Every year I conduct a Santa Barbara Film Festival ritual: the “It Starts with the Script” panel with writers of the year’s best screenplays. In the 2013 group, some are up for Writers Guild awards next weekend: David Magee for his adaptation of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” Stephen Chbosky for adapting his bestseller “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Roman Coppola for co-writing original “Moonrise Kingdom” with Wes Anderson, Rian Johnson for his original “Looper” and John Gatins for his original “Flight,” which earned Denzel Washington an Oscar nomination. And Magee, Coppola and Gatins are also up for Oscars.
Anne Thompson: So David Magee, why did this particular adaptation take 10 years? What was so hard about making this into a movie, and how did you lick the script?
David Magee: First off, to be clear, I wasn’t involved in all those 10 years. I had some issues that I had to solve, and I didn’t ever look at the previous drafts, so I don’t want to say what worked and what didn’t from those. The challenge with this particular book is that it’s very episodic. It’s written in a hundred chapters—it’s only a 300 page book, so you can imagine most of the chapters are written in fragments, as snapshots of different things in the life of Pi. Because so much of it is a philosophical reflection and static images of what he went through and his suffering on the boat, the challenge was to find an arc for the character to go through that carried you through that story. In addition, it’s hard to convince a studio that you want to make a film with an Indian boy no one’s ever heard of on a boat with a tiger that’s going to have to be created through either CG or hundreds of hours of trying to convince a tiger to do what you really want him to do. The cost of the film was going to be prohibitive if you made it anyway. So really I think one of the biggest advantages we had was that Ang Lee said, ‘I want to direct it.’ At that point, there was enough faith that something was going to happen that they gave us the freedom to try and figure it out.
AT: Rian Johnson, “Looper” is an original sci-fi screenplay of great complexity. How did you make a lot of difficult things clear and concise enough?
Rian Johnson: Yeah, that’s where most of the elbow grease went—trying to make it as simple as possible. That may sound weird, looking at the film, especially when you have the time travel that enters into the story. There was just a lot of work to figure out the answers. It’s the same as any other kind of story where you’re trying to figure out how to tell the most with the least. But it’s doing it with this concept of time travel. That was the main thing. And also lashing yourself to the mast of the story and making sure you were never stopping what you hoped the audience was caring about in the moment to explain something you need but that isn’t absolutely driving you forward.
AT: And John Gatins, “Flight” was something you were writing for a long time. Did it take so long because it was something you were resisting, it was a challenge. Why?
John Gatins: I got sober when I was 25 and I started writing this movie when I was 31. Now I’m 45 or 44—I’m 44. In Hollywood years I’m 31 still. In the process of writing the story, I had this whole new personal worldview and this tremendous fear of flying. It comes and goes. It was this weird fear and fascination with all these elements in my life, and I describe it as the merging of my two greatest fears, which would be drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash. If you put those two things together…
AT: So Roman, you and Wes Anderson worked together on “Moonrise Kingdom” in a rather unusual collaboration. How did you get involved in helping him to realize this movie?
Roman Coppola: Well, Wes had been working on this idea for a long time, a couple years. He had this notion that he called the island movie. It had to do with a scout running away and an island and he had this imagery. Of course, I’ve known Wes for some time and we hang out together and I’d ask him how the island movie was going and he’d say—”well, I have some ideas.” Ultimately, he was working on it and he could only really get a couple of pages down. He was a bit locked but he had this very clear sense in his mind that wasn’t taking shape quite yet. We hung out, he put on this record of Benjamin Britten and I read the first five pages and said—”oh, I get it.” I just understood intuitively what this world was. And then we sat together and slowly I asked the right questions, I suggested a little something, we got that dialogue going, and from that point it was really that rush of doing the crossword puzzle and you get over that hump and you know you’re going to finish it. That was very much the process.
AT: Stephen, you had to take your successful book and turn it into a movie. Was that more challenging than you expected?
Stephen Chbosky: Yeah. You know, what was challenging about it was the fact that when I wrote the book I was 26 and when I started writing the screenplay I was 37. And I’m 31 now. [Laughter] It was because I was writing about young people and I was more of an adult. Then it was more going back and doing the emotional work to respect and validate what young people go through on their own level and at the same time not treating the grown-ups like fools. Going back was tricky. Plus the fact that my book is a first-person, epistolary novel—very intimate and very emotional. To tell the same story with the same intent but in a medium that is as literal as you can get, that was tricky. It took me some time.
AT: So David, you and Ang met. How did you agree to proceed to work together?
DM: Ang and I had talked about working on a different project but it never came about. I kind of forgot about it. Then I got a call from my agent one day saying, “have you ever read ‘Life of Pi’?” I said, “Yeah, that’s a hard one. I don’t know if you can do that.” And he said, “Well, Ang wants to direct it,” and I said, “Alright, let’s do it.” So we met the next night at a Japanese restaurant, had sushi, and talked about the book. We had a lot of the same opinions about it, we connected on it, and by the end of the meal he said, “yeah, let’s do it.” Compared to so many projects where you have to jump through a certain number of hoops to get the studio’s attention and interest and set it all up, he just said, “let’s do it” and we got started. I would write the pages and he has a place in Manhattan, I have a place in New Jersey, so I’d send him the pages in advance and we’d sit around eating Chinese food all day. I’d come back with new notes and I’d write for about a week and that was the process, essentially.
