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WATCH: 9 Oscar-Nominated Screenwriters on How They Got Their Start, Their Writing Process, and Much More

WATCH: 9 Oscar-Nominated Screenwriters on How They Got Their Start, Their Writing Process, and Much More

Representing eight of the 10 films nominated for Original and Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Oscars, there’s a very good chance that at least one of the nine screenwriters on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s “It Starts with the Script” panel will be on stage at the Dolby Theatre later this month. 

This is always my favorite panel of the year, where we get to hear from the year’s most lauded and gifted screenwriters. This year’s was the biggest group ever:

Writer-directors Pete Docter (“Inside Out“) and Charlie Kaufman (“Anomalisa“) are both nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) made his directing debut on sci-fi breakout “Ex Machina,” starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac.

Irish-born novelist Emma Donaghue decided to adapt her bestseller “Room” and then find a director; she collaborated with fellow countryman Lenny Abrahamson on the movie starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, which is nominated for four Oscars. 

Playwright Phyllis Nagy adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” over 18 years of development with various producers and directors into lesbian romance  “Carol,” directed by Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, which scored six Oscar nominations. 

TV writer turned director Drew Goddard (“Lost,” “Alias,” “Daredevil,” “Cloverfield,” “Cabin the Woods”) discovered a wonky online serial by scientist Andy Weir and adapted it before it became a bestselling book; Ridley Scott’s movie “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, nabbed seven Oscar nominations.

Several panelists wrote scripts about real people. 

Connecticut-born screenwriter Jonathan Herman wrote the final draft of NWA origin story “Straight Outta Compton,” sharing credit with Andrea Berloff (the first among many writers along the away), earning its only Oscar nod.

Screenwriter Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”) reported and wrote “Spotlight,” which celebrates the investigative journalism unit of the Boston Globe, with director Tom McCarthy. The movie won the SAG Ensemble Award and is up for six Oscars, including supporting actors Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. 
Academic-turned-screenwriter Charles Randolph (“Love & Other Drugs,” “The Interpreter”) adapted Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short” with director Adam McKay. The movie won the PGA award and boasts five Oscar nominations. 
Origin Stories:

Singer worked for John Wells on the post-Sorkin “West Wing.” Academic Randolph was at USC when the Farrelly brothers suggested he write a screenplay; nothing came of it, but he did land an agent and start a career. London playwright Nagy worked on “Carol” for 18 years. Customer Service representative Kaufman was about to return to Minnesota when an LA “Get a Life” producer told him not to go. Herman was a development exec who sold his first spec, Facebook reminded him, seven years ago: “Compton” marks his first produced script. New Mexican Goddard was emptying trailer sewage as a lowly P.A. in L.A. before Joss Whedon saved him with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Backpacker Garland wrote about his travels and a few novels before one was optioned for film and he saw the benefits of writing in a social environment —and never looked back.

When Docter wrote flipbooks in school, he recognized that a good story was the way to catch people’s attention; short films led to Pixar. “Inside Out” took five years to make, going through endless storyboards, writing and rewriting, “like a comic book shot on video,” he said. “By the time you see it, we created eight versions of the movie.”

Kaufman was juggling several projects and went along with the far-fetched notion of turning his radio play “Anomalisa” into a stop-motion movie. “The fact that it’s not naturalistic works in animation,” he said, “and allows people to accept some of the stylized conceits…the way you wouldn’t be able to do with live actors. It’s more of a fable.” 

