'Dallas Buyers Club,' 'Wolf of Wall Street' Writers Reveal Their Writing Processes, Biggest Challenges

2:51 PM PST 02/11/2014 by Kyle Jaeger
Dan Steinberg/Invision for The Hollywood Reporter/AP Images
David O. Russell

"American Hustle's" David. O Russell and "Her's" Spike Jonze also were among the Oscar-nominated screenwriters taking part in a panel at the Los Angeles Film School.

Students and faculty at Los Angeles Film School gathered in the stadium-style Main Theatre on Monday night for the annual event featuring writers from eight Oscar-nominated films of 2013. Backstory publisher Jeff Goldsmith moderated, leading the group through an interactive Q&A forum – available for free download on iTunes.

Panelists John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), David. O Russell and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club), Spike Jonze (Her), Bob Nelson (Nebraska), Jeff Pope (Philomena) and Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street) fielded questions about the successes and setbacks of their careers in film.

Anecdotes overlapped as the writers described their formative experiences -- dead-end jobs, rejected screenplays -- within the industry. “The most important thing is to not be a writer in theory, but to be a writer in practice,” Pope said. “It’s about application and it’s about the long game.”

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Expanding upon those early lessons, panelists weighed in on the writing process. Wallack touted long stretches, writing “for 12 hours or 15 hours straight,” but her Dallas Buyers Club co-writer kept a different schedule. “I’ll look for any type of deflection,” he admitted. “I don’t have a 12-hour day in me, ever.”

Not to be outdone, Nelson quipped: “As someone whose first film is coming out at the age of 57, I feel I may be the world’s greatest procrastinator ever.”

Conversation turned to recent works with writers sharing insights into the challenges of production and the creative decisions involved behind the scenes. Goldsmith engaged panelists with questions about the importance of beginnings and endings in their films.

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Russell described the introductory theme of his last three films – ambiguous or uncomfortable scenes featuring a single character. “I love that mystery,” he said. “I love the tension of the storyteller, whether it’s to my 3-year-old or to audiences.”

In terms of conclusions, Goldsmith noted the unique challenges of adaptation screenwriting, using The Wolf of Wall Street as an example. Winter reasoned that the film’s ending served to affirm the thesis.

“I don’t think our character does change very much. And I think the message is it doesn't change,” he said. “If this movie is really holding up a mirror to what's going on in society, and certainly on Wall Street, nothing has changed.”

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