AT: Rian Johnson, there is a scene in “Looper” where the screenplay is written as Joe and Old Joe. Did Bruce Willis like being called Old Joe?
RJ: No—we started saying Older Joe very quickly.
AT: So in that diner scene where the two of them are confronting each other—was that the most difficult scene you had to write?
RJ: Yeah. It was definitely one that I worked on the longest. That was the thing more than anything else in the script where we were working on it—I got Joe [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] and Bruce together and we would spend weekends going over it and over it. It’s the one that changed the most, even leading up to shooting it, and probably the one that changed the most in post-production. It had to do a lot of things and it had to be a scene where it was just two characters sitting across from each other in a sci-fi/action-y movie that could grind the whole thing to a halt. There was a lot of going over it and going over it.
AT: How did the sci-fi genre feed and inspire your movie? It’s in two halves, how did you move from hard-boiled action in part one to mother-son drama in part two?
RJ: Most of the sci-fi that I grew up really loving—Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick—always uses otherworldly concepts in order to get to something incredibly immediate and recognizable and human at the heart of it. When I think of sci-fi, that’s what it means to me. It doesn’t mean big and crazy, it means something that uses myth to get at something very personal. That was always what I tried to do with this. Basically, the whole movie is set up as a conflict between these two guys, between the older and younger version of himself. I actually wrote the film originally as a four-page script, back before I made my first film “Brick” 10 years ago. I wrote it as something that I was going to make with my friends on the weekend, and I never ended up making it so it just sat in a drawer.
So after I made “The Brothers Bloom,” I expanded it. But the short which I wrote, if anyone’s curious, you can Google it. I put it up on the film’s website and you can download it and take a look at the film’s origin. It was just the two guys—it didn’t have the second half of the movie with the mother and the son. For me, when I was expanding it out, I thought, “I need to show what’s different about these two, show the basic conflict, and show how they work to their different ends and the conflict between them.” And I thought, “you can either show that by having them chase at each other more or shoot at each other more or team up and buddy up, or you can give them both the same problem, the same thing to deal with in the second half and see how they each deal with it and explore how they’re different in that way.” That’s the way I went after it, introducing the element of the kid and the mother, given them both the same dilemma and seeing where they came down at the end of it. It was all a way of getting much deeper into the heart of exploring the conflict between the two main guys.
AT: John, what was your writing process on “Flight?” Do you sit down with a notepad?
JG: It was a process of picking it up and putting it down for 12 years. I did other movies in between to feed the family, and this was this strange, personal Rubik’s Cube that I would pull out and try to fix and put away. It was kind of scary—it was R-rated, and I’m an animal that grew up in the studio system, so I was savvy enough to know that this was going to be a challenge for a studio to embrace, this R-rated drama that didn’t have guns in it. It was going to take the passion of one actor to make the movie really go.
AT: So you met a pilot on an airplane?
JG: Yeah. I was working on a movie called “Behind Enemy Lines” and it had a bunch of naval pilots in it. I was flying back from Slovakia via Germany and there was this pilot sitting next to me who was in his pilot blues but he was deadman as they call it—off duty. He was chatting with me, and I’m a very friendly guy but I just wanted this guy to shut up! I thought, “why do I want him to shut up?” And I realized: “he’s a pilot, and I don’t want to know anything about you personally. I want to think the guy or gal flying my plane has their life perfectly in order. I don’t want to know you’re going through a divorce and your kids hate you or you’re an alcoholic.” And I thought, “wait a second.” I had an ah-ha writer’s moment. And I thought, “what if there was a guy that’s circling the drain in his personal life,” and I was like—”tell me more!” But that was obviously the inception of the character, and I wanted to put him in a severe flying situation. As a really nervous flyer, I started researching every plane crash possible to put him in, which I don’t recommend. But those industry reports are public record, so you can read them.
AT: And you wanted to direct the movie yourself?
JG: I did. I tried for 10 years, not that successfully, to direct the movie. But it had many lives.
AT: You had been doing mostly studio fare—sports movies and cheerleading and so forth. After you directed another movie, did something change in the way you were approaching your work?
JG: Yeah. What was funny about that is it’s a movie called “Dreamer” that was PG and had Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell. The studio said, “we had a really nice time making a movie with you and we’d like to make another one, what would you like to do?” And I sent them the first 40 pages of “Flight” and they were like…”um, what else would you like to do?” I wrote the greatest robot boxing movie ever made, called “Real Steel.”
Again, the personal nature of this movie kind of scared me. Between the content and the idea of the unclimbable mountain of getting this made in the studio system—because a lot of great movies get made outside the studio system and I knew nothing about that, so it terrified me. I was going to direct the movie, and it seemed like it wasn’t going to be in that system and it seemed like a very unknowable kind of thing.
AT: So eventually you did get somebody who wanted to make it.
JG: Yeah, thank god. And he’s a Santa Barbara resident. Robert Zemeckis [applause] and Denzel [Washington]—it was really the passion of those two guys that made it happen.
AT: And Zemeckis welcomed you as a screenwriter?
