A fresh, creative piece that effortlessly blends uncommon Caribbean conventions with classic relationship drama, Klieon John’s first screenplay, JEB, follows Jenine – a timid young girl hopelessly in love with a gallant, young house painter – Jeb. Too shy to approach him or capture his attention, she seeks the help of a mysterious obeah woman to help her win his love. The screenplay investigates the complexities surrounding love within the Caribbean culture in a fun, charming way.
Born and raised in the stunning island of Saint Christopher (more commonly known as St. Kitts), Klieon was instantly drawn to the media industry, “I’ve worked in the media since I was 14 years old, when I began hosting a youth TV show, [and] bounced around different media houses until I left to study in Jamaica, at 19.” he explained. “I fell in love with [Jamaica] and lived there for a few extra years, [before] moving back to St. Kitts in 2014.”
After exploring the path of a digital media strategist, Klieon reconnected with his artistic side to create JEB, which was recently selected as one of the winners for the Caribbean Film Project’s Screenwriting Competition, organized by the Caribbean Film Academy (CAFA). Enamored by the colorful culture that surrounded him and the art of storytelling from an early age, Klieon explained, “I always say that any story teller and artist who grew up in the Caribbean is incredibly lucky. We are exposed to so many amazing and colorful characters that all we need to do is observe and write. That’s what I do – I observe the characters around me and I try to blend their story with running cultural narratives like spirituality, superstition, politics, race, gender, class etc. I have more story ideas than I think I’ll ever be able to write.”
Klieon spoke candidly about the writing process, the Caribbean influence in his life + work, and his career journey thus far.
Twenty8+: When and what made you fall in love with film?
K. John: I was always a quiet kid with my nose in a book – literally any book I got my hands on. So needless to say I was a bit of a nerd. I’ve always and still do have an insatiable curiosity for all of life. I questioned everything and wanted very much to understand the world ahead of my years. Nothing has changed. So while I watched a lot of typical child cartoons, I was also interested in dramas, documentaries and classics. If I heard that a book or film had any kind of historical or pop cultural importance I wanted to read/watch it. I still laugh when I remember how I tried to conquer Great Expectations at 10. And I still haven’t finished that damn book! As a result, my humor was always grounded in wit and sarcasm and based on references far from home and from another time. So I’m sure you can imagine that a 13-year-old quipping about Casablanca had to learn to entertain himself!
I think my love for film as well as writing came from the early recognition that with those mediums you wield a power that you don’t have in life – to create and direct the world to what you think it should look and sound like. For someone constantly trying to escape reality, that’s quite an inviting prospect.
Twenty8+: You are a poet, a writer, a journalist, and digital media strategist; to name a few. What movies or stories inspired your passion for creativity growing up?
K. John: My favorite movie is The Wizard of Oz. As a chronic daydreamer myself, I fell in love with the idea of being transformed into a totally different world just in your mind, that to others may seem like a mere fantasy but to you is entirely real. Pretty much sums up my whole life, I think! I also like the themes of mysticism and magic, which now appear in a lot of my own work. Even then, I appreciated that the film questioned the credibility of magic but also implied an inherent power in simply believing in yourself. The film also took place around the time cinema first started to employ Technicolor and it was one of the most vibrant of its kind. The film literally starts in this kind of sepia tone and moves dramatically to this bold explosion of color, so it signified what was happening in the industry at the time. So films like that and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and The Never Ending Story really caught me because they pushed the boundaries of creativity by introducing new and fantastic worlds where everything you thought you knew was turned upside down. My creativity is also heavily influenced by Caribbean folklore and history. As a child I loved jumbie (ghost) stories and hearing about the “small days” of my parents and grandparents and the different ways they socialized. I guess that’s why most of my work involves rural, grassroots settings and almost always employs some sense of the supernatural.
Twenty8+: What is the best childhood memory you have about growing up in the Caribbean?
