Awards Watch: Writers Roundtable
Six buzzworthy screenwriters on good characters, bad table reads and what keeps them from throwing in the towel.
Got script? The Hollywood Reporter's Jay A. Fernandez and Matthew Belloni gathered six screenwriters -- Mark Boal ("The Hurt Locker"), Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!"), Geoffrey Fletcher ("Precious"), Nick Hornby ("An Education"), Scott Neustadter ("(500) Days of Summer") and Anthony Peckham ("Invictus," "Sherlock Holmes") -- who not only managed to get their work produced this year, but also had films that are generating awards talk.
The Hollywood Reporter: How does today's reality of the film business stack up with your expectations when you first flirted with becoming a screenwriter?
Nick Hornby: I'm not sure I'm entirely representative because I have another job. All I can say is that, I don't know how you guys stick with it. I was constantly on the verge of packing it in because it seemed utterly pointless. Books are pretty straightforward by comparison. You write a book and your editor wants to help you with it and then he wants to publish it. And that's it! That's the whole process.
Mark Boal: It helps if you're Nick Hornby.
Hornby: It does strengthen your career if you've written three, four books. Whereas it doesn't matter who you are when you're writing a movie. There's still the same very slim percentage chance that the film will get made. I did endless drafts and at the end of each one we seemed no closer to anything. And I thought, nah. I wrote two books while I was writing "An Education," and they've both been published. It would drive me crazy to do what you guys do.
Scott Z. Burns: Now I feel a little better. (Laughter)
Boal: One thing that's really changed is the independent landscape. I didn't really know much about it, but I learned about it in the process of writing "The Hurt Locker" and producing it. That was like a four-year thing, all in, and by the end of that period I felt like, "Wow, I've learned a little bit about how independent films work." And in the last year, I've watched that entire business model crash and burn. I don't know that the film I set out to make four years ago could get made again today.
Scott Neustadter: I wrote this script with my friend as therapy. The fact that it did get made is still mind-blowing. But at the same time, I don't feel any closer to getting anything else made than I did when I was a 21-year-old college kid.
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Anthony Peckham: I've probably been at it longer than anyone here. I came and did film school in 1981 and have been writing ever since. The landscape has transformed from a multicolored one with all sorts of different niches and places to go to a very monochromatic one. It's either very lucrative and exciting, or nothing.
THR: Has that changed the way you write and the ideas you develop?
Peckham: The truth is I don't have any ideas. I generally work with material, and the material gets filtered through the machine first, often. So really what I'm doing is reacting to stuff that's put in front of me. I do have ideas, but I don't think of commercial viability first. I think of whether it appeals to my passions, because you just can't write without passion.
Burns: You hope that what draws you into a project is going to be true for other people, and that you can get some critical mass of other folks who are like-minded who will help will it into existence. Because we can sit here and say it has to be one of these four things. And yet consistently, those four things fail in spite of huge investment in them.
Hornby: The one-off -- like "Slumdog Millionaire" last year -- is absolutely critical for all of us. It's the same in books. We're doomed unless something that no one saw coming (becomes a hit). It's what encourages people to invest in anything at all.
Burns: Look, maybe this is hopelessly naive -- I came from advertising, waking up in the morning and knowing at 9 o'clock that I was a whore, as opposed to realizing it at some point later in the day -- but I can't believe that drama is dead, in terms of human experience. These things have been around for the same amount of time that we've been here. Maybe the business model that we've used to make them isn't applicable, and we have to find a different way of doing it, but I really don't believe that drama is dead or that interesting art is dead. That would be the end of me getting up in the morning and writing.
Geoffrey Fletcher: With "Precious," if you list all the things a studio wouldn't want to do, or all the things that aren't commercial, we've got most of the checklist taken care of.
THR: Several of you have journalism backgrounds. How does that help and hinder you when you're writing a script?
Boal: The idea for "The Hurt Locker" came out of a reporting assignment. I went to Iraq to cover the bomb squad. So for me journalism was the inspiration. The great virtue of being a reporter is people pay you to go do things that you would not otherwise be able to go and see and experience and research. I'm sure I wouldn't if my rent money literally didn't depend on it. I tried to capture some of the natural inherent tension through the use of realism and detail. You don't really have to invent it. A man trying to disarm a bomb is inherently a fairly dramatic set up to begin with.
Peckham: That Ralph Fiennes sequence, the long sniper sequence, was that something that happened or something you invented?
Boal: There's the research I did when I was there, but then I talked to a lot of soldiers and contractors. A guy told me a story about two contractors, they were in local dress, driving around some part of southern Iraq completely alone without any support doing a reconnaissance mission for the CIA to tell them what might be a good place to put an embassy. My question to him was, "What was the scariest thing that ever happened to you in Iraq?" And the answer was: I got a flat tire on the side of the road and we did not have a wrench to fix it. It was so scary because now you have to stop and ask somebody. And then you've given the whole game away. So that was the inspiration for that scene.
THR: How do you handle writing about real people or events when the facts aren't going to work in the dramatic arc of the screenplay?
Peckham: How do you write about Nelson Mandela? He changed not just my life, but my country. I actually took two weeks just sitting at my desk getting over being shit-scared of writing about Nelson Mandela. How dare I? And then I got through that and got that writer's arrogance back. I had more material than I could ever use. I didn't have to invent a thing.
