Tom McCarthy, Nick Hornby, Meg LeFauve and Emma Donoghue also gather for THR's Writer Roundtable to discuss the agony of imagination, how the Internet has made people "meaner and dumber" and how to tell Judd Apatow you won't let tons of guys climb on top of you for sex scenes.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
A teacher. An executive. An actor-director. A comedian. Those are some of the professions that writers on the annual roundtable tried out (and still are doing, in some cases) on their way to becoming scribes. Put them all together, and what do you get? A panorama of modern Hollywood, with strong views on everything from death threats to sexism ("They were like, 'How many dicks have been dangling in front of you?' " says Amy Schumer, 34, as THR discovered when it brought together the former teacher, Nick Hornby (Brooklyn), 58; the onetime executive, Meg LeFauve (Inside Out), who declined to reveal her age; the present-day actor-director, Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), 49; and the omnipresent comedian, Schumer (Trainwreck) — along with novelist Emma Donoghue (Room), 46, and former playwright Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs), 54.
What was your biggest mistake and how did you recover from it?
LEFAUVE Just a small question to start with.
HORNBY I started trying to write scripts before I wrote books. And I didn't know what I was doing, who I was writing for, and there's a lot of time I won't get back. If I'd known what I know now, I would have saved myself quite a lot of work.
Have you revisited those scripts?
HORNBY Oh, God, no! I don't even know if they exist. They weren't written on a computer. They were written on a typewriter.
SCHUMER What's that? (Laughter.)
SORKIN Just recently, with The Newsroom, the show's relationship with the critics ran hot and cold, and in addition, I really struggled writing it, except for the last season. It always felt like I had a pebble in my shoe, that there was something wrong with my swing. And there was a lot of noise about it. The way you get past it is you start the next thing. And if I can, I try to start the next thing before the last thing is over. So while we were shooting Steve Jobs, I was writing the next screenplay.
Why did you have trouble writing The Newsroom?
SORKIN 'Cause Amy kept making fun of me. (Laughter.) (Editor's note: She did a scathing parody of Sorkin shows called The Foodroom.)
SCHUMER I don't know what you're talking about, Aaron.
Was it difficult to spoof him?
SCHUMER Um, I worked very hard on that scene. I'm a huge Sorkin fan, but it was fun to spoof.
MCCARTHY The one thing I regret, as a young writer, was not finding like-minded people that I could connect with. I remember my father telling me, "You have to network in this business," and I thought, "I'm never networking." But as a result, I shut myself off; and as I started to connect with people creatively — going to Pixar for the first time was so expansive — suddenly I was around all these really odd, goofy, wonderful people. And it started to unleash me.
LEFAUVE I came out to L.A. to be a writer and immediately bailed. And I became an assistant and then an executive. So you start to shadow artists, which is incredibly dangerous because you shouldn't be trying to even unconsciously write through that. There was a lot of time spent not writing. But I got an incredible mentor in that process, Jodie Foster.
MCCARTHY Where did you go when you left [executive work]?
LEFAUVE You throw yourself off the cliff, and you're like, "If I don't write, I'm never going to do it." And everybody is like, "What? You work for Jodie Foster!" And I immediately had two babies, because there's no better distraction from writing.
SCHUMER OK. I quit. (Laughter.)
LEFAUVE You know, even if you can develop [scripts] at a high level, that doesn't mean you can write at a high level. It's completely different parts of your brain, so you have to learn an entirely new thing. And it's hard, because that part of your brain is always telling you that you're doing it wrong.
Nick, you gave up teaching to write. Was that difficult?
HORNBY Not when I was 26 or 27 years old. I didn't have a family; I was with terrible teenagers all day, and there was no money to give up. The thing that gets you down is, you feel like you're walking a plank. And everyone has gotten jobs and mortgages, and you're getting older and you're still the guy everybody has to [chip] in for when you go out for a pizza.
When you're not writing, do you all tweet?
SCHUMER I tweet sometimes once a day. I'm a Twitterer. I've gotten a lot of death threats.
Were the death threats real?
SCHUMER I'm here.
SORKIN The Internet in general I find troubling. The anonymity has made us all meaner and dumber. This thing that was supposed to bring us closer together, I see it doing the opposite.
SCHUMER The things that you're afraid they're going to say are so much worse than anything they actually say. But you've already put your nervous system through that fear. With Trainwreck coming out, I was like, "Everyone's going to say, 'She's not pretty enough to be in this movie.' " And then only one dude wrote that, and people really attacked him, and then he redacted that and wanted to date me. I've been waiting for this rainstorm of hate, and it's never really come.
