This week the first of the responses to my TEN SCREENWRITING QUESTIONS – answered by the excellent TIM ATACK.
Tim was on the Channel 4 screenwriting course in 2015. He is a brilliantly original writer. He wrote the environmental thriller FOREST 404 for BBC Sounds and is part of a team adapting the sci-fi series HUMANS for Chinese TV. His play HEARTWORM won the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for playwriting and he’s currently developing TV projects with Echo Lake in the US and Bryncoed in the UK.
Over to Tim…
1 Why do you write?
You hope to find a door in the room that no-one’s noticed before. I’m also a musician and the motivation’s kind of the same there: to transport people somewhere new, to show different possible worlds, variations on what we could be.
I never thought I’d end up writing for screen because the collaborative act is so profound, and I’m an awkward bastard when making music. But I was surprised to discover I can work really well as a problem-solving writer in a way that just doesn’t interest me when I’m composing. So there’s an act of balance, too.
2 A book you’ve enjoyed that you’d like to tell us about.
THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, a novel by Michel Faber about a Christian missionary who travels to an alien world – a human colony – to preach to the dominant non-human native species. It’s a luminous and deeply moving story about grief for things still living, about distance between lovers. It was adapted as a pilot for Amazon a couple of years back and I got very excited, imagining a great existential TV sci-fi with echoes of UNDER THE SKIN or INTERSTELLAR – but the production changed one fundamental aspect of the book’s proposition that meant it told a totally different story to the novel…
3 The best TV / film (screenplay) of the last year and why.
Joint 1st place films – ROMA and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, which sounds like I’m being ‘woah, look at my range’. But thinking about it, they had loads in common. As soon as both began I thought “This is going to annoy me” then was proved wrong pretty much instantly. And I think they’re both about finding out who you are in situations where it looks like you don’t have much of a choice.
4, 5 Which (2) writers / scripts inspire you and why?
debbie tucker green, for the heart and depth and sheer electric potential of her writing.
And I can’t stop going back to THE WIRE, time after time. I think I’m on the 7th or 8th viewing of the entire series. The 5th time I could see that a huge amount of the structure simply involves showing a scene where one group of people are dealing with something, then following it with a scene of the equivalent problem happening to their adversaries. I’ve been mercilessly nicking that technique ever since.
6 What are the best internet resources / podcasts for writers?
I’ve started using Workflowy to organise my thoughts around future projects. It’s served me really, really well – a kind of responsive organic list I can chop and change and re-frame whenever I need to. I use it pretty much exclusively for pitches at the moment, and tap through it before any meetings I have, to get my brain in gear.
7 What are the best books for screenwriters?
THE WRITER’S TALE by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook (showrunning, dealing with pressure, redrafting, staying true to a vision vs pragmatic realism.)
HOPE IN THE DARK by Rebecca Solnit (not about writing per se, but deeply wonderful on how new ideas take hold – and on how to feel empowered in the margins, especially when you’re despairing at ever being ‘successful’.)
HAUNTED WEATHER by David Toop (full of brilliant tangential ideas on how to describe sound and hearing.)
8,9 2 pieces of advice for writers
Know your lines in the sand. What might you be asked to alter in your script that would instantly change its heart and soul? Saying it clearly to yourself makes compromise so much easier. Knowing the non-negotiable implies you also know what you can negotiate if it becomes really important to your collaborators.
The second suggestion is a blood-pressure one: never get angry or frustrated if partners and collaborators don’t seem to have as open an imagination as you for what something could be. Because it’s your job to have that scope, that reach. Making a clear case for what I really, really want to write has made me a better writer… I hope…
10 When and where do you write?
Pretty much anywhere. I’ve had to, in recent years, for all kinds of reasons, and found I’m particularly fond of writing on trains. But I’m also really lucky: I’ve got a desk at home in an office shared with my partner, and space at a studio in Bristol surrounded by people doing amazing things in the world of creative tech. The rules are you have to be interruptible and interact whenever you’re able to… and, against instinct, it’s put my productivity through the roof. Writing doesn’t feel like a solitary pursuit at all.
But when I have a looming deadline I usually lock myself away at home…
Thank you very much Tim – I will be sharing more of these excellent writer interviews in the coming months. Can I say a big thank you to everyone who has contributed – and to all of you writers out there, if you would like to submit your answers, it’s not too late.
Tim also writes brilliantly about writing on his blog – http://www.timatack.co.uk/
…and elsewhere – https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/meettxatack/
CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2020
Sadly the 2019 course is now over. I’m immensely proud of the 12 writers we had on the course this year and it’s very gratifying to see the positive response that the writers are already receiving from people in the industry. I’m now planning for the 2020 course and we’ve decided that there will be one notable difference in script submission rules. For 2020 we will not be accepting the same script that you have submitted in the past. Ie if you enter for 2020 it will need to be with a script that you have not entered before. I wanted to flag this up ASAP. We will be open for submissions via my website for two weeks from mid-September. I will confirm all of the dates in the next few weeks.
The next newsletter will be on Friday July 12th.
All the best
June 28th 2019