Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #035 with Thara Popoola.
Thara has achieved the dream of many writers’ – she’s dropped to part time at her day job to focus on her writing. With a place in the 4Screenwriting scheme, recently signing with an agent, and an original script in development with Zeppotron; Thara is making a big impact. It was great to discuss her career, faith, future goals, and views on representation within the industry.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always written poetry and then ventured into scripts in 2017.
I’d love to have one of those stories about how this is always something I knew I was destined to do but sadly I don’t. Whilst I’ve always loved TV and Film for some reason the idea of writing them never really clicked. I actually thought at one point that I wanted to be an actress (lol).
Anyway to answer the question, one evening instead of revising for my employment law exam I decided to write a poem that somehow turned into a short play called ‘Not all black girls know how to eat’ I then entered this into a short play completion and was fortunate enough to see it performed at spotlight studios and at that point it sort of clicked that writing is what I was supposed to do with my life (RIP my law degree).
Do you still write poetry?
Sort of, I mainly just do random free writes which become poems. I don’t really share my poetry anymore though. But I do find a lot of inspiration for ideas of characters from my poems.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?
My first official credit as a writer is Crown, a short film I wrote in 2020 that was on BBC 1 as part of their festival of comedy, it’s currently on BBC iPlayer too.
It came about in an interesting way actually. The film itself was made in response to a brief by Intermission Youth Theatre as part of their Shakespeare on iPhone festival. I was contacted by a really great actress and producer, Chioma Ezeh who was a member of Intermission Youth to write something. After conversations with her and the director Abigail Sewell, I wrote Crown and then we shot it post lockdown 1.0 on an iPhone.
Fast-forward to March after Crown had been screened at LSFF, I received an email by Emily Allen from the BBC who I’d met in 2020 and stayed in touch with, asking if I had a short that she could put in the mix for the festival of comedy she was curating. I sent Crown to her, and the rest is history. It was all a bit of a blur to be honest and I still can’t believe a short we made for almost no money on an iPhone found its way to the BBC.
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
I signed with my agent Julia in March 2021. The legendary Philip Shelley who runs the 4Screenwriting course sent her the script I wrote to get onto the course.
I didn’t know Philip had done this so when he told me an agent wanted to meet with me, I was really surprised! But I met with Julia and really clicked with her.
I also spoke with another writer she represents and he sang her praises and said she completely transformed his career. So after thinking about it for some time I signed with Julia and it’s definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made!
What’s your relationship like with your agent?
My relationship with Julia is great. She’s super responsive and is always available whenever I need to talk, discuss ideas, or ask silly questions which she never makes me feel silly for asking.
She’s also really proactive and it really feels like we’re a team. Even though I’ve only been represented by her for a short time she’s really shown that she has my best interest at heart.
Are you a full time writer or do you balance with a day job?
I’ve literally just gone part time at my 9-5, so I currently work 3 times a week and have 2 days (and weekends) dedicated to writing.
Fortunately, my agent has been very transparent about the realities of the industry and how unstable it can be. Although I’m currently working on my first TV commission, I still feel it’s a bit early for me to take the leap, hopefully this time next year that will change!
In terms of how to balance everything, I get asked this a lot and never really know how to answer. I started writing roughly around the same time I entered the corporate world working as a paralegal, so I’ve always had to balance both.
I have found as I’ve gotten busier it’s harder to balance both, but utilising evening and weekends has always been what I’ve done and not putting too much pressure on myself to always be ‘writing’.
I find thinking and doing nothing is a significant part of writing and these are things that can be done on the way to work, lunch breaks.
Ultimately you just have to find what works for you and focus on the bigger picture.
You have a background in Law and finance. Do you find yourself going back to your Law days when you’re presented with a contract, or do you leave it to your agent?
Haha I hated contract law so I definitely leave that one for my agent. I do read my contracts thoroughly though but leave the negotiating to my agent!
Your work often explores themes, such as mental health, faith, culture and family. Mental health is definitely a concern for writers (isolation, rejection, overworking, self-doubt… all in the pot and shaken up with a big imagination).