DONOGHUE But as a research tool, the Internet is the best thing that ever happened to writers.
SCHUMER According to the Internet, I was in Newsies.
MCCARTHY You were great.
DONOGHUE You have to know how to use it. Like if you're looking up your warts, right? You don't just go for Warts Are Us dot-com.
Emma, you're a novelist. Is the script form harder than the novel?
DONOGHUE Isn't all writing hard?
HORNBY The thing you notice first is the space: It's 120 pages. And in a novel, if you're writing a scene that works, there's no reason to stop writing that scene, and if it's 15 pages, an editor will leave it. But a 15-page scene in a movie, that's big. So it's having to lose stuff that you're proud of simply because of the demands of the form.
SORKIN By the way, 120 pages would not get me to the end of the first act.
Aaron, you and Tom adapted real-life stories. How free were you to move away from the facts?
MCCARTHY We tried to stay as close as we could. Spending so much time with reporters and a movie about authenticity, we felt we couldn't be inauthentic. [But] halfway through this investigation, 9/11 happened, and everyone on the Boston Globe team was taken off that investigation when they were close to cracking it, and when we were screening [the film], people would say, "That takes me out of the movie."
SORKIN I can tell you I didn't distort, pervert or invent any facts about Steve Jobs for this movie at all — except one, which is that Steve did not have confrontations with the same five people 40 minutes before every product launch. That's plainly a writer's construct.
DONOGHUE You're always choosing a slice, even if it is a cradle-to-grave biography. It's never the whole thing.
MCCARTHY I love the structure of the film, [but] there is something that feels very theatrical.
SORKIN In the theater, we're used to things not being literal. And in the movies, you expect it to be literal.
Steve Jobs' widow apparently called people and said, "Don't be involved with this film."
SORKIN Laurene did call a lot of people. She hadn't read the film. She didn't like Walter Isaacson's biography it was based on.
SCHUMER I don't know if I would make the mistake of ever writing something so autobiographical again, because then you would have to talk about, how true is this? And basically, with my movie, they were like, "How many dicks have been dangling in front of you?" The character was sort of me — if I had been suspended [in my] sophomore year of college with sleeping around and drinking a lot. And, knowing people are so quick to dismiss a woman as, "OK, she's a slut," I was really careful. One of the opening scenes of the movie, they wanted to shoot it like my P.O.V. [with] a lot of guys on top of me. And I was like, "No."
MCCARTHY Was that something you addressed in the script stage, or was that conversations with Judd [Apatow] directorially?
SCHUMER Long conversations with Judd where I was like, "Trust me. I know what people are willing to forgive. I'm a stand-up." [But] he had final cut and didn't even have to let me in the editing, if he didn't want. It was a lot of conversations. Judd was really encouraging, and he taught me to trust my instincts. And he taught me that, when you make a lot of money, there's really nothing to buy. I was like, "What's it like being really rich?" And he was like, "There's nothing to buy." All right!
You don't want an island?
SCHUMER I still live in a one-bedroom walk-up.
Is there a script or person you've learned the most from?
SORKIN When I was starting out, William Goldman took me under his wing, and he's still the person I show pages to.
Did you show him Steve Jobs?
SORKIN Sure. He said, "They're really going to let you do this?"
LEFAUVE Certainly being in a brain trust at Pixar teaches you a tremendous amount very fast. And the notes at Pixar are coming from other filmmakers.
Did they change how you think about writing?
LEFAUVE No, because I've always approached writing as: What's the idea here? Thematically, what are we trying to say? But I'm also trying to make sure it's so human that I can write that. Once we have that DNA, then I know how to take the notes. Otherwise you're changing all the symptoms and then you just get new symptoms. At Pixar, you're also screening the movie many times in storyboard. So you're getting 300 sets of notes. I mean, there's tons of voices coming in. You have to love getting notes.
SCHUMER Can't you set it up for just your friends and people you [know]?
LEFAUVE You can. I'm [also] working with 12 storyboard artists. Their department is called Story because they are storytellers. They can change the scene if they want to. [Your job is to] keep that DNA moving. Jodie would call it the big beautiful idea. You know, "What is that big beautiful idea we're trying to communicate?"
HORNBY I went to give a reading once at Pixar. I just couldn't believe the creative energy of the place. I felt like I was showing Steve Jobs what a pencil did.
DONOGHUE I've learned from seeing it get made and scenes where all the dialogue fell away. Now I realize they can take away all the dialogue and it's still the scene.
MCCARTHY That transition midpoint through the movie [when the two main characters leave their room], did that concern you?
