Every writer on this year’s annual Santa Barbara Film Festival “It Starts with a Script” panel wrote a screenplay that was personal, on some level–even Up writer-director Pete Docter and Star Trek‘s Alex Kurtzman. And they all mixed up their genres, too.
Docter and his Pixar co-writers Bob Petersen and Tom McCarthy wrote “a coming-of-old story,” or “an action adventure starring an old man.”
Kurtzman and co-writer Roberto Orci wrote “a sci-fi brother story.”
It’s Complicated writer-director Nancy Meyers wrote a “relationship comedy.”
(500) Days of Summer‘s Scott Neustadter and co-writer Michael H. Weber wrote “a coming-of-age story masquerading as a romantic comedy.”
Precious‘s Geoffrey Fletcher wrote a “coming-of-age story” that “transcends” that genre, he said.
The Hurt Locker‘s Mark Boal wrote “a war film. My brother described it as a cowboy rock-and-roll movie. I’ll take that. It fits the description.”
For Up in the Air, Jason Reitman doesn’t accept romantic comedy. “It’s about a guy who fires people for a living. Romance is a technique, and it’s one of the techniques we each have in our bag. I think of genre as one of the techniques that you use, and if you use multiple techniques in your film, you’re bound to make something more original rather than just following the genre curve.”
Both Reitman and Fletcher were adapting books, which meant figuring out the difference between a book and a movie. While Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air was less well-known (because it was released just after 9/11), Sapphire’s Push was a beloved bestseller in the African-American community.
Fletcher started with the voice of the lead character and some “very physical moments,” he said, but tried to remain cinematic and accessible while “still retaining the impact of that powerful book.” He looked for everything in the book that could be dramatized as well as “things that didn’t belong. There were departures I took based on studying psychology as an undergrad, some of these flights of fantasy. At one moment early on, Precious imagines the idea of being in a music video. And I thought, ‘OK, when she’s struggling, undergoing terrible moments, that’s the escape she’s created.’ And it would be a great escape for the audience, and a way to organically grow a cinematic element.”
Reitman liked leaning on someone else’s prose. “You’re stealing someone else’s genius and it’s the best writing partner on earth, because they just give give give and never argue,” he said, “There were things that were very cinematic that I wanted to use: a main character whose philosophy was that of a real human being, not only his attitude towards firing people but his attitude towards living alone, seamlessly. I loved his obsession with air miles, I’m obsessed myself. But a lot needed to be added to make it a movie. And then I had to leave out stuff and not feel guilty about it.”
Reitman wanted to focuss on his women characters as well as the men. “I’d seen a lot of male midlife crises on screen, but not a lot of female midlife crises. I wanted to write about the identity crisis I saw my wife go through. It’s a woman with a business degree, a career woman who became a wife and a mom who is trying to do both. And I wanted to write a movie where instead of feeling like this guy wanted to be in love when you see him dancing at a wedding, the most important moment is when he actually realizes that his love is actually not available to him, and it is that moment that he wants something more and perhaps we want something more as well.”
Boal was embedded in Iraq as a reporter and had no idea what he was getting into, he said. “It was, you know, very dangerous and there were bodies all over the place and people blowing up. At some point it occurred to me I should find a safer line of work. I had had some experience working with Paul Haggis on a different project [In the Valley of Elah] so I had this crazy idea, maybe I could turn some of my experiences into a screenplay.”
He had worked with Bigelow on a TV project for Fox that didn’t go anywhere and called her when he returned. “She was very encouraging, I gave her a sense of what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t really know, and that’s how it all started. I was terrified when I was over there, it was by far the scariest experience of my life and I wanted to share that feeling with the world, so the idea was to capture the tension of being in Bagdad, and tell the story through the eyes of these guys who have a very unusual job, gutsy, dangerous job. That was the frame. I found the story and the main character and two other characters to be foils around him. Eight months later we had a script and nobody wanted it, except for her, and so there was that process of realizing that getting a movie made was a bit of an art in itself.”
Pixar’s collaborative, collegial process is very different from other writing methods. For Docter, writing a film is “a little like dream analysis. You know you have those dreams where you are being chased by lions holding a bunch of bananas and you wake up in sweats going, ‘wow! what was that all about?’ You don’t really know till you start writing and diving more in.
“So the film is the same way. You start with something that intrigues you and you don’t really know why, and somewhere along the way you find out what it is you’re actually doing. And we also have this extra step, which are story reels. A small team of artists, three to seven, will story-board the whole thing, almost like a comic book, and then we’ll do our own dialogue and music and sound effects. That’s our version of the table read. But in that way, we can sit in the theatre and project the movie that we haven’t shot yet, and get a sense for whether its working or not. Most of the time it’s not, so we go back and rewrite and rip stuff up and change things. There are some parts that come together very quickly, and other parts you just struggle through. We had one part in Up that we rewrote no fewer than fifty times.”
