Thursday, March 11, 2010

WGA Panel Pt. 2

Creative Screenwriting Magazine was also present at the WGA Panel of Oscar Nominees that I wrote about last month and wrote about it. Here's their assessment...

(I should mention that they did their own panel - separate from the WGA's and this article discuss both of those panels).

"As awards season winds down, nominee panels start popping up around town. With the Oscar broadcast this weekend, CS Weekly looks at some of the highlights from the WGA Nominee Panel, moderated by writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, and Creative Screenwriting's own Oscar Nominee panel, moderated by Senior Editor Jeff Goldsmith. (You can find full audio of CS's panel in iTunes by entering Creative Screenwriting in the Search bar.)

While Goldsmith asked questions with a more journalistic approach, Apatow kept the tone collegial -- starting the night off by turning to Scott Neustadter [(500) Days of Summer] and asking, "Who hurt you, and what happened?" Neustadter answered that, through all the panels he'd done, he'd never said her name. "We were Facebook friends before the movie came out," said Neustadter, "but she defriended me after it opened."

Goldsmith opened by asking what the nominees would be doing were they not screenwriters. Some answers skewed towards the obvious, like Nick Hornby saying he'd be an author, or Armando Ianucci saying he'd be a director. Ianucci's fellow In The Loop writer, Tony Roche, said he'd be running a pub, or just sitting in one. Pete Docter (Up) would be a Muppet, and Sheldon Turner would be using the law degree he earned. Jason Reitman, Turner's fellow nominee for Up In The Air, explained that "I always wanted to write for Saturday Night Live. Barring that, I'd still find a way to be telling stories -- even if I had to grab people on the street and force them to listen."

As Geoffrey Fletcher, nominated for Precious, explained at both panels, "The hardest work is done in the thinking stage, when you're plotting it out and exploring the characters. I think as writers we have to fight the urge to dive into the story right away, or we end up shuffling things on the run." Goldsmith took this opportunity to ask about the writers' various approaches when first cracking the script. Nick Hornby, Oscar-nominated for An Education, said everything was built around sweetening the inherent creepiness of an older man picking up a girl in a school uniform standing at a bus stop. Ianucci had been wanting to make a screwball comedy, and the more details he heard about the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, the more certain he became that it was a farce. And while Up started with a sketch of an old man with balloons, Bob Peterson shared a memory that showed the seeds of Up going back decades. "I was a camp counselor and this kid ran up to me and said, 'You are my counselor, and I love you!' Kinda put that in my pocket, and years later when we were finding the voice for Dug, I pulled it out."

Over at the WGA, Apatow was asking this same question, but in very different terms. After talking with Jon Lucas and Scott Moore about crafting a bachelor party-less bachelor party film, The Hangover, and using that idea to find "the Jason Bourne of it all," he turned to the man responsible for another script that was nominated by the WGA, but not Oscar, James Cameron. "James, do you ever get really scared at night? What makes you cry? When you're working on these huge projects, do you sleep okay or does it make you crazy?" Cameron explained that Avatar was a particularly difficult script to write, taking over four months, while his other scripts were written within a month and a half. "I know I'm going to have the chance to fix it, though, because I'll direct it and work with the editors. When I hand it to the studio, I tell them it's a work in progress. I get notes, sure. If I made a film for $20 million, I wouldn't get notes because I'd tell them to fuck off -- but making a $200 million film, you have to justify everything. So when they tell me I have a second-act slump, I tell them it's a work in progress. They don't like it, but they let me do it."

In both panels, there were moments where the nominees were able to speak about some of the other nominated films they had really dug this year. Jason Reitman talked about District 9, and how it "was an amazing thing because it defied genre every step of the way. It's like you took the Ricky Gervais character from The Office and dropped him in the middle of an action-adventure movie. Every choice was original, and that will constantly inspire me." Geoffrey Fletcher seized the opportunity to ask Alex Kurtzman about the most challenging scene in Star Trek, which he co-wrote with Roberto Orci. "The one where Kirk and Spock fight and Spock jettisons Kirk from the ship. We knew the entire movie turned on that scene, but we weren't sure how to get there. We'd debate endlessly the philosophies of Kirk and Spock, sometimes getting hotel rooms so we'd be locked away and had to write until we were finished. One such night, we were having a very heated argument, and realized that was the scene. At that point we sat down and started typing as fast as we could."

