E.E. Burke's Best of the West: Meet Screenwriter Jan Evans

At Get Lost in a Story, we’re all about…well, getting lost in a story. Usually we’re talking books, but we’re into movies, too, and today we have a real treat. I get to introduce you to award-winning screenwriter Jan Evans

I met Jan via social media and we were immediately drawn together by our mutual attraction to the 19th century American historical period. She's a fascinating person who writes amazing stories. We talked about her work and current scripts, the difficult process of getting screenplays made into movies, and my favorite genre, American historical.

E.E. What movies have you worked on? Any favorites?
JAN: I have worked on over 30 films and made-for-television movies as a script supervisor. The movies I’ve worked on that most people are familiar with are DANCES WITH WOLVES, FIELD OF DREAMS, HOME ALONE I and II.

I would have to say my favorite one was DANCES WITH WOLVES. It was a great working experience. I was completely in my element, in the middle of nowhere for about seven months, a period horse picture, and with a dear friend (Kevin Costner) as the director.

There were two other projects that were special to me, because of the cast. One was a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called FOXFIRE, with John Denver, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Again, I was in my element, in the middle of nowhere in the Appalachians at the beginning of spring. Jessica and Hume were two of our finest actors, and they were incredible people with which to work. Classic actors the likes of which we seldom see now.

One of my favorite movie moments was a scene we did very late at night with John Denver. His character had just returned from giving a concert, and he was rather melancholy at the old log house homestead. As the character, John took his guitar, and sat out near the springhouse and played, his voice clear and clean, drifting out over the crisp spring night.

Normally for a movie, music and vocals are pre-recorded in a studio, and filmed using that as playback. But John, as his character, sang live, an emotional, heartbreaking song that was never recorded. I found John to be a nice man, pleasant and easy to work with, but inside, he had a troubled soul. I will never forget that moment listening to him sing his heart out, then his voice cracking as he broke down in tears. Only a small portion of that scene is in the movie.

The other movie moment was when filming ONLY THE LONELY, a little seen movie written and directed by Chris Columbus. The movie starred John Candy, who was the nicest man in the world, Maureen O’Hara, and in a small part, Anthony Quinn. Maureen and Anthony were close friends, and he only did the movie because of her. We shot a scene in an Irish bar in Chicago for an Irish wake. The characters were all drinking, the bar was lively, and Chris had a song playing on the playback. Anthony held out his hand, Maureen took it, and they danced, sweet and tenderly, dear old friends, to “Young at Heart.” These are the moments that make the hard task of filmmaking worthwhile.

I suppose I should add working with Burt Lancaster on FIELD OF DREAMS. Now that’s a man who could tell a good, WAY off-color sexy story. 

And, a TNT movie with a fantastic cast called THE GOOD OLD BOYS that takes place in Texas around the turn of the century, written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Tommy Lee, Sam Shepard, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Terry Kinney, and young Matt Damon. 

This was the second time I worked with Matt. He and Ben made the deal for GOOD WILL HUNTING when we were shooting THE GOOD OLD BOYS. 

E.E.: What’s your favorite kind of story to get lost in?
JAN: Something hugely emotional. I like to feel. I’m not particularly interested in being entertained, or escaping. I like to soar, emotionally. 

E.E.: What’s the first book you remember reading?  
JAN: I’ll skip to the first book that influenced me. THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner. I was about twelve. That changed my life. He broke all the rules, and I knew then that I could too.

E.E. Tell us a little about the screenplays you've written? 
JAN: I’ve written six film scripts and currently have three out on the market. It typically takes 8-10 years to get a movie made once the script is finished. 

(Here’s a quick summary of these three current scripts, and how each of them have done in contests. Very well, I might add.)

Think the passionate romance of GONE WITH THE WIND and THE ENGLISH PATIENT.
Based on a true story, a cavalry officer and an aristocratic young woman fall passionately in love.  When he leaves to fight the Indian uprisings out West, she, against her family's pleadings, joins him, determined to pursue a life together.