K. John: This is like asking what my favorite star is! Sitting on my grandmother’s veranda as she taught me to play dominoes springs first to mind. But there’s also the time my cousins and I wreaked havoc on my aunt’s house in Anguilla one summer – we made mud pies on the stove, totally messing up the kitchen, mixed every liquid we could find and destroyed all of her plants and each collected a proper cut ass when she got home. At the house where I grew up in St. Kitts, there was a huge breadfruit tree that was home to scores of chickens. Mischievously I would creep out in the evening when they were asleep and push them out of the tree with a bamboo rod and laugh as they fluttered down startled and frantic. I also really loved when my whole family would pack up on Sunday afternoons, drive to the country side and cut sugar cane when ‘crop come een’. Every kid got a knife to hack away clumsily at his own stalk, then we’d head back home in the evening and stand around laughing, telling stories and eating cane till we were sick. That was a Kittitian family tradition, which this new generation will never know.
Twenty8+: Your screenplay, JEB, was recently selected as one of the winners of the Caribbean Film Project’s Screenwriting Competition. Congratulations! How do you feel about your recent win?
K. John: I was elated when I saw the news! JEB is literally my first attempt at a screenplay and to be honest I had forgotten I even entered. I’ve always secretly wanted to make films but never had the confidence to try. I saw the announcement for CAFA late and scrambled to put something together in time. The story was in my head (it’s based on a series of poems & short stories I’m writing) but I had no idea how to go about writing a screenplay. So I Googled it. I really didn’t think it was good enough to win so I forgot about it. Months later I saw an email from CAFA and thought it was a newsletter or something so I didn’t open it until nearly a week after …by accident! I’ve never won anything before so I’m really happy that this is how I’m starting off as a filmmaker. It’s given me confidence and the validation that I might actually be good at this.
Twenty8+: Tell us about JEB. How important was it for you to share your culture in this screenplay and in your work in general?
K. John: Art imitates life. Life imitates art. An artist to me is a visionary with something to say about the world and society in which he lives. In that sense, I’d find it impossible to produce anything that doesn’t reflect some sense of my cultural reality. Also, St. Kitts has been very silent on the Caribbean art scene for a long time and it’s not for lack of talent. So I want my work to represent my culture but also help boost the visibility of my country. I want people (including Kittitians) to see the beauty that St. Kitts-Nevis has to offer.
As for JEB, it’s about a young girl who is too innocent and timid to approach the man of her dreams (Jeb), so she tries to hook him with obeah. However, the film really explores our latent vices that are uncovered by sexual desire and questions whether or not obeah is real or if we each create our own brand of it in our thoughts and actions.
Twenty8+: Describe your character development process. What were the cultural references for the characters in JEB? How emotionally invested are you with the characters of JEB?
K. John: I’m emotionally invested in every full stop in my work. The characters I create in poetry, short stories, and the other screenplays I’ve written since, tend to walk the borders of morality. I hate anyone who is too obviously good or bad… I like grey area…I like characters that you hate but still love; that confuse you but enchant you. Sometimes I don’t actually know who they are until the story is written and I realize that they are an older or younger version of a character from another piece. Or they may be the innkeeper who appeared briefly in another story or something. A lot of my characters share the same universe and appear in different ways in different works and you can probably connect them through six degrees of separation. And it’s when I realize who they are [that] I become emotionally attached to them. And that’s when I think of the most atrocious things to do to them – just like in real life.
Twenty8+: What has been the biggest highlight of your career, thus far?
K. John: Well I’m still a pretty young writer so I’d hardly call it a career just yet. But the last few months have been full of highlights. One thing that stands out is visiting Trinidad in May to attend the Bocas Literary Festival. I met Olive Senior there; one of my favorite writers. I introduced myself to her and she said, “Klieon John? Right. I’ve heard of you. You’re a writer, aren’t you?” And honestly, I think I peed myself a little bit. Prior to then, I had very little confidence in myself as a writer but knowing that someone like Olive can call me a writer was truly life-giving. It was also while in Trinidad that I saw the news from CAFA so that was a double dose of confidence. But most importantly, while there, I was introduced to a woman with an incredibly tragic story about the horrible social injustice that she has suffered – a modern day Job. I interviewed her for about four hours and was moved to tears and have not stopped thinking about her since. I’ll be sharing her story with the world soon. Her experience sobered me up and made me realize the kind of writer I want to be – one who stands for something and seeks to make a difference in the world. Writing isn’t just about playing with metaphors. It’s a social function; a responsibility that should be taken seriously. And that was cemented in July when I attended the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Oxford University put on by Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. That was a life-changing experience for me. I met some amazing writers from around the world and had the privilege of learning from some of the best in the field. I’ll never be the same.
