Bretten Hannam is a screenwriter, director, producer, and fiction writer. His short and feature-length films have been featured in festivals across Canada and abroad, including the Atlantic Film Festival, the Kashish Mumbai LGBT Film Festival, Los Angeles Cinefest, the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Hannam’s feature-length film North Mountain won awards including the Best Feature Film Awards from both the Two Cliffs Film Festival and Screen Nova Scotia (2016). In the following post, he talks to us about how he got his start as a writer, his advice for aspiring writers, what he loves about life in Nova Scotia, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and screenwriting in particular?
I remember being a kid and having a long roll of newsprint going across the floor. I’d start at one end and draw these insane stories with pictures and then explain them to anyone that was around. Kind of like oral storytelling with very colourful visual aids. After I learned to read it occurred to me that people have to make the books—they don’t fall out of the sky. So I had a few shaky attempts at writing a novel when I was thirteen (I think it was maybe 20 hand-written pages) and some short stories.
I had a similar experience with screenwriting when I watched a film made in Nova Scotia and realize that people also write films! I have a background in drawing and illustration as well, so screenwriting seemed a natural fit, since you write exactly what you see on screen and nothing more. But I love fiction, too. And oral storytelling. Really any type of story and I’m there. Got puppets? Bring ’em on!
In addition to being an accomplished screenwriter, you also write fiction. Do you see any similarities or differences between the two mediums?
Screenwriting is rigid in terms of format and framing. Those limitations give me walls to scale as far as pushing myself in terms of content. They force me to be creative. Without those constraints I don’t think I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard. When I was younger prose was frightening to write because a blank page can literally be filled with anything. With scripts, I know there’s a layout. A pace. A cadence. That takes pressure off, somewhat. But now that I’ve written a few scripts I turn to prose for exploration and relaxation (though sometimes it’s just as stressful).
What do you think is changing in film these days?
Accessibility (though on-going) has changed everything about how we communicate. The ways we can communicate, and the platforms we have. For both better and worse at times. Film isn’t any exception to this, though there are big machines in place that work to slow those changes every day.
One thing that doesn’t change is content. The story needs to be engaging. Have meaning. Observations. Comments on the world, on life, on imagination. Those aspects are rooted deep in our experiences and histories as human beings. They live now in oral traditions of Indigenous people, as well as independent cinema right here on this land.
Another change in film is the issue of Indigenous voices in storytelling. Non-Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories isn’t a new problem. But in the past decade or so there has been a slow move to make room for Indigenous filmmakers to tell Indigenous stories, whatever they might be. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it makes me happy to see those conversations happening and I’m excited to see how relationships continue to evolve.
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
This is my home. It’s where my family is from, and where many of my ancestors lived. The relationship with this place—the land, the water, the forest, and all the animals, is something I carry with me every day. It’s something that lives in the stories I speak, in the words I write. I know that no matter how far I wander there is a place here for me and that helps more than anything most days I’m feeling down. Sometimes when I’m walking in the forest, or outside, I see so much I want to share and I realize how many words I don’t have.
The seafood chowder is pretty good, too!
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
The biggest one I’ve encountered is that typing is writing. Lots of people think that all I do all day (or any writer for that matter) is type at a keyboard. But the process is so much more than that, and varies incredibly from person to person. Because of people equating writing and typing there’s a misconception that writing is easy. While sometimes the words come quickly, it’s never really easy (for me at least). But because so much of it happens hidden away in minds and hearts it can be difficult to understand.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Don’t worry about being perfect when you start. Or even good. Just write. Write about things that you’re passionate about, or things that scare you. Or write about your dreams, or characters and ideas that pop into your head. Let your writing be what it wants to be. Don’t try to force it into a shape you think will be best for your career. It’s a living thing as much as a process, or at least that’s how I’ve always seen it. You have to feed it (writing daily a little bit, or as often as you can), play with it (explore different forms and approaches), socialize it (share those stories with other writers, friends, and readers). It’s also important to read. A lot. Read all the time.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
I live in kespukwitk, close to the lakes and the forests I grew up with. I’m lucky to have relationships with this place, and to learn from it. Those are things I try to put into my writing. When people drive through here they might think it’s boring, that there is nothing. That’s far from true. When you stand outside alone at night, in the middle of the dark forest under moon and stars, you can hear the enormous sound of leaves crashing together, like a giant, dark ocean above you—there are a thousand voices that spring to life then. But you have to take the time to listen.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I will watch literally any sci-fi or fantasy television show. They’re basically melodrama with werewolves and robots! And sometimes it’s not of the highest calibre, but most of the time it’s at least fun! Enough that I can unwind and not worry about picking it apart for structure and plot. Though I have been known to curse at the TV when characters do things so out of left field that it makes no sense.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
When I’m stuck on a short story, I set it aside. That means I have an army of works in various stages of completion. But often after something happens to me in life, or I meet someone new, or remember something long forgotten, it will inspire me to finish the right story. I do the opposite for scripts. I beat it out—literally with story beats and index cards. I combine, erase, re-combine, and mess around until I work something out. Often it’s just a grueling step forward and 2 drafts down the road the real solution comes, but if I lose traction there I’ll be dead in the water. With fiction it’s a different process. If I tried to work through what I write in the same way as screenplays, I’d probably kill it. I’m pretty kind to my fiction, and a bit harsh with my screenplays.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on a whole bunch of short stories that I hope to get into decent enough shape to get published. I’ve also been writing a novel by hand for the past two years. It’s a very different process, but it forces me to be slow and think about things more before I jump into the writing. I don’t know if that will go anywhere, or if it will just end up being a good learning experience for me.
I’m also writing two new scripts—but it’s so early it’s hard to tell what type of stories they’ll turn out to be. Or at least, I don’t want to jinx it.