SPS-201: How to Write an Oscar-Nominated Screenplay – with Terri Tatchell
Terri Tatchell is a Canadian author who co-wrote the Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated film District 9. She talks to James about writing that screenplay, working with Peter Jackson in New Zealand, what she looks for when adapting a novel for the screen, and the children’s picture books she’s self-publishing.
- Going to film school and writing a scholarship-winning screenplay in a weekend
- The importance of authenticity when networking
- On the genesis of the Academy Award nominated film District 9
- How stories evolve as we work on them
- Writing with a partner and leaving the work at the front door when you go home
- Believing in the math of the outline
- The practicalities of writing for visual effects in film
- Whether having a main character readers can identify with is important
- The opportunities that come with major Hollywood success
- What Terri looks for when adapting a novel to the screen
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
TRANSCRIPT of interview with Terri Tatchell
Narrator: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show …
Terri Tatchell: I’m very bored by likable characters. I prefer films and books where the character is flawed. And I would argue that it’s actually easier to engage an audience with a flawed character.
Narrator: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers.
Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-publishing Show.
There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to The Self-publishing Show. My name is James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: My name is Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: You’re so much quieter than me.
Mark Dawson: I know.
James Blatch: You’ve got your badge on.
Mark Dawson: I do just because people forget who I am.
James Blatch: We should say that we’re recording this from a Las Vegas hotel room. And actually, ironically, what happens in Vegas is going out on a podcast.
Mark Dawson: It doesn’t.
James Blatch: We’ve broken the rule, we’ve broken the first rule of Vegas.
Mark Dawson: It doesn’t stay in Vegas, that’s very true. Not everything is going to go out there, some things have to stay in Vegas.
James Blatch: We are recording this at Sam’s Town in Vegas, which is the home of 20 Books conference this year. So it’s currently … where are we, in November?
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: So, it’s still November I think when this is going out because it’s-
Mark Dawson: If you say so.
James Blatch: … contemporaneous. And this is the world’s weirdest hotel. They have this animatronic thing and it’s just been in full voice. It’s got a stuffed bear, I think there’s fleas on it, I wouldn’t get too close to it. What is that called?
Mark Dawson: I don’t know. What’s the thing on the right?
James Blatch: An eagle.
Mark Dawson: It’s an eagle, yes, and there’s a wolf that appears. It’s hilarious.
James Blatch: And every two hours it bursts into life and it does a very powerful moving sequence which says “I am an American,” I think.
Mark Dawson: I was in tears.
James Blatch: I know.
Mark Dawson: It’s beautiful.
James Blatch: It is beautiful.
Mark Dawson: Right?
James Blatch: So this is the off strip part of Vegas. So you get all those big plush hotels on the strip and the travel lodges in between. And this is kind of kitsch, I guess it’s sort of old, “Let’s try and do something a bit cheaper and tackier,” even cheaper, tackier.
Mark Dawson: I’m not going to comment on that, James. You’re insulting the hotel and the conference. It’s a lovely hotel.
James Blatch: I think people come here for the history. Now, we have two Patreon supporters … well, I don’t think we’ve ever welcomed patron supporters live in person. But they are JD Laska, a fellow thriller writer, and Alana Delacroix.
Mark Dawson: I think when we welcome them live in person, you really should visit them-
James Blatch: Because actually-
Mark Dawson: … knock on the door.
James Blatch: … JD Laska is here. We could go and shake their hands. I saw him earlier. I’m not sure if Alana Delacroix is here. But anyway, we want to say thank you very much indeed to both of you for supporting us.
If you go to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow, you can support us for as little as a dollar an episode and feel a part of the team.
Okay, right. We have a great interview today. We have an interview with, I think, probably our first Oscar nominated interviewee.
Mark Dawson: Not probably, definitely.
James Blatch: Definitely our first Oscar nominated interviewee. We’ve had a Pulitzer Prize winner before.
Mark Dawson: Have we?
James Blatch: Yes. Who won the Pulitzer Prize, do you remember? We interviewed him in New York.
Mark Dawson: JD Salinger?
James Blatch: Wasn’t JD Salinger, I would have remembered.
Cameraman: John Sanford?
James Blatch: John Sanford, yes. John Sanford won a Pulitzer Prize-
Mark Dawson: Oh, for his journalism.
James Blatch: … for his journalism before he started writing-
Mark Dawson: He did.
James Blatch: … novels to pay the bills. Okay, but we’re going to be talking to Terri Tatchell.
Terri is a screenwriter. She is a partner in more ways than one with the director called Neill Blomkamp. You’re supposed to help me out here.
Mark Dawson: I want to make you suffer.
James Blatch: Oh, okay. And most famously, District 9 was the-
Mark Dawson: … which I classified-
James Blatch: Did you classify it?
Mark Dawson: … now that we have seen.
James Blatch: We should tell people what you used to do so they will see what you mean by that.
Mark Dawson: Well, yes. We used to work at the BBC classifying films and giving them their age ratings. And I remember District 9 coming in, very excited, because there was a lot of buzz about it. And thoroughly enjoyed it and gave it … did we give it a 15? 15 only?
James Blatch: Yeah, I think 15.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, we think it’s 15.
James Blatch: Filthy porn.
Mark Dawson: Yes, there was a filthy porn.
James Blatch: It’s a film that stays with you, isn’t it?
Mark Dawson: It does.
James Blatch: I can still remember some lines from it.
Mark Dawson: I had some filthy porns last night, they’re staying with me.
James Blatch: Yeah, they don’t stay with you that long.
Mark Dawson: No.
James Blatch: That’s the problem with the filthy porns.
Okay, look. Let’s throw to this interview. It was recorded in Vancouver, another part of this beautiful continent of North America. And it was really interesting talking to Terri about the evolution of what turned out to be a very successful screenplay, how it started. It’s a longer process than running an outline for a novel, let’s say that.
Mark Dawson: Unless you are writing it.
James Blatch: Unless I’m writing it, in which case is much quicker. Okay, let’s hear from Terri and then Mark and I will have a chat off the back of this.
Terri Tatchell, welcome to The Self-publishing Show. Normally, I’m standing in rainy Huntington and somebody is in somewhere glamorous, but we’ve come to you. We’re in Vancouver. I’ve put on my Canada hoodie to make you feel a bit more relaxed.
Terri Tatchell: I appreciate that very much. I wish I had my London or England hoodie.
James Blatch: Yeah, but this is about you, it’s not about me. I’ve also brought a puck.
Terri Tatchell: Ah, our Canucks.
James Blatch: The what?
Terri Tatchell: The Canucks, the Vancouver Canucks.
James Blatch: So we don’t actually have explicit tags on this podcast, but if you could restrain yourself a little. Yeah, no, it’s an actual real puck from the NHL. So Canucks, Canucks?
Terri Tatchell: Canucks.
James Blatch: That’s really how you say that?
Terri Tatchell: It is.
James Blatch: Not the Canucks?
Terri Tatchell: No, Canucks.
James Blatch: It’s a type of duck, right?
Terri Tatchell: I don’t know. I think … no, I don’t think so. It may be.
James Blatch: We’ll get letters. As soon as I say anything like this, we get 15 emails where they will correct us anyway.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: So I’m going to put the puck there, I’ve got my Canada jacket on here or a hoodie. And you brought us, to make me feel at home, you brought us tea.
Terri Tatchell: Yes, I did. We call it high tea in North America so that we can sell it all day, but it’s afternoon tea, I believe is what you know it to be.
