Interview With Award-Winning Writer and Director Simon Tatum

Why you need structure for creative success

After a decade spent as a documentary filmmaker, exploring some of the most extreme places and cultures on the planet, Simon Tatum turned his attention to the world of movies, becoming a prolific screenwriter. I recently sat down with Simon in Los Angeles to chat about storytelling, the projects he is currently pioneering and why the most successful creatives in the world all use story structure to make an impact.

How does documentary storytelling differ from narrative fiction?

Well, you have far more control over fiction than a documentary but essentially the rules are the same. Stories — whether structured around truth or fiction — are all attempts to make sense of the world around us. To form order out of chaos. What I love about documentary storytelling is that it can take you down roads you never expected and make you rediscover the world in entirely new ways. But when you’re structuring a film or documentary, the rules of storytelling are the same for both. It’s up to you as the filmmaker to guide the audience through the story world in the most compelling way possible whilst also remaining true to the story being told. I love documentary because it’s taken me on so many adventures. And I love creating fiction because making up stories has been my favorite pastime since I was a kid! They’re two very different disciplines with a huge point of crossover. I absolutely love them both!

Tell us about the role of structure in creative success?

I think the key to success in any field — but particularly in the creative field — is structure. Trying to create something from nothing can be extremely intimidating and it’s very easy to make excuses and procrastinate. The key to conquering that is habit. Inspiration isn’t something you wait for. It’s something you have to conjure it up yourself. As a writer, I very often feel uninspired and tempted to mess around and do anything but write. But I’ve found that the way to get things done — and the way to kick start that inspiration — is simply to sit down every day, at the coal face and start chipping away. I start every day at the same time. I get a cup of coffee and I just start writing. Whether you’re a morning person, a night person, whatever; just sit down at the same time and start to write. The best piece of advice I was ever given was “Don’t be afraid to write shit.” Hearing that freed me up so much. I was always getting stuck, obsessing over a single sentence that I would never allow myself to build up any momentum. Once you realize that you’re allowed to make mistakes and that it’s only by going through those mistakes that you’ll get to the good stuff, then you’ll really start becoming truly creative. Earnest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” I take comfort in that.

What are some projects you’re currently working on?

Right now I have so many projects going on at once that it’s becoming hard to keep track, which is a great problem to have. I’m spending most of my time these days as a screenwriter. My main project right now is a crime drama I’ve written based on the Pulitzer-prize winning account of the largest manhunt in US history. That’s in official development with a major Hollywood production company I’m not yet allowed to name. I have another series I wrote and created called ‘Copperhead’ in development with another production company. That’s the one I’m really excited about. It’s a horror series with its own mythology. That’s so much fun to write, creating a world with its own internal rules means you can take the story almost anywhere you like and, with the current TV binge culture, you can really take a deep dive into these kind of stories.

So horror is your genre of choice?

Horror’s a genre I’ve been obsessed with ever since I was a kid. It absolutely terrified me and my parents never let me watch horror, but that just made the idea of those forbidden images all the more alluring. One of my first memories of it is my dad telling me about ‘An American Werewolf in London’. He’d seen it one night on TV and I made him tell me every single detail over and over. I ate it up. I was probably nine or ten at the time and I remember I wrote an epic werewolf story at school soon after that was basically a retelling of American Werewolf. My teachers thought I was pretty morbid I think, but horror is an important part of growing up. It allows you to explore the darker aspects of the world around you in a safe environment. That’s what horror has always been about — exploring deep truths about the universe and our place within it. Plus it’s a lot of fun!

So can we expect to see some horror movies from you anytime soon?

Absolutely. I have a number of horror projects in various stages of development. Probably the largest in scope is a stop-motion animated feature film called ‘The Unholy Three’. It’s based a novel from 1917 that was made into a silent horror film starring Lon Chaney in 1925. It’s such a weird and unique story that stop-motion felt like the only way to really do it justice. It will take a lot of people by surprise I think. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing a script.

Another project I’m excited about is one I co-wrote with my sister which is a horror-comedy series for the YouTube generation. We’ll be shooting that this year and I’ll be directing. I’m really looking forward to that.

So have you said goodbye to documentary?

Not at all, I have a number of documentary projects in the pipeline. I’m very lucky that I can flip between the two. I just like being able to tell the stories that excite me whether they’re real or fiction.