Dr Helen Jacey is a professional screenwriter, lecturer, author and founder & CEO of Shedunnit Productions Ltd.
Helen started her company in 2018 to provide opportunities across media for intersectional feminist work. Helen has an MA in Screenwriting from the London Institute and a doctorate from the University of Arts London. An expert in female characterisation, her first book The Woman in the Story was published in 2010 and has since become renowned as the international handbook for screenwriters creating female characters.
Shedunnit Productions has a transmedia focus, supporting novels, film and TV, and music. Helen has been championing diversity in the film and TV industry for decades and has seen a sea change in the last ten years in terms of awareness of discriminatory barriers and increased efforts to remove obstacles for underrepresented voices.
Helen is the author of three novels that overturn the traditional crime genre and introduce a new form: feminist noir. Inspired by 1940s crime thrillers, Helen’s Elvira Slate Investigations series tells the disallowed histories of many 1940s women through her fiction.
Helen has worked for 20 years as a professional screenwriter with her work has been produced on TV and film. She lectures on female characterisation and is a judge at Women over 50 Film Festival.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I am a feminist author, screenwriter and story mentor for the international film industry, known for my expertise on screenwriting and gender. I’m also the founder of Shedunnit Productions which produces feminist content, including my 1940s feminist noir series Elvira Slate Investigations. As a passionate vintage fashion fan and lover of Old Hollywood, I got tired of all the sexist tropes of the genre which motivated me to create a character that contemporary women can relate to. I hold a PhD in Screenwriting and have taught part time at Bournemouth University where I launched the MA in Creative Writing and Publishing. I grew up in London and now live in East Sussex.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Yes, most significantly when I wanted to make a career change. As a young single mother in my twenties I was working in various management roles in the aid sector, even though I knew deep down it wasn’t ultimately what I wanted to do with my life. My final role in the sector was incredibly rewarding, closing down orphanages in Romania, but I knew I wanted to follow my lifelong dream to write. This was accompanied by some trepidation as I was giving up job security to be a freelancer. I believed a Masters programme would help the transition into the creative industry by giving me skills, knowledge, structure, contacts, and confidence, as well as opportunities for a range of work. This led me to undertake my MA in Screenwriting, followed by a PhD, at what is now the University of the Arts London.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Being a single parent with a very demanding management job inevitably makes you feel torn in many places. You want to be best for every part of your life, and sometimes this is impossible. Later, working in the film industry as a budding screenwriter, I was aware of how behind the industry was in terms of equality of opportunity, diversity, and its openness to stories by and about women. I was coming from an industry which is driven by human rights’ agendas and policies – not much had filtered through to film and TV which frankly in the early Noughties felt backward in comparison. For female screenwriters it was doubly hard to get commissions – most women writers I met then felt if they had a male protagonist then they had a better chance of getting their spec projects set up. Older female writers felt they were redundant and had zero chances in a male-dominated industry. Thankfully, a decade on, things have changed significantly thanks to widespread campaigning and awareness-raising. Other aspects are slower to change and some have gone backwards.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Publishing my first book The Woman in the Story: Writing Memorable Female Characters in 2010. It was the right book at the right time for a lot of women in the film industry who were grappling frustrations in what we call the ‘development process.’ The book opened so many doors for me, and I’ve been privileged to consult with high level talent on their projects. I knew the gender models in the book would work well in training, (as I had developed numerous training programmes for women in the aid sector) so I developed a masterclass seminar for professional screenwriters. Facilitating groups of writers (mainly women and a few brave men) in a safe space, where we could share all our problems in developing female characters, was a privilege. My masterclass was in demand with international film institutions all over the world. I travelled to Australia, Austria, Poland, the US, Sweden, Norway. The cherry on the cake was being invited by The Norwegian Film Institute to join a VIP panel on a day to honour Liv Ullman. For me Ullmann is an icon like Greta Garbo, so this was a big deal. I gave a one hour key note interpreting Ullmann’s roles using my book’s principles with Liv Ullmann herself sitting right in front of me in the front row! Luckily, she liked my interpretation of her roles.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Inspiration – and acting on it! If I get fired by a vision – a story, a project, a brand – I like to see it through with tenacity and hard work. I have learnt that if you truly are passionate about something, it will bring you success. The success might not come in the way you expected, but you will learn and grow from it. It might not be the right time, for instance you may be ahead of your time, or there may be other factors at play that are outside your control, but you did something you could put your heart in to. I’m a strong believer in giving things a shot, because the ‘not doing’ is a horrible regret to live with.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I am a passionate advocate of mentoring for women, so much so I have given my 1940s noir heroine Elvira Slate an older woman mentor figure in my book series, and this is a central theme. The bottom line is that women need each other as role models. Women’s entry into most industries is recent, we are still facing inequality in pay, glass ceilings, being taken seriously, having our confidence knocked through caring and being out of the work place, and imposter syndrome. It changes for the better every decade, but I think mentoring will remain a valuable process for women.
I have been on both sides of the mentoring coin. My professional women’s organisation Women in Film and TV opened up a mentoring scheme while I was transitioning from aid sector to the creative industries. Even though I had an agent for my writing, achieved my MA, and some writing commissions, I was still feeling I had more to give. I had plans but needed someone as a sounding board to help me position myself. I was lucky to be awarded a mentor by the scheme, and it came at exactly the right time. I will always be grateful to Margaret. Later I became an industry mentor for students at the London Film School for a few years, which was a great experience being able to give back. With my MA students at Bournemouth University, I have an informal mentoring role, helping them think about how they can take their projects into the wider world.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Somehow empowering men to lead and be accountable for the fight against toxic masculinity which harms everybody, boys and men included. Men still shame each other for embracing gentler ways of being, for being emotionally literate and empowering of others.
The insidious and covert ways in which toxic masculinity is still actually normalised in our culture will only change with progressive men taking collective responsibility and challenging other men. Turning the spotlight on masculinity is the swing we need now in our culture.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
In my early twenties, I wanted to write novels and make films, but it just felt impossible as a career goal. I just didn’t have the confidence to pursue it, so I didn’t make the right career choices to start early enough. I also had the pride of a twenty-something, not being able to seek out guidance for these lurking ambitions. I would be the person I needed then – someone to say ‘you aren’t alone, we can talk this through, we can work out ways you can pursue your ambition, and work out what’s getting in the way and how to shift it.’ I would be my own mentor, as I badly needed one!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Building the Shedunnit brand is an ongoing challenge but as it is one of the most rewarding and creative endeavours in my life it’s a happy challenge to have. Elvira Slate speaks to many younger women readers as she is relatable. Getting her widely known as the first (intersectional) feminist female sleuth set in the Golden Age of Hollywood is a big driver for me. The new website www.shedunnit.com went live on 15th September, and we are releasing an EP in late Autumn, which will be a great achievement as music is a new arena for me. I am busy completing the third book in the series, Third Woman, which will be out next year. I have plotted out a 10-book series, so a long-term goal is seeing all the books lined up on my bookshelf, and of course, writing the TV series.
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