James Blatch: I think the camera man will eventually pick up on the fact we talk about the tea.
Cameraman: I’ll do it after.
James Blatch: Oh, okay. So high tea-
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: … do you think that that’s what we do in England at 4:00 o’clock every day?
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: Oh, good. And that’s beautiful, it looks actually fantastic.
Terri Tatchell: Thank you.
James Blatch: Now, we’re going to talk to you about screenwriting as the main thing that we’d love to get out of this, but you also have a children’s book which is amazing, self-published. We’ll talk about that a bit as well.
Terri Tatchell: Great.
James Blatch: It is worth noting you’re a bit of an entrepreneur. This tea has come from your tea shop as you say.
Terri Tatchell: Yes, we just celebrated our six year anniversary and it’s all kind of tied in though, the tea salon was an antidote to the lonely writing.
James Blatch: The lonely lifestyle. And you also dabble in wine?
Terri Tatchell: Yes, we have a little vineyard. I would like to say I make the wine, but I don’t. I just watch the grapes grow and pat myself on the back when I drink the wine.
James Blatch: And drink it?
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: Obviously have one involved in that, be that victim.
Terri, screenwriting is something that you’re very accomplished at. And I think probably, do you think it’s like … if someone says to you, “What do you do?” and you have to come up with one or two words to answer that, would screenwriting be it?
Terri Tatchell: I do screenwriter because that’s my primary means of income, yeah.
James Blatch: That’s the one that’s paid the most bills.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah. The restaurant is a bit of a fancy.
James Blatch: Did your screenwriting develop from other types of writing or was screenwriting always from university you wanted to do?
Terri Tatchell: It’s funny, no. I always wanted to write children’s books. And it hadn’t occurred to me, like I’m sure everybody else, that I could be a writer. It just seemed like a pipe dream.
I went to university for psychology. I worked at a bank and then I had my daughter and I thought, “If I’m going to be away from her and working on something, it better be worth it.” And so I did all those, “What do you love?” and writing lists.
And interestingly, I don’t remember what the five things were, but I know one was movies and one was books, children’s books. And so I was like, “Okay, children’s books.” And I went and did a writing class at the local college when I had my new baby … she’s 20 now. And from that, I found out that there was a competition at Vancouver Film School, an international competition and they were giving away …
And the first of all, that there was a Vancouver Film School, and secondly that they actually taught screenwriting. And to back up a little bit, I had worked at a visual effects company and had broken down scripts. Jumanji actually, I had had my hands on a script.
James Blatch: When you say broken down scripts, what do you mean?
Terri Tatchell: So you go through and you say what would need visual effects and how much that would cost. And so I held it and read it and though-
James Blatch: So if it said 1,000 elephants that went through the living room, you’d say, “Alright-”
Terri Tatchell: … exactly, a lot of visual effects.
James Blatch: “… probably going to require some …”
Terri Tatchell: We didn’t get it but … so I knew what a script looked like and I knew its format and I thought, “Well, if there’s this competition I’d be crazy not to at least try.” So I got How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days and wrote a screenplay in a weekend and sent it in and kind of forgot about it.
And then I got a phone call saying that I was in the finals and they were going to interview me and on the phone. So they interviewed me on the phone and then I found out I got the scholarship.
James Blatch: Wow.
Terri Tatchell: And so I was able to go to film school for writing, which I would never have done otherwise because I would never … it felt like such a crazy thing to say, “I’m going to write movies,” at that time in my life anyway. So I was really excited that they had seen something in my writing and they believed in me.
James Blatch: Tell us about that script you put in that you came up with in a weekend.
Terri Tatchell: I still have it. Actually, it was two, I did two. One was about a hyena, it was Hubert Hyena’s first birthday, a kid’s story.
James Blatch: Oh, okay.
Terri Tatchell: And then the other one was a time slip back to World War II.
James Blatch: Really?
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: With fewer hyenas?
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, no hyenas.
James Blatch: Okay.
Terri Tatchell: So they’re both kind of kid oriented, so I was still hanging on to my kid-like leanings.
James Blatch: Because screenwriting is quite a formatted process, isn’t it?
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: Did you understand that at that stage?
Terri Tatchell: It was pretty easy to pick up.
James Blatch: Did they give those software that you can …
Terri Tatchell: I did it on Word at the time-
James Blatch: Oh, okay.
Terri Tatchell: … because I wasn’t about to … actually, I don’t even know when the software came out. But yeah, I didn’t really know if I would get a scholarship.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Terri Tatchell: And it wasn’t something that I thought, “Well, I’m going to try this anyway,” because I was still onto the kids’ books. But yeah, formatting really is not hard.
James Blatch: Okay. Well, I’ll talk a little bit about that later. We’ve had another screenwriter on who talked about that and he said the same thing, that that’s not the challenge here.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, no, not at all.
James Blatch: You obviously at that stage had an instinct for writing for the screen.
Terri Tatchell: Well, like I said, my list was books and movies. And I always laugh and tell the story about when I looked through my diaries when I was little in grade six. Every week was a movie review.
James Blatch: Wow, okay.
Terri Tatchell: Like I was obsessed with the Oscars and I was obsessed with movies and I was brought up my parents who loved movies. And they were quite young when they had me, so they couldn’t afford babysitters. So they took me to all the movies, so I was really lucky that I saw a lot of movies-
James Blatch: It was in the blood.
Terri Tatchell: … much younger, yeah.
James Blatch: And you mentioned the Oscars, so just to skip forward a little bit, and this is a spoiler alert.
This works out quite well for you because you have an Oscar nomination for your screenwriting now.
Terri Tatchell: Yes, that was a pretty amazing day.
James Blatch: We’ll talk about District 9, which was your big hit and you were nominated for in particular. And I would say to people listening that it might be worth watching the film and then listening to this interview because I want to talk a little bit about the character and some of the choices that you made in that process and writing for the screen. So if you haven’t watched District 9, you should watch it. It’s an awesome movie as well.
But there are other movies as well we can talk about. So anyway, you got your scholarship, you went to your screenwriting school.
At some point, you met your husband. Did you know Neill at this stage?
Terri Tatchell: No, I didn’t. And so then I doubled-
James Blatch: You should say who your husband because it’s part relevant to the story.
Terri Tatchell: Neill Blomkamp and we work together often and he’s a director. He directed District 9.
So as soon as I graduated from film school, I pretty much immediately went back to that job where I did the Jumanji breakdown, even though it had been quite a few years earlier, and said, “I’m back. You need to hire me again. And this time I’m going to try and make contacts with LA people so that I can become a famous screenwriter,” and so I was lucky.
The CEO at the time who I had been his assistant previously, and the person that replaced me, it had been eight years prior, she was just about to leave.
And a creature of habit, so he would rather … and so I said, “Okay, well I’ll come back and be your assistant again if you’ll also let me do PR.” So I got to do the PR at the company so I was able … it was definitely best. I met all local people for film and then I would also meet LA people that he was dealing with.
So I wouldn’t say I made any contacts that did anything, but it made me feel extremely comfortable in that world.
James Blatch: Some people listen to this hate the idea of the whole networking thing, but they’re talented writers.
How important is the contact business in Hollywood, is it essential to be a networker?
Terri Tatchell: I feel pretty strongly about networking because around that time, Women in Film in Vancouver was great and I was on the board. And they had a big component at that time that was about networking and it absolutely made my stomach turn because it’s the kind of networking that I think is terrible to teach people.
