Tuesday Chat: Interview with Hollywood script doctor, screenwriter and author Tim John!


Tim’s worked with some big names – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Murray to name but a couple. Having started out in advertising, Tim then took to screenwriting and even made the brave move of relocating his family to LA; the subject of his new book “Adventures in La La Land”, which follows his adventures and gives a unique perspective on Hollywood from a British family’s point of view.

Welcome to the Writesofluid blog, Tim!

Let’s start from the beginning – have you always been a creative person? How early on did you start being interested in writing and film-making?

I’ve loved going to the cinema for as long as I can remember and messed around with a few little films at schools, but I was mainly interested in writing and illustrating until I started working in advertising and started writing scripts, hanging out on sets and in editing suites and sound studios. This really made me feel being part of the film industry was possible.

You worked in advertising before launching into full-time screenwriting work. Did you find that this was a good training ground for certain elements such as knowledge about script writing, directing, working to budget and promotion?

I’ve probably answered this in my first answer – yes, advertising is a great introduction to the different areas required for working in film – not least, learning how to pitch and sell your ideas, which obviously has to happen before any of the technical elements come into play.

You got some great work on popular TV shows. What made you decide to take the plunge and – metaphorically speaking – swim with the sharks?

I did contribute to a few TV and radio shows, but I was just one of many writers. It was only on the Max Headroom series on TV that I felt part of the staff, but this was still bitty work. I really wanted to be part of making something much more substantial. So, I was always thinking of film ideas and when a commercials director I was working with on a Kellogg’s cereal said he was also working at George Harrison’s HandMade film company, I immediately tried to get a meeting there to pitch a film idea and thankfully, they commissioned it.

It can’t have been an easy transition to LA – which I’m sure we’ll all read about in your book – so did you arrive with a strategy or a job already lined up? Was it easy to make the necessary contacts you needed to advance? I’m assuming networking was key?

My first attempts at Hollywood involved flying over with my old writing partner for one week or two week stints where we’d drive thousands of miles around town trying to get people at studios or production companies to hear pitches. This was really hard work as we didn’t have an American agent and our UK one really couldn’t open any useful doors.

It was only when we decided to call a story editor at TriStar, rather than aim for studio executives, that we got a meeting. This guy, who has gone on to be a successful writer himself, really liked our pitch and set us up with a meeting with Mike Medavoy, the then head of Tristar, plus his whole executive team. That pitch got us a commission – but not immediately.

We pitched the same idea over ten days to something like 38 different companies. Once we delivered this script to TriStar, they offered to pay us for one more if we promised to relocate to Los Angeles.

Having just lost my job in advertising at the time, it seemed a risk worth taking – but I didn’t realise what a huge gamble it was until we got there and realised that TriStar weren’t going to pay us much money and finding more work was by no means easy.

It did, however, help us find a decent agent at ICM and things became a great deal easier once we had her.

You saw a lot of success through script doctoring. How were you trained? Does it work differently in America to how it does in the UK?

As I’ve noted in my book, and you probably know already, there are huge differences between the film industry in America and in the UK. For a start, in America, it’s a proper, big industry, not a cottage industry with occasional larger players as it is here.

Someone like Alan Parker once said the British film industry was just a bunch of people who couldn’t get green cards.

The training mainly came from experience – many, many meetings discussing scripts with studio executives and producers and occasionally, directors. Otherwise, I went on the McKee course and read as many books on craft as I possibly could.

What did you enjoy most about working in the Hollywood industry? And the least?

What I enjoyed most is feeling part of something really exciting, meeting extremely talented people fairly often, and knowing that the studios definitely had the capacity to turn screenplays into finished films.

However, what I enjoyed least, was that, probably because it is such a bitterly competitive business, the chance of actually getting a film made was, and still is, minute – especially now the rise of computer games, downloads, piracy, and excellent TV drama, have risen and risen.

The worst thing by far about trying to make it and keep making it in Hollywood is how vague the business can be – people not returning calls or emails, being extremely rude – it’s hard to navigate.

It’s really tough if you don’t have a great agent opening doors for you.

You set up Notorious Features, determined to produce your own films. How did you find the experience of running a production company? What difficulties did you face?

Notorious Features is very new. I’m still trying to get something into production, so there’s very little to run at the moment. It’s mainly about honing scripts till they are the very best we think they can be.

Finding finance is really difficult. It would be easier with name stars and directors attached, but there’s this whole Catch 22 thing – few agents will help you attach people if you don’t have the finance in place – financiers won’t invest if you don’t already have the stars in place.

Given how few UK movies get made, I find it incredible how few agents, sales agents and distributors are prepared to take calls to discuss projects. What are they doing all day?

Notorius Features has come a long way – you now accept submissions. What are you looking to produce? Can anyone submit? What, for you, makes a great script?

I’m looking to produce low to medium budget movies in any genre, though I don’t welcome gore. Macabre is fine, but not gratuitous slasher stuff. Nor any micro budget stuff I’m afraid. Films I enjoy range from Cinema Paradiso to Jerry Maguire, to Le Huitieme Jour, so I’m open to a great deal – but for us to be able to help anyone submitting, we will need to see a quick pitch document first and it will have to demonstrate that it appeals to a particular audience.

It’s hard to say categorically what makes a great script, but I love characters that jump off the page because they are fresh, I love the little details that make people and scenes rise above the obvious, I hate waffle, I relish intrigue but find anything that takes too much explaining tiresome – I get bored easily, but can also get wildly enthused.

One thing I am certain about is that there is no sure-fire formula.

You’ve got an admirable collection of TV and film credits, including Dennis & Gnasher, Spitting Image and a whole array of feature commissions! You seem to work across the board, genre-wise. Do you have a soft spot for any particular genre/format? Which project did you enjoy working on the most?

Yes, I enjoy all kinds of genres. The project I absolutely enjoyed working on the most was my screenplay “Mermaids in Manhattan”, inspired by the book “On mermaid Avenue” by Binnie Kirschenbaum. I managed to get Jim Carrey’s manager on board, and Danny De Vito’s Jersey Shore company, plus Universal taking an option – but still couldn’t get it made!

It’s a very fresh, quirky piece – sort of “Juno” in turbo.

What advice would you give to screenwriters who are just starting out? Can you recommend any strategies? Should they try and make it to Hollywood, or should they perhaps read your book before deciding on that? 😉

My advice to screenwriters just starting out would be to watch as many movies as possible, bad ones included, to read as many screenplays as possible (and compare shooting scripts to early versions if you can find them), and to somehow combine endless ambition with enormous patience.

lala-cover--low-res-copy copy

I’d obviously encourage anyone planning to move to Hollywood to read my book – largely because it’s good to get the bigger picture – not just what you see on screen. Living there quickly becomes very different from simply working there for a bit or just visiting for a holiday. If you plan to write movies set in America, it’s vital to understand their culture. Even the language can be surprisingly different.

As Stephen Fry once said of Dick van Dyke “We know him as Penis lorry lesbian”.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, Tim!

Ways you can connect with Tim:

Website: notoriousfeatures.com
Twitter: @TIMJOHN1
Book: Adventures In La La Land
Facebook: Tim John La La Land

Get the book:

Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Land-Tim-John

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