JG: He did. It was an incredible thing. He’s been so respectful all along. I got a phone call one day and heard, “John, it’s Denzel.” And I was like, “yeah…” I had a moment where I was like, “this is either Denzel or Jay Pharaoh from SNL doing Denzel Washington, but either way I’ll go with it.” So I had dinner with him and he said, “I’m going to go make this movie ‘Safe House’ and after that, I want to make this movie.”
And then I get a phone call that says Robert Zemeckis wants to have lunch with you. So I drove up and had lunch that turned into six hours of he and I in a room together. And at around hour three, he said, “I need to ask you a serious question.” He said, “Are you OK with me making this movie? I know you’ve tried to direct it for years.” And I said, “I can’t get it done without you.” And he said, “Good, then come with me.” For everything that went wrong for 12 years, between the Denzel and the Zemeckis lineup, it was great.
AT: Roman, you also worked with Wes on “Darjeeling Limited.” What was the difference between the collaborative process on that film and on this film?
RC: For “Darjeeling,” which we wrote with Jason Schwartzman, who is my cousin and who appears in the movie, Wes came up with the idea of having three brothers that are falling apart who go to India and have a crazy adventure. He assembled our team—myself, Jason and himself—and we started to cook up the story in the process of improvising it by having dinner and walking in strange neighborhoods. And ultimately we went to India, took a train, went to a bunch of temples. Many of the people who were in the movie we met along the way in these temples and such. So we kind of grew the movie through improv, through experiences that we shared, and we created the condition for the story to happen through the writing team. We each had our brother who we kind of got—I was Peter, the Adrien Brody character. So that was a very distinctive experience.
For “Moonrise Kingdom,” we were in a house together—a rented house—and it has much more to do with imagination and fantasy. People will ask, “what about that movie is real, what happened to you?” And the answer is that nothing really happened; rather it’s all what we wished would have happened. You’d meet a girl in fourth grade and you would love to run off with her. It’s not based on any real experience, but it’s based on these fantasy notions, recalling those times of being a child. It was more that type of work, just daydreaming and improvising. We were in this house together and my girlfriend was there as well as Wes’s girlfriend and Wes’s brother, and they were sort of our audience. We would work during the day and go have our meal in the evening and tell them the next installment and it was sort of like a radio drama. We had that fun of getting to share the next installment with them, so that brought a lot of pleasure to it.
AT: So who’s in charge of the computer? What is the actual device?
RC: Wes is in charge of that, since he’s the director of the film and he and I are the writers in service of the director. I’m very much there to serve the director. We would banter and come up with all strands of dialogue, and when it felt right, Wes would be the ultimate person to put it into the actual words.
AT: You help a lot of people do their films. You produce your sister Sophia’s films, you’ve done visual effects for your father Francis, you have your own company and you do commercials, music videos and all. You’ve done a lot of second unit work—you’re a jack of all trades, but you want to direct as well. I saw your first film, “CQ,” which was in Cannes. I remember interviewing you then, and I loved it.
RC: Now you have to see my next film coming out that I wrote and produced and directed, called “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.” It stars Charlie Sheen, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, and other folks to round out the cast. It’s a portrait of a guy who’s going through a tumultuous period as he’s going through a breakup.
AT: So did you write the script? What was that like?
RC: When I work together with Wes it’s a very different process. He’s very meticulous—he keeps a series of notebooks, depending on the movie, that’s the same kind of notebook he’s always used. I have tons of papers, I have computers, I save files with wrong names—I’m a little bit of a wreck. I’m just a little more of a chaotic thinker and person. The Charles Swan film took me about eight years or so to write. As John said, a lot of it is putting something down and picking it back up and going through that process over time. It’s a kaleidoscopic movie and taking so long to write it informed what the movie is. In simple terms, you have this little kernel of inspiration and you use that as your compass. You say, “does that belong, does that fit?” And you go forward. When you’re in a groove and you’re inspired, anything around you can grab and apply—yes or no—to that little compass to guide you and just go towards the target.
AT: Stephen, in the course of figuring out how you were going to get this going, what was your day-to-day writing process—when do you get up, how do you do it?
SC: Day to day, my mind is clear in the morning so it’s not terribly sexy but I go to the computer around 10 in the morning and I write until about 2 or 3.
SC: Well, you know, there’s lunch. I’m human. I’m not one of the boxers from “Real Steel.” I’ve written a lot of different things in my career—I’ve done television and movies and musicals and some other things—and each one begs for a different process. Generally, by the afternoon, my head is crowded.
AT: So you directed the film “The Four Corners of Nowhere.” It went up at Sundance. How did that help you to be able to do this one? You must have learned from that.
SC: I was so young when I did that movie—I wrote it when I was 22 and directed it when I was 23—that I don’t know what I got out of it. But my joke about my first movie is that half of it’s really good and half of it’s really bad. Honestly, very little. Other than that when you start a movie, you have very grand thoughts about shots and this that and the other, and by the end of shooting, that stuff has taking care of itself and you’re thinking about minutes and hours and how do I actually get it done. How do I boil the coverage—I have to make sure Emma has enough takes because she’s nervous about this scene. Or Ezra wants to try some improv, so how do I carve out enough time. At the end of the day, really, how do you get your job done?
AT: Do you integrate the music into the screenplay? There’s a lot of it.