They’re all different people now and I’m sure it’s wonderful, so this is, like I said, 20 years ago. But I do not believe in purposeful networking at all.
People can sniff it, they can smell it, they know. I think that writers can often be very introverted, so I think that you need to encourage yourself to actually go to events. And if you meet someone that you have an authentic, real connection or conversation with then that’s great.
And you should never force it. You can just tell and I didn’t ever feel comfortable doing that which is why it’s great.
I also encourage people that are younger and just starting out, if they want to be a director or writer or someone, like go be somebody’s assistant. Because being somebody’s assistant is the best way to get to know the world and the people and realize that they’re just like you. And that’s probably the most comforting thing there is, so that’s the kind of networking that I endorse.
James Blatch: So just be a friendly person, be interested in other people.
Terri Tatchell: Well, if you’re not friendly, don’t be friendly. Be yourself really-
James Blatch: Be an angry person.
Terri Tatchell: … because there is going to be someone that’s not friendly that maybe you’re going to make a connection with because they recognize why you’re not friendly. So just honestly be yourself, but step outside of your comfort zone and put yourself in that position would be my biggest advice because it’s hard for all of us.
I wouldn’t say I’m an introvert, but I even still sometimes are like, “Oh, it’d be so easy to stay at home and watch TV.”
Then it’s like, “No, you should put yourself out there, you should go. You should go on that business trip. You should have that meeting in person instead of on Skype,” and you make connections. Real connections are always better.
James Blatch: Okay. I should say the noise that people might be able to hear outside is sea planes.
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: Because it’s amazing, Vancouver Harbor here. Is it the Harbor, do you call it Harbor?
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: There are this succession of sea planes I guess taking tourists on little trips around. And it looks incredible, but you can hear them revving up every now and again.
I did do a time lapse which we’ll drop into this video so people can see that. Just thought I’d mention that because it’s noisy.
So you go back to that company, you’re doing a bit of PR, you’re networking but in an organic way, should we call it that?
Terri Tatchell: Yes. Yes, I’d like to think so.
James Blatch: In a normal way, not forced way?
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: How did you end up on District 9?
Terri Tatchell: Well Neil, my now husband, actually worked at … Rainmaker was the company. He worked there as an animator and he left three weeks before I came back. And so we didn’t ever work together, but they actually had a pub on the premises so it was quite a party environment.
James Blatch: So you got drunk together.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, I think we might’ve. I think there was an ’80s party the first night we hung out there. And so actually, the first time we spoke ever was he called to ask permission to shoot some sort of zombie thing in the basement. And as the president’s assistant, it was up to me to give him permission or not.
And of course, I had heard about this Neill Blomkamp guy who was, even though he was directing music videos at the time, he was very evidently going to make incredible things. So I did know who he was, so I did give him permission.
James Blatch: Okay. And you started seeing each other at some point or how was that …
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, I would say-
James Blatch: I don’t want to pry on that side of it, we’ll try and get professional. But obviously you got together as well-
Terri Tatchell: … we did.
James Blatch: … at the same time? Okay.
Terri Tatchell: It was at that ’80s party where the interest was expressed and probably about, I don’t know, six months.
James Blatch: Was he dressed as Maverick from Top Gun?
Terri Tatchell: No, he was just dressed as himself. I went more the Knots Landing look, but he actually just came as himself. I believe I was wearing a pink suit and feathered hair.
James Blatch: We’ve seen some amazing Hallmark TV, haven’t we, this week? It’s quite gripping.
Terri Tatchell: A lot of that is shot here.
James Blatch: Oh, is it?
Terri Tatchell: Actually Neverland, my tea salon, they did a Hallmark movie in there.
James Blatch: We could’ve been in this one. We were following the fortunes of Cindy who was unlucky in love at every time, but they shared a-
Terri Tatchell: Oh, until the third act.
James Blatch: … yes, exactly. Yeah, the third act is kind of … we’re missing it now. Okay, so let’s talk about District 9 then.
Terri Tatchell: Okay.
James Blatch: I know that Neill had a short, first of all. He had a few shorts around and this was one of them.
Terri Tatchell: Alive in Joburg. First he did Tetra Vaal. He’d been shooting and shooting and shooting forever, but the first one that got put online, that he put online was Tetra Vaal. And he wanted to start shooting commercials and so it was a commercial for a policing robot, Chappie.
That was one minute and it kind of broke the internet. And then he did Alive in Joburg and that kind of set up the world. He went into Soweto and interviewed people and said that aliens are coming, they need your house.
In South Africa at the time, aliens meant people from outside of South Africa. And then he used that footage and put in aliens and so that was a pretty brilliant project that he did. I didn’t have anything to do with that except for, “What are you doing in that room?”
Because sometimes he does things where he just wants to surprise me and show me the end product. And that was one. Raaka, a short film that he did for his own studio, was another one. Those two were just surprises.
James Blatch: And at some point that short picks up more serious interest.
Terri Tatchell: It did. There were offers from studios to turn that into a feature. And about the time that we were in talks on that, Peter Jackson got ahold of Neill to direct Halo. So we moved with our daughter to New Zealand to direct Halo in Wellington. And so that was about four months before that tanked.
James Blatch: So this is the spin off from the video game?
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: The world’s greatest video game, by the way, Halo.
Terri Tatchell: Yes. I’ve actually read all the novels even.
James Blatch: Have you? And that film didn’t come to anything, did it?
Terri Tatchell: No, I think it’s a TV series now. I mean, it comes, it goes, it comes, it goes, it comes and goes. There’s a lot of players that have to agree, so I think it’s been a tough project.
James Blatch: And this introduces us to the vagaries of Hollywood. There’ll be people listening to this whose books have been optioned 15 years ago.
As Douglas Adams famously said, “It’s going to be made into a film any decade now,” so it’s a rough business.
Terri Tatchell: It’s true. And I have to say I’ve optioned books with the best of intentions and tried my absolute hardest to get them made and I’ve renewed and still finally … yeah, it’s tough to get films made. It really, really is. It is.
James Blatch: Yeah. But when Peter Jackson shows interest … and Peter Jackson, of course, Lord of the Rings.
Terri Tatchell: Yes, that was good. When Halo went away and he knew we’d moved our daughter, and he and Fran, that’s his wife who is also his brilliant writing partner, they said, “That short film, why don’t you guys just stay around and develop that?”
So we stayed in New Zealand and wrote for a year. It took us a year to write it. And Cassidy, our daughter’s life … she says it was a forever change, she loved New Zealand.
James Blatch: It took a year to write it?
Terri Tatchell: It did, yeah.
James Blatch: Let’s talk about that then. So you start with this idea that Neil’s got … it’s why I say it’s useful to watch District 9 in advance of this interview.
If you haven’t watched District 9 in advance of this interview, in short, the film starts maybe three months after this mothership has arrived overhead Johannesburg?
Terri Tatchell: Johannesburg, yes.
James Blatch: And then what is brilliant about that, and I guess is what Neill does very well and you’ve done very well with the script, is this normalization. Because you think if aliens arrived here, it would be like the biggest thing in the world.
But three months down the line when it’s done nothing, people are going to be going about their normal business. And also getting a little bit kind of, when things start interfering with them which goes on later, they break in and they find … because nothing happens with the mothership.
So they bust into it and they find what looks like a almost biblical situation from a sub-Saharan Africa in the ’80s where people were starving, malnourished. And these are the aliens which is the thing that nobody I can imagine would think of as a story twist on aliens coming to earth.
Terri Tatchell: Neil gets credit for that. He came up with that premise and that was what was mostly in the short. So we knew that’s what we were starting with, but we didn’t know who the characters were. We didn’t know what happened, so we kind of had the world.
James Blatch: Okay. That was the world from the short. That was where you started effectively the beginning of this year long process.
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: And so Wikus the main character hadn’t been thought of at that stage?
Terri Tatchell: No, he came a long time later. We had some twins called Todd, Lisa and Dandy. We had all these others. In my head, there’s so many District 9s.
And how that came about was we were in South Africa for a wedding and so we brought, we had Weta build an MNU vest, and-
James Blatch: MNU?
Terri Tatchell: MNU is the name of the company.
James Blatch: Oh, yes.
Terri Tatchell: We knew MNU. We had the vest, we brought the vest with us and we had, it was Neil, myself, Sharlto because Sharlto, who ultimately was Wikus was Neil’s friend, but also was going to produce the film.
James Blatch: Okay so this is the actor who played Wikus.
Terri Tatchell: And then Trent, who was the DP of the film. So the four of us were sitting in this hotel room, had a camera and Trent two was the DP, and we’re like, okay, what are we going to do?
We’ve got to shoot something. We’re here, let’s do like a proof of concept or something to help us. And it’s like, well, who’s going to put the vest on? I was like, well, I’m certainly not putting the vest on. And Trent’s like, well I have the camera and I’m the director.
So the producer puts the vest on and we go into Soweto and all of a sudden Sharlto transforms. He gave himself a different name, but he was saying that it was his first day because he took a place because Wikus had been fired or killed or something and I just loved the name Wikus.
And we had candies and he was saying to the kids, “Here’s the sweetie man”. And so we did all that. We shot it. It was good fun. It was fun. And then we went home and I could not get the sweetie man out of my head and the name Wikus.
And so Neil took the footage and went to Peter and Fran and said, “Check this guy out. Like he’s not an actor”.
James Blatch: So he hadn’t acted at that stage?
Terri Tatchell: No.
James Blatch: Wow.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, I know, he was, he had a visual effects company and he was a producer and Neil’s childhood friend.
James Blatch: Wow.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah. It was a fun phone call when Neil called him and said, “So, do you want to be a movie star?”
James Blatch: I’m really shocked because he plays a very realistic form of acting.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: Very convincing right from the beginning.
Terri Tatchell: He put everything into it. For every scene, because you don’t shoot in order, he tracked. He had a system where he said what level of emotion is he at?
James Blatch: Because it becomes a much more desperate person.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah. He really did a great job for us.
James Blatch: So going out and shooting bits, playing with ideas is part of the process of trying to work out what the story is going to be?
Terri Tatchell: For me everything is different. Sometimes I use recipe cards, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I draw pie charts. It’s never the same. It’s kind of like whatever works, whatever gets you there, try everything. And in that case that is definitely what helped my process. For sure.
James Blatch: The other thing is the film has quite a strong theme to it. Neill’s South African and so that is evidence really for what he’s exploring in the film.
I’m assuming that starts at the very early stage when you’re thinking about how the screenplay’s going to work out is what you want to say.
Terri Tatchell: Oh, I mean a 100% for Neil it was. It was apartheid, you know, using aliens. So for me, I thought, if I’m going to bring something to the project, I need to think of it not as a South African. And so I just used oppression in general, and it actually got me kind of depressed because historically I’m like, Oh, it just repeats itself over and over again.
At that time, at that age of my screenwriting, I was like, okay, the model is you’re meant to present an answer with your voice. I remember sitting there and, and being like, I don’t know what the answer is. I do not know how to solve this, if someone put me in charge of South Africa. I don’t know what magic. I don’t know.
For me, the theme that I wrote with was to be kind. Be as kind as you can to the person next to you. And that to me it was the only answer I could come up with. And that’s what I wrote with.
James Blatch: The film does have a bleak message, I think. That’s not a criticism. It’s just, it is a rather bleak situation of how humanity will behave in certain situations, unfortunately.
Terri Tatchell: Sadly. It’s true. I hate that that film is so applicable now.
My daughter’s in university and her friends are in different universities all around the world right now. And every time one comes across District 9 in their schooling, they tell her and then she tells me, and I’m shocked at how much it comes up and in how many different classes because it’s current right now. And that makes me really sad.
James Blatch: Well, I think just this week there’s been some footage of a group of men, head shaved, shaved bound on a railway station in China. Have you seen it?
Terri Tatchell: No, I haven’t.
James Blatch: It could be from a film, it could be from District 9.
Anyway without depressing ourselves too much. And think about the high tea behind you. We’ve got that to come up.
So you send Peter Jackson, who’s ultimately the paymaster, I guess he’s the guy who’s going to enable the film to be made or not.
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: So you have to consult with him at this stage. Although I would quite like to talk about the financing of films as well because that’s a mystery I think to most people.
Someone said once you understand how films get made, you’ll be amazed that any film ever gets made.
Terri Tatchell: It’s true. And it’s kind of like I was saying with the creative process, every film is different.
James Blatch: So Peter liked this, and the Wikus character.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah. And he had faith in Sharlto, which a first time actor with a first time director. It was a gamble, for sure.
James Blatch: Hey, they were fresh faced in Star Wars in ’77, weren’t they. Harrison Ford was the most experienced.
And then you then start developing. The script has a bit of a style and a purpose that you didn’t have before.
And then you start writing, I guess.
Terri Tatchell: Yes. We’d been writing the whole time. I mean, we wrote and we wrote, we wrote and we throw out,
James Blatch: Do you have complete versions of the film that have just sat there on your computer?
Terri Tatchell: I mean we didn’t ever get to the end and then toss it out. We would talk.
Our writing process together is a bit strange. We try never to talk to each other in person about it. We email back and forth because.
James Blatch: To try and keep your relationship?
Terri Tatchell: It’s true. The only time I could ever corner him is if he’s in the shower, if it’s like a really desperate thing and that I want him to hear me out.
James Blatch: Because he can’t leave the room.
Terri Tatchell: Exactly. He’s extremely good at leaving things at the door and having a nice family environment where it’s like, wake up. I know what Wikus should do.
James Blatch: I think I’m like, you, I’ve struggled a little bit, but this is a good trick if you can leave it at the door.
Terri Tatchell: He’s always been really good at that.
James Blatch: Which is also a good way of being better at writing or being more creative, because you do need a break from it.
And that’s the thing I was going to ask you: it sounds like a really intense year.
Terri Tatchell: It was, it was a very intense year.
James Blatch: Did you try and force yourself to have breaks away so that allow your mind to recover?
Terri Tatchell: Well in co-writing, that gives you the break because it’s like, because okay your turn, you take it now and so and, and we would come back to Vancouver every so often. I remember, I’d stay with my mom when I came back and just be locked away typing and writing scenes. It was a lot of writing for sure. So I’m glad it had a good outcome.
James Blatch: Okay, so you had different ideas, different bits of writing. You start now with Wikus as we get to the point versus, because you don’t know at this stage is going to be the end point. It still could be another transition to something else.
But it turned out you did go with this Wickus character.
Terri Tatchell: I think what what to us the turning point, we often refer to that now it’s like Neill just had it on a script. He’s working on it. He’s like, I just had the Wikus is going to change moment. And it’s like once we knew he was changing into an alien, then it was like just forward from there.
James Blatch: So when did that happen?
Terri Tatchell: I’d say six months in.
