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Terri Tatchell, Co-Writer of Chappie

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Sony Pictures

Director Neill Blomkamp's third film, Chappie—about a sentient police robot in a near-future Johannesburg overrun by crime—hits theaters today. We sat down with Terri Tatchell, Blomkamp's partner and co-screenwriter, to talk about script changes, writing for non-actors, and how to make robots sympathetic.

Chappie was inspired by a short. How did you and Neill develop the idea further from that, and how did it evolve as you were working on the script?

When Neill made the short [in 2002 or 2003], it was specifically to get himself repped to do commercials—it’s not like we looked at the short and said, “What can we do with this?” There just happens to be a policing robot in that commercial. So we didn’t approach it in a way of doing an adaptation. Neill literally woke up one morning, came down the stairs, and said, “I have this idea.”

At this point [after co-writing the script for District 9], we were never working together again, ever, ever, ever. And he’s always pitching ideas, every single day—he’s so fun to be around because he’s always got different ideas. Usually, I’m like, “That sounds great,” but this one, he didn’t even make it down the stairs. I’m like “OK, time out on the not working together—I need to work on this with you.”

[We wrote] the first draft in three weeks, and we re-wrote it again to set it in LA—because there was a point where we didn’t think we were going to be able to shoot in Johannesburg. That took a little bit longer, just because it wasn’t right. I still liked that version—it had the same players coming to LA, but then they [moved] it back. I would say what ended up on the screen is pretty much exactly what that first draft was. It was one of those, I think, very quick easy processes that you’ll never experience again in your life. Even re-writes or changes felt kind of easy.

When you and Neill were working together on a script, what is the process like? How does that work?

That process is kind of funny. With District 9, we would be locked in what we called our bell tower in New Zealand. Neill’s very calm, and I’m very heated, and I’d wake him up in the middle of the night with ideas—and he can’t stand that. He’s like, “I do not like your work personality.” [Laughs] So, now, we e-mail. We do not write together, in the same room, ever. Sometimes if I really want to prove a point, I will go into the bathroom when he’s in the shower, and I’ll sit in there and be like, “Just say we can do this!” And he’s like, “Yes, just go away!”

Neill really wanted Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi to be in this. Does writing for non-actors change the process of writing a script?

No. It was them from Day One. I think if you have real people in your brain being a character, in a way, it sort of writes itself, so it was very easy. When we had to transpose them to LA, in that draft, their part was still really easy, [but] explaining why they were in LA, that was a little bit harder … They just belong with Chappie. Maybe, if you’re writing with a non-actor in mind, you don’t have other roles in your head, it’s just that character—that may be the key.

What you’ve chosen to make a movie about is not an easy topic. You’re not only exploring what it means to be human, but you’re dealing with really complicated scientific areas—robotics and artificial intelligence. Did you do any research into that while you were writing?

I find it fascinating, but probably in a less scientific way. I am more curious in how people will respond, and how it would affect individual lives. And I’m very curious about—right now there are such different views on what it would mean to humanity. So the science behind it, I leave that to Neill. He’s constantly reading that.

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It must help, too, to not really be immersed in it, because then you can say, “Wait, I don’t get this.”

Yes. If I’m questioning something that’s in any of his films, I’ll say, “OK: curtain, bum in the theater, let’s pretend,” and I’m wondering, does this makes sense, why doesn’t this make sense? With Chappie, where I was coming from, anyway, was so not based in science, that I really didn’t worry about that at all. I mean, I don’t want to poke holes in my own film, but there’s suspension of disbelief.

It’s always walking a fine line between wanting to have some kind of science in there, but it’s a movie, so it’s not like you’re super beholden to it—but it’s always interesting to me to see where people get that kind of information from, and how it’s incorporated. And there are some pretty heady topics and themes—the whole idea of “what is consciousness?”—that are very well conveyed …

It’s kind of in your face, for sure. The theme that I really love, that Neill doesn’t particularly love or see in it, is violence. As a mother, it’s like, where [does] violence come from? I feel like each character in the film has their own little arc with violence, and that I had fun exploring.

Obviously, a lot of the reason that we empathize with Chappie, and why we love him, is Sharlto’s performance, and what the visual effects artists were able to achieve, which was incredible. [Copley wore a performance capture suit and performed with the other actors; the visual effects artists overlaid him in the scenes with the digital robot.] Were there certain things you wanted to do, from a storytelling perspective, to make sure the audience loved the robot?

Chappie evolves as a child, and an innocent. I really, really like films that have unlikeable leads, like Vicus [in District 9]. He’s incredibly unlikeable, and so we had to be very conscious about making sure the audience didn’t hate him. And that was never the case with Chappie. The other characters in the film, absolutely. But Chappie, and I think it’s because of his curiosity, and his love of life, and his enthusiasm, and his innocence, and I think he’s just a character that hopefully will touch everyone in a different way, maybe. There was never a worry that people wouldn’t like Chappie.

There’s one scene with a bunch of kids who are throwing things at Chappie, and it’s so hard to watch.

As the visual effects got better and better in that scene, it was more painful to watch. It’s pretty heartbreaking.

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What was your favorite scene in this script, and what was your favorite part to see come to life?

One of my favorite scenes wasn’t in the script. I was on set for a week, and then I was back home in Vancouver opening a restaurant. But dailies got piped in every day, and so I’d watch the scenes, and I’d give Neill any thoughts if I had them. The scene that I love was Chappie with the Barbie behind his back. It’s probably because it was a surprise to me.

Were there any other moments of surprise? It seems like, when you’re doing something that’s this VFX heavy, that there isn’t necessarily a lot of room for improvisation.

There wasn’t. Neill was very by the book. He did not want improv in this case.

Every day I would watch it, and be amazed that everybody was making sentences that I had heard in my head over and over again sound better than they did on the page. And that is, as a writer, is a gift. I love the scene with Yolandi and Chappie in bed, reading Black Sheep, just the little nuances of the way she delivers the lines, and the way he tilts his head and thinks—stuff like that, you can’t write.

You and Neill have a daughter. Were there any moments from her childhood, or funny things that she did, that you wrote into the script?

There are moments in there, that Neill wrote, where I hear how he speaks to her, and it's like, "aww..." I don’t know that you’re ever aware when you’re doing it. I don’t think, on my part, that I’ve put Cassidy in there as Chappie at all, but I would definitely say that there’s more of Neill parenting Cassidy in there.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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