What advice do you have for writers when it comes to their mental health?
I would say don’t let this become your whole life, have a life outside of this, have hobbies and things that you do purely for enjoyment.
I’m a Christian and my faith is really important to me, and I’ve found in times when I’m somewhat spiralling leaning on God has helped. For those that might not believe in God I think having people you lean on is super important, writing can be lonely so it’s vital to try as hard as you can to find your peoples.
You were a finalist in the Zeppotron Make a Scene bursary (2020) and are now developing your original script ‘Jobless’ with them. What did the bursary involve and how are things going with development?
Yes, it feels like a lifetime ago, it’s crazy to think it was last year! I was one of the finalists, which meant I got to have my script read by industry professional who also gave me in depth feedback.
It was also read by professional actors which was such a cool experience. The bursary was won by another writer, but Zeppotron were still keen to develop the idea with me and it’s changed quite a lot (for the better) from what it was back in Feb 2020.
Things with development are going well, it’s been a long process as things went on pause for some time due to lockdown, but it picked back up eventually, and we finished the treatment earlier this year so they’re now taking it out to broadcasters which is exciting!
You’re currently a member of the 4Screenwriting scheme. Can you explain the process you went through to be selected? How has the experience been so far?
When I applied last year, it was my first time applying.
The amazing Tolula Dada suggested I apply; she had been on the course a few years before me and spoke highly of it.
At first, I was quite hesitant as I had only ever written short films or short plays and the course required a long form script. After weeks of overthinking, I finally sat down and wrote my first TV script, a 30 min pilot (I’m not going to say how close to the deadline I left it, but I will say don’t be like me, start early! unless you thrive under pressure and can write whilst simultaneously freaking out then go for it!)
Anyhoo, after hitting send I forgot about it, a tip I’d recommend, apply for stuff and then forget about it. A few months later I received an email saying I’d been shortlisted. I was very much in shock but had to quickly get over this and start preparing for the interview which required me to pitch 2-3 ideas of what I’d want to write if I got selected.
The interview was with Philip and a producer from Channel 4 and although I was quite nervous, they were super friendly. A few days after this I found out I got onto the course! It was a really amazing experience and I learned so much, it was definitely challenging especially as I was balancing it with my day job, but I had really amazing script editors who helped me along the way.
Whilst on the course I signed with my agent and subsequently booked my first TV job and now the course has finished I’ve been having lots of general meetings with production companies. So, all in all I highly recommend applying, it really has been life changing.
You’re making an impact and getting your scripts noticed in very competitive competitions. What does it take to grab the interest of judges?
Something I’ve heard quite a lot is about ‘voice’. It sounds super obscure and to be honest it sort of is but I think what producers/judges mean by this is can they hear you in the script. I think a useful thing is sending your script to someone who knows you and asking them whether they can hear you in the script.
Sprinkling parts of yourself and showing your unique perspective on things is what can help you stand out in these competitions. For the purpose of full transparency I’d also add that the same script that got me onto 4screenwriting also got rejected from lots of other schemes. So it’s certainly not a one size fits all kind of thing.
Basically just write a script you absolutely love and reflects who you are and then put it out into the universe. Even if it doesn’t get through to competitions you’ll still have a script that your proud of !
Are you planning to write any more films – short or feature? What draws you to the format?
I have a few short films I’d love to get made. I’m currently working on them with a producer and we’re on a hunt for some funding.
I’d also love to write a feature although it terrifies me! Film is definitely my first love and when I first started writing scripts, I always imagined that’s the format I’d be writing but now I mostly write TV.
I want to write for all formats, I’m led by story and characters so whatever format feels best for that is what I’ll do.
It feels like you have a clear drive and clarity of vision. Would you be interested in directing your own work for film or stage or are you more comfortable writing?
I directed my first short film last year and I really enjoyed the process of bringing my words to life but if I’m being honest, I feel a lot more comfortable writing.
I’m definitely interested in directing my own work but directing really pushes me out of my comfort zone, so it’s something I think I’ll slowly ease myself into.
You’ve had success writing comedy and drama, do you have one which you favour?