James Blatch: Okay, so that’s a pivotal moment in the film when he gets sprayed with…
Terri Tatchell: Yes. That was our post in the ground that we were able to go from there.
James Blatch: When you were doing this sort of traditional film three-act idea, did you want it to fit into that or the hero’s journey?
Terri Tatchell: Honestly, because we went through it so much, I applied every film theory possible. I remember doing the sequence one where I’ve actually never looked at that one again since. But I remember having the colored boards.
James Blatch: The backward sequence one?
Terri Tatchell: No, the one where there’s A, B, C and I wrote those cards. The hero’s journey, it’s just so ingrained in your head that I think you can’t help but apply that.
And then I was taught with McKee, so I like to say four acts, when really it’s three, most people say three, but the second one is 60 minutes as opposed to 30 chunks. So it’s kind of all in there.
James Blatch: But you still had all options open as you were going along with this.
Terri Tatchell: Desperate!
James Blatch: And then Wickus starts to turn into an alien, which was a bit of a surprise when you’re watching the film, that something’s going on. But then when you think you very quickly got used to the idea of these aliens. That is so normalized in the film, people have so quickly adapted to this situation. You almost have to remind yourself their aliens.
The visual effects, which I think it’s Neil’s background as well. I saw it described once in a review as ‘low fi’. It’s sort of grainy.
Terri Tatchell: It’s like an afterthought.
James Blatch: Yeah. Which makes it all, it has a particular atmosphere. This film, there’s almost, well maybe the first alien film had that as well, that kind of grungy oil rig type environment.
So you have this moment and then when you say you write as a team, do you literally hand it over to each other?
Terri Tatchell: We don’t ever sit like me over his shoulder or that would never happen. We pass back and forth by email.
James Blatch: A scene each?
Terri Tatchell: No, usually the script, but I mean in the beginning stages it definitely probably an act. I think we would do an act and we’d spend a long time on a certain act.
Although, then as you get towards the end, it’s like, okay, this chunk isn’t working, let’s pass it back and forth, back and forth, back and forth and hope somebody cracks it.
James Blatch: When you were writing, and the second six months period when you’re writing, do you have at this stage a plotted out to the end or are you writing along and still changing?
Terri Tatchell: We wrote the end many times. I think at one point we even had a, no, actually I’m not supposed to tell all the bad endings
James Blatch: It did take him quite a long time to die, but it did die in the end. Sorry. Spoiler alert
What I mean is when you’re writing, when you’re writing on one act, you know what’s following, how more or less it’s going to end at stage or is that still open?
Is there a discovery process going on as you’re writing?
Terri Tatchell: I am a huge out-liner, and Neill is not an out-liner. So even if we’re done the first draft, I’ll go back and do the outline again. I’ll take what it’s turned into and re-outline.
I’m a big believer in the math of the outline, finding your problems so as we would change stuff. Stuff changed for sure. We were lucky that we got to do re-shoots too. So even in the reshoot stuff changed but they actually kind of went back to the original.
James Blatch: And when you’re writing, Neill’s got background in visual effects so he’s got in his mind how that’s going to happen. Whereas I suppose some writers might write stuff that has visual effects but then look at it and say how are we going to do that, by the way. But he knows how this works.
Are you having to be aware of the practical side of, for you in particular, the practical side of filming?
Are you writing a scene thinking, actually I’m writing this, but can it be done?
Terri Tatchell: It’s funny. We were writing it in 2007, 2008 so my skill set and knowledge. I had worked in a visual effects house so I had an idea with that and I’d been on a lot of shoots.
But I always believe and tell everybody, try not to write with budget in mind because it all comes down to budget.
In District 9 the big thing was there’s a little alien in there. There’s a son, little CJ, he’s never named in the film, but he’s a little CJ and very early on I needed little CJ to be in there because I had a daughter and I just needed that in there thematically. I just had to have him there. I needed some little glimmer of light in a very depressing topic and there was no budget cause you had to model a whole different alien.
And so Neill’s like, no we can’t have him. And that was, I call it my tying myself to the train track thing. That was when he’s in the shower. I’m like, no, we have that happen.
So we actually started shooting, he was a MCAT because I couldn’t afford to do them in visual effects and that MCAT lives at my house now and it makes me feel happy.
James Blatch: A what?
Terri Tatchell: An actual sculpted alien. It was terrible. It was so bad. So very quickly it was so bad that they found the budget. So I was able to have little CJ in the film.
So since that experience, I am very aware of putting things in a script that may not be able to exist because of budget and how crushing that would be to the film. Because when I was told he couldn’t be in there, that was absolutely crushing and I was in pain. CJ was almost the levity in it for me in the lightness that I needed.
James Blatch: When I saw the little alien, I wondered if it was a child a lot because I wondered if maybe little aliens are the old ones or something. I don’t know. Because he’s a hands on child, isn’t he? He’s got his hands all over the computer. Kind of saves the day. Flies the ship.
So he was a child.
Terri Tatchell: He was Christopher Johnson’s little son.
James Blatch: Who was the bigger alien, who Wikus very unkindly hits.
That brings me onto the question of Wickus, your main character. A lot of people will say life’s a lot easier for you when you have a sympathetic character who you want to do well and you want to win and you can identify a little bit with.
I don’t think Wickus is any of those things, is he?
Terri Tatchell: I know that the theory is that that’s the case, but I think even in books, I love an unsympathetic character. Because isn’t reading, all about empathy? You’re learning to live in someone else’s skin and it’s like, I don’t want to learn what it’s like to be in this perfect nice person’s skin. I want to know why that awful person is awful and I want to know that there’s hope for them.
It’s like Scarlet O’Hara, maybe. Maybe it was that in the beginning. I’m very bored by likable characters. I really am. I prefer films and books where the character is flawed. And I would argue that it’s actually easier to engage an audience with a flawed character.
James Blatch: And there is some redemption.
Terri Tatchell: There has to be.
James Blatch: Did you consider not having an un-empathetic bureaucrat. You do need a bureaucracy to enforce horrible ideas. And he looked, right from the beginning, like the weak thing that doesn’t stand up to people. He goes out with his clipboard and ethnic cleanses an area. That’s how he starts the film, isn’t it?
Did you consider him having no redemption in there at all?
Terri Tatchell: No, I don’t think you could do a film without, I mean you could do the opposite and have them start out nice and, and up that. But I don’t think you could just, that’s bad film. Right?
James Blatch: It’s brilliant, really interesting, talking and hearing about the process.
And you then go into production. Is there a script tweaking during that period?
Terri Tatchell: Oh, Yeah a lot. A lot of improv in the initial eviction scenes, they would do it as scripted and then just go. And so the poor Julian, the editor and Neill editing, it was a nightmare because there was just so much absolutely hilarious material.
Jason cope was the alien and they were friends, Jason actually was an actor and so their chemistry together, they would just get going and it, it was great stuff, but it would go way high and then they bring it back down.
James Blatch: And how does that actually work because, is it Chris the alien?
Terri Tatchell: Christopher Johnson.
James Blatch: Christopher Johnson, what did that look like on set?
Terri Tatchell: Poor Jay had to wear, it was very cold in Johannesburg and he had to wear the tight little gray suit that has like little balls.
James Blatch: We’ve seen the pictures of those.
Terri Tatchell: And it was freezing.
James Blatch: Oh this is another interesting choice. You don’t translate the aliens. I don’t think at all in the film they, the people that come seem to understand. There’s any subtypes at any point for the aliens.
