Roundtable: Clooney and 6 Top Writers on Toughest Career Moments, Worst Advice
9:59 AM PST 11/6/2013 by THR Staff
What do George Clooney and Grant Heslov argue about? Only lunch. Now, seven superstar scribes -- including Clooney, Heslov, "Gravity" writer Jonas Cuaron, (he penned the action-heavy script with his director father, Alfonso), "Before Midnight" co-writer Julie Delpy, "Enough Said" writer-director Nicole Holofcener, "12 Years a Slave's" John Ridley, and "Lee Daniels' The Butler's" Danny Strong -- reveal just how they work, awful agent advice and how whisper campaigns about accuracy have corrupted storytelling.
Holofcener on getting a film like Enough Said off the ground: "It was not hard at all. Fox Searchlight said, 'We want to make a movie with you, but we want this one to have a little more plot and just give us a little more to market.' Actually, I didn’t really mind because I wanted the challenge of having to write a script that was possibly more commercial but still mine. Something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed about, you know?"
One of the toughest moments for Delpy as a writer?
"When I wrote the first draft of Before Sunset , I remember giving the script to my agent, who fired me the same day. He thought I was wasting my time. So I was full of doubt, like, “My God, am I doing the right thing? I’m crazy," said the Before Midnight co-writer.
Strong on dramatizing historical events in The Butler: "I made very clear that this was a fictionalization. So much so that I changed the character’s name to Cecil Gaines in the hope of saying: 'This isn’t Eugene Allen. This is something else.' But the history in the film is all true; it’s a father-son relationship that’s used as a conduit to tell the story of the civil rights movement. It doesn’t really matter if you change who was here, who wore what. You just need to make the best movie you can make, being as responsible as you can to the overarching history of what you’re trying to portray."
On the least helpful feedback he received on the script for The Monuments Men: "We did get one guy saying, 'How do we know they're Hitler youths?' It's a kid in a Nazi uniform!"
On the hardest times of his career: "The toughest part was all those years writing specs, not selling them, not progressing. I kept writing these really broad comedies, thinking, 'I'm gonna break into show business writing these big, funny, Jim Carrey-esque comedies,' because that was big at the time. And then, finally, I said, 'I have to give up.' Nothing against Jim Carrey comedies, but that's when I wrote Recount . I sold it as a pitch. I still don't know why HBO bought that project. Maybe they were drunk."
On the backlash over Good Night, and Good Luck: "Bill O'Reilly does a half-hour show about why my career is over. He brought in some producer that goes, 'I'll never work with him again.' I'm like: 'I don't know who she is! I've never even seen her before.' (Laughs.) And I called my dad and said, 'Well, am I in trouble?' And he's like: 'Do you have a job? Do you have money?' And I said, 'Yes.' He goes: 'Shut up. Grow up. Be a man. What are you afraid of? A lot of people have taken a lot worse chances. You can't demand freedom of speech and say, 'Don't say bad things about me.' "
The Clooney collaborator says they begin the writing process the old-fashioned way. "We do that classic thing: We have a big board, and we put Post-its [everywhere], and we'll spend a couple weeks just doing that, particularly on a film like Monuments Men, which is very plot-heavy."
Ridley on his toughest moment as a writer: "[Being rewritten] is not pleasant. But I know that it helped drive me forward, to try to have more ownership of my material. If it’s something that I really cared about, why did I get in a position where I gave it away too early?"
Cuaron on taking responsibility for a film's accuracy: "When we wrote Gravity, we wanted it to be as plausible as possible, so we did a lot of research. There are things — when I see the movie — I know they’re not plausible."
Delpy on whether writing changes for one's own role: "No. I mean, there is the period of writing where we’re excited to write lengthy monologues, and then we get to rehearsing, where we look at the monologue, and we’re like, 'Argh!' It’s very schizophrenic. And then we go into the acting process, and we become insecure, we don’t sleep, we don’t eat, we’re freaking out. Actually, it made me realize acting is a very unsettling job. It makes you emotionally a mess, you know?"
For Holofcener, there comes a point when one must put the script down, including with her latest, Enough Said. "I just couldn’t bear it anymore. I couldn’t make it work. Couldn’t figure out how to make that plot device work and where to put it and have it not be stupid. Almost all of my movies, I am disgusted with at some point, and terrified and put it in a drawer. And then somehow I take it out of the drawer."
The Writer Roundtable
From bottom left: Danny Strong (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), George Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) and Jonas Cuaron (Gravity) were photographed Oct. 18 at The Los Angeles Athletic Club.