“Script consultancy is falsely underestimated,” says Wim Vanacker, a well-known short and feature film script consultant. Former Head of the Script Department at NISI MASA and Project Manager of the European Short Pitch has nurtured many scriptwriters and filmmakers who had their films premiere in A list film festivals. Wim is also a member of the Selection Committee for the Official Short Film Competition of the Cannes Film Festival and recently, became the Editorial Consultant for the First Cut Lab. Back in 2013, he came aboard the Baltic Pitching Forum, a 3-day industry event dedicated to short film projects, and helped to establish the European Short Pitch Award. For the last 3 years, he’s been consulting selected participants on their scripts. He also works as a consultant at the short film script development residency “Baltic Shorts Residency” that has been recently developed by the organizers of the Baltic Pitching Forum, Lithuanian Short Film Agency “Lithuanian Shorts”.
We met with Wim on Skype to discuss script consultancy, the region’s film industry, and the development of the Baltic Pitching Forum, which will take place later this year, 8–10 October. Filmmakers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland can submit their short film projects to the “Baltic Pitching Forum” 2020 until the 2nd of August. Submit here.
You have been working in the short film industry for a long time, but before that, you’d studied psychology and practiced it for three years. How did you end up in the world of short films?
When I was studying psychology, I always wanted to do something with the cinema. At the time it was already my passion, and I went to cinemas all the time. I started working for film festivals and at film shoots. I worked for 3 years as a therapist and then it became too overwhelming, too draining. I ended up in some kind of burn out, and that was also the moment when I realized I wanted to pursue my dreams and decided to go to film school. Initially, I wanted to do it in Belgium, but it was impossible. I would have needed to study for 4 years because I couldn’t go straight into studying master. Then I went to Paris, where I started making films and worked a lot at film shoots. After graduating, I didn’t want to end up in this black hole, where most filmmakers end up after they graduate, so I did an internship at NISI MASA. That’s how I started working for European Short Pitch. Initially, I was a project coordinator, and then after one year, I became the head of the script department. That’s how it all started. I wanted to make short films myself because it’s a good stepping stone to feature films. I never intended to be so involved in shorts. I was so invested in the European Short Pitch, and then other things came my way, and they were all related to the short film industry. And I like the shorts industry because there’s something honest about it in the sense that people make films for the right reasons, and there are many rough diamonds to be uncovered. There’s something satisfying about nourishing new talents and discovering new voices. Especially when you work with scripts that might be a mess and undeveloped, but you find something there. And later on, you see people making their feature films.
You were with the Baltic Pitching Forum from its beginning and helped to establish the European Short Pitch award. Besides, you have been working as a script consultant for the event for the last 3 years. How did the event develop over the last years?
To be honest, as soon as I came on board, I thought that the Baltic Pitching Forum was a well-organized and well-structured platform. I think it only solidified itself in the process. But what I always liked about the Baltic Pitching Forum that it was intimate; it was all about creating this family feeling. You see Sari Volanen, Laurence Boyce, and other people who keep on returning, and it’s like a family reunion. I think lots of regions in Europe could learn from the Baltics in the way they work together. Because there are so many regions where they could do the same and be stronger together. On the other hand, the event never tried to be something it’s not. I think what they do is very helpful and beneficial. It’s a great opportunity for local filmmakers because it’s more of a safe haven before you truly tackle the world. There’s definitely added value to that. And the way it’s developed with the experts being present and giving you feedback on the spot allows you to evolve your project, whether you win any prizes or not. I think where the Baltic Pitching Forum might have evolved the most, is in the overall quality of the projects. But it’s less related directly to the event. It’s more about the Baltics industry evolving and growing up. You can see the bright future ahead, even though you never know what will happen the next year.
You also work as a script consultant for the “Baltic Shorts Residency” that has finished its second edition this June. After the residency, the selected participants have to present their projects at the Baltic Pitching Forum as well. Why do you think there was a need to establish the residency?
I think it’s an interesting concept that at times will work and at times will backfire. I don’t necessarily believe there’s a need for residency, but I do believe there’s a need for script consultancy. I think it’s two separate things because some people work well from home, some – don’t. In the first year, there was only one participant and was very different. She was on her own and we were working well together. At the same time, it’s not given to spend 3 weeks in a beautiful place like Kintai. But it can get lonely. This year I think it was better because there were 3 participants, one from each country. Then the residency really makes sense because it has group spirits, it’s more collective. You can collaborate, spend a few weeks together, and grow. And the fact that the Baltic Shorts Residency has one participant from each country it actually stands for something and it’s beautiful. Personally, as a writer myself, I don’t need a residency. I rather find the place and create my own residency. On the other hand, I think script consultancy is falsely underestimated. Especially the script consultants that are from a different culture than yours. It’s easy to not see certain details when it’s a part of your accepted reality. But then I read something I don’t understand what are you talking about, so therefore you have to give me some more ins and more clarifications. It’s interesting to delve into those projects.
