Screenwriter originally from Labrador wins big at international competition

·4 min read
Byron Hamel's award-winning script, Shade of the Grapefruit Tree, is based on his childhood growing up in the US with an abusive stepfather.  (Submitted by Byron Hamel - image credit)
Byron Hamel's award-winning script, Shade of the Grapefruit Tree, is based on his childhood growing up in the US with an abusive stepfather. (Submitted by Byron Hamel - image credit)
Submitted by Byron Hamel
Submitted by Byron Hamel

A Happy Valley-Goose Bay-born screenwriter has won a prestigious award from the organization that hands out the Oscars every year.

Byron Hamel, who now lives in Winnipeg, is one of five winners of this year's Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, an award for new feature film screenwriters, administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Out of almost 8,200 scripts — a record for the competition — from 89 countries, Hamel won with his screenplay Shade of the Grapefruit Tree, the only winner in Canada, Hamel said.

"I'm not even going to pretend to be humble about that. My script is amazing," he said in a recent CBC Labrador Morning interview.

I want to remind them, again and again, throughout the bombardment of horror, that life is good. - Byron Hamel

Hamel's screenplay, his first drama, is about a severely abused white boy learning about robotics from his science-fiction-obsessed Black landlady.

He becomes empowered to confront his murderous stepfather.

Abusive upbringing

The story is based on Hamel's childhood growing up in the U.S. during the 1980s. His mother met the man who'd raise him through a church-based prison outreach program in Oregon.

Hamel said the man moved in the day he was released, and they moved to Palm Springs, Calif. The abuse started in 1981, when Hamel was four years old.

Submitted by Byron Hamel
Submitted by Byron Hamel

He remembers his stepfather putting his face over a barbecue grill, shoving a jalapeno pepper up his nose, as well as incidents he describes as water torture.

Hamel recalls having to kick away from the side of a pool to get away from his stepfather, who was holding him under water; the man ripping a patch of hair from Hamel's head because he was using it to hold him under.

Another time, Hamel says, the man stalked him around the house with a machete.

Write completely from the heart. - Byron Hamel

"I lost my childhood to this guy," Hamel said, who moved back to Labrador as a teenager to be with his biological dad.

Years later, Hamel found out that his stepfather — who had become involved with another family — was sentenced to death for torturing a toddler to death in Alameda, Calif.

While reading court documents, Hamel discovered that things that had been done to him were also done to the other child. For that, he said, he suffers from survivor's guilt.

Healing

The main character of Hamel's screenplay, Jamie, starts thinking of himself as a robot with a force field around him so that he can confront his stepfather.

"I didn't want to be like a person. I wanted to be a robot," said Hamel, who learned to shut off his emotions as a child.

"I didn't want all those emotions of fear. I didn't want the pain of getting hit, and having peppers shoved up your nose."

He says it was difficult to write his screenplay, to relive the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather and to face the fear.

"It really healed me to work through that process, and do that revisionism where I get to go back and kick his butt, which I do in the screenplay, but it hurts a lot to feel that again."

Submitted by Byron Hamel
Submitted by Byron Hamel

Hamel says his life is better now for having written it — especially after winning the Nicholl Fellowship — and he says his script does have some lighter moments, too.

"I don't want to just bombard the audience with horror. I want to remind them, again and again, throughout the bombardment of horror, that life is good. That it has a lot of good things about it, that there's beauty."

Hamel says it's a story about overcoming, and he is the protagonist.

"Children who are being abused never actually get their story told in terms of how we can move past the abuse and become parents ourselves who are not abusive to our kids," he said.

Making waves

Hamel says being a Nicholl fellow means he's now part of an elite club for life with people who make movies, but a lot of hard work lies ahead.

As a Nicholl fellow, Hamel had a virtual conversation with Oscar-winning producer Phil Lord, who received an Academy Award for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Lord told Hamel that reading his work was "really inspiring" and added that people will ask Hamel what helped his writing turn the corner.

"Write completely from your heart," Hamel replied.

Hamel strongly believes his stories can help spread love in the world that's increasingly full of hate.

"I have a desperate desire to alter that wavelength in the world, to change that, and I believe, I really believe I can do that," he said.

Nicholl fellowship winners are expected to write a new screenplay over the next year. Hamel says he's going to write three: two dramas and a horror sci-fi based in Labrador.

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