Terri Tatchell: It’s so funny that I don’t even know. In my head the, the last time I watched District 9 was in San Francisco, they didn’t show any. And we went down and Neill and I sat in the back and we laughed. We laughed in it. We enjoyed it so much. But that was probably five, six years ago. I have not watched it since then.
James Blatch: Did anyone in the theatre realize the director and writer were there?
Terri Tatchell: Oh yeah.
James Blatch: Okay, you didn’t just turn up. I think some people do that.
Terri Tatchell: We did do that a lot with District 9. Yeah, we did do that. We’d go, hats on well, I didn’t need a hat
James Blatch: Hitchcock, used to do it. And I read about someone else used to do it and then go to the projectionist and tell them you’ve got the sound balance wrong.
Terri Tatchell: Neill probably would have been if it had been off. It was fun to do it in different countries too because with District 9 in particular, what people would appreciate and laugh at or not was polar opposite. That was very interesting.
James Blatch: Are you doing rewrites based on things that changed during those improv sessions or do you just film a scene and anything actually didn’t work as what we wanted and rewrite it?
Terri Tatchell: It’s all a blur. It’s an awful stressful blur.
James Blatch: Was the production stressful?
Terri Tatchell: For me it was, yeah.
James Blatch: How long was principal photography?
Terri Tatchell: I wasn’t there for all of it because we didn’t want to take our daughter there. So I brought her back to Vancouver so I would sort of duck in and out and a little. It was a volatile time in South Africa at time and kind of what we wrote was becoming real. So it was a bit scary.
Neill would get very tense having me around and worrying. It was a bit of a volatile shoot. So I was in and out.
With Chappie when I wasn’t there, I would get to screen every night in our house. I would get the footage. And so at that time that didn’t happen. So I’d be a nervous wreck if I wasn’t there seeing what was happening.
James Blatch: Do they call that the dailies?, It’s an old term, I guess when they develop the film. And that’s a process that happens on for, well, do not treat me as if I know anything about the way films are made. Because I don’t really, but you sit there and you watch what you’ve done during the day.
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: And then from a writing point of view, are you working out has it worked? Is this what we want?
Terri Tatchell: Yes. It’s so helpful. It’s amazing. And for District 9 at that time Neill wouldn’t even get any sleep. He’d go back to his place he was staying at and it would be on DVD I guess. And you would go and watch it and try and get four hours of sleep and then be back in the morning.
James Blatch: Intense time.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, it was an intense time.
James Blatch: And then post-production where you do the editing and in the days of film you were pretty limited to what, you run the camera, you could hit run down.
Terri Tatchell: It wasn’t film.
James Blatch: That’s what I’m saying. You were digital. So instead of ending up with 20 minutes of rushes from that day, you end up with two hours. So he had a big time, mountains of time.
Terri Tatchell: They edited here for a long time, which was great.
James Blatch: Here in Canada?
Terri Tatchell: Here In Canada. And then back in New Zealand again. So, so Peter could be there to look on and get it.
James Blatch: And then of course you have to build the aliens or the visual effects.
Terri Tatchell: That happened here as well.
James Blatch: And there’s a happy ending to this story.
Terri Tatchell: There is.
James Blatch: Because it was hugely successful. I think a read a figure of 110 million or something like that. Does that sound right?
Terri Tatchell: Maybe domestically.
James Blatch: I’d say a lot more than that worldwide.
Terri Tatchell: I think so. Yeah. I don’t retain the numbers.
James Blatch: And nothing gets you noticed more in Hollywood than having a huge commercial success.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, it’s true.
James Blatch: Did life change for you and Neill at that point?
Terri Tatchell: You know, I think the fact that because we were together before… I mean, we’ve been together now for 17 years, and it’s kind of great, because it didn’t change in that sense. It’s like we’re no different than when we met at that ’80s party, and I like that so much.
But the opportunities, definitely. I’m very grateful for the opportunities and the doors that it did open. But yeah, life still feels the same.
James Blatch: Professionally, you’ve become sought after. You’re an Oscar-nominated for screenwriting.
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: A director of a hugely successful film.
Does that suddenly mean instead of you constantly going to people, are people starting to approach you?
Terri Tatchell: Definitely. I haven’t pursued writing as much. I really took being a mom seriously, and the film world is so stressful.
I turned down a lot for sure, and I did a few things. And you do a lot of things that don’t get made, but you get paid for them and you’ve learned when you write them, which has been really great.
But now that she’s off in university, I’m sort of back at it, I think, a little more than I had been.
James Blatch: I’m back, baby.
Terri Tatchell: I feel like I was a lazy.
James Blatch: But being a mother’s not lazy.
Terri Tatchell: No, but I mean writing-wise. But I was always writing and always working on stuff, but I definitely wasn’t… A lot of people that had that opportunity to perhaps seize the day a little bit more than I did.
James Blatch: Well, that’s rubbish. You did exactly the right thing, and your daughter’s doing really well.
Terri Tatchell: Yes. No, I don’t regret anything, that’s for sure.
James Blatch: A big thing that happened to Neill when I guess you took a slight step back is that he then directed Elysium with Matt Damon.
Terri Tatchell: Yes. He wrote and directed it. He wrote that one by himself.
James Blatch: I didn’t realize he wrote it.
Terri Tatchell: Yep. No, he wrote that one by himself.
James Blatch: Wow. And that was another big film. That must’ve been commercial stuff. I went to the cinema to see that, and I mean, it was just one of those films that you went to see.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: And again, sort of thematically, you can start to see-
Terri Tatchell: Yes.
James Blatch: Yeah, of course he wrote it. Now I’m thinking about it, because it is that same them and us situation literally up in the space station, them and us down on the ground.
What was that like for you, you presumably taking a back seat at that stage?
Terri Tatchell: Oh, it was wonderful. There was no stress.
James Blatch: And Neill left his stuff at the door when he came in?
Terri Tatchell: In that house, he had a man house in the backyard, so he left it up there. But no, you know what? He didn’t have to as much, because it wasn’t a stressful conversation, because it wasn’t mine. I’d give my opinion and he could take it or leave it. It was actually really, really nice.
James Blatch: And how did he get Elysium made?
Terri Tatchell: That, he did it with MRC and Sony again. MRC was the lead on it and then Sony was the distributor.
James Blatch: Okay. And do you think Elysium got made because District 9 was successful?
Terri Tatchell: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. For sure. Neil’s bankable. His films, even if Chappie was not a critical success, it was still a financial success.
James Blatch: Was Chappie next?
Terri Tatchell: Chappie was next.
James Blatch: Okay. And Chappie, from the very first short film you mentioned before about the policeman, just explain the concept of Chappie.
Terri Tatchell: Chappie is a robot that is a policing robot that’s made sentient, and he is abducted by a gang and they’re raising him to help them.
James Blatch: Clever. And what was your role in Chappie?
Terri Tatchell: Co-writer.
James Blatch: So again, you’re back in the game here.
Terri Tatchell: Same as District 9. Yeah, it’s actually funny. Neill came down around the time he was… I can’t remember at what point Elysium was, and there was a song that we had playing all the time. And he said, “I have this idea.” He woke up. “I have this idea of this robot and Ninja and Yolandi, and they kidnap him and this happens.”
And at this point, I’d been so happy not working on Elysium, but I was like, “I need to work on this with you. I need to, because it has the element of the kid-like stuff that I want that just captures my imagination.”
Amy Pascal at Sony called and she goes, “How’s my Pinocchio film doing?” I was like, “Pinocchio?” And I was like, “Oh!”