As you were mentioning about being from another culture, do you maybe notice something that unites the Baltic filmmakers?
It’s hard to say. Nowadays we live in such an international society. Every time I read the script from the Baltics, it could also come from the Balkans. In that sense, it’s hard to pinpoint something. I think there could be more truth to that statement when it comes to feature films. In the end, when you choose a topic for a feature film, you know you will spend a lot of time developing and making that film. The thing that strikes me is that every film like “Summer Survivors” (dir. Marija Kavtaradzė) tackles mental illness problems. I just worked with the film from Latvia and it’s the same notion of mental issues. It means that you have to talk about it because it seems like it’s lacking in the Baltics when it comes to this.
How do you approach scriptwriters and their stories as a consultant? Because everyone has their working technique and rhythm. Also, do you adapt your psychology knowledge/practice in the script consultancy?
It’s always something you do indirectly. It’s now a part of my DNA. Maybe the reason why I like script consultancy is that I’ve studied psychology and worked as a therapist before. It’s like second nature to me. In the end, it’s all about finding ways to talk to people and try to decipher what they’re after, and then trying to get the best way to that point, to make sure that they make their films, that I don’t impose anything. One thing I do very often, especially in the context of residency, where people usually don’t have to write a new draft of the script, I just talk about the characters. You talk about how people understand them, how they are interconnected. Like last year Madli Lääne, participant from Estonia, rewrote the whole script, but what we talked about was why the person acts and reacts the way she or he does. It all depends on the script and the writer. Some people are more mechanical and they just want to tell the story, and some are more into psychology.
After consulting scriptwriters for a long time, do you notice any common mistakes that they do writing the script?
In general, it’s difficult for beginner writers. It’s difficult to find the balance between giving too much and giving too little. And most people, who are starting off, are afraid to give too much, so therefore they give too little. And then you end up in this very enigmatic bubble because it actually takes very long to understand what’s going on, and therefore it becomes very hard to invest yourself emotionally. Somehow you feel like they are trying to impose some irrational structure to touch us, but all they do is trying to make us think, try to understand what are we watching. For me, the most common mistakes – finding the balance and being afraid to give too much, because then it would become corny. It’s also related to maturity. If you are very young, you don’t necessarily understand human behaviour. You haven’t lived as much, therefore there is some naivety or ignorance. But it’s something you have to forgive people because you can’t blame them for who they are and how old they are. One of the other mistakes that screenwriters do, is they write the script and think they tackle one thing, but they don’t. They want to tell a certain story, but they tell a different one. Or they think that the main character is this person, but if you truly look at the way the film is constructed, it’s not true. The notion of perspective is also very common in the context of scripts.
You’re also a member of the Selection Committee for the Official Short Film Competition of the Cannes Film Festival. What short films do you select? As a script consultant do you pay the most attention to the script or there are other qualities vital for a good film?
When I do the script consultancy, I pay attention to the scripts. When I watch films for Cannes, it doesn’t cross my mind. It’s more about the entire package, the personality, the identity of the film, how it tackles the language of cinema. It’s mostly those kinds of things. It needs to rejuvenate me, rejoice me. It needs to make me want to watch the film again. It has to stand out, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the script or something narratively speaking. The films have it or not. It’s really hard to describe or single it out. You just feel it. You watch films and there’s something special about them. As soon as you try to analyze what the film means, it means, it wasn’t good enough. I like the way I don’t know why the film affects me so much. It touches me emotionally and, in the end, that’s the essence.
The other thing that is important to me is sensing the integrity and the sincerity of the filmmaker, that there’s something real there, there’s no showing off or pretending. Again, just doing for the right reasons, no hypocrisy. Also, in Cannes, the films must be up to 15 minutes, and the ones we select get to the point very quickly. They take you by the hand, but not necessarily explain everything.
Baltic Short Film Project Pitching Event „Baltic Pitching Forum” is a unique platform of networking and bringing the latest short film projects from the Baltics into the spotlight. The Forum consists of an online script consultation with Wim Vanacker and a three-day training and pitching event alongside one-to-one meetings with film professionals from all over Europe.
This year a Guest Country of the Forum will be Poland. Eligible applicants for the 8th Baltic Pitching Forum – Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian and Polish film directors and/or producers who are developing a new project. Application deadline – 2nd of August. More information can be found here.