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Peres Owino On “The Basket Weaver”

Kenyan born, Peres Owino, award-winning storyteller’s directorial debut Bound: Africans vs African-Americans. It played several festivals around the world, winning the 2014 Women In Film- Lena Sharpe Award at the Seattle International Film Festival, the 2015 Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Pan African Film Festival, and 2015 Best Film Directed by a Woman of Color Award at NYC’s African Diaspora Film Festival.

Her latest screenplay, The Basket Weaver, winner of the 2015 Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab Competition, 2018 ISA Fast Track Fellowship and finalist of the 2018 Universal Studios Writing Competition and 2015 Hollywood Screenplay Contest is currently in pre-production. Seasons of Love, which she co-wrote with Sharon Brathwaite, was produced by Taraji P. Henson and earned them a 2015 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Television Movie. She has also been named one of the ISA Top 25 Screenwriters To Watch.

A commanding actress and an LA Ovation nominee Peres has appeared in dozens of plays in Los Angeles and New York. She is a Groundlings alumnus and standup comedian. Peres performs standup across Los Angeles and a collection of her musings are featured in her debut novel On The Verge.

She shared her story with Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project that attracted ISA interest?

Being born and raised in Kenya I grew up in a world made up of the remnants of both the traditional Luo and colonial British cultures. So I ingested a ridiculous amount of European history and ideology that was, and is, constantly at odds with how my people show up in the world.

This cultural schizophrenia has resulted in an internal conflict which reinforces one of the most profound words uttered by celebrated author Chinua Achebe, “Until the Lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” I am the Lioness telling the story of the hunt.  

My script The Basket Weaver is a love story that weaves the strands of its flawed characters’ lives into a simple question; is love nurtured by human perfection or by the manure of human misbehavior? The answers provided in the last scenes are messy, but they are fully woman, fully African, and fully human.

Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?

Well, if my mother is to be believed, I was telling stories at 5 years old. That made storytelling less of a decision for me and more of a calling. A responsibility handed down by my ancestors to record my people’s story and in some cases rewrite it. I believe(d) that so wholeheartedly that when my father put me on a plane to the US to study law, I secretly enrolled into the theater program, and for 3 years managed to hide that I was double majoring. When I graduated I moved to LA and I’ve never looked back.

What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?

I think successful screenwriters understand that it all begins with a LOVE for the craft. Without that, you are dead in the water. It is what sustains you in your lonely spaces. It keeps you coming back to that desk, computer, notepad, coffee house etc. Upon that foundation, add PATIENCE. Patience with yourself because you are going to do a lot of rewrites. Patience with producers because they are going to ask for a lot of rewrites. And patience with everyone you’ve asked to read your script because they are going to need a lot more time than you think.

And when you get their attention, LISTEN to the notes they share, but be smart about which notes to take. That is the line that separates screenwriters. Remember nothing is personal, everything is in the service of the story.

PERSEVERE through the feedback and rejection that will come. Though scary it makes a writer VULNERABLE, which makes for better writing. Ultimately, success cannot come if you give up, so PERSIST even when we don’t feel like writing. 3 hours a day, write something.

Find COMMUNITY to motivate you. Writing is a lonely craft but successful screenwriters have their tribes. And at the end of the day don’t forget to show some GRATITUDE. It keeps you from taking anything personally.

What is your winning script and why did you choose to write it?

I wrote The Basket Weaver because I was tired of seeing African men depicted as warmongering, bloodthirsty idiots, and African women as passive, non-verbal sidekicks. I want the world to see Africans the way I do. As interesting, subtle, but multi-dimensional human beings with simple needs wrapped up in complex relationships. That they have kinship with the rest of the world and therefore their stories resonate with the rest of the world.

What did you learn with each draft of your screenplay?

I’ve learned two profound lessons throughout this process. The first is knowing which notes to implement on the screenplay and which to leave on the notepad. The second, because I am also directing the film, the lens through which I see the story changes and grows as I change and grow. The story you tell is really a reflection of where you are at that moment time.

What misconceptions have you discovered about establishing a screenwriting career?

Win awards and you’ll quickly get representation! I’m part of a large group of award-winning women of color screenwriters and directors waiting to see if that one is true!  

What inspires your imagination?

“Basic human nonsense” is the way I describe it. It usually starts off as a quickening in my heart that may be triggered by something in the news, a comment my boyfriend or someone makes, or something so outlandish as my being curious about one of the characters in a Caravaggio painting. I can never predict the “what” it but I know it when I feel it.

Do you have a preferred genre, format, theme you write in?

Even though I am not drawn to a specific genre, I love to write grounded stories about characters who find themselves on opposite sides of history, ideology, war, and how they build a rickety bridge to each other. It is never about the death or victory of one over the other, but about how the characters eventually accept their humanity.  

How do you train and improve your writing craft?

Thankfully, my backgrounds in theater, improv, and standup comedy have been tremendously helpful in how I approach characters. I also read a ton of plays, scripts, novels etc. to move my craft of storytelling towards excellence. A couple of months ago I read The Usual Suspects, A Beautiful Mind, The Sixth Sense, and Moonlight, and threw the draft I was working on out the window. (Laughs)

Great scripts show me what is possible and I want that level of excellence in my work. But I’m also very careful that in my pursuit of excellence so I don’t become a perfectionist because that leads to procrastination and ends at paralysis.

Do you have any mentors, heroes/ heroines?

I have writing and directing mentors. I don’t have heroes because I find the idolization of humans problematic and crippling for both the “hero” and “adorant”.

What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?

Write and put it out there. If you don’t make it public we don’t know it exists.

What is something that few people know about you?

I love my eggs really well done. Runny yokes make me very anxious. (Omelette it is)
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