The success of Terri Tatchell’s first script District 9 might seem like out of a storybook, but the writer of the new sci-fi film Chappie, explains why more failure at the start of her career could’ve been a good thing.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(March 6, 2015)
In the blustery freefall of adolescence, meandering for months through Europe with her parents, a 13-year-old Terri Tatchell was a stranger in a strange land, a Canadian teenager in Spain, her best friends on the sojourn copies of To Kill A Mockingbird and King Rat, beloved tales of nobility, oppression, and the deep aspiration to equality and connection we share, however inchoately, as human beings. She read the novels that summer so many times that the spines cracked, the pages falling free, the template set, however unwittingly, for the stories she would come to tell and the career she’d eventually forge as a female screenwriter infiltrating the “boys club” of science-fiction, the genre scripter whose work was recognized by the historically alien-resistant trophy-giving organizations, the rookie whose maiden endeavor – District 9, co-scripted with and directed by her husband, Neill Blomkamp – became a critical and commercial triumph.
The career arc of the 37-year-old Tatchell is just bad storytelling, no slowly rising action, no spectacular failures on the path to ultimate victory, and she knows it. In the wake of District 9’s unexpected success, Tatchell found herself paralyzed as a storyteller, she says, emerging from the maelstrom by simultaneously tackling two projects that could not seem more different: opening a Vancouver eatery that offers high tea and penning Chappie, the Blomkamp-Tatchell collaboration opening this month, starring Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, and Sharlto Copley. The film’s premise – the story of the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself – is both deeply personal for her, she says, and also imbued with aspects of her favorite genre, the fairy tale.
Here's a glib question, and I mean it with tongue firmly in cheek, but in 2015 for all of the progress we've made in the world, there are not a lot of women writing “hard” science-fiction. That makes you kind of a role model to other women in the industry.
The whole “role model” thing is kind of daunting, really, but I’m hoping that it’s inspiring to my daughter. She’s looking at universities right now, trying to figure out what she wants to do. She thought she wanted to be a film composer – until she discovered there are virtually no female film composers. I was, like, “Hey, hey, hey! Look at your mother. She's writing R-rated science fiction. You can do whatever you want."
Photo: © 2015 CTMG, Inc.
Sharlto Copley and Dev Patel in Chappie.
You could always drop the names of Anne Dudley or Wendy & Lisa, though they had to spend a decade with Prince first.
Yeah, yeah, exactly! Maybe that's how I'll ease her into it because that's a terrible reason to not follow your dream. Terrible.
Was science fiction a genre you’ve always found fascinating?
I like the fantastical for sure. I like leaps of imagination. There are science fiction films that I love, but I would not say I grew up ever expecting to be a writer of R-rated science fiction films. Honestly, my dream was to write children's novels. It still is. When I look at District 9 and Chappie, I see fairy tales. Other people think I’m nuts. Maybe it’s just a trick of the mind I’ve played on myself so I could actually, you know, write these scripts. When the opportunity came up to write District 9, I was terrified. I was, like, "Are you kidding me? Explosions? Guns? Aliens?" That couldn't be further from what I ever thought I’d be good at.
What are some stories that inspired you as a writer?
I was an only child, so I read everything – anything and everything. I recently read about Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill A Mockingbird, and I almost fell over at the news. It made me think back to a trip my family took when I was 13, almost two months in Spain. There were virtually no English-language books, and all I had brought were To Kill A Mockingbird and King Rat. I must have read those two books 20 times that summer. I read them over and over and over again. There’s no science fiction in those books, but the themes – the ideas of tyranny and fear and oppression – they really resonated for me and they are, obviously, big themes in the writing I do today. I can’t really claim any credit for the work I do; I was brainwashed at 13! There is one author who really stands out in my mind, and that’s Edith Nesbit. She wrote in the early 1900s, stories about railways and enchanted castles, with these fantastical elements, which wasn’t really a “cool” thing to be doing back then. If I could choose one author to sit across a table from, it would be her.