SC: Yeah. I wrote a lot of the music into the screenplay. ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a big part of the book and the film. The Smiths’ ‘Asleep’ for sure. I knew that the homecoming dance would be ‘Come on, Eileen’ from Dexys Midnight Runners, because we choreographed to that song. Air Supply because you have to have Air Supply. But otherwise, past that it was just my music supervisor and I and our music editor just seeing which songs worked best in the film.
AT: So how would you define the major difference between the movie and the book? The biggest changes you made?
SC: Because screenplays are so unforgiving structurally, you have to find the center. If you veer off too much or you don’t make things clear, you’re going to lose the audience really quickly. In the book, I could talk about Charlie’s extended family, I could talk about his grandfather, I could talk about the history of the family and some of his thoughts about the world or pop culture, and there was room to do it. But in a film you can’t. So I just focused on Charlie, his past, his friends and his immediate family.
AT: David, there’s a scene in “Life of Pi” where Richard Parker vanishes into the jungle. It’s the heart of the movie for me. Do you agree? Why is so much emotion attached to that moment?
DM: Whether you see the film as a literal story or as an allegory, Pi’s connection to Richard Parker brings out something in Pi that he didn’t know he had himself. He calls himself this skinny vegetarian boy that didn’t know how to survive outside the zoo when he begins this journey, and because he has to confront this tiger, he finds that side of himself. So when that tiger leaves and doesn’t look back, he’s letting go of something that he found in himself that is never going to return, necessarily, and I think that’s why it’s so poignant. Also, if you have a cat you love, you get it. I think that’s the heart of why that’s so strong emotionally.
AT: One of the more controversial things about “Life of Pi” is the use of the book-end narrator. Some people like it, some don’t. Explain why you felt it was the best way to tell the story as a movie.
DM: It was something that Ang felt strongly about at that first dinner we had. From the very beginning, Ang and I both agreed that the story was not just about religion. It was about the power of storytelling, the power of stories to take you through the chaos in your life. So we were very attached to the idea that the older Pi was a storyteller. He was not just someone recounting what had happened in his life; he was someone who was able to bring something to life in a more magical way. Which you wouldn’t have had if you were telling the story from a boy’s point of view, young Pi. If he were recounting that to those Japanese investigators, if that was the bookend device of the film, it would be him just recounting what had happened in the aftermath of great turmoil. It’s a very different story when something is told right after the fact rather than something that’s evolved over time. You’ve remembered certain parts of the story, you’ve enriched certain parts of the story. It’s a different kind of story. For us, that was important. And also the idea that it was one storyteller passing the story on to another storyteller became very important for us. Ultimately, that was what determined it. We tried different variations of it along the way but that was the strongest way to tell it.
AT: This is a spoiler for those of you that have never read “Life of Pi” or seen the movie, but at the end, it is revealed that there are two versions of this story. Was there ever any consideration given that it was a fiction movie, of abandoning story number two?
DM: We would never have abandoned story number two. The very point of the film was that no one knows what happened on that boat except for the boy. What story you believe says a lot about how you interpret what he went through. If you as a person believe that there is a God watching over us who will help us through the ordeals in our lives, as Pi does, than that’s how you’re going to read that story. That’s how you’ll interpret what happened to you on that journey. If you favored the scientific this-happened-and-then-that-happened, this was the result of neurological conditions, this was an accident of nature and the failure of a ship’s hull in a storm—dry facts—than that’s how you’re going to read the story. We were not trying to tell you ‘this is the right version’ or ‘that’s the right version.’ I was surprised that in some review, people said, ‘well, obviously they came down on one side,’ and I was confused as to which side we came down on. What we were trying to say: “Everyone has a narrative that they bring to their lives, whether you’re a Hindu, a Christian, an atheist, a scientist, whatever. You’ve built a safety net in the facts that you’ve concluded about why the world works the way it does, and those are what get you through your ordeals.”
AT: One of the many challenges was having a guy on a boat in the middle of the ocean alone with an inarticulate tiger for this length of time. You found help from a sailor?
DM: Steve Callahan. Right after we started working on it, my nephew mentioned to me that he had read a book by a guy who had been lost at sea for 76 days in a five-foot life raft, so we tracked him down up in Maine. Steve was a professional sailor and had gone over for a sailing race in France, and on his way back, he thinks a whale hit the bottom of the boat and it sank, and he threw off his supplies and his raft and inflated it—all he had on was a t-shirt—and he spent the next couple of months at sea. So we went to talk to him, and I can’t tell you how much insight he gave us into the mechanics of something like that. But he also gave us the imagery. It’s a constant ordeal, obviously, horrible—but, he said, there were also times where it was the middle of the night and the sea was calm and the stars were reflected in the water and you felt you were in a giant globe at the center of the universe. And we would say, “oh, that’s great”—that’s in the movie. You cannot come up with that kind of stuff on your own. Those kinds of moments, those images—he knew the facts about the flying fish, the phosphorescence in the water, about the way the stars looked, and he was our marine consultant throughout the film, figuring out exactly where he was on his journey.
AT: And he gave you the idea of the journal?