Docter and his colleagues had to somehow connect together a strange assortment of elements: the old man, his floating house, a talking dog, and thirteen-foot-tall flightless bird. “That’s really why the rewriting took so long,” Docter said. “We had to figure out why an old man who floats his house would come into direct opposition with this aging adventurer, whose off after…what is he after? So there was a lot of rewriting to try to get those two elements to vibrate to the same frequency.”
At Pixar, Docter and his team also show their work for critique to other filmmakers like Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and Pixar/Disney chief John Lasseter, who give them frank feedback. “Even with John, who’s our creative executive, there’s no mandate like ‘you have to do this.’ It’s always, ‘just make it better.'”
Development exec Neustadter moved to Los Angeles; Weber had been his intern ten years before. “We just sort of had the same taste, so we’d always write scenes together and make movies, and that’s how that started. We were friends first. I quit business and I went to business school in Europe and was done with this.” A bad break-up spurred him to write about his experience. He showed Weber what he had, he said they started writing about Neustadter’s story. “He didn’t think it was something anyone was going to ever read. But I had to do it, I hated my job in LA so much when I moved here, that I finally said, ‘You know what, if I show anyone my script and they like it, ‘I’ll probably move back East.’ The movie started when things were fresh, the more we would work on it, the more distance there was and we’d be able to separate the fresh paint from the imaginary things going on, and the tone of the movie, which shifts half way through when the characters starts to think about things. It’s the story of someone really influenced by pop culture and when he thinks about stuff, it is always filtered through the movies that he watches, the music that he listens to. So the night that you finally get the girl, the next morning is the greatest day ever, a big musical number.” They had a ninja battle too, but cut it out.
New York-based film-school grad Fletcher had no agent but wrote many scripts before he got the call from director Lee Daniels to do his first adaptation with Push. He thinks that working temp jobs “helped a lot with writing this. But also the persistence to keep writing with very little positive reinforcement, really helped me understand what Precious went through on a deeper level, every day she had to muster the strength to get through.” When he was done, he said, “I felt resurrected, working on something I cared about and something that might be made.”
Studio players Kurtzman and Orci have been writing partners and pals since high school at L.A.’s Crossroads. Among many other things, they wrote the Transformers films and J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. Orci was the more ardent Trekkie, said Kurtzman. “When I first met him he had an Enterprise solo ring. He knew every show, every character.”
The duo were initially resistant to revamping the franchise: “We thought the reason that we’re passing is that we so desperately want to protect this thing that we love, it was too scary,” Kurtzman recalled. “And then that was exactly why we had to do it because if we don’t protect it and someone else does it and then we go to that theatre and hate it, than the person most culpable would be us. So we said, ‘OK, let’s do this.'”
Again, groups of people, including Abrams and Damon Lindelof, were involved in determining “where we were going to find the rhythm and the emotion and the balance of Star Trek,” Kurtzman said.
Orci tends to lean toward the geek tech sci-fi side, while Kurtzman focuses on characters. Half way through the shoot, Kirk and Spock were arguing about what to do after the planet Vulcan is destroyed. “We knew that this was going to be the axis from which the whole movie spun,” said Kurtzman, “because it was going to all come back to this argument: they were going to argue and come back together. We were debating, having these huge arguments about what the scene should be and we were like, ‘Jesus, this is the scene!’
During the writing of It’s Complicated, while she wanted to challenge herself comedically, Meyers thought her story was “tragic,” she says. “As I’m writing I see nothing funny at all. I wanted to write a movie about divorce and getting a divorce, [which] is not really talked about in any movies. I spend months and months outlining, and put everything down I can think of. Sometimes when I’m doing an argument scene I’ll take out a legal pad and draw a line down the middle, you know, he thinks, she thinks, and I always try to make the scenes really valid.”
Both Meyers and Reitman wrote with particular stars in mind. “I could picture Meryl Streep…She’s much braver, stronger, smarter, she’d figure out a way to pull it off. That helped me enormously, and I thought about Alec [Baldwin] a lot. When you have that actor, it pushes you, you get braver and funnier. Then you have to actually get them.”
Reitman agrees. “It just changes the way you think of the characters, it gives them a voice in a way that otherwise cannot be. I wrote Up In The Air for eight or nine characters, not just George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, but Zach Galifianakis, and J.K. Simmons, and Amy Morton, who I saw on Broadway, and just went “Oh my God, that’s Ryan’s sister.”
Initially, Boal wrote a scene as a British ambassador for Ralph Fiennes, but the actor didn’t like it. Boal needed him in order to finance the movie, so he wrote him another scene. “Somehow it came out that what he would be interested in was something where he didn’t have to wear a suit, and he had this idea that maybe he could be a mercenary. So in desperation to get that actor on board I created the scene, the desert sequence of the movie, which people often say ‘why is there this mercenary sequence? It’s a bomb movie…’ and I’ve never really told the truth about this, but that’s the reason.”
There’s many ways to skin a cat. Whatever works. Movies that work and connect start with that magic mix of personal, professional and telling the right story at the right time.
Here’s Reitman on the panel: