Jo Ho is a self-taught British born Chinese screenwriter and director. Her first writing credit was for her own children’s fantasy drama, the much-acclaimed BBC hit ‘Spirit Warriors’ – it made Jo the first person of Chinese origin to create a television drama series in the UK.
Born in Essex, Jo has been recognised as one of the brightest young talents in the country. She was named Winner of the Women In Film and Television’s ‘New Talent’ Award (2010), while the show Spirit Warriors has been nominated for the Broadcast Awards.
Before Spirit Warriors Jo wrote and directed two short films – ‘Isolation 9’ and ‘Monkey Nut Tales’ (both are available to view on youtube) – and since Spirit Warriors she has been hired as a story consultant for BBC Worldwide.
Jo is currently developing a supernatural TV series with ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ director, Gurinder Chadha. She is also writing a fairytale movie called ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ with acclaimed commercials director, Chris Palmer and has just finished her latest original sci-fi screenplay entitled ‘Spore’.
Here Jo, takes time out from her hectic schedule, to give an interview to the TV Collective:
Tell us a bit about yourself? Like the film, I was ‘Made in Dagenham’, studied art and worked in many places: retail jobs to put myself through university (University of Westminster), then I jumped into feature film production, doing anything from makeup to location scouting to production managing. I’ve also worked at companies including Universal Studios, Five, Sony, Independent (then ‘ICM’) in an assistant capacity plus I’ve also worked as a freelance script reader/consultant. And I teach and speak at workshops when the schedule allows.
How did you get into screen writing? I’m self taught and started writing at 25. I basically became obsessed with TV series ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Buffy’ and learned how to write by reading and watching those. Then I moved onto reading feature scripts. I still try and read one a day now. I also watch a ridiculous amount of films, all in the name of research of course!
You had your first children’s drama, Spirit Warriors, accepted by the BBC. How easy was the process of getting your script accepted? Not easy! BBC Children’s only commission around four dramas a year and some of those slots are going to go to their long running or established series. So the competition is fierce as every company or writer in the UK with a kids drama series idea will be competing with you. I had to go through a long commissioning process and pass each of their several stages. Not unlike X Factor, only without the million pound contract at the end.
Do you think people from ethnic backgrounds need to pitch niche ideas to have a better chance of having something commissioned by big broadcasters? For example, is an Asian person more likely to be acknowledged for pitching an “Asian” story (so to speak) rather than a more mainstream idea? I think the writer just needs to have an original and authentic voice and believe in what they do. The quality of the writing is more important than the subject of the writing, though if you can combine the two, you’ll have a hit! It does help to write what you know though ultimately it’s your imagination that determines where you can go with any story. I’ve just finished writing a spec sci-fi action feature film and I can assure you, I don’t have much experience of any of those shenanigans.
Why do you think people from Chinese backgrounds are under represented in UK media, say compared to the US? Because we are the third largest minority, not the first or even the second. In the States, there is a far larger percentage of East Asians and it’s reflected a little more in their programming.
Also the East Asian community tend to be less vocal about what bothers us here and I think others mistake that as disinterest, when in reality, we care as much as the next person about realistic representation in the media.
A lot of the characters in your show Spirit Warriors are from Chinese backgrounds, is that something you consciously did when you penned the show? Absolutely. I wanted kids to see more faces like mine and to learn a little about our culture, but I also wanted it to be a modern take. The two Chinese lead girls are Westernised London kids like me, born and raised in the UK.
I also wanted to create roles for all these Chinese actors I know who struggle to work purely because there are so few roles written for them. I was hoping that by showcasing so many talented East Asian actors, other shows, producers and writers would create more of these roles in their productions. There’s this thing in the industry where some producers, commissioners and casting directors shy away from what they don’t know, but you know, “if you build it they will come”.
What’s your thought generally about diversity in the media? More realistic and contemporary representations needed. More in general and in leading roles, not just the side-kicks (this last applies more to Hollywood). I don’t only write East Asian characters in my work, I consciously create other minority leads whenever possible, and quite often there isn’t a race-centric storyline attached or if there is, it’ll be a different take than what you’re used to.