DM: Right. Because he was a sailor, Steve was writing in little tiny lettering in a notebook and was logging the windspeed, the direction of the waves, where he must be according to the stars. He was trying to calculate exactly where he was in the ocean and when he was in different shipping channels. Pi didn’t have any of that knowledge. So as we were looking for a way to show Pi reflecting on what he was going through, we found that he journaled by writing in his survival manual. That idea we borrowed directly from Steve.
AT: Rian, you’ve worked with Joseph Gordon-Levitt now for quite a few years. How has he evolved since your first film together?
RJ: We’ve stayed really good friends since we made “Brick,” so as his friend it’s not like he’s gone through a big transformation. It’s been fun seeing him do very well at what he does, because he’s doing what he does well for the right reasons. I think that’s the thing with Joe: he only chooses stuff based on whether it gets his motor running, whether he’s truly passionate about it. That’s why he chose “Mysterious Skin” and that’s why he chose the Batman movie. He gets excited about something and throws himself into it. As his friend, it’s not so much a transformation as seeing a buddy of yours do really well.
AT: So did he show his progress on “Don Jon’s Addiction,” which just premiered at Sundance?
RJ: Yeah. He showed me the script, and I’ve seen a few cuts of it. I’m so proud of him. I think it’s a really great film, especially for a young actor who’s kind of in the public eye to do something that out there and that stylized and really go for what he went for. I think it’s a tremendous movie.
AT: So John, like Roman you’ve done a lot of different things. You’ve been an actor, a director, producer. Roman and Stephen, you can answer too, because you’re all multi-hyphenates. Is it good to have more than just one role and be versatile and move around and apply them as you go?
JG: I think so. I can only speak to my experience, so I’m interested in what Roman has to say as well. I came to LA in 1990 to be an actor, right out of college. Those years of starring in “Leprechaun III”…I remember having a meeting with Diane Lane who was deciding whether to do this movie that I had written, and the director said, “come along.” She was talking to him and she just looked at me and said, “you’re an actor. ” And I said, “well, um, you know.” And she said, “no, I like it that you’ve suffered from both sides.” That’s what she said in earnest.
When I’m on a movie set, I have an easy way of talking with actors, even with someone like Denzel. It was unbelievable to watch him doing what he does, and I was always looking over his shoulder. He would always calibrate himself in every scene in regard to how drunk he was—he had a number scale. I never knew what it was, but I knew he was working off this metric that he had and I thought, “that’s amazing.” It’s like, “I’m just a hacky actor,” but to watch him doing that, I would think, “wow, I would never know how to do that.” If you play different roles on a production, which I’ve been able to do and I know others here have, it’s very helpful. Showing up on a movie set as a writer for the first time was a much different experience than being there as an actor. And I think the business has changed. It asks you to be a kind of shape-shifter.
RC: I’m just a curious person, so the things that I’ve pursued are the things that caught my eye. Wes said, “I have this idea, do you want to come make this thing?” and I don’t really think about it. As you ask the question, you reflect a bit. It is nice to have that diverse experience, and I agree with John that, having been in front of the camera or having worked in effects or whatever it might be, it’s very useful to the other aspects of your work. But I just kind of go where I’m called.
SC: Writing all the different types of things has helped my career a great deal. There’s the practical thing of course where it’d be wonderful if all I did were screenplays. Screenwriting is a tough, tough job, and most of the stuff you do doesn’t get made, so it can get frustrating. Whereas in television, your chances are a little bit better and novels are a little bit better. That’s just practical.
AT: So “Jericho” was your big series.
SC: Yeah, “Jericho” was my TV show. But artistically, for “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” there was 10 years between when I wrote the novel and when I wrote the screenplay. And had I not written pilots—by that point, I’d written three pilots—I don’t think I could have adapted “Perks.” Because pilots, the very nature of what they are is that you have 42 minutes to introduce 12 characters, 15 characters, introduce a world and an arena, make us understand everybody and actually want to watch more. So there are tricks to that. And those tricks helped me enormously in introducing Charlie and making us know and care about his friends instantaneously. As a director, directing is very close to being a novelist, because as a novelist you’re creating the entire world, the whole vision. You know so much about every character and the backstory of every character. That’s more what a director does.
AT: Roman, did you get involved in the creation of the children’s books and the different elements that had to be created for the world?
RC: Not any of the visual stuff. On “Darjeeling” as one of the producers and second director, I was there every day. On this film I wasn’t around during the shooting, and it was a wonderful experience because I saw a cut of the movie but then I saw it complete in Cannes. That was a real treat that I’d never really had the pleasure of—to see it presented in that way. But the text that appears in the movie Wes and I wrote together—the excerpts of the children’s books. But the visual presentation was all other people’s work.
Audience question: I read an early draft of “Looper,” and in the diner scene, you originally had straws and salt between them, explaining time travel. In the movie was you just threw that away. It’s kind of a less-is-more thing in explaining it. Did that come from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, from Bruce Willis, or was it your thought?
RJ: We actually shot that and it’s on the Blu-ray as a deleted scene. Everything that was in that first draft you read of the diner scene we actually shot, and the trimming down of it was all in the editing room. It was just a process of being increasingly brutal as it always is with cutting. Saying what’s absolutely necessary, what can we live without, and what is neat but outside of the style.
Q: Many time travel movies are great on the first pass, but when you stop to think about them, they don’t make any sense at all. But yours does and it’s very tight. Was there anything you had written originally that you thought, “no, that doesn’t really make sense, I have to redo it”?