Garland had been interested in A.I. since he was a teenager, and while working on a “difficult, toxic production,” wrote “Ex Machina” as an escape from that movie, “a safe zone that I could retreat to.” He was inspired by adult dramas on American television and Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” to “sustain tension with people talking in rooms.”
Donoghue developed “an amazing working friendship” with Abrahamson as they sought to make the same magic in the book happen on screen using different techniques, “in some ways less vividly and in other ways more vividly.” They stayed close to the child’s point-of-view—Jacob Tremblay is in every scene—but didn’t stay literally within his eyeballs, opening things up to Ma and the other characters. 
Goddard kept reading a chapter a week on the Andy Weir website, wondering if he was “trying to adapt a blog.” He grew up around scientists and understood how cool and accurate “The Martian” was. “The hard part was getting $100 million to make a movie about a man farming in is own feces,” he said. 
When novelist Patricia Highsmith worked for a few weeks as a temp shopgirl at Bloomingdale’s in the late 40s, said Nagy, she spied this blonde across a crowded toy department counter. She stalked her back to her home in Connecticut, hid in the bushes and watched her through the window. “She came down with the flu and in a fever wrote this gently obsessional book,” said Nagy, throwing in some details about a former lover who had custody battles. “She is Therese in the book,” she said, “but she’s not like Therese, she’s more like Jack Warner chasing girls around a desk.” 

Herman inherited at Universal a hodgepodge of reporting and screenplays and whittled them down. It was tricky balancing the real larger-than-life players Cube and Dr. Dre and their views of themselves and expectations. He had to convince them that audiences would respond to their vulnerabilities. 
Singer and McCarthy debated how many of the Spotlight reporters to include after McCarthy went along on some interviews in Boston. “Two editors and four writers, we can’t have them all,” Singer told him. But McCarthy insisted on getting it right and staying authentic. They watched a French cinema verite “Polisse.” “Are we doing Altman?” Singer asked. “Tom was focused on the work of the team.” They did more than a dozen drafts, focusing on each character so they had a little moment and an arc. 
“Michael Lewis is interested in worlds,” said Randolph, who was fascinated by his characters, some of whom you root for and then turn against. “And he does a smart job of casting his books…He doesn’t judge his characters and lets them hang themselves or prove themselves…His ability to explain these concepts was great.” He credits McKay with adding a meta-layer, breaking the fourth wall and putting in commentary that helped to give the audience an emotional thing to attach to apart from the characters.
The Daily Writing Process: 

Docter gathers with his Pixar collaborators, talking about things, drawing on white boards and paper, pinning cards up, “trying to track through what it is we’re saying,” he said, splitting work loads and passing paper. “It’s a messy process, it’s like therapy, where you’re trying to figure out what is this movie about, and that’s either through pages, or drawings, any number of things.” A major breakthrough on “Inside Out” occurred two years in when co-director Ronny Del Carmen did a drawing of Sadness and Joy embracing, captioned, “embrace sadness.” That was what the movie was about!

Donoghue gets her kids off to school, then hacks through emails and work stuff—at her treadmill desk— to get to the fun writing bits. “I don’t naturally know how to keep the book standing up,” she says, so she plans the structure. She loves dialogue writing the most.

Garland goes hardcore for a few months on each screenplay, when he barely leaves the house, relying on his wife’s help. It’s about the pursuit of this wonderful moment of flow, he said, “like a gambler on a streak, when you get it, you do anything to keep it moving and ride it as long as you can.” 

Goddard procrastinates: eats, takes a nap, sleeps.

It’s a lot like Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation,” which is clearly based on the nightmare writing is for Kaufman, but he adds, it yields results in the end that he could not come to any other way. “When I’m blocked or procrastinating, I’m still writing and I just don’t know it.”

Herman needs a hard deadline to escape his delaying tactics.

Nagy likes to write surrounded by TV noise, especially baseball games, with a lot of cheering going on.

Randolph’s solution for being blocked is to alter something about the scene. “If I have a problem I just change the weather: it works.”

Singer and his screenwriter wife rely on each other to read pages for feedback. 

The Most Challenging Scene:

On “Inside Out,” it took a long time to figure out what would inform Joy and the audience about the power of sadness, said Docter. “It was not working until Ronny Del Carmen had the idea of planting the idea earlier, where Joy looks at a wonderful happy hockey memory, while Sadness remembers how they lost big game; Joy doesn’t want to hear any more about that. In this scene of sadness and despair, that’s what led to happiness and to the connection that was a good memory. It took a number of rewrites, and was difficult.”