And for East Asians like me, please, please do away with the criminal storylines – there really are more of us in this country who are doctors, nurses, lawyers and accountants than there are triads, illegal immigrants and prostitutes. I’d like to see more stories about the second generation.
Do you think there are some things that have gone in your favour because you are from a diverse background? What do you think about the various diversity schemes on offer? I think I was lucky in that the BBC were open to doing a Chinese based kids drama and following on from Spirit Warriors, I get a lot of offers for films based on Chinese themes or martial arts – though clearly that’s just one aspect of what I am interested in.
I can’t really speak for the various diversity schemes as I’m not really up on what is available at the moment. The only one I have done is a two week development scheme called Compass Point which is run by The National Film and Television School and B3 – it put me in touch with some useful contacts and gave me access to camera and edit suites so that I could shoot my first short film, Isolation 9.
Were there any cultural barriers stopping you from pursuing this career? How supportive were your family? Are Chinese families generally supportive of their children pursuing careers like this? Mine weren’t supportive at first but that’s because it’s just not anything they know or understand. Both my parents never even finished school so it became a big deal for them just to find paid work and there I was saying I was going to be a screenwriter and film director! My mum would’ve much preferred it if I was a sensible lawyer earning a reliable income.
And speaking for the Chinese families that I know, no, they usually prefer their children to have a career where the risks are minimal and the rewards high, which makes sense. It takes a brave parent who can stand by and watch their child pursue something that might never happen and will probably get them into tons of debt in the process which is the reality of pursuing such a career if you don’t have parents with bottomless pockets. I had to sell my flat to fund my writing because the writing wasn’t paying enough to live on – and this was when I had a series in development. That’s the sad state of affairs in this country.
Had you pitched any other ideas before Spirit Warriors and how successful were they? I had pitched a few dramas. Some were turned down because they were too high concept, others, for really ridiculous reasons which I won’t go into now. I was also a neophyte writer, so that was a strike against me since all my ideas would’ve cost quite a bit to make. I love any story with a more fantastical edge to it.
What other screenwriting or directing jobs have you done? I hadn’t done any writing/directing jobs prior to Spirit Warriors, that was my first job as a screenwriter – my own series!
After that, I was hired to write an action film set in New York called ‘Shatter’, about two women who go on the run when they both get framed for murder, then I was a story consultant for a Buffyesque supernatural TV series for BBC Worldwide. Following that I was hired to write another film, this time a teen supernatural romance. Directing, I’ve shot my two short films, ‘Isolation 9’ and ‘Monkey Nut Tales’.
What are you doing now? I’ve got a supernatural TV series in development with Gurinder Chadha (‘Bend It Like Beckham’, ‘Bride and Prejudice’) and a fairytale movie, ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’, that I’m writing with the director, Chris Palmer (who will also direct ‘Lunatic at Large’, one of the late Stanley Kubrick’s projects). As mentioned earlier, I’ve just finished an original sci-fi screenplay called ‘Spore’, and a treatment for a high concept family movie. While those two projects are out to companies, I’m now writing a supernatural movie. I basically juggle multiple projects at all times.
What are your future goals? To make my own successful movies and television series. Save the world. Have more bags. The usual.
What advice would you give to someone from a diverse background wanting to make it as a mainstream screenwriter? If you’re looking for big bucks and overnight success, find something else to do. Those stories you read about some dude who makes a six figure deal on his first feature script? He’s actually written eight other movies but this was his first spec script to sell. But if writing is the one thing that gives you that buzz, then prepare to work hard. Write every day. Watch films, read scripts then read the trades. And when you’re not doing that, network. Write some more.
As a writer from a minority background, it is tough out there but it’s tough no matter what colour you are – so don’t give them an excuse to say no. And the only way to do that is to write better than any one else, regardless of your background.
Jamil Hussein is a writer and journalist. He was a finance journalist for 6 years before becoming a freelance journalist, writing on a range of topics including finance, current affairs, politics, religion and sport. His articles have been published in a number of outlets including BBC online, Emel Magazine and Muslim Weekly.