RJ: Yeah, that’s the funny thing. I spent a lot of time when I was writing making sure—you know, whenever you do time travel, it really is more of a fantasy element than a sci-fi element. It’s more Harry Potter spells than science. Your job is to create a framework and within that framework, stick to your rules and makes sure it makes sense. So I spent a lot of time making sure it worked in that realm. But then we didn’t have a blackbird scene where we explained it all. We kind of just showed it operating. So it makes me really glad that it felt like it all was cohesive.
Q: My question is for Roman. I’m currently a sophomore at NYU and I think you went to NYU too. What did you do at NYU or in film school that really advanced your career?
RC: Well, I was first in the Cinema Studies department at NYU. You just get to watch movies and discuss them. It was a wonderful time and I really enjoyed it. So I would recommend that kind of class. And then NYU is famous of course for Sight and Sound, the class in which you just go make movies. I made a lot of great friends—Richard Shepard, who’s a filmmaker who did “Matador” was a wonderful friendship. That was fun, just to get in there and do it.
Q: What was your plan on coming out of film school? Did you want to go into music videos or commercials or TV?
RC: I jumped into doing stuff at whatever level. I made a music video for the band that I was in. One thing led to another. My advice when people ask how you get started, I always just say “just do it, at whatever level you can. With your friends, quasi-professionally, whatever tool you have.” When you do something you love, you tend to get good at it, and then you have the pleasure of doing something you love and as your life progresses, you look back on these wonderful things. And if it leads you to a career, then that’s fantastic.
Q: Stephen, pertaining to “Jericho.” If you were ever approached by a company like Netflix or Hulu to essentially revive the show, would you consider it? And if so, how would you continue the story now that Jake Green is in Texas?
SC: We have a wonderful agent at WME who represents me and Jon Turtletaub and some other people, and they’ve been talking to Netflix and you never know. I can’t say what Season Three might be, but all I can say is, if you really want to know, the comic book is telling the further story.
Q: Could you elaborate on your outlining and planning process—what you go through before you put words on paper?
DM: Because I work on adapting things, I read the book and write down all the actions that happen on every page, as briefly as possible. So when I’m done, I have a very concise description of the things that happen as opposed to the beautiful sets and scenery and stuff like that. It helps get the book in your head, and that’s a starting place for writing the outline.
RJ: Yeah. I outline extensively, and it’s really 85 percent of the process for me—I write it in these books that I carry around all the time. By the time I sit down, I basically have a draft of the script written in pretty great detail. Typing it into the computer is really my first editing process.
JG: Rian and I are friends. So I know that he actually sketches and draws, and he writes it down in these magical little books and then he makes interesting movies. I’m a bad outliner, but I have to. I have that weird thing where I want to find it on the page so I’m the guy who finds myself in corners and has to find a way to write out of it. So I do a lot of editing. I’m a big rewriter. My skill is really in rewriting. The initial process is like root canal without Novocaine. It’s really painful.
AT: How many drafts of “Flight” did you write?
JG: I honestly don’t know. Hundreds, probably. It’s funny, because they printed the script to give around to whoever, and the studio said, “It’s 149 pages. Was it actually 149 pages?” And I was like, “Really? That was it?” There were drafts that were way longer than that. And that’s too long.
RC: I’ve worked in a lot of different ways, and for some other personal work I’ve outlined. For “Moonrise Kingdom,” there was no outline. The story began and we just scrambled after it as it was written. We would just ask, “what happens next?” And then we figured it out and proceeded.
SC: I think for me, I always want my first draft to read like a second draft. So what I try to do with detail—you know how people do step outlines? They’ll just list what scenes are. So what I do is, I don’t actually do that in a document. I do that in a folder, like on your Mac or something. In each document, let’s say there’s a scene heading or a chapter heading of your novel. And that document will be every thought that could maybe be this for this scene. So I do have a basic outline of what I think it’s going to be, but I can go down the rabbit hole in each moment. Because I’m always trying to find details. It’s like what Roman was describing where you’re trying to find out what’s next.
AT: What kind of screenwriting software do you use? Final Draft?
Everyone says yes.
AT: What do you do when you’re stuck, when you have writer’s block? What are your tricks for solving that impasse? Because we all get it.
DM: I surf the web first, and then when I get bored with that, I realize that I have three kids I have to feed, so I’ve got to just put something down. I’m serious about that–I just write something, even if I write, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing. This is really bugging me because…” and just start listing what’s not working, I usually get somewhere. Or I drink. [Laughter]
RJ: Yeah, I drink. [More laughter] I think it does help to take stuff in when you’re stuck, to go to a movie that has nothing to do with what you’re writing or to go to a museum or read a book or something. But at the end of the day, you do hit a point where you have to start scribbling. Nine times out of ten it gets you back on track.
JG: I go to rehab. [Laughter] It completely changed from directing my movie. I no longer get stuck, and only because, when you’re cutting a movie–before I got stuck all the time–but once I had my footage and I knew I had however many weeks–20, 24 weeks–to make it into a final version, you just went. There were some days where nothing was working, and every day you do 10, 12, sometimes 14 hours, because you know you have to. Because someday they’re going to pull the plug and you’ll have to finish. I found that very freeing. And now as I’m writing new things, I just apply the same discipline and try to do a really good job and just keep doing it like a job. When my grandfather was a steelworker, it wasn’t like he said, “ah, I just don’t feel it today.”