Oppression is certainly a perennial theme in science fiction, but it’s also a standard mind-set for adolescents, which some of us never really outgrow. Is there a more conventional – gun-less, explosion-less, alien-less – fairy tale hiding somewhere beneath your hat?
Definitely! Every January 1, it's, like, "I'm going to write my children's novel this year." But then the next alien assignment lands on my desk! So I think I’m just going to write a children’s novel about an alien.
How did you come to write District 9?
Well, my husband [South African-Canadian filmmaker Neill Blomkamp] asked me! When he told me the basic story, I was, like, "No! No, don't make my first film be about something I'm not comfortable with! I don't know anything about aliens!" Now, of course, I’m completely addicted to news about extraterrestrials and alien life forms. Our interests change, I guess. Before District 9 I don’t think I ever read an alien book in all my life, and I didn’t particularly like stories set in space either.
Sci-fi has been ghettoized for so long, but in many ways, when done expertly, it’s a genre that can shine unparalleled light on contemporary life.
That’s true. Sci-fi can speak to where we're at now. That's very true.
So writing films like District 9 and Chappie was outside your wheelhouse or comfort zone. That’s not a bad exercise for a writer, is it?
It's a fabulous exercise, actually. I recommend it to everyone. Recently, before an international flight, I bought a bunch of different magazines from the newsstand – a science magazine, a home decorating magazine, a news magazine, a bunch of stuff – and I made a challenge for myself: on this 14-hour flight, I’m going to read through all of these magazines and come up with a story idea or a logline for each article. Just to bend my brain a little bit outside of what naturally occurs to me. You have to challenge yourself.
If sci-fi wasn’t your aim, where did you think you were going?
I had just come out of film school when Neill and I met, and I had written a children’s film, and I thought I’d do that kind of writing. I’d done an historical screenplay, a “chick flick,” a lot of different stuff. The one thing they all had in common is that I always ended up putting really awful plot twists into them! So I guess maybe I was meant to be writing R-rated science fiction! But really, I’m just so excited by story. It doesn’t have to belong to a particular genre. I want to write in every genre. If I could wave a magic wand over my life, by the end of it, I will have written something in everything genre.
You and Neill have been together romantically since 2002. The film industry has a few power-couples – Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, Nick Hornby and Amanda Posey, to name a few. How do the professional endeavors impact the personal life?
If either of us were producer-type brains, we would not be able to tolerate each other at all. But we’re not producer-wired. He pitches ideas to me. I pitch ideas to him. His usually start with visuals. Mine usually start with stories. Our daughter, who is always writing songs and pieces of music, she pitches too – these beautiful melodies. It’s a very, very creative household, so it’s exciting and fun and fresh every day. But Neill and I learned a lot having done District 9 together. We had driven each other pretty crazy on that movie, so the break he took [professionally-speaking] to do Elysium was a good thing. He’s the director. I love my husband. I was able to support his work. But when it came time to write Chappie, we made a deal that we would never discuss the movie face-to-face, that we would do everything via e-mail. We pretended we lived on opposite ends of the country. We didn't talk about it at home. Ever. We’d just e-mail each other back and forth, and it created a nice separation between work and family.
Dr. Phil would probably approve.
I don't think we had one fight on Chappie. I really don't.
The world of cinema is full of overnight success stories, but they usually take 20 years to happen. That wasn’t the case for you. First time out of the gate, with District 9, your screenplay was produced, critically acclaimed, a box office hit, nominated for a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar.
Ugh! It makes my stomach hurt even hearing it all said out loud.
What’s the impact of that on your writing process?