The question of making smaller films with greater freedom versus larger films with more interference came up, with The Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal and James Cameron debating the two philosophies. In the case of The Hurt Locker, Boal said that since the whole thing was foreign-financed, they never got a single note from anyone. "With no one caring or watching, we were able to go as far and as dark as we liked." Cameron, on the other hand, feels that if they don't care when you're making it, then they don't care when it's time to sell it. "I like them to sweat. I like them to be so fricking pregnant, they're thinking a year ahead of time, 'How are we going to sell this movie?' because their job's on the line."

Goldsmith delved into the rewriting process, asking what the single biggest problem they faced as they started revising. In the case of The Messenger, Alessandro Camon explained that there had been a plotline where, after Samantha Morton's character is notified about her husband's death -- about which are were no details -- Ben Foster's character takes it upon himself to find out why. "The second director we worked with on it, Roger Michell, told us he liked everything about the script, except that plotline. He told us to think of it like a French film, so we took out the plot and added a sex scene in the first two minutes." On In The Loop, Ianucci confessed that the script was 200 pages long, which the financiers didn't like at all, despite his assurances that it would be okay. "So we did a draft that was 100 pages less, but it was only for them."

Pointing out that Fletcher was both WGA and Oscar-nominated for his first produced screenplay, Apatow asked how many screenplays he had written up to this point. "Somewhere in the late teens. But I heard Oliver Stone wrote 20 screenplays before he got his first one made, so I'm ahead of him." He went on to say he was glad to be experiencing this now, instead of at the age of 23, because he felt it would have stunted his growth then, made him feel like he knew everything. He did have one thing he felt he could say with great certainty: "Put your head down and your heart into it. Do that, and the rest is out of your control."

Both Apatow and Goldsmith asked about terrible jobs the nominees had before becoming professional screenwriters. To both of them, Fletcher answered that he had worked doing data-entry for a bank in a windowless room on a floor that was actually sandwiched between two other floors. This was in New York, around 9/11, when "we didn't know if that was the beginning of it or what. I thought that I would stay there, but then I saw my hand was shaking and I thought, 'If I check out here, that's a long way from my dream.' "

At one point, Apatow asked if the political response to Avatar was more or less than Cameron expected. Less, he explained. "Honestly, I think Rupert put the word out to back off the film. They asked me to take out all the tree-hugging, spiritual stuff, but there's no real way to know if the film is succeeding because of those things or in spite of them. There isn't a second Earth where you can run it with slight changes."

Cameron was asked by an audience member about writing for 3D, which he said you don't do -- that there's no difference between writing 2D and 3D. However, he said, "There's something to be said for writing visually. I mean, the story is the characters and their journey and how this particular moment is critical for them and all that. But film is a visual medium and it's important to write visually. I don't think the great visuals end up onscreen without it starting in the writer's head. There's an image there as well as an emotion. It took me a long time in my career as a writer to get that balance right."

Jason Reitman also spoke of balance, of having to walk the fine line of satire. "The trick is, the audience looks to me to see what I think, and I think my job is to not show my hand. Christopher Buckley once said that when a movie works best, it's a mirror -- you see yourself in it. I love that idea."

At both panels the writers were asked about their endings. At the CS panel, Terri Tatchell, co-writer of District 9, said that while they're flattered everyone thinks the ending sets up a sequel, they never imagined the film would do so well and never planned for a sequel. Ianucci said that the ending was inevitable, that if somehow they'd managed to stop the war, it would have felt inauthentic. But it was the WGA panel which prompted a moment that brought it home and provided a good place to end. Reitman spoke of being stuck on page 60 and running into Apatow at a film festival. "I was lost in the desert and needed some inspiration. He said to write the ending, because once you write the ending you're theoretically done. It's amazing, that actually worked. Once I wrote the ending I was able to write this 20-page wedding scene with ease."

Between the WGA and the Oscars, that's 16 nominated films. Sixteen films that aren't just spread out over various genres, they manage to incorporate various genres, too. By using genre as a technique, they are able to rise above it and tell tales bigger than a simple label like Drama or Science-Fiction can convey. Proving once again, as Goldsmith said at the top of the Oscar panel, there are a million ways to skin a cat. Seriously, you should listen to the panel. There's some good stuff there."

Article written by Adam Stovall

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