Buddhism, Development and Daphne with Screenwriter Nico Mensinga

Daphne is a coming-of-age movie about a 28, sorry, 31-year-old woman who witnesses a stabbing in a corner shop. Forced to confront her own mortality, she must reevaluate her own life, including her opinion of her mother's way of dealing with terminal cancer and her attitude towards love which, after Freud, she believes is a psychosis. Broadway Baby’s James T. Harding met screenwriter Nico Mensinga at the UK premiere of Daphne in Edinburgh to talk about Buddhism, film development, and random acts of kindness.

Nico Mensinga laughed when he heard my potted summary of the film. “I find it a nightmare, when people ask me what the film's about. I don't know how to talk about it without going into depth,” he explained. This isn’t a matter of great concern for him, “If you can't summarise your film in a pithy sentence, it doesn't lessen it.” But “I pity the marketing people that have to do it.”

At the start of her story, Daphne uses Žižek and Freud as armour to repel intimacy. One of the most striking scenes involves Daphne pouring her heart put to a stranger on the bus, having run away from her therapist. And later, she finds solace simply by sitting in silence with her therapist. Naturally I wanted to know more about Mensinga’s attitude towards this intersection between philosophy, therapy, and real human emotion.

“My mum's a psychotherapist,” said Mensinga with a wide smile. “A sip of wine might help me. One second.” He was in a celebratory mood when we met, having just heard he’s won Best Screenplay at the Malta film festival.

“I don't actually have a disagreement with Freud per se – I never thought I'd say that sentence – it’s more a character device for someone who thinks too much. If you're intelligent, you can see through everything. An analytical mind can find the flaws in things and then think, because they're clever…"

...they alienate themselves from living.

“Exactly. Reading Žižek and Freud is a symptom. Daphne keeps people at arms length – she views this as Yeah, but I prefer my own company and most people are dicks. On a first date she can already see everything that's wrong with that person before she's even given it a chance to see what could develop between them in the present. She might not be able to see it anymore, but that behaviour is not helpful for her because it's isolating.

“I'm a practicing Buddhist, and this is an image from my practice: often we in the West are like massive heads on a snake's body. We've overdeveloped our intellects and underdeveloped our connection to our bodies.

“The pivotal scene for me is when the shop assistant's been stabbed and he wants to hold Daphne’s hand, but she can't do it. She is self-conscious in that moment. You are one step removed from your experience if you have a narrative of your experience while you're in your experience.”

Is that where the silence in the therapy session comes from? “I feel like, in that moment, she's genuinely feeling something without needing to analyse it. She's trying to allow that to be felt without trying to immediately mask it or take the piss out of it.”

“You know the scene you picked up on with her on the bus? Sometimes it's easier to be yourself with someone you don't know and who you'll never see again than it is to be yourself with your mother or old friends. The town can be comforting or claustrophobic because everyone knows you; the city can be alienating or comforting because no-one knows you. In London, or any major city, you can brush up against intimacy in a way that can be both dangerous (violence, crime) or fleetingly connective. There are weird kindnesses in the city. I hope that comes across.”

Nico Mensinga met director Peter Mackie Burns though their mutual agent. They worked on a different feature project which didn’t take off, so Burns asked Mensinga if he had any short scripts “just so he could make something”.

The resulting short film, Happy Birthday to Me, stars Emily Beecham. Mensinga calls it “Daphne in prototype. When Peter sent it to me, I got really inspired by it. A lot to do with Emily's performance.”

Mensinga wrote first draft of Daphne of spec. “Although it was my own script, I was trying to imbibe what she did as an actress, the character she and Peter developed in the short film.” Screenwriting “is such a nebulous job. Having something concrete like an actress, I found it really helpful.”

The project found development at The Bureau with Beecham attached. “I couldn't imagine anyone else, because I wrote it for her!”

Mensinga has an intuitive, perhaps chaotic, approach to writing. “So far, I have not outlined what I've written. Often, I start with an inciting incident and then I don't know how it's going to end as I'm writing. I'm trying to discover it in the writing.”

“Sometimes it's not very good.”

Daphne went through around six major drafts. The early notes rarely discussed the overall structure of the film. Mensinga remembers producer Valentina Brazzini “talking really early on about having to rigorously look at everything in the script and strive not to be cliched. There was nothing to start with about making it more tense in Act II, or adding something to make it more commercial. We were always like, What can we do, on the level of scenes, to bring out the richness of her character?

The writing in the finished film certainly feels acutely observational, but the brutally short scenes (“a scene just runs out of juice for me, and then I end it”) are highly structured. The stabbing and Daphne’s connection with a stranger on the bus, for example, occur pretty much exactly across each other from the midpoint.

This structure work occurred in the late stages of development. “We were analysing sequences, we were doing the screenwriting stuff of strands and arcs. Trying to make sure that it was all working in synthesis. That is the beauty and wonder of screenwriting: it's both an art, intuitive, while also being rigorously scientific.

“John-Henry Butterworth once said to me, it's interesting when you're working – particularly for Hollywood – they really want a rigorous outline and to know everything about the structure. They talk in terms of turning points and acts and all that. That's OK, but that's like the architectural blueprint of the house. Really my job as a writer – this is him talking – it to make sure that house is haunted.”

Daphne appears in cinemas from today.

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