Is it a cop out to say comedy drama ?
There are lots of people and groups working to bring balance to the industry. Yet we still see data and hear experiences all the time that evidence how far we still have to go.
As a black female writer, working across TV, stage and film, what has your experience been like and are you seeing any change from the industry?
Honestly because I’m so new to the industry I feel like it’s hard to say at this stage of my career.
My experience so far has been quite positive but I’m still very aware that generally there is a really long way to go. I saw this tweet the other day that said ‘when representation is the only aspiration, it ensures all firsts will be the last’ and I think it perfectly summarises my thoughts.
There’s a clear imbalance within the industry and I think in order for that to change, production companies, commissioners etc need to be radical in their approach, the level of imbalance can’t be rectified by a passive approach, the occasional scheme or initiative here and there isn’t enough to create real meaningful change.
From what I’ve observed it seems that black writers, writers of colour are seen as more of a risk and because of this we have to jump through more hoops to get our ideas optioned, treatments commissioned, and shows out of development and onto the screens or we have to already be somewhat established. Whereas our white counterparts could be a fairly new writer and go on to have a show on TV.
Now this isn’t to discredit the white writer in this scenario, everyone has their journey, but the imbalance comes when black creators aren’t afforded the same luxury and when those in power associate us with risk as opposed to fresh, new and exciting. I’m currently in a WhatsApp group called Black Women in Scripted, filled with incredible black women and black non-binary people working in the industry or looking to get in. We have over 100 members just within the group. Being in a space like this makes the industry feel less isolating and hearing success stories from within the group makes me hopeful that things are starting to change (albeit slowly!).
If someone would like to join the group they can message me or email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send the WhatsApp link.
What advice do you have for writers who may be struggling to find new opportunities?
Try and build authentic relationships with people, and by authentic, I mean don’t form relationships purely with the sole purpose of getting something. I’ve been really privileged to have some really great opportunities come from relationships I’ve built.
Also let people know what you do, I struggled to call myself a writer for some time, imposter syndrome really had me in a chokehold, still does sometimes! But once I started telling people I’m a writer, more opportunities started to come, such as writing showreel scenes for actors, which helped build my profile and get me more opportunities.
I‘ve never considered writing for showreels. That’s a great idea for writers, especially as it could lead to strong working relationships with a performer. How did you get started doing this and what the process involves?
I got started in this quite early on in my writing career. An actor friend of mine Peace Oseyenum who was in my first short play asked me to write two scenes for her as she wanted to update her showreel. She already had a idea of the type of scene she wanted which was helpful and it was a pretty collaborative process.
The two scenes I wrote were Workbae and Remember which I think are available to watch on Your Cinema. After this a few other actors reached out but at that point I was mainly focused on writing my own short films so I passed on these. Last year another opportunity to write a showreel scene came up through Do or Die studios, my scene ‘2 weeks’ was selected and performed by a whole bunch of actors and it was so cool seeing all the different interpretations.
Writing showreel scenes is a great way to get your work out there and actors are always super buzzed to act so I don’t think it’s that hard to find people, it’s just about putting yourself out there really.
Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?
I definitely get writers block, I think my approach is obsessively thinking about it whilst doing other things. So, for example if I’m stuck on a scene, I’ll leave my computer and go do something random like baking or hula hooping, lying down helps too.
But whilst doing this, the scene is still swirling around in my mind, figuring itself out. I find this gives you space to figure things out without the pressure of your laptop screen staring back at you.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
When you’re working on something it feels like there’s no off switch. Your mind is constantly in that world, the characters, thinking of scenes and dialogue. This is something I love but it’s also like, “ok fictional character, please go away now I just want to have a shower in peace.”
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Probably my mum and my sister. My mum unintentionally makes me laugh and my sister is probably one of the wittiest people I know, her one liners always take me out!
Oh and TikTok too, I’m sure the next generation of comedy writers can be found on TikTok!
You can follow Thara on Twitter and contact email@example.com if you’re interested in joining the WhatsApp group mentioned in this interview. She is represented by Julia Tyrrell Management.
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