For our next interview we are happy to introduce our friend Tim Westland. In this interview, Tim gives some great tips and advice for screenwriters that he has gathered the past several years from writing, helping moderate MoviePoet.com and participating in The Wrac Group on Twitter. We also dive deeper into discussion on his screenplays The Stitcher, OBeast and PAAN which made it into different rounds of some top film festivals.
What was your first introduction to horror?
That’s easy. Rod Serling’s the Night Gallery took up residence in my head rent free when I was just a kid. This is back when you had maybe seven TV stations to choose from and almost everything I was allowed to watch was either cartoons, more cartoons, or a test pattern. I remember sitting with my two older sisters the first time I saw that freaky weird intro sequence. We looked at each other and I know we all thought the same thing; “Uh ohhh!” Yes. it scared the bejeezus out of us. And Yes, I was hooked. It woke something up inside me that I didn’t realize was even there. From that point out, if it was scary, I was watching it. I’d stay up until the wee hours watching every monster movie I could find on the dial.
That is great. I’ve never had the opportunity to check it out. Unsolved Mysteries was the television show that really spooked me. It is starting up again, can’t wait!
I loved Unsolved Mysteries! It’s been forever since I've seen The Night Gallery. Now that Jordan Peele has tackled The Twilight Zone, maybe he’ll go darker and revisit The Night Gallery. Hey Jordan, give me a call!
How did you get started in the industry?
When I was 25, I decided I wanted a career in television production, with an emphasis on writing for TV. So I signed up for the night classes at a local community college and away I went. Before completing my second semester, my wife became pregnant and I had to focus on taking care of my family. Flash forward 16 years. I bought my daughter her first car and suddenly my life as chauffeur ended, leaving me with loads of free time. So I decided to follow my long dormant dream and become a writer. Luckily, my neighbor was part of a screenwriting group and he invited me to join. The group was led by a pro screenwriter with terrible interpersonal skill but loads of writing chops and great advice. He understood what made a story work and he wasn’t afraid to tell you when you were doing it wrong. The group disbanded about a year later, but I already knew what I needed to know – I was born to be a screenwriter.
I soon discovered MoviePoet.com, a website devoted to teaching writers the value of word economy. They had a contest every month that had a five page limit. In order to take part, you had to have critiqued a certain number of scripts the previous month. This site was where I honed my craft and learned to write visual and tight. It’s also where I learned to give and receive constructive criticism. I entered every contest, read every script, and did everything I could to help other writers. I was eventually asked to be a moderator on the site. It was an honor that still means a great deal to me to this day. It was on MoviePoet.com that I met three people who became both writing collaborators and friends.
After MoviePoet.com shut down (the creator of the site opened his own film school), I went in search of a new writing community. Thank goodness I stumbled upon The WRAC group, a collection of writers whose only goal is to support other writers.
That is a great story about how you got started. I think networking is one of the most valuable resources for our industry. I won’t ask the name of the professional screenwriter but can you remember some of his advice?
Oh sure. First, embrace critique. Learn to love it, because you’re going to get a lot of it from everyone forever. You have to grow a thick skin and learn from what people tell you, especially if you don’t like it. Second, you’re never as good as you think you are. Third, writing is rewriting. I know he didn’t come up with that one, but it was the first time I’d heard it and it made immediate sense. And the thing I remember as a revelation – get into the scene as late as you can, and get out as early as you can. That needs to be tattooed on the inside of every new writer’s eyelids.
That is some solid advice. What keeps you interested in the genre?
Horror is just plain fun to write. Supernatural horror. Psychological horror. Creature feature. Slasher. Horror comedy. There are so many facets to it, so many story opportunities. I feel comfortable writing across genres, but horror is the only one which makes my pulse pound while writing, and which occupies my mind when I’m not.
That is so true, there are so many different ways you can take horror stories that a slasher can suddenly become some sort of psychological horror, or what not. What is it about screenwriting that you enjoy?
Oh geez. where to begin? I’d have to say that eliciting an emotional response is my favorite thing. Whether it's making people laugh, cry, or cringe, the thought that my words can have an effect on people has always blown me away. If I make myself cry, then I know I’ve hit paydirt.
After that I’d say interacting with the writing community. Listening to the experiences of other writers, reading their scripts, providing critique, sharing knowledge, forming relationships, and cheering them on. And of course there’s that one answer all screenwriters share in common – typing “FADE OUT”.
