New Directors | New Films
Jeff Pope: Finding Uniqueness in Real Life

FEST’s Industry Program could not have started on a better note. After an afternoon of speed meetings, participants, talent, and guests alike got to sit in on a masterclass in storytelling by Jeff Pope, the BAFTA award winning screenwriter behind Philomena (2013) and Stan & Ollie (2018). 

Pope’s openness and down-to-earth demeanour throughout created the perfect environment at Centro Multimeios de Espinho to learn, reflect and ask questions. It’s precisely this process of asking questions, or “getting paid to be nosey,” as Pope so aptly put it, that has shaped the career of the Academy Award nominated screenwriter, from his background in journalism to his work in film and television. Pope has mastered the art of dramatising real life stories and finding twists and turns so unexpected that no fiction writer could conjure them up. 

“Knowing a story really happened, adds an extra dimension”, Pope explained, as he described his love for history, the real, and criminology, that has always permeated his work, both in journalism and in film.

Pope is adamant that young writers should embrace the inherent arrogance that comes from being the writer on set, and getting to call the shots on how a scene should be built. But being confident in one’s work should only come after they’ve poured themselves into their research and completely understood the story they wish to tell. 

The screenwriter's research involves meeting the people he is going to depict, if possible, and building a relationship based on honesty and trust. Concisely and casually, after showing clips from different projects, Pope shed some light on the process behind creating each scene and his contact with the real life people that inspired them. His creative process, he noted, always involves a mixing of humour in the midst of tragedy. 

By referring to the Iceberg metaphor, Pope laid out his strategy for finding the unexpected and non-cliché in every story: to go beyond a headline, which is only the tip, and find the unique aspect at the heart of the conflict. For Pope, avoiding cliché is essential and the best way to do it is to find the drive and humanity in every single one of his characters, which are always based in real, complex, flawed individuals. 

Anyone interested in writing for the screen, be it in Pope’s wheelhouse - true stories -, or in fiction, will have certainly picked up valuable tips and insight from this masterclass. After all, the highly experienced and successful speaker finds it especially rewarding to talk to young writers and pass on some of his knowledge. If there’s one message, above all, that he wished to convey through his masterclass, it’s that “we all make mistakes, and being honest about it will always help someone.” Even Jeff Pope gets “scared of the blank page, too.”


Francisca Tinoco and Carolina Gonçalves