WILLOWBROOK was a Finalist in the 2013 Creative World Awards Screenplay Competition, a Finalist in the 2013 Dixie Film Festival Screenplay Competition, a top 22 Semi-Finalist in the 2014 Shore Scripts Screenplay Competition, a Semi-Finalist in the 2013 Scriptapalooza Competition, a Semi-Finalist in the 2013 Screenplay Festival, and a Semi-Finalist in the 2013 Write Room Screenplay Competition.

In the vein of DANCES WITH WOLVES.
Guided by a mystical horse, a rugged frontiersman turns his back on his own people, marrying into a tribe of Cheyenne. As violence between settlers and the Indians escalates, he fights for a path to peace.

YOU ARE CHEYENNE aka COMSTOCK was a Silver Award 2nd Place winner in the 2014 International Independent Film Awards Screenplay Competition, a Finalist in the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, a Finalist in the 2015 Back in the Box Screenplay Competition, a Semi-Finalist in the 2014 Acclaim Film Screenplay Competition, a Semi-Finalist in the 2014 Creative World Awards Screenplay Competition, and a Semi-Finalist in the 2015 Richmond International Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

In the vein of COLD MOUNTAIN.
During the Civil War, a young mountain girl from the North heals a wounded Rebel soldier and they fall in love. After the war, the soldier is presumed dead, so she sets out alone on a perilous journey across the country to fulfill his dream of seeing the Pacific Ocean.

JACOB’S OCEAN is a First Place winner in the 2014 Oregon Film Awards Screenplay Competition, a Gold Award winner in the 2014 International Independent Film Awards Screenplay Competition, a Finalist in the 2014 Creative World Awards Screenplay Competition, a top five Finalist in the 2015 California Women’s Film Festival Screenplay Competition, a Finalist in the 2014 Chicago Screenplay Competition, a  Finalist in the 2014 Acclaim Films Screenplay Competition, a Finalist in the 2014 Back in the Box Screenplay Competition, a Semi-Finalist in the 2015 Richmond International Film Festival Screenplay Competition, and a Semi-Finalist in the 2014 Circus Road Screenplay Competition.

E.E.: Those stories sound amazing, and I hope we’ll soon see them made into movies. What else are you working on?
JAN: I have a screenplay in progress, working title CANAAN, about a deserting Confederate soldier and a runaway slave girl, summer 1862. I am also writing a novel, the expanded version of a completed script, based on a true story of a man born in Ireland, 1840.

Not only is Jan writing the book, she's living in Ireland while researching. She posts many beautiful pictures, but here's one of my favorites: the River Barrow near where the hero of her novel grew up.

Besides at historical sites and on walks, Jan can be found at her "office" (the local pub) where she enjoys the occasional Guinness. She's also very fond of fine Irish whiskey.

E.E. Your stories feature strong willed, honorable men facing impossible odds. Can you tell us about a real-life hero you’ve met? 
JAN: I heard speak and met Louis Zamperini, the WWII survivor. The book and upcoming movie UNBROKEN is based on his life. 

E.E.: Why do you gravitate toward American historical and/or historical romance? Do you see these types of films making a comeback?
JAN: I believe if we do not remember our history, we are doomed to repeat. We are doomed to repeat anyway, such is human nature, but perhaps with some reflection, we will not repeat as badly. 

I never thought I would write anything romantic. But, it seems all of my work, even the screenplay I adapted from a book, has a common theme: home and family. Everybody is searching for a home, a family, and love. It’s a timeless and universal theme, and as I am already drawn to the 1860’s time period, I put my stories in that era. I find the struggles of that time heighten everything. A young Victorian girl who wants to break from her strict society, and follow the Cavalry officer she loves, the teenage West Virginian mountain girl who crosses the United States on her own to fulfill the dream of her lost soldier, and the Colorado mountain man seeking his place, and the balance of life within a Cheyenne Indian tribe, these are all things that to me, are more vivid, and more difficult, set in the 19th century. 