For me, it was absolutely paralyzing. I mean I feel so incredibly privileged and so very, very lucky at how so many doors flung open for me, but on a personal level, on a creative level, it just absolutely paralyzed me. No one enjoys struggle, but I sometimes think Wow, I wasn’t ready for that, and maybe a little stumbling and falling, a little failure, would’ve been good first. I feel like I missed an awful lot of steps, though I’m sure I’ll end up getting them sooner or later! The success has been very humbling. I don’t take it for granted. It’s been long enough since District 9 to where my head’s screwed on a little straighter. I can actually write now!
When you say “paralyzed,” what do you mean?
The next script I wrote, I sent it to my agent, and he was, like, "Mmm-hmm…" The fast success paralyzed him too, to be honest, at least a little bit. So he read the script and he was, like, “Ehhh…” That’s all I had to hear. It was, like, tear it up, put it in the garbage, start again. The whole thing was ridiculous. I should never have sent him a first draft of anything, but that was my way of trying not to completely shut down – just go faster. Weirdly, opening my restaurant [Vancouver’s Neverland Tea Salon, recently named by One Table as one of the city’s top 10 eateries] is what sort of freed me from the blocks and obstacles. Occupying my time and energy with something completely not film-related was very freeing for me. Also, regardless of what happens with Chappie, I’ll always be able to make tea for people!
Is there any link between being a restaurateur and a screenwriter?
Well, opening a restaurant is a process of constant rewriting. It takes longer to renovate a space than you could ever imagine, and there were all sorts of things that weren’t exactly the way I wanted them when we opened about a year and a half ago, so it was, like, “Oh, that’s wrong, but I can fix it!” Its problem solving, which is a big part of storytelling, right? You look at what’s not working, structure-wise, or what’s missing for your characters or your customers, and you just rewrite it until you get it all together. I don’t know if it was the best idea in the world to open the restaurant the same week Chappie started production, but maybe it was good that my mind was so occupied with creating the best three-tiered high tea towers in Canada.
How did Chappie originate?
After District 9, Neill and I kind of agreed that we wouldn’t work together again. I’m far too passionate about storytelling, and I’d be waking up in the middle of the night going, “I think this should happen next!” It just got too heated. I basically made him crazy. But he woke up one morning and, as he was coming down the stairs, he pitched me Chappie, and I was, like, “You’ve got to let me work on this with you.” It was a story that instantly resonated for me. Chappie is, basically, a child who grows into being a teenager, but it’s a magical story. I fell instantly and completely in love with it.
Your own daughter is a teenager, so the changes of the Chappie character are something you witnessed first-hand fairly recently. Does that impact your storytelling?
For sure. Our daughter was 7 when I was writing District 9. Even though the little alien’s movements in that film were kind of based on our family dog, I was definitely doing a lot of thinking about my daughter when I was writing that character. She’s 16 now, the sweetest soul, such a good girl, a good, innocent soul – nothing like me at that age! – and Chappie is… Yeah, definitely, Chappie is inspired by her. I don’t know what I’ll do when she grows up. I guess I’ll have to start writing adult stories.
What’s the writing process like for you?
Oh, this is going to sound so terrible. It's not very structured, actually. It’s funny, because Neill’s treatments, they’re just purges onto the page, no punctuation, just stream of consciousness, but absolutely amazing. For me, when I’m starting out, I’m very structured and disciplined. I need to understand the rhythm of the story and how it’s all going to work from that standpoint, but the writing itself becomes a different, less formal or structured process. Neill will give me his pages with his ideas and I’ll take those and break them into chunks and come up with the most detailed, thorough outline that I can, and we’ll pass that back and forth. He’s very instinctual in his writing, and I’m very structure oriented, so it works very well. Via e-mail!
Do you have any words of wisdom or craft advice for other writers?
Oh, I'm in no position to be passing on wisdom to anybody, but I would say that the biggest thing I’ve learned, honestly, and this comes from the restaurant mostly, is that you’ve got to let yourself fail and be okay with failing. That’s how you get to the gold. I’ve finally figured out that failing is, in some way, actually an important part of succeeding.