FESTIVALS: Write Is Might at SBIFF? Scribes Anticipate Strike Sticking Points
by Fiona Ng
(indieWIRE/ 03.07.01) -- Torture is perhaps the last word
that comes to mind when describing the kind of year
that screenwriters Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic"), Doug
Wright ("Quills"), Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"),
Gregory Allen Howard ("Remember the Titans") and
Robert Nelson Jacobs ("Chocolat") are having since
penning their respective screenplays.
But that mental image -- plus other incarnations like
"sitting in the torture chamber" or "suffering alone"
-- was often evoked to describe the process of writing
by these participating scribes during the famed "It
Starts With the Script" symposium at the 16th annual
Santa Barbara International Film Festival Sunday -- a
forum which brings together red hot screenwriters
every year to talk about their art and the issues that
affect their trade.
In Gaghan's case, suffering meant having to stare at a
blank computer screen for seven months before setting
down the first words to his Oscar nominated script,
"Traffic." And for Jacobs, getting to his computer by
6 a.m. to write every morning, knowing not when -- or
if -- the juice would flow. Diction aside, don't think
they're complaining though. After all, writer's blocks
are understood as part of the nature of the so-called
What really bugged these panelists -- and others just
like them -- is that screenwriters often times get
shafted on credit, despite having slaved away for
months on end to come up with what arguably is the
blueprint for a film.
Indeed, the topics that dominated the core of the
day's discussion were certain potential writers strike
sticking points as "the consistent erosion of the
writer's status," according to Gaghan -- or "the
anonymity of the writer," as Howard said, within a
movie business that characteristically hails only the
director, while eclipsing all other elements that go
into making a film, including the writer.
"It's so clear that it's about this thing that it
isn't you, it isn't the director, it isn't the
composer, it isn't the editor, it isn't the actor. But
it's this thing [where] all the guys, in the best
sense, rolling up their sleeves, checking their egos
at the door, and going you know, that was a good
idea, but this one is better," said Gaghan, citing the
process of production for "Traffic" as evidence.
"Filmmakers are not only directors," added Howard, who
shopped the "Remember the Titans" script for nine
months before shoot 'em up producer Jerry Bruckheimer
gave it the green light. "There are other people who
are experts at their [craft] that you can consider
them filmmakers as well."
But working collaboratively, the scribes insisted, is
not the same as forfeiting sovereignty over their
domain. "I think the most important thing you have to
do is to figure out what your job is in that
collaboration," explained Grant. "For me, I realize
that it's the actor's job to make sure the characters
make sense and do all the acting. And your job as the
writer is to protect the story," added Grant, who
gives props to "Erin Brockovich" helmer Steven
Soderbergh (who, of course, also directed "Traffic")
for understanding directorial leadership.
"Few, few people acknowledge that in the production
process, you are the deepest well they have
available," said Wright, who adapted his original play
"Quills" for director Phillip Kaufman and as he said,
had "lived through 50 productions of the material."
Still, Wright maintained, it was a long time before
the actors finally realized what a valuable resource
he could be to them.
The problem, as "Chocolat" writer Jacobs pointed out,
is due also to the fact that the writer by and large
remains "the most invisible part of the production
The solution? To Gaghan at least, it lies not just in
the power of one, but that of the many, alluding to
the writers' union, and by extension, the impending
strike that could come as soon as May. (Interestingly,
Gaghan's remark was just one of the two comments
brought up in reference to the upcoming strike during
the 2 hour plus discussion. The second statement came
With the ongoing struggle for recognition and a
possible work stoppage around the corner, the
immediate challenge facing writers could be summed up
best by what Jacobs said about the torturing process
of creation, namely, "that the only thing harder than
writing is not writing."
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival ends
Sunday, Mar. 11.
[Among other things, Fiona Ng is a freelance writer
living in Los Angles.]