Typing FADE OUT has to be such an amazing moment for writers after all the time they've committed to putting together their stories. I think the emotional connections to stories are very important. If we can’t connect to the characters in the stories, then we won’t connect to the story overall. As an audience member, I really connect to the stories that can provoke strong emotions. It means it touched me someway or another so I can appreciate that you enjoy putting that part of the story together. What does your writing process look like?
I spend a lot of time sense checking my story idea before putting fingers on the keyboard. I allow my subconscious to walk down different story paths, seeing if it trips over plotholes as it finds ways to expand and improve the original concept.
Once I think I have something compelling and which has the legs to carry a hundred pages, I outline. I don’t like notecards, so I created an Excel outline template which allows me to concisely describe the events/goals of each page on individual rows in the spreadsheet. This allows me to easily see 30 pages of a story at a glance, reorganize scenes and pages with ease, and it’s just way easier to deal with.
Once the outline is done, I dive in. The outline is my guide, but I don’t worry too much about page numbers matching classic structure. I allow myself the leeway to write as much as needed to get the story out of my head and onto the page. I know that once I finish, I’m going to come back and slash scenes and kill things with fire, so why worry about it in the first draft? Writing is rewriting.
Every time I open my script, I save it as a new name. I include the script title, the draft number, and the date in the filename. This allows me to understand how often I’m writing, saves past versions of the script – which is handy if I need to go back and find a scene I removed but now want again - and kind of makes me accountable to myself.
Before I begin writing new scenes, I review what I wrote in my last session and tighten things up. I guess you might say that I rewrite as I write. Once the review part is done and I’m writing new stuff, I do my best not to set expectations. I might write one page, I might write ten, but if I write anything, then that’s a success. Any writing is good writing.
Once I complete the first draft, I see if any of my writing friends are open to reads and notes. Those typically take a while, so I try to set the story aside and think about my next project.
Then I’m on to the second draft, machete and flamethrower in hand.
That is an amazing process. Very in-depth, thank you. Other than arming oneself with a machete and flamethrower, do you have any advice for up and coming or soon-to-be screenwriters?
Read scripts. Like a film? Read the script. Like twenty films? Read twenty scripts. You’ll learn so much this way. And you’ll see how different one screenplay will be from the other. It’ll show you that there’s more than one way to spin a tale, that writing styles can vary greatly, and that sometimes what you see on the screen isn’t what was written in the script.
Master the basics of formatting! Yes, some rules are made to be broken, but if you send a script out that doesn’t adhere to the basics, the reader will immediately question your skills as a storyteller. Why draw attention to your formatting when what you really want is for the reader to pay attention to your story.
Learn to write visually and with word economy. Screenwriting isn’t the same as writing a book. It’s closer to poetry. Maximum impact in the fewest words. Only include on the page that which moves the story forward.
Learn to give and receive constructive criticism with class and politeness. Appreciate people when they spend time reading your work, even if you don’t agree with their notes.
This is all great advice especially the part where you mention the basics of formatting. I interned at a top production company and once you encounter that first basic mistake, it puts a sour taste in your mouth and you are wondering how many more are going to pop up. Most readers won’t want to continue after the first couple.
This is a profession, so it’s our job to be professional. If I fail to spell check my work, or use weird formatting, or do anything that might take a reader out of the story, how can I say that I’ve done a proper job of it? I don’t want the reader thinking about anything but the story and how amazing it is!
What festivals have you been a part of and can you tell me about those experiences?
I attended the 2019 Austin Film Festival, which was a blast. PAAN was a 2nd Rounder there, which made me pretty happy, but I was really there to meet as many people as I could, especially my WRAC brothers and sisters. I met quite a few of them.
My big mistake was not staying for the entire festival. Austin is packed with sessions and they are sometimes full before you even get close to the venue. But I was fortunate to attend sessions held by Jeff Lieber, Ed Solomon, C. Robert Cargill, and a host of other writers, show runners, and creatives who are super into helping struggling writers to understand their craft, the industry, and what it takes to make it. I still owe Jeff Lieber the drink of his choice for constant and outstanding guidance he provides to the writing community!
Oh, I also took part in the pitch event. I was calm, cool, and collected, until the words started coming out of my mouth. Then I realized that practicing alone in a room does not cut it. You should have heard the weird tremor in my voice. It was both hilarious and unexpected. I’m very confident in crowds, but this was the first time I’d pitched my work to a large group of people I didn’t know and, well. I failed utterly but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. You have to stretch yourself. I’ll practice in front of a group before I do, though.
Oh, and I got to hang out a little bit with Whitney Davis, who really is the sweetest person you’ll ever meet in this or any other business.
Those are some great people to listen to! Kudos for putting yourself out there. I can tell you, it happens to us all with pitching. Can you tell us more about The Stitcher, OBeast and PAAN?
The Stitcher was a concept I pitched to my frequent writing partner, Rod Thompson. The idea was simple: A crazy backwoods hillbilly uses his supernatural powers to reanimate an army of taxidermy roadkill creations to do his bidding. All I had was that, but Rod loved it and said, “Dude, let me outline this sucker. I have some great ideas.” I trusted Rod completely and said, "Go for it." It wasn’t long before he came back with his outline and we got to work. The Stitcher is a crazy roller coaster of non-stop action, horrific creatures, ancient supernatural evil, a lot of blood and teeth and claws. Coming up with unique and monstrous creatures was both fun and challenging. My inspiration was John Carpenter’s The Thing when that one guys head sprouts spider legs. We wanted an entire script with insanity like that. Pardon the pun, but I think we killed it!
The Stitcher was a 2015 Screencraft Semi-Finalist, 2015 Page Quarter-Finalist and 2016 BlueCat Quarter-Finalist.
OBeast is a triple-pop collared homage to those classic 80’s teen horror flicks we all loved! Think Carrie meets The Blob in the vein of Killer Clowns from Outer Space. In it, a morbidly obese teen telekinetically controls her fat to kill all who have bullied her. Rod had the idea for this one bouncing around in his head for a year and wrote the first draft in something like 12 hours. He then approached me and said, “Let’s get this thing jacked!” So once again we collaborated and developed something truly unique that also uses so many hilarious horror tropes that it’ll make you shoot Diet Coke out of your nose.
OBeast was a 2016 Screencraft Top 10 horror finalist.
PAAN is my most recent script, written in collaboration with J.E. Clarke. We were looking for a project to work on together and she said, “What about Peter Pan in space?” BOOM! The story started forming immediately in my brain in a way I’d never experienced before. We worked together on the outline and then writing began in earnest. I didn’t want to write another variation on the green tights and magic fairy dust version of Peter Pan. I wanted a gritty sci-fi. I wanted real stakes. I needed strong female characters. What we came up with is something modern, relatable, topical, and filled with action and adventure. This isn’t your grandma’s Peter Pan, that’s for sure.
In it, the Earth is dying. Only a few hundred thousand people remain. Just in time, scientists discover how to travel to another planet. Five Colony ships are built, but it’s the last one which contains the key to our future. On it, a teenage colonist named Pete dreams of adventures among the stars. But when his Colony ship drops out of hyperspace and is attacked by a brutal pirate race known as The Huuk, Pete’s dream of adventure turns to one of survival, because the Huuk wants nothing less than the extinction of the human race. Along with his sister Wendy, a dozen lost children, and some unexpected help from a race of tiny peaceful aliens on the planet’s surface, Pete must find a way to stop the Huuk and save humanity.
PAAN was a 2019 Austin Film Festival 2nd Rounder.
First off, puns are welcome here. Second, congrats on the success of your screenplays. That is very exciting to be recognized by some top festivals like that. What other projects are you working on?
My current work in progress is a supernatural horror titled Tabula Rasa. This one is big for me, as it will really determine how serious my horror chops are. It requires quite a lot of research and the underlying components of it must be either biblically or historically accurate. Then I go in and twist the shit out of everything, freak people out, and do my level best to make everyone super uncomfortable.
That sounds like an amazing horror story in progress. What has been your favorite project to work on and why?
Oh...the tough question. I’ve got over a dozen features and I love all of my babies. My first love is a horror I adapted from the book Chasing The Dead, by Joe Schreiber. After writing the script, I worked with a buddy to morph it into a comic book. Once we had the artwork done and the first issue in order, we pitched comic book powerhouse IDW and they loved it. We finished the other three issues and IDW published it. Sales were strong enough that they made it into a graphic novel and commissioned some cool new “added extra” art for it.
I was very proud of that but I’d have to say that my favorite is PAAN. It’s such an epic story, involved a lot of visual creativity and world building which has a lot of easter eggs, is built to be a franchise, and feels like something James Cameron would make or Disney (Hi Disney!).
Can you share a little more on the story of Chasing the Dead? PAAN sounds amazing. I can really envision it just by your description of it and I’d love to see it get made.
A stranger has kidnapped Sue’s daughter, Lily. But he doesn’t want her money, only her suffering — and he will kill Lily if Sue doesn’t follow his every command. With detailed instructions, the faceless abductor leads Sue into a blinding snowstorm on the longest night of the year to a place she has not traveled to since childhood. The voice on the other end of her cell phone somehow knows Sue’s deepest, most chilling secret — an ominous incident from her past, buried long ago.
We are an army of two, marching onto Hollywood!
PAAN actually got in the hands of a Disney storyboard artist who loved it so much he offered to create art for it. He then made a super cool trailer for it using that art. I was amazed by his offer, remain in awe of what he produced, and will be forever thankful.
That is wonderful that he offered to do that for PAAN. What is your favorite classic horror movie?
I have three and all of them fall under the “monster in the house” byline. First, The Shining. I don’t even have to tell you why. You know all of the reasons. Second, John Carpenter’s The Thing. I remember crawling up the back of my seat in the theater. What he did in that film was unsurpassed. And last, Alien. No explanation necessary. I was 13 when I saw it in theaters and that film kicked my ass.
On a related note, Rod Thompson and I love Alien/Aliens so much that we wrote a spec sequel/prequel we consider to be “The Rogue One” of Alien movies. It follows the events that occurred on LV-426 two weeks before Ripley and the Colonial Marines arrived and how Newt became the sole survivor. We knew it would forever remain a spec, but sometimes you just gotta write the thing!
Those are all classics no doubt and really no explanation needed. Who knows maybe you’ll get the opportunity to pitch "The Rogue One." Maybe this interview will get seen by someone who knows someone that is the someone to make it!
Now how am I supposed to sleep tonight after reading that? But that’s the dream, right? That someone reads your script and it gets passed around without you knowing it and then one day you get the call you were always hoping for but never thought would come (Tim looks at his phone...waits patiently).
What movies give you the most inspiration?
This took a lot of thought, and my answer would have to be Arrival. It’s this lightning in a bottle combination of incredible story (Eric Heisserer), fantastic acting (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner), and beyond brilliant direction by Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve trusted that the audience would accept something beautifully subtle and thought provoking. I remember sitting there in the theater at the end of the credits, the lights came up and I thought, “If I could write something like that, that would be enough.”
I went and watched that at theaters also. I remember not seeing the trailer but just hearing recommendations to watch it so my expectations weren't high. So my wife and I went and I loved it. What screenwriters and filmmakers give you the most inspiration?
Every screenwriter who finishes a script inspires me. Corny, but true. All writing is hard, and I think screenwriting is the hardest form of all. If you’ve completed a feature or a pilot, I applaud you and celebrate your success in doing so. You’ve done a thing almost everyone SAYS they’re going to do but never attempt.
As far as professional writers there are no surprises in my answers. Tarantino, Nora Ephron, Shane Black, Frank Darabont and John Hughes.
As far as professional filmmakers it would be Spielberg, John Hughes, Tarantino, Ephron, Hanks and Spielberg again.
Great answer. Everyone you mentioned is amazing. I like that you mentioned ever screenwriter who finishes a script because we all know that even finishing a screenplay is a huge accomplishment for anyone. It takes time and commitment everyday. What is something in everyday life that scares you?
I only really have one irrational fear and it’s a weird one. I have a fear of people being near edges. I told you – weird. I’ve based jumped. I’ve repelled down cliffs. I have no fear of heights at all. But if someone I know gets near the edge of a cliff, I lose my shit. I have to grab them by the pants pocket and prevent them from going over, even if they’re still ten feet from the edge. It’s so bad that when I was at the top of the Eiffel Tower with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t be near them because I’d be force to grab on to them. If you’ve ever been at the top, you’ll know that it is completely enclosed by metal mesh. There’s zero chance of anything happening… but I could feel that fear creeping all through my brain!
That and the weird feeling of pulling a cotton ball apart. Yeesh I hate that.
That is completely understandable. It probably has to be something like the fear of seeing someone you care about fall and not being able to do anything about it. Being helpless. Whereas if Michael Myers was attacking you, you could try to fight back to protect your family. I could be wrong but those are my thoughts. The cotton ball one is funny. Tell me about your dream project?
PAAN being picked up by Disney. It’s such a natural fit for them. I could see Spielberg grabbing this, too. I’d love to see him make bookends of Hook and PAAN. It already has a Ready Player One feel to it, and I think his connection and love for Peter Pan would lend itself nicely. I just reread that sentence and boy do I sound like a pretentious dork!
Also, I’d love to see Chasing The Dead made. The dream would be if I could be involved past the “Written by” stage.
Best of luck Tim. We’ll be keeping an eye on your work and seeing it on the big screen. Do you have any social networks, websites or anything you would like to share?
You can find me at my Twitter page: @TimWestland.
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