Donoghue had to learn when not to use a scene. “Ma had had a stillbirth, when she had no help during birth, which came up a few times in the book,” said Donoghue. “Where’s the right moment to tell that in the film? I had it at the end, there was a garden grave outside, but in the film that seemed more and more like a downer, at a point when the film moves up toward the light. It has narrative thrust and moves forward, the logic of film. You have to follow that momentum.”

For Garland, a screenplay is a whole big thing made up of ecosystems. Fix one problem and “it causes a problem somewhere else. A first act issue is a problem in the third act, it’s all interconnected. There isn’t one problem, but massive problems. Eventually you get it to a point, it’s not like the problems are gone, they’re settled, spikes push themselves down, it will work. If I’m really stuck on something, stories are like maths and there’s an underlying equation. If it doesn’t work, just drop it. In screenwriting you have to keep going. Procrastination has to end at some point!”

Goddard and his writer wife work at home. “I can’t watch drama and my wife can’t watch comedy,” he said. “So we watch really bad reality television. I was working on a scene watching ‘It’s a Brad Brad Brad World,’ when a fashion designer goes to New York’s fashion week and Brad looks at the camera: ‘One thing you learn as a gay man at a young age is how to turn the beat around,’ which is a line I gave to Matt Damon in ‘The Martian.'”

Herman had to deal with real life people like Ice Cube and Dr Dre with differing accounts of the same event, including one scene where Eazy was lured to Suge Knight’s studio with intimidation tactics. “They all have a different way of presenting that story,” said Herman. “A lot of things happened in that room that no one wants you to know. Even if I’m reinventing what really happened.”

Kaufman recalled how Spike Jonze’s reworking of his original third act in “Being John Malkovich” wound up with a scene requiring long explanations over the back of someone’s head. “All this stuff happened that had to be explained at that moment, about the portal, and rules, it was boring and confusing…it wasn’t organic.”

Nagy struggled with a scene in “Carol” when she and her husband face off in the lawyer’s office about their divorce. “It’s the first scene when Carol actually drops language coding, she is saying exactly what she means,” said Nagy. “The film is full of people who don’t say what they mean: this is not in the novel. This allowed me to write a character I basically wanted to sleep with, Grace Kelly in ‘Rear Window.’ This is my Carol. When she gets to the lawyer’s office she’s no longer that character. Arriving at truth at a moment when no one is subtextual any longer proved difficult for me.”

For Randolph the toughest scene was the big conference room show-and-tell when Gosling explains derivatives with the aid of blocks. 

Singer’s long final scene when the reporters are stuck in the office leading up to putting out the story was the toughest as they reveal that editor Walter Robertson had buried a lawyer’s list of 20 priests he had received when he was metro editor in 1993. “They were looking away,” said Singer. “Why do we look away at Bill Cosby, and when things like this happen?  He said, ‘ it was on my watch and we should have gotten it.'”

What’s Next: 

Docter is hard at work on a top secret animated feature at Pixar. Donoghue is adapting the screenplay from her most recent novel, “Frog Music,” set during a heatwave in 1876 San Francisco. She’s experiencing “budget anxiety.” Garland is in prep on a shoot starting in May, “Annihilation,” adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s “dreamy and surreal novel.” Goddard is writing a movie on spec while prepping an NBC pilot shoot for next year. Herman is writing a remake of “Scarface.” Kaufman is adapting “IQ 83” about virus that causes U.S. IQs to plummet. (“Is it a documentary?” asks Nagy.) She’s finished a thriller script about a woman who doesn’t leave her house for 12 years, and is developing a TV show set in 1950s Cuba. Randolph is writing a TV comedy on political correctness set in L.A. and a movie starring Walton Goggins as a Sean Penn-style movie star who visits the Gaza Strip. Singer is working on a script to be directed by Damien Chazelle. 

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