I doubt that the historical/Western movies of this type will make a comeback. Books will always find an audience, but movies today, I think not. Most studios and production companies want material geared for the 18-25 year-old male audiences. Ninety five percent of movies in pre-production now are sequels, re-boots, and/or franchises. Few of the decision makers in Hollywood are creative. Most of them today are attorneys and businessmen, a bad move, in my opinion.

But, that said, while working on a movie that Hollywood ridiculed (Dances With Wolves), at a time of great despair, the director turned to me and said “I just want to make a movie that I want to see. Somebody else is bound to want to see it too.” I agree with him. So, that’s what I write. Movies I want to see. I don’t believe in chasing the market. What is popular now may not be in two, three, four, however many years it takes to get your script made. Write what you feel, what you believe in, and what you want to see, or read, as the case may be. Oh, that movie? It went on to win the Best Picture Oscar that year, and he (Kevin Costner) Best Director.

E.E.: What draws you to screenplay writing versus other types of writing?
JAN: The sparseness of it. I’m a visual writer, and I write what I see. Writing for film is exactly that. No internal thoughts, no elaborate descriptions, only those things that can be seen on screen. This is the biggest problem I’ve having with the switch to novel writing. While I know what is going on with my character’s emotions, I’m not inclined to write that down. As far as I can see, it’s an entirely different style, in which I have no experience.
Backstory is another issue. When writing a movie, it’s imperative to know the backstory of your characters in and out, up and down, but it is seldom told. Instead, that backstory fuels their behavior, choices, and speech, with perhaps moments here and there coming out organically, only as needed. 

Rule of thumb in screenwriting is never expose backstory until your audience asks for it. Let them learn the characters as if they are just meeting them. For instance, when I met my husband, I didn’t know any of his backstory, I learned that as we dated. So, screenwriting is like that. In a novel, that seems to not be the case. But you all who write novels certainly can speak to that better than I.

E.E.: Can you tell us about the process of getting a screenplay made into a movie?
JAN: First you write the thing, which takes most people about a year. Normally 5-10 drafts. Then, you send it out. It used to be that you contacted agents/managers/actors and if they had any interest, you sent in your script. Now, that doesn’t happen, unless you have an agent or manager. Even with representation, it’s basically still up to you. An agent can perhaps open a door, but your material still has to appeal before it will get read. 

Agents, managers, production companies, studios, producers, directors and actors all have readers. Some have several tiers of readers. When the first level reader reviews a script, they write coverage on it, which is a short synopsis, a few comments, and rate it a Pass, a Consider, or a Recommend. 95% of screenplays get a Pass. 4% get a Consider, which generally actually means a Pass, and the last 1% gets a Recommend. 

Much depends on the reader. If your script gets a Consider, it will go to the next tier, and so on, until it makes it up the ladder. It’s a very long process. It usually takes three to six months before you hear anything, and often you never hear at all. 
Smaller companies are more receptive, and you must pick and choose wisely when you send your scripts out. I would not send my historical dramas/romance screenplays to Jerry Bruckheimer, but I would to West End Films in London. 

Screenwriting competitions are one way in. If you place well, it gives your material credibility, and can get interest from production people. Another way in is through pitch sessions, which are normally by Skype, or written pitches. Those can be very effective, but if you have material that is not the “hot genre,” vampires, sci-fi, thrillers, horror, your scripts likely won’t be requested. 

Yet another way is to put your script up on various sites like The Black List, pay for evaluations, hope the 20 year-old reader actually understands screenwriting and gives you a good review. If they do, then your logline gets sent to their list of producers, and maybe they look at your script. 

