The annual Santa Barbara Film Festival “It Starts with the Script” panel where I grill many of the writing Oscar nominees is my favorite moderating duty.
When asked which was the crucial most pivotal scene in his movie, studio writing pro Eric Warren Singer (“The International”) answered the microwave scene in “American Hustle,” which was one of the first he wrote in his script developed at Columbia –a rare original that he was able to write free from interference because the studio no longer wanted the one they had originally assigned and paid him to do. When the studio saw the script they jumped enthusiastically on board and brought in David O. Russell. At which point Singer had to let the script go. The scene evolved and literally exploded as Russell expanded it with Jennifer Lawrence as Long Island housewife Rosalyn. Singer never writes with a specific actor in mind, nor did he have an age in mind for that character.
Experienced novelist and TV and screen writer John Ridley (“U-Turn,” “Red Tails”) cited the soap/whipping scene with Patsy in “12 Years a Slave,” praising the way director Steve McQueen, D.P. Sean Bobbit and actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o laid out and delivered the final result.
Brit TV veteran Jeff Pope explained that adapting Martin Sexsmith’s third-person non-fiction book about Philomena Lee’s adoption saga was more difficult than it might seem as he and producer-writer-star Steve Coogan created a two-hander based on Philomena (Judi Dench) and journalist Sexsmith (Steve Coogan). Pope controlled the computer while Coogan paced the room acting out all the characters. Pope’s climactic scene involved Sexsmith losing it with the Catholic nun who kept valuable information from Lee, while she found him, calmed him down and expressed forgiveness. That denouement did not come easily.
Seattle TV sketch writer Bob Nelson (“Almost Live!”), who was hilarious on the panel, landed an Oscar nomination for his first screenplay, “Nebraska,” which was written as a longer audition piece to get more work. Based on many of his relatives from Nebraska where he’d return for summer visits, the script was easier for him to write funny than serious. Nonetheless for him the most crucial scene was the one where Woody (Bruce Dern) returns to his abandoned childhood home and walks through the rooms where he grew up. Nelson kept cutting it, but so did director Alexander Payne, who agreed more than a decade ago to direct the film but warned Nelson that he might have to wait for a while. Nelson is writing “The Tribe” with fellow Seattle TV vet Joel McHale, and threatens to write a movie based on more of his relatives.
Craig Borten detailed the 20-year production nightmare that started with him feeling compelled to track down and interview in Texas straight one-time homophobe AIDs activist Ron Woodruff a few months before he died; those tapes became the basis for “Dallas Buyers Club.” The movie picked up various producers and directors and actors along the way, including Marc Forster and Brad Pitt at Universal, before it reverted back to the original writers (including partner Melisa Wallack). They found and lost various investors before the straitened version, a $4 million movie, got made with director Jean-Marc Vallee and two emaciated actors, Oscar frontrunners Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. One key scene was Woodruff’s discovery that he’s contracted the AIDs virus. Borten drew laughter with his story of visiting McConaughey’s Malibu mansion and eating a tiny portion of salmon with a glass of water and working on the actor’s detailed notes all afternoon, “starving,” he said.