Twenty8+: What are some of the obstacles you have had to overcome in transitioning from a digital media strategist to a screenwriter/filmmaker?
K. John: Well I still work in Digital Media so the transition is more from creative fiction/poetry to screenwriting. In that sense, it’s been challenging having to abandon the writing style one would use for the former. A screenplay isn’t published in bookstores for people to read – so instead of relying on clever and creative language, you have to rely on a different set of skills. It’s more about how you craft a story, create suspense, design your characters, etc. and not at all about how cleverly you can wield your words. I’m glad that CAFA has paired us with experienced directors to coach us through developing our screenplays because I think this training will make me a better fiction writer and poet too. Also, when you write a screenplay, you write it so that a director and his crew can understand it. So there [are] lots of technical elements to know about so they can be directed properly. And the thought of eventually having to let someone else have a large hand in the production of my work is a new and terrifying idea that I’m slowly (very slowly) warming up to. Writing is typically a solitary practice.
As for Media, I think I’ll always be a junkie but I’ll eventually switch over to art full time, which I don’t anticipate being too difficult a shift since the two fields complement each other already.
Twenty8+: What have you learned about yourself – positives and negatives – from the process of creating JEB?
K. John: Positives: I think I’ve been learning the new technique pretty quickly which is great. But my writing coach has been pushing me a lot to broaden my characters and add more complexity to my story and I’ve enjoyed rising to the challenge. I’m discovering more complexities within myself in the process and have been knocking down the walls of the box I’ve been brought up in. I care less these days about what I think people might like to see and more about what I want to show them. I’ve learnt to ask more of myself and to push my own boundaries to uncover the full potential of my creativity.
Negatives: I’m a lazy ass! I once heard that writers are people who find writing difficult, and I’m learning more and more why that’s true. I hate the act of revising, even though it really is a crucial part of the process. Half of the task is getting out of bed and behind the desk. And because I often get overwhelmed by the anxiety of wanting to produce perfection, I tend to put it off to go do something with lower stakes than writing, like BASE-jumping, perhaps. I also have trouble maintaining what I call my creative hard-on. So I get all hot and worked up and excited then I only have the stamina to write a page or two before I need to roll over and take a nap. It’s embarrassing. That’s probably why I won’t have any feature length stuff out for a while.
Twenty8+: What has helped to define your voice as a creative and a writer?
K. John: My experience as a Caribbean person. It’s looking at our unique history and characteristics, our triumphs and our struggles and wanting to represent it in an authentic way. It’s for that reason that I’m adamant about things like using authentic accents and creoles, using real scenery, telling diverse stories about diverse characters. I know that we are misrepresented a lot in northern media so I think we have a duty to tell our own stories as boldly as we dare.
Twenty8+: 2015 is shaping up to be a very exciting year for you, what else can we look forward to from you?
K. John: 2015 has been an amazing year so far! I’ve learned a lot about other and myself. I’ve met and overcome several personal challenges and I’m excited about the ones to come. The first half of the year has been spent mostly writing and preparing for a few art projects. I’ve been working on a few performance pieces, which is a new area of poetry for me that I hope to explore some more. Hopefully the second half will see the unveiling of the fruit of my efforts. I’m in the pre-production phase for a few more short films, trying to finish the pieces for my first collection of poetry, organizing a few art shows and other events in St. Kitts-Nevis and working with some amazingly talented young creatives who have been stimulating and challenging me every day. I’ve also been interested in other artistic genres aside from writing and I’m planning to explore those as well. So we’ll see what happens by the end of the year. Just stay tuned I guess.
Featured Image + Photos Courtesy of A Thomas Photography