James Blatch: Yes. Good observation.
And did you find your experience with District 9 made the co-writing and the process for Chappie a bit more structural?
Terri Tatchell: For sure. Yeah, there was no problem. Yeah, no. We’re good now.
James Blatch: There won’t 45 versions of Chappie?
Terri Tatchell: No, Chappie was a very quick write. There was one version where we decided to set it in LA, and we wrote that one, and then we went back to the other one.
James Blatch: I’m going to talk about your children’s book project in a minute, I promise. We are going to come into that, but to wrap up the film side of it… Wrap up is a film expression, no? To wrap up the film side of it, what would you, for people listening…
You’ve got people writing novels who would like the idea of their novels being made into films. Potentially, you’ve got people listening who would like to get into screenwriting. Any sort of top tips?
Let’s start with trying to get your writing onto the screen. What should people be thinking about?
Terri Tatchell: For me, if I’m thinking about what’s optionable… And I get approached to do adaptations a lot, and so I’ll read whatever’s sent to me by the agents. I should be clear on that.
James Blatch: Yes. Because actually, I’ve got my book.
Terri Tatchell: I will often be a writer for hire as opposed to developing my own. So if I’m being offered a job, I will read the book, which apparently is very rare. Most people won’t.
James Blatch: Right. They read the back cover.
Terri Tatchell: And if I think something’s going to make it, there’s two things for me. It’s not necessarily the plot. For me, it’s the characters and it’s the theme.
Theme, if I’m going to adapt it, it has to be a theme that speaks to me. Weirdly, I don’t know why oppression seems to speak to me, because I’m so not oppressed, but for some reason I really go for that. It’s like even the book, it’s oppression, oppression.
And characters. And I have this very crazy test that I use for writing screenplays that I will apply to my analysis of a book and whether it’s adoptable or not, or if you’d have to change the characters. Because obviously if you’re going to adapt a book to film, you have to change the plot. You have to change the structure. You have to change everything.
But I don’t think you should change the characters. That I don’t want to have to change. You can massage them a little differently, but you shouldn’t change them.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Enneagram.
James Blatch: The Enneagram.
Terri Tatchell: Enneagram. E-N-N-E-A… Enne… I can’t spell it live.
James Blatch: Sounds like a medical procedure.
Terri Tatchell: Someone said to me once… It was a producer, actually. She says, “What kind of movies do you want to write?” I’m like, “I want to write everything.” She’s like, “Oh, you’re a seven.” I’m like, “What do you mean I’m a seven?”
She’s like, “It’s your Enneagram. Go look it up.” So right away I looked it up, Enneagram seven, and I read it and was like, “I’m a seven!” It described me exactly.
Then I started reading all of them, and I’m like, “This is really interesting.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute.”
There’s nine personality types, but the key is that within the number of the Enneagram there’s levels of development, so if I’m a seven, there’s one to nine levels on whether I’m stark raving mad or whether I’m really, really got it all going on, meditating and happy and stable.
And so to me, the characters in the book have to ring true to their personality type, and they have to shift in their development within the body of the work for it to be interesting. And I have found that the books that I’m like, “No, no. That’s adaptable,” it’s because those choices have been made without knowing it.
To me, that’s just good writing is that it’s preferably multiple different personality types within the book, but that also that they shift. And then if something doesn’t feel right in the book, it’s often because the writer has blended their own personality and their number in with it, and that you can fix.
To me, it would be definitely pay very close attention to your characters, because I think that’s what we fall in love with. And your themes, you’re going to write with your themes you’re going to write with. I don’t think you really have a choice, but just think about your theme maybe, and be aware of it.
James Blatch: And that’s, as you say, that’s good writing advice. Even if you’re not thinking about your book being adapted, make sure your character has-
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, for sure. To me, I’m all about character.
James Blatch: Okay. Good. I think we’ve dealt with film.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah.
James Blatch: I could ask what’s next, or is it all secrets? It’s always secret with you guys.
Terri Tatchell: Oh, there’s a few secrets going on! I’m actually in talks on one project. I’ve never done this before. It’s someone else’s script and they want some levity to it. I was like, “Oh, I have a funny girl who’s science fiction?”
I read the script. It’s a really good script. And I saw the proof of concept and it’s a very commercial film. And it’s like, yeah, I think I could, with respecting the writer that wrote the original one, I think I could throw a little levity into it.
James Blatch: That’s a big area in Hollywood to kind of rewrite doctoring.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, and I’ve never done that. I think I’m going to do that on this one, which is not as big of a commitment, and whether that kind of stuff’s credited or not, I don’t know. But yeah, we’ll see.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, good luck with that.
Terri Tatchell: And I’m working on some stuff with Neill.
James Blatch: Strangely, on top of this dystopian oppression-filled sci-fi world that you’d been living in since the ’90s is this rather charming, lovely book for children. Talk to us about this, Terri.
Terri Tatchell: I have come up with a series of children’s books. The series is called Endangered and Misunderstood.
This is the first book in the series coming out November 18th, and the first three books are set in Africa, and then I’m going to jump to another continent. But I’m having trouble leaving Africa, because there’s an awful lot of endangered and misunderstood animals. That one is about a lemur.
James Blatch: Misunderstood animals.
Terri Tatchell: Misunderstood, because the lemur, the reason he’s endangered is because he’s perceived as so hideously ugly and terrifying that if he points his middle finger at you… He has an extra long middle finger. It means death to the village or you, so he has to be killed on sight.
He is almost extinct because he gets killed on sight, because of this mythology around him being a bad luck omen. I thought he needed the first book, and so it’s called Aye-Aye, which is the name of the lemur in real life. He is an aye-aye. That’s not a cute name I came up with for him.
James Blatch: Would you say in real life he’s known as that?
Terri Tatchell: Yeah. Aye-Aye is the name of this animal. He is a lemur, but there’s many different types of lemurs.
James Blatch: Okay. He’s an aye-aye.
Terri Tatchell: He’s a nocturnal. He’s actually the largest nocturnal primate, if I’m going to really geek out and talk about it. This is Aye-Aye Gets Lucky, and it’s about him turning his luck around and being welcomed into the village and loved and-
James Blatch: And there’s a point to the books in terms of it’s-
Terri Tatchell: I’m actually kind of excited about this, because each book, the proceeds will go to a different organization. It’s funny, the proceeds from this book, I’m actually not allowed to say where it’s going. Once I’ve gifted the money, then I’m allowed to say I’ve given them money. But I’m not allowed to say, because this organization isn’t allowed to partnership with anyone.
But I am adamant that they, having visited and spent a long time on this, they’re the ones that the money will best go towards the aye-aye. And I know the next book is about a pangolin, and that’s actually going to go… I know where that’s going. And then the okapi’s the next one.
James Blatch: You say a what?
Terri Tatchell: A pangolin is the second one. He’s actually the most trafficked animal in the world, so he really needs to be. And he’s misunderstood because-
James Blatch: I feel terrible I’ve never heard of it. A pangolin.
Terri Tatchell: Well, no. Kids have generally heard of these animals, but it’s good that you haven’t because I’m trying to bring awareness to these.
James Blatch: None taken.
Terri Tatchell: No, he’s kind of like an anteater with armor. And the belief is that his scales will make you more… Well, yeah. So he’s very misunderstood.
James Blatch: Yeah. That’s something that will endanger you.
And amazing part of this book, an important part of any children’s book is the illustrations, which are absolutely fantastic illustrations.