SC: The only way out is through, as they say.
RC: I often will just start another project and try to come back to it, and/or look at something that’s inspiring. If I’m working on a film, I’ll see something I know, something like “Annie Hall”–I could watch that over and over–and you see something that inspires you and that you can pick up little clues from and use that to unblock.
AT: So David, you have an unusual trajectory as far as becoming a screenwriter. You were a voice actor, and you decided that some of the abridged versions of the books you were doing the voices for, you could do a better job.
DM: Right. I was a theater actor earning no money, so I had to support myself doing voiceover for those audiobooks you listen to in the car, and as I was narrating one day–you do the full length, which is 105,00 words and runs 12 hours or something, and then you do the abridged version, which is 29,500 words and runs 3 hours–and whoever had written the abridgment had just done a horrible job of it. People were teleporting all over the place and was just weird and horrible. So I said to the producers, “I feel bad for this author. They’ve really ruined this book. I can better than this!” And they said, “well, would you like to try? We’ll pay you.” So I said, “sure,” and I abridged about 85 novels over the course of about five years. So I guess I’ve written 85 books, in my own special way.
AT: But you learned some skills!
DM: I learned a lot about craft, I learned a lot about structure. Just a second ago, I was saying I didn’t trust anyone with my writing, I was very precious about my writing and I would work for hours on one paragraph and then burn it. After you’ve ruined 85 books, you don’t feel so precious about your own writing. You start to say to yourself, “look, if I’m cutting up this person’s work–and I’m doing my best–but I’m taking someone else’s book and chopping it up and turning it into something else. I can do that with my own and not be so precious about it.”
AT: But you’re boiling it down to action and dialogue.
DM: Absolutely. You’re focusing on dialogue and on the spoken version of the book, so you’re paring back all the descriptions of characters and the descriptions of settings. If the phone call in a murder mystery takes place on page 22 and they don’t answer, well, you just cut to page 45 where they do answer the phone, and you’ve moved the plot forward that much more quickly. That’s how I learned to do it.
Audience question: Do you suggest having an agent take your scripts and give them to producers instead of taking them there yourself?
SC: If the question is about whether agents are the better way to go, I’d say everybody on this panel would agree that they absolutely are. Because the truth is, I guarantee you that every one of us have had very, very bitter experiences. It’s a really tough business and we all know it. I think this is probably the best year any of us have had. Talk to any of us three years ago and we might have been very discouraged. I hope you’re not feeling too badly about what you’re doing. That’s why I feel going to an agent is the best, best plan—because they’ll take a lot of the brunt for you. The part of all of us artists who get sensitive and our feelings get hurt is that they help to bear the brunt of that.
Q: Is there more room where somebody can, like in “Pulp Fiction,” move things around from what you think should be traditional and mainstream and make it more out of the box?
JG: Well, I think every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. I have to make it as simple as that when I try to write a script. Because, as Stephen has said, it’s a very small, contained box you have to work in, so it has to be kind of precise. But it doesn’t have to be told in that order–you can tell it in any order you want. So if I can start with an idea where I know the beginning, the middle and the end, that’s great. I usually can’t get that far. But if I can get that far, at least I have a start. And that’s why the outlining question, which I’m thinking about as we’re sitting here and I’m listening to everybody talk about it, the thing for me is that I don’t want to know necessarily where it’s going all the time. If I know where that next thing, that middle piece I have to get to is–because, you know, happy accidents happen all along the way. For instance, if I’m writing along and I think, “wait a second, what if they go there?”
Sometimes that’s an appendage I get rid of because it doesn’t work and it just drags us nowhere, and sometimes it becomes something else. The perfect example–in terms of the film that I’m here for–is the cancer patient in the stairwell. That would have never been part of the outline–“oh, of course they’re just going to stand there and talk to this guy who’s dying of cancer. Yeah, that’s going to happen. No.” It came up because I needed them to meet, and they’re in a stairwell smoking a cigarette and, I don’t know, this guy kind of appeared. That was a kind of happy accident. That wouldn’t have ended up on an outline, but I need a road map to get me to the big pieces of the story.
Q: They say “write what you know,” and obviously there’s some inspiration from personal life that you guys were sharing earlier, or inspiration from people sharing their personal life stories. Are you limited to a certain way of beginning, and a middle and end/three-act structure, or can the end be in the beginning?
SC: Here’s the thing. There are rules, there’s “Save the Cat,” there’s a lot of really good books about it. But as you say, “Is there a thing where the end is the beginning?” Yeah, it’s called “Annie Hall” and it’s amazing. In terms of the basic rule that I would follow is, does it hold our interest? The rules are there and other writers like ourselves and people in the audience, we’re making up the rules all the time. I’d imagine somebody would say, “I really want to tell a story about young people,” and they’ll watch “Perks” and they’ll watch “Moonrise Kingdom.” I would imagine Rian looked at “Back to the Future” and said, “OK, did this thing work? And how would it work for ‘Looper’?” So we’re making up the rules and at the end of the day, if you have a basic understanding of it, it helps you. But then break it and make it more interesting. It’s always great–you’ll stand out.