Hornby: Presumably, you couldn't have. I'd love to hear that conversation: "You know, Nelson, there's some pretty good stuff in your life. But I'm not sure it's dramatic enough for a movie, so I'm going to have to make a few changes." (Laughter)
Peckham: I made up secondary characters. I compressed some real characters in the interest of dramatic efficiency. But in the script, on occasion I had to put in brackets "this really happened," because I'd get challenged all the time. People saying, "This is bullshit. This can't possibly be happening." At the World Cup, at the final, South African Airways flew a 747 200 feet over the stadium. Twice. With "GO SPRINGBOKS" painted on their wings. It was all cleared. Anything they wanted could be done, but totally outside of FAA regulations. Morgan Freeman is a pilot, and even he said, "Sorry, Tony, it's great, but you can't have it, it didn't happen." I had to show him the pictures.
Burns: Mark Whitacre (of "The Informant!") was not my hero. And because Whitacre's pathology is such that he wasn't someone who was going to tell me the truth, going and interviewing him was not really going to ... it's like trying to touch your nose with your nose. So instead I went to Decatur, Ill., and drove around and went to the places he went to, drove up and down and stared at the corn, and saw the big man-made lake in Decatur. And then I went to the DSMIV and looked up people with his diagnosis, and there were things that were interesting to me, like distractibility, and people who go off on tangents, and that sort of became both the fun of it and the work of it of building a character. So that was a lot of invention, but it was also pretty much the best time you could imagine having as a writer.
Hornby: Talking about the real people thing: I'd seen photos of this woman, Lynn Barber, who is a famously quite scary journalist in England, and I thought that was a pressure of its own kind because I knew if I did a bad job she would write about it relentlessly. She has her own column in the Sunday Times. Part of me wished it hadn't been her, because I had to go and speak to her about it. It was fine, she thought it was weird, I think, because she wrote this autobiographical essay for Granta, which I don't think too many movies have been made out of.
Boal: Nor should they, by the way.
Hornby: I found it made it a lot easier just to change her name in very early drafts and just gave myself permission to think about her much more as a fictional character that made sense. But I was still scared. I still am scared. It's really not over.
THR: Scott, at what point did you guys decide on the odd structure of your script?
Neustadter: The structure was really the thing that made me want to keep doing it. We had always wanted to write this kind of a movie, a movie about a real relationship. And I had this idea of jumping around in time, have someone who's telling you the story of his relationship while trying to figure it out through memory. And you start to realize that it's someone who's very influenced by pop culture and has all of these ideas about romance and how it's supposed to feel, and that makes him unreliable when he's recounting these events. But without the idea of the structure I don't think it would have been something that we would have ever finished. Because that was our high concept.
Hornby: Did you have that ex in your head? And was that helpful or unhelpful?
Neustadter: Because I had a writing partner, the advantage of that was I could write a scene and he would say, "That sounds way too much like you." Or, "This is now too much about your personal life."
THR: Was there anything in your scripts that you had to fight hard to keep in?
Boal: I was very fortunate in that I never really had any notes.
Hornby: Huh? (Laughter)
Boal: I produced it in addition to writing it and we financed it through foreign pre-sales. And I wrote the script on spec, so it was done and Kathryn was attached to direct, and that was the package. So it was just like, "Can we get some money out of Yugoslavia?" and not, "Is the guy from Yugoslavia going to give us notes?"
Fletcher: There was one issue that came up, and it was when Precious is speaking with a counselor, and I wanted her to say, "I'd like a TV in my room." Someone from the production company wanted her to say that she wants a window in her room. And to me, this was a big, gigantic deal. In my head, this whole TV had its own journey. The TV was the thing that kept her and her mother together. Ultimately there's something that happens with the TV that is meaningful to me. So I gave them eight reasons why it had to be a TV and not a window. And finally, they said, OK, OK, OK, lay off.
Hornby: I've got a couple of those moments, where I was proud of the writing and hoped that it ended up in the movie. But I could see that the scenes were stand-alone, and you know that that's trouble. Straight out. I was sorry, but I didn't fight for them.
THR: Nick, did anyone push back on the sexuality?
Hornby: No. That stuff was in the piece. There was the scene with the banana that's in the movie.
THR: If you haven't seen it, it's not what you think.
Burns: I have seen it, and it was exactly what I was thinking.
Hornby: It was one of my favorite moments in development. We were meeting with the guy from BBC Films, and he said, "This banana ..." And it had always been there. He said, "Would it work?" And then he looked at the two producers, who were both women. They're kind of shifting in their seats, and there was this long, awkward silence. And then one of his assistants said, suddenly, and brilliantly -- because I didn't know where this was going -- he said, "I don't think it would be peeled." And the guy from the BBC said, "Oh! Ah! Unpeeled! OK. We're fine. Then we're good."
THR: Tony, what was it like working with Clint Eastwood, who is known for sticking to the script?
Peckham: The truth is, I didn't work with him. I tried to. We tried to bring in some notes. We wanted to add a little more, and he listened politely, and said, "I kind of like the script the way it is." So, I didn't work with him. I did two drafts and that was that. Done.
THR: Were any of you on the set much?
Neustadter: I was there every day.
Burns: I was there every day.
Boal: I was. It was an enormously exciting thing. To see these actors say the things that I had written counts as one of the great moments of my life. The first day of shooting -- and it was the most casual: "Hey man, get out of the humvee." And I was like, "Oh my God! He said my line!" And what really came home to me was this being a performing art. Nick, you talk about writing novels, and I write longform narrative nonfiction, which has its own kind of pleasures, but is never really performed. And to see what the actor brings to it and how they inhabit the role in ways that you imagine and didn't imagine, it's pretty striking.
Peckham: Didn't it blow your mind how meaning changes? You think you know what a line means. You've read it 5,000 times, right? And then the actor says the line and it means something else.
Hornby: When I'm writing, I think that the best possible version of this movie is the one I have in my head. And then when the actors start, you think, "Oh, I see. There's a kid who plays Carey's young boyfriend, who at the read-