Terri Tatchell: Oh, I got so lucky. Thank you. Yeah. Ivan Sulima, he’s Ukrainian, and I searched and searched and searched and searched images to find someone that would capture an animal face with the kind of feeling and soul that I wanted.
I found a picture of a fox online, and then I found him and I had to wait a year for him. And then I said, “Please, once I get you, can you do three books in a row for me?” So he’s working on the pangolin right now, and he just sent me the sketches for that book, and he is amazing and his heart is in the animals. He’s so about helping the animals, and he’s so excited to be doing this for the animals too, which is really great.
James Blatch: Okay, brilliant. I’m going to get emails for not having heard of the pangolin like I did about Mae West. And in the interest of actually making some money and making a difference, you’re self-publishing, which is the best way to make money.
I am. That was actually a really big decision. And I went to the London Book Fair, which is where I met you, to sit in on all the sessions, and then go to the sessions with the publishers, traditional publishers. And I’m really glad I’ve had the film experience that I’ve had, because I was very aware that number one, financially, I wanted to do it on my own, because it’s more money for the animals then.
But I also was very aware that I would get manhandled, and with a friend Lisa, we started our own printing press. She’s got three books that she’s putting out on it, and I’m putting these out. And learning to be the publisher is so exciting. It’s amazing.
From a personal standpoint, I am enjoying having control, but I’m also enjoying learning so much. And you guys have taught me so much too. It’s just absolutely amazing.
James Blatch: I’m currently learning how to be a publisher as well, so we’ll talk about that off-camera probably. And this is just of interest.
This is an IngramSpark-printed book?
Terri Tatchell: Yes. That was printed by IngramSpark. And they are the only ones that do the hardcover. Amazon, I have the soft cover from Amazon and it’s absolutely gorgeous. I was really impressed.
James Blatch: Well, we had some coloring books recently which I print onto my… That was an older one. They’re fantastic.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah. I need to order from every country. I’ve only had the US one, so I need to order all the other ones and see how they compare. I’m almost afraid to, because really, what can you do about it? You can’t do anything about it.
James Blatch: There should be uniformity with printing.
Terri Tatchell: I would think so.
James Blatch: Brilliant. Well, Terri, we have chatted for a long time. It’s another sea plane burst into life next for us. What a fantastic few years you’ve had. How exciting to have a huge hit on your hands with District 9, then to ride that wave, I guess afterwards.
Terri Tatchell: I’ve been really lucky.
James Blatch: Comes down to the talent, so you deserve it. And we want to say good luck with this, because it could make a real difference to the pangolins and the aye-aye. I’m learning so much today. Thank you.
Terri Tatchell: Thank you.
James Blatch: There you go. Terri Tatchell, who I invited into my hotel room in Vancouver, and guess what, Mark Dawson? I’ve actually invited Terri into my hotel room in Vegas.
Mark Dawson: There’s a worrying trend around here.
James Blatch: There is a trend, so swing the camera’s around. What a surprise. Here she is at 20Books Vegas. We don’t normally do this, Terri. We normally do an interview and then we never speak again, but here you are.
Terri Tatchell: Is this hotel room blurred?
James Blatch: I should put this-
Terri Tatchell: Sorry.
James Blatch: Do you know how filming works?
Terri Tatchell: No, it’s this thing. Be careful, future podcast invitees when he invites you to his hotel room.
James Blatch: Well, come over here. Come and join us.
Terri Tatchell: Okay.
James Blatch: We caught up in Vancouver. It was really fun talking you and illuminating, and I think what I took away from it was it’s a collaborative process, and lots of the people who listen to this podcast do work in isolation. Some do work with other people.
In your world, it’s all about collaboration, right? That was my takeaway.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, for sure. From beginning to end. The fact that I co-write makes it right from the get go, but also the finished product is so many people, hundreds and hundreds of people putting their all into it. Yeah. It’s nice.
James Blatch: From the person who produces the donuts to the person who does the writing.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. It really is. Everyone’s important to the finished product.
James Blatch: So where are the donuts? You fed us really well in Vancouver.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, the high tea, that was just a Vancouver treat. I don’t have it in Vegas.
James Blatch: Now what’s happened since then? Because I think there was some, as usual, all secret stuff in the background going on.
Have you got anything moving forward with either you or Neill?
Terri Tatchell: Neill actually is in the works and just on the cusp of maybe something for sure, but because these things are never for sure until you’re actually filming, I don’t want to say too much. But yeah, hopefully things are looking positive, and I don’t know when this comes out, but November 18th I have my children’s book launching.
James Blatch: I was going to ask you about that, so that’s new.
Terri Tatchell: I’m excited about that.
James Blatch: I can see you’re building up to that. You’re very good with social media, so a lot of stuff if you follow Terri on Twitter. You can see the children’s books and stuff moving forward there. And you introduced me to animals I’d never heard of.
Terri Tatchell: The whole idea is each book, the money gets donated to a charity that helps out that animal. The first one is an aye-aye, next one is a pangolin, and then we have an okapi.
Mark Dawson: Are those made-up animals?
Terri Tatchell: It feels like it!
Mark Dawson: I’ve heard of okapi before.
Terri Tatchell: Have you? Yeah, that seems to be the one.
Mark Dawson: Isn’t that like an antelope or something?
Terri Tatchell: It’s called Okapi Loves His Zebra Pants, because his closest relative is the giraffe, but he’s got a zebra bum.
Mark Dawson: Right. Okay.
James Blatch: Well, you must be trained in biology for that kind of description.
Terri Tatchell: Zebra bum. That’s why kids’ books are fun. You can throw in bum.
Mark Dawson: And is bum a word in North America, because I thought it was ass or something you say.
James Blatch: Bum means something else, isn’t it?
Mark Dawson: Oh, if you’re a bum.
Terri Tatchell: It can mean a lot of things, as do most words in America.
James Blatch: Well, we’re going to Vegas hotel room, so anything goes, right? Look, Terri, thank you so much today.
Terri Tatchell: I’m so glad I was able to elevate this.
James Blatch: Yes. Thank you so much for bringing that. We start quite low, so you know.
Terri Tatchell: Yeah, yeah.
James Blatch: No, it was fun having you here. We always intended to record this rap here, and of course it made sense that we should spring you as a little surprise at the end of it.
Terri Tatchell: Thank you, thank you.
James Blatch: Anything else to say, Dawson?
Mark Dawson: No, Blatch. We’re done.
James Blatch: Tatchell?
Terri Tatchell: Thanks, guys.
James Blatch: Terri brings her friend who hides in the shadows somewhere else in this hotel room.
Terri Tatchell: It’s true.
James Blatch: Go find her.
Terri Tatchell: Would you walk to this hotel room alone?
James Blatch: Go on. You have to move faster now. It’s not like the quickest of your moves.
Mark Dawson: She’s not in the toilet.
James Blatch: That is Terri’s friend, Lisa. All right.
Mark Dawson: That could be messy.
James Blatch: This is probably-
Terri Tatchell: Lisa Zumpano.
James Blatch: No, this is the-
Speaker 1: I think the name check is good.
James Blatch: This is Lisa Zumpano, just as a name check, and she did a fantastic interview for us, in fact, which saw the light of day recently.
Right. That’s it. We’re going to say goodbye from Vegas. We’ll be returning to what passes for normality next week, so until then, thank you so much indeed for joining us. Speak to you again. Oh, what should we say?
Mark Dawson: It’s goodbye from me.
James Blatch: And it’s goodbye from him. Goodbye.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye.
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