RC: I’ll throw a quote out from Thomas Edison, who said, “There are no rules here. We’re trying to do something.” I would say, go for it.
AT: What is it about “Annie Hall”?
JG: The ugly guy got the hot girl. [Laughter] You know what I mean? That’s universal.
RJ: There’s a lot of things about it. If I say one thing just in terms of screenwriting, it’s something that’s magical to me, because it does seemingly break all the “rules,” I guess, but it works in every conceivable way. You really feel like you’re a kid watching someone do a magic trick, and you have no idea how it pulls off what it does. It’s just a gorgeous piece of art that infiltrates your life and means more to you each time you see it and go on in life. It’s one of those.
Q: When you conceive of a character, who do you most enjoy developing this character with?
RC: The actors, I would say.
DM: Especially when I was first writing, for me, when I was trying to figure something out, I still didn’t know how to write, and I was very nervous about showing my work to other people. So I just kept going back to the character and back to the character. Some of those characters never turned into films or anything, and they’re still kind of haunting. There are a couple of characters that I spent ages thinking about, and I hope they find a venue some day.
Q: My question is for Roman. In the movie, the young girl’s mother is having an affair. Was there a reason it was the mother and not the father? Maybe because they were the same sex and it affected her differently?
RC: With the writing of that project, it was very intuitive and things just kind of happened. So there was never any discussion of whether it should be the father or the mother and then deciding on the mother. Things would sort of happen where she would go outside to have a cigarette and all of a sudden, the policeman would show up. I can’t answer that honestly, but it just felt right and it was an intuitive decision.
Q: My question for David and John, when you were writing, you ask “is this feasible for a studio?” To have a CGI tiger in the boat, or something like that, you think, “what is the studio going to say?” How much does the studio side drive the creative content?
DM: The decision to make a film has a great bearing on it. If you’re looking at something, whether or not you’re going to write this film, it is often a challenge. If you know going in–as he talked about with “Flight”–where it’s a challenging project because it’s R-rated, because of the budget, because you need a star–there are obviously projects that have more of a challenge to them. Once a studio has agreed to make a film, at least with the first draft, they always say, “just go for it. Just write your biggest version of it. ” You know you can’t have five parades in one film; they’re going to cut it down to one. But you put it in the first draft and it’s all great until they start breaking down the budget on it. And then you have to make creative decisions based on that. But often, the decisions you make are better because it’s forcing you to make new decisions. “Alright, we had the five parades, we really didn’t need five to begin with–this is the one that really matters so what do we do with those other scenes?” Once you get to the reality of the production, then you have to make those decisions.
JG: There’s a big distinction between what I call the job and the work. The work is what we’re talking about. I love the work. I joke about “Real Steel,” but the work on it–I had a great time! I have kids so coming up with the robots and all the stuff that was going on–the actual writing work of that, where you disappear into it and you’re in the world and you’ve got people talking about stuff–it’s crazy. The job part is the part that sucks. The job is, you’ve got a meeting at 10 am and you better go in there and wow them because they’re on the fence. They’re going to tell you they don’t like this or like that. The job can be a drag, and that’s what they pay you for: the job. The work I would do for free. I’d pay people to do the work. But the job is the hard part.
AT: What are you each working on next?
DM: I’m always a little superstitious about saying what I’m working on next, because as soon as I speak it aloud it goes into turnaround and adds like five years to the process. But I have a pilot that I’m waiting to hear about. I have three films that I’m working on–one is animated and two are in various stages in development. And I hope they’re all next.
RJ: Yeah, I’m writing something. But I have the same kind of thing…
AT: You’re sticking to original screenplays?
RJ: Yeah. I’m writing another original thing.
JG: I don’t really know! I’m producing a movie that Aaron Call is going to play the lead in that’s a crazy car culture movie, which is a completely different kind of thing. And it’s a different role for me. I think if I keep saying I’m going to write and direct another movie that I’ll do it, so I’m going to write and direct another movie.
AT: Roman, you’re going to take this movie out that you just finished.
RC: That’s sort of my main job right now, to spread the word about this upcoming film. And after that, I’m just waiting for something to strike me.
JG: Can you tell us just one thing about Charlie Sheen?
RC: Well, it’s funny, because people say, “what’s he like? He’s crazy, it must have been insane.” But Charlie is super together, talented, witty, funny, charming, committed. When we made the movie he was never late, he knew all his lines. So I have no good stories to tell because–contrary to what you all expect–if you see the film, he’s going to be great.
SC: I’m writing my second novel now, which I plan to adapt and direct into a movie as well. Ever since I directed my movie, I’ve been sent a lot of scripts to maybe direct the next thing. And you would be shocked how few good ones there are. Like truly good ones. Everybody sitting here, we all wrote good movies, and it’s a tough thing to do. It’s like going back to the rules question. Don’t ever been intimidated by the idea that there is some right way to do this. If you tell a great story, trust me, people will find you. And yes, you might have to go through the thing where you can’t have five parades and have to get it down to one–that is practical and it’s part of the job. But if you have a great story to tell, you’re going to find an audience. So I hope you don’t ever think that what we say up here about the business is anything other than encouraging.