Interview with Jo Ho

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Screenwriter Jo Ho and Spirit Warriors: Benedict Wong (Prometheus, Sunshine) and Jessica Henwick

Award-winning screenwriter Jo Ho has chalked up an impressive film and TV resume in a relatively short time. In her mid-20s, after five years of working in film production, she taught herself to write by watching the first season of The West Wing – eight times. The gamble paid off. Spirit Warriors, her acclaimed children’s adventure series for the BBC, is the first UK TV drama to be created by an East Asian person.

In 2009 she was named one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young Chinese People in the UK. A year later she won the Women in Film and Television’s New Talent Award. With Oprah, Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin among her role models, Ho is emulating their work ethic with five film scripts and three TV series in circulation. She explains why she is a rebel at heart and her determination to break down Chinese stereotypes.

What made you decide to write and when?
I’ve been working in film and TV since I graduated at 21. I knew I wanted to work in the industry, but I didn’t know what I would be good at so I got jobs on film sets. After five years I got fed up with killing myself only for the films I worked on not to be released as they were so bad. At the same time I loved [American] TV shows like Buffy and West Wing. I remembered thinking I had never seen characters, dialogue and writing like this on [British] TV. It was then that I started writing. I wish I could say I had always wanted to be a writer but when I started, I couldn’t stop.

You are a self taught writer. When you started writing, how did you overcome being intimidated?
I am just stubborn. I come from a background where everyone around me, including my family, said, “what makes you think you can do this?” I’m Chinese. I’m supposed to be doctor or lawyer. They were very surprised when I went down the film route as no one in my family has anything to do with the film industry. I always rebelled against these expectations.

How does it feel being the first East Asian person to have a drama series (Spirit Warriors) on British television?
I will always celebrate being the first as it is hard to break through as broadcasters stick with what they know. A new writer is a risk so we have to celebrate when something new happens, no matter who it is. One of my main reasons for the show [Spirit Warriors] was not seeing any British Chinese people on TV. They are always immigrants or negative stereotypes.

What are you currently working on?
Over the last year I’ve been working on a fairytale movie with acclaimed commercials director Chris Palmer [attached to direct the late Stanley Kubrick's Lunatic at Large]. I have a high concept fantasy movie which has interest from three well known companies and a TV series in development with Gurinder Chadha [Bend It Like Beckham]. I’ve also written two films, Spore, a sci fi thriller set in New York, and Bloodlines, a supernatural thriller, both of which are currently out with producers. Right at this moment I’m working on a gothic fairytale. I tend to write a lot of spec scripts that showcase my versatility so that I won’t be pigeonholed. Also, writing on spec is the only time I’ll get to tell the story I want, the way I want, before others (producers, directors, actors) wade in.

How do you get so much writing done?
I try to be a professional writer every day. I work from home, but it is like an office. I take it very seriously as a job. I compare and compete with the output of American writers like Joss Whedon [Buffy] and Aaron Sorkin [The Social Network]. I’m doing all of this on decaf coffee. I’m always reading up on my favourite writers and I am aware that they churn out a feature film every three months.

Do you see yourself being based in the US?
Yes and no. I love how huge the ambition is in LA and the scope of what you can do there. We struggle with budgets here. Almost all of my projects are high concept. If people here are interested they would need studio backing. At the same time I’d like to I think that it is possible to do what I do from this country.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to a budding scriptwriter?
Aside from watching TV shows and films, you have to spend half your time reading scripts. When I do workshops the one thing that budding scriptwriters never do is read scripts. How else are you going to learn your craft and compete? You need to see how the words sing and flow off the page. Anyone who is a screenwriter has to read as much as they watch.

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