Screenwriter Terri Tatchell on Turning Short Film ‘Alive in Joburg’ into Oscar Nominated ‘District 9’
I’ve started paying closer attention to co-screenwriting credits, only to realize that several women screenwriters are having successful collaboration with writer-directors and are thus eclipsed when it comes to interviews and masterclass.
Thankfully, both Terri Tatchell and Neil Blomkamp, who co-wrote District 9, were alumni of the Vancouver Film School, who invited Tatchell to talk about the experience and process of writing a low-budget sci-fi film that went on being nominated for Best Picture.
Before District 9, Tatchell and Blomkamp had arrived in New-Zealand to shoot Halo. When the project fell apart, screenwriter Fran Jackson suggested that Tatchell and Blomkamp wrote a feature film adaptation of Alive in Joburg, the short film that had put Blomkamp on the map in 2005.
Watch Alive in Joburg:
How do you go from writing a feature based on a short?
Obviously Tatchell’s answer is one of the possible answers, and their method developed based on their conditions and needs. But it’s interesting to see that screenwriting can be a lively process, that also feeds on testing and playing around with actors and locations.
Here is what Tatchell says:
“I had seen [Alive in Joburg] so many times that I actually never sit down and watched it. We knew the world inside and out. We actually spent I’d say a month, four hours a day, going to Peter and Fran’s office where Philip, Peter and Fran, Neil and I would sit and just toss around ideas and write them on a white board. (…)
After that Neil and I went off on our own and wrote a couple different versions with completely different characters. And then about six months into that we went to Johannesburg for a wedding so we thought we’d shoot something, just test something to go along with the script.
And Sharlto, who plays Wikus, is one of Neil’s best friend from when he was young and he was also a producer on Alive in Joburg, so we had Trent Opaloch the DP, myself, Neil and Sharlto to shoot but we didn’t know what, so that morning we all got together and were like “Let’s think of a character, what can we do“. And we had brought a vest and so it was like “Weeeell, Sharlto, you put it on.” And he put it on and became this character that was evicting people so Aliens could move in, so it was a different concept.
His character was just so strong and so funny that when I went home to write, first it was little bits and parts that I never thought could be Sharlto and then he just took over. It was just such a great character, that took life on its own. And then when we were actually able to cast Sharlto it was amazing.”
Listen to the full interview below. Another interesting point, that meets this time, Chazelle’s trajectory, is that both the journey and creative freedom were made possible by their powerful producers who had faith in them, and let them be. For Chazelle it was Jason Reitman, and for Tatchell and Blomkamp, it’s Peter and Fran Jackson that made it possible for them to cast then unknown Sharlto Copley as lead.
Thanks to Larry Wright