordered to provide quantity but quality too. Our whole team cooperated a lot. We were writing in the office, we were writing in our homes, sometime late after midnight too. It was exhausting, it was great. I learned here how to write quickly with focus on well-made work. We wrote lots of different stuff in a day - concept lines, editing, episodes, promo log lines... This helped me when I worked for other TV show, and in creating my own stuff.
3. You have earned a lot of accolades for your screenplays. What are you most proud of and what are some of the highlights of your career so far?
For me, the most important accolade was years ago. After winning with a short summer tale, I got my book published. This gave me a new drive and helped me to overcome my fear of submitting. Later, when I tried screenwriting competitions, first positive feedback helped me a lot again. My screenplay didn’t advance; however, between critical notes, the same judge left a positive note - he loved the main character. He even added that he could see Alex Lawther in this main role! :) I learned to rewrite and rewrite again. And suddenly it started placing together.
Aside from these, I value all of the accolades I have reached very much. This is for one main reason; they break the primary fear of submitting. They help me in building my CV. I get to meet like-minded people through film festival conferences, competitions and got closer to the filmmaking world.
Winning with Summer Tale
4. Can you tell us about your background in journalism and art, and do you feel these experiences helped with shaping your filmmaking style?
Before graduating in Prague with a master’s degree of arts (literature/creative writing), I had to work as a writing intern. This was part of our final exams. I got into a lifestyle magazine. I discovered, this isn’t type of writing I want to do. That said, I met a lot of very talented people here and learned how to write a catching article. Next, I left for online culture papers, which was something I really enjoyed working for. I wrote for them even after graduation, when I’d moved to London and New York. My articles were mostly about art events and interesting places, firming my interest in a fantasy book. I highly valued both of those writing opportunities. But I still saw my writing in film, so I left for LA. After the UCLA TFT program, I knew for sure it really was screenwriting I wanted to get into.
5. Who are your favorite filmmakers and/or screenwriters, and do you find yourself influenced by their work?
A movie which really captured me and still remains my beloved one is Trainspotting. John Hodge’s screenwriting, Danny Boyle’s directing style, the actors - this is a masterpiece. I like both of these creators and their other filmmaking projects too. Some of my other favorite filmmakers/screenwriters are: Paul Thomas Anderson with his Magnolia movie, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary with Pulp Fiction, Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Tom Tykwer, John McTiernan with Die Hard, anything from Hitchcock, and many others. Do they influence me? I hope so :) It seems to me the main characters here tend to have something in common. If you think about Lola in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, Jack Nicholson’s R. P. Murphy or Trainspotting’s Renton - all of them want to run, run away from danger - but in the end they remain. Their life situation is mostly sad. They’ll either survive or die - not in a pathetic way but with a sense of humor instead.
6. What was the inspiration for Missing Parts?
After I rewrote my screenplay VOICES, it was placed in more competitions. One festival, when it got selected out of five, invited me to take a part during their event. Then Covid struck. It was so unsuspected and sudden. Moreover, when jobs closed down. It felt unreal. This was when I started to work on Missing Parts. The main character, Jess, is loosing all that she cares about in a one day without even knowing why. With no explanation, things start to speed up and more mess is coming from underneath - her past included.
When living through Covid, we were afraid for our loved ones who were sick or for those who were old. But then we needed to live, too. Thinking about this fear slowly crept up on me. Fear of danger or being hurt is OK, but don’t let this feeling to overtake you. It can happen where you are afraid simply of your own fear. That’s why Jess needs to act.
7. Please tell us about your creative writing process. Where do you begin, and how do you go about finalizing a screenplay? Do you have any collaborators or story editors that provide you with feedback during your process?
First, I check the deadlines of the competitions I want to try. I know it sounds terrible, but from my experience, the best writing always appears just before the deadline approaches, when you have nothing to loose. At the beginning, I just come up with at least three different plots (of any genre). But it needs to catch up readers from the very beginning. Shock them, but let it feel as close to reality as possible. Screenplay can dive into fantasy afterwards, or not. Once I have the characters and a main plot, I try to think a log-line over and shape the rest of the story together with other characters. I try to use five or three act writing structures (depending on whether it is a TV pilot or feature). But mainly, I’m writing everything aside, on a screenwriting cards or paper blocks. I send my first draft to my friends and to feedbacks festivals to get a truthful opinion. Then I can move to a second/third draft before submitting to competitions.
8. The pilot starts with a teaser and then jumps 13 years into the future. Why did you choose this structure?
I love the advice of A. Hitchcock - “Don’t start your screenplay with the character in threat of the window fall. Begin just the minute they are falling from an open one.” The main character - Jess - has a trauma from her past. She managed to bury it, but her past stays with her. I wanted to add a hint of why she behaves the way she does. Plus how it influences others in her life.
9. In the pilot, Jess Wilkins (the main character) has… quite a lot to deal with, and we’re also exposed to her unique symptoms. The writing around this topic feels very authentic. Did you do any research about how to write a medical condition, before approaching the screenplay?
Jess struggles mostly because of her overwhelming self blame. Fear of a possible punishment for a crime she believed to have committed makes her run (taking motorbike tours with her boyfriend). She never stays in one place long enough to have a proper medical examination.