DONOGHUE The book is in two halves, and I knew that would make an odd-shaped film, but I had a feeling it would work, somehow.
You've never been trapped in a room. How much should writers write what they know?
SCHUMER People should do what they're good at. I like to write what I know, but I also like to daydream a lot.
LEFAUVE Is what you know the external situation or is it your perspective on life? That can happen on Mars.
HORNBY You say write about what you know. I don't know that much.
SORKIN I didn't know anything about Steve Jobs. And more importantly, I didn't care that much. And God knows, I'm technologically illiterate. My point is, it can become what you know. If you lined up 10 writers and asked them to write a movie about Steve Jobs, you'd get 10 very different movies.
Is there anything you wish you could go back and redo?
SORKIN There is nothing I've ever written — there isn't a single episode of television, there isn't a play — that I don't badly wish I could do again.
MCCARTHY Like you were saying, jump into the next project. It's a lot less painful.
HORNBY The impulse to write is to take what went wrong before and use it with the next thing. The idea of going back on anything now is a nightmare to me.
SCHUMER I love writing. Writing is my favorite thing. I'm writing all day, all the time. Scripts. Scenes for the TV show. A book. I love writing. I'm an introvert.
HORNBY If I had to guess between introvert and extrovert … (Laughter.)
MCCARTHY Have you ever done any comedy where you're getting far from yourself?
SCHUMER I used to play a character onstage, really irreverent, kind of a racist. I played this very privileged, white Republican chick. And that's not who I am. I did not grow up with money. I'm a Democrat. I just keep getting closer and closer to myself onstage. I don't regret any jokes I've said, but as a comic, hopefully, you're evolving. And there is something really appealing about people letting themselves be vulnerable, because being a comic is so much about control — which makes the introvert thing a little less surprising. Because I'll be alone all day, and my only interaction will be with thousands of people in the crowd that I don't have to talk back to. And if they talk back, I'm allowed to throw them out. But, hopefully, you get closer and closer to yourself.
Do you doubt what you do?
SCHUMER Any comedian who starts out is just delusional. The thought that you warrant people's attention onstage is very stupid.
Aaron, do you deal with self-doubt as a writer?
SORKIN All the time. It's like Sisyphus; there's never been a time when I haven't finished something and felt like I just wrote the last thing I'm ever going to write — I'm not going to have an idea, nothing's going to work, I've used all the words I know.
DONOGHUE I often doubt that the work is good — line by line, I might be like, "That's rubbish." But I try to spend as little time as possible thinking about whether I'm any good; I try not to have a distinctive Donoghue style. I just try to serve the story. So it's not me.
SCHUMER Are you Elena Ferrante? (Laughter.)
DONOGHUE I wish. But I just try to think of it as, "What does this project need? What style?" That keeps all the pressure off me.
HORNBY One of the things I've noticed working in films and books is that there's way more opportunity for self-doubt in movies, because you get turned down endlessly, whereas with my books, I'm dealing with my editor and it's a long-established relationship. And unless I've completely screwed up, they will publish it. With movies, it's every week, "No, we're not interested." You're being hammered into the table by the process.
DONOGHUE You adapt other people's novels and not your own. Is that a formal decision?
HORNBY My first one, Fever Pitch, I adapted myself. But when High Fidelity was optioned, I thought, "I don't want to do this. I don't want to spend three years writing a book and then five years taking out all the bits that I put into the book in the first place." I would really rather do something else.
A question for the women: What annoys you when you see female characters written onscreen?
SCHUMER Oh, I was preparing myself for the heartbreak of usually the question that follows: "As a woman, what do you guys think?"
DONOGHUE I do get sick of seeing those endless girlfriend roles, you know? So often, you see brilliant actors like Brie Larson, and the number of small, girlfriend roles they get that are just so unworthy of them, that annoys me. Even in a good movie like Love & Mercy, there'll be some angelically supportive woman propping you up.
Do you find women are not given the chance to write action pieces?
LEFAUVE Well, I'm going to write Captain Marvel.
SCHUMER Is he gonna get his period? (Laughter.)
It's a woman.
SCHUMER My next movie is an action movie, with a woman in her 60s.
Is there a piece of advice you would give a starting writer?
SCHUMER Meet Judd Apatow.
HORNBY When I started, I thought when things weren't going anywhere, it was because the script was terrible. In fact, there's hurdles, hurdles, hurdles. Producers are pretending, directors are pretending. But eventually, if you pretend hard enough, it goes from black and white to color, and a movie is made at the end of it. I wish I had known that. I would have chucked less out.
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