Once your script gets the attention of somebody, then it’s meeting time. They give you notes on all the things they want to change, and you decide if you want to do that or not. You don’t, of course, have to option, or sell, your script if you don’t think that company will make the movie you want. But say you like them, you agree with their notes, and you give them an option. Normally an option is for one year, with the right to renew. 
So, with your script optioned, you start the rewrite while the others involved try to attach a cast. Then the actors want rewrites, and so on, the financiers want rewrites and so on, until the project is finally green lit. 

At that point, the director and crew begin in earnest with scheduling, location scouting, rehearsals, all the pre-production stuff, and then you shoot the thing, which is anywhere from two to eight months, depending on the movie. Then editing, scoring, and then after several years from optioning your script, the movie is released, and you hope it looks similar to what you imagined when you wrote it. 

Now, the above is for a reasonable budget movie. Today, if you have a small cast, with minimal locations, and shoot digital, you can make a film yourself, for 100K, or less. A “contained” movie, it’s called. The “found-footage” horror things, documentaries, thrillers. You raise funding on Kickstarter or some such site, get your friends together, and make a movie. It’s a wonderful thing for artists now. So much creative material can get out there and be seen now. For me, though, my scripts are a much higher budget. Period pictures add a lot of cost, and that’s a major reason many production companies shy away from them. 

E.E.: What advice would you share with other writers?
JAN: Watch a movie and think about it. Analyze it, why it worked, why it didn’t, see every nominated film. Same with books. Read them, think about them, what worked, what didn’t and why. And, why did the public like them, especially if you didn’t. Pay attention to the nuances. They are there for a reason.

Thanks, Jan for joining us today, and for sharing so honestly. I hope to see your scripts made into movies very soon. I MISS those wonderful period pieces.

Today, we’re doing something special for our giveaway: A Blu-Ray DVD copy of DANCES WITH WOLVES to one lucky commenter.

What historical “period picture” is your favorite, and why?

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  1. Hi Jan! Welcome to GLIAS! Dances With Wolves is one of my favorite period movies. Last of the Mohicans is another. And lots of Westerns...don't get me started...

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  2. What a great interview! I attended a conference with Alexandra Sokoloff where she compared screenwriting to novel writing, so this is similar, but it's always helpful to have what you're thinking already be reinforced. Jan's stories about John Denver and Kevin Costner made this an extra special interview. And Dances With Wolves is an all-time favorite movie of mine.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it, Becky. E. E. did a great job putting my rambling all together in a cohesive way!

  4. Welcome to GLIAS, Jan! And what fascinating stories you have to tell and the people you've met. I love hearing them.

    1. Thanks for the welcome. I enjoyed doing this interview, and glad you liked it.

  5. What a great, interesting interview. Just awesome. Wish I could enter. Dances with Wolves is one of my favorite period movies. I have a new favorite though: 42. I just love Harrison Ford and the rest of the cast bringing Jackie Robinson's life to the screen.

    1. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. E.E. knows how difficult it is to get me to do these things, so I'm happy she convinced me.

  6. Hello Jan and Elisabeth, and thank you for your wonderful interview! So very interesting to get a glimpse into the world of screenplays and movies. Being a huge fan of period pieces, I also hope to see all of your scripts made into movies. I will buy the DVDs and put them on my movie shelf next to my copy of Dances with Wolves :)

  7. Fascinating interview into another aspect of writing. I esp. loved the glimpses into those moments with the actors. Welcome to GLIAS. Hope you return often with more stories.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I have tons of stories, but most of the good ones are confidential!

  8. Regency for the fashion

  9. Terrific interview. Thank you Jan for sharing so many of your thoughts. Very insightful. I really hope one of those three stories get made. Honestly I don't go to the movies anymore because nothing interests me. BTW - loved 'Dances with Wolves'.

    1. Thanks for the nice comment. Yep, there's not a lot of good movies out these days, but I loved WHIPLASH. Well directed from a very good script. I'm hoping to catch up on the nominees soon. Most are just now being released here in Ireland.