When writing about her condition, I was aware that here we have someone has spent a long time under a massive stress. This type of stress can arouse headaches, grey hair, etc. The worst type of headache - a migraine - can cause you to fall into a coma.
I always try to do a research when writing about medical conditions. But this time, I didn’t need to. I experienced migraines for two long years, including nausea and vomiting. I tried all types of smartphones, believing it was because of their sharp light. My migraines were non-stop. Similar to Jess, it got worse when a huge sound or light occurred. But later, it was just the morning light that triggered it.
I had all types of medical examinations. Then someone finally found out it was because of writing on the computer. My cervical spine was totally blocked. The day they found out and gave me the rehabilitation exercises, it all went away.
I used this experience when creating Jess’s condition. She has a migraine, which gets worse. It seems to be because of her stress. When finally her unique symptoms finally come out, we can see that her stress was just a small factor adding to her bad health condition.
The main reason for her struggling is the so called fantasy missing part, which is implied to her body. She needs to find the other part in order to be complete. Here, I was inspired by the old tale about Water of Life and Water of Death. Missing parts are similar - like Yin and Yang, they need to be together to work properly. Or out of the body. The problem is Jess doesn’t know about them. And has absolutely has no clue that the other part is in the body of a man, who, as she believes, hates her.
10. The other characters (Ryan, Paul, Andrew, Cynthia, and Dan, or example), are written with such richness and feel well rounded. Do you usually create an outline for the characters in advance, or was any character added later into your process?
Thank you very much. When starting with a screenplay, I try to create the main character in order to understand that personality completely. I feel that only when this is done can I play with the reader and slowly uncover or hide this character’s strengths and flaws. I’m not a fan of strict rules, but I think we should be guided by them at least slightly. That’s why I always try to add to the main character (story A) characters for tories B and C too. To help main hero grow, support or fight him/her. By creating all of the characters, I’m inspired by people I know or heard about. Those, whose situation, action or spirit raises interest. At the same time, these personalities have to feel like ordinary, genuine people so that viewers can relate. I enjoy this creating process a lot. I don’t usually need to add any characters; more likely I have to remove some. I never want to but it needs to be done in order to simplify the story or highlight the main character.
11. How long does it usually take you to write a script (from start to finish)? And, even more importantly… How do you know that it’s done?
Usually, it takes three months for the first draft, then the next rewrites are faster. After the first draft, I seek feedback and opinions, then trying to rewrite it again. I try to finish by the third draft but will sometimes come back again to polish.
Anyway, whether it’s a first, second or third draft, there is always something that seems to need adding to, rewriting or being changed somehow. Most of people tell you this is necessary and alright. But the next step is to actually pick up the courage to break this circle and finally submit. Placements after then feel extra good. Feedback is great too - even negative one can help you with rewriting or moving to something else.
12. Do you ever experience writer’s block and if so, how do you deal with it?
I do. When it happens, I try to focus on something else for a while; read a manga, watch TV, go for a walk or call a friend. Just relax and then try again. And if it still sucks, it’s important not to let your fear get you down. Just write. Done is always better than perfect.
Writer's Digest Annual Conference, New York
13. What are you currently working on?
This summer, I visited Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York. I tried a pitch slam. There weren’t any screenwriting managers, but I got offers from two publishing companies. Their agents were interested in a book version of my screenplay. So now, I’m trying to adapt it to a book version now and write a new TV pilot.
Pitch Slam, NYC
14. If you could work on your dream project, what would it be?
My dream project is - as for most of the screenwriters I guess - to have my screenplays shot by LA film production companies. To have Missing Parts made into a TV show by local companies, Netflix or smaller ones. I like these companies for giving a space to new or retired actors as well as the famous ones, of course. But mostly, I value creativity in their selection.
15. What kind of stories would you like to focus on in the future? Will you continue to create Drama/Fantasy? Do you have any long-term career goals you’re hoping to achieve?
I would like to focus on a feature screenplays too. As for a genre, I’d prefer to stay with drama with occasional comedic parts for now. Whether it’s with or without fantasy/mystery depends on the story lead. Aside of having my screenplays shot, my other long-term career goal is comic books creations. It gives the freedom to have actions nearly as fast as in a screenplay. All of my screenplays came out as a storyboards first. Like every artist, I fear a bit of long-term goals and the possibilities of never reaching them out. With books, stories won’t disappear. And maybe they can highlight someone else’s life same the way, as they have highlighted mine.
16. Where can our readers follow you and your work?
I don’t have a personal website yet, but working on it :) My American screenplays are available to download on the Coverfly platform under my name, Janine Pecenkova. I’m always glad when someone enjoys them or wants just to have a look or get inspired, so I resend them immediately. Other informations about my work, including my book, is on my Instagram @janine.pec and LindkedIn.
17. Is there anything you wish to add?
I would like to express my gratitude for such a thoughtful questions. I wish you, the whole team and Festigious Film Festival just the best. Sending lots of luck to all the screenwriting entrants! I always remember the words of a screenwriter whose class I enjoyed once: “Don’t do what is awaited of you. Do what your inner sense needs. Go for your dream. Life isn’t always made of fairytales. But you’ve got the imagination to create them.”