THR's Writer Roundtable: Osama bin Laden, Why 'Schindler's List' Is Irresponsible and When Judd Apatow Was a Dishwasher

Ramona Rosales

Six talented screenwriters spill secrets of their hot movies and reveal whether the CIA gave notes to Kathryn Bigelow.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Hollywood Reporter roundtables typically draw diverse groups of talented people. But the six men who gathered Oct. 2 at The Residences at the W Hollywood might be among the most eclectic bunch we've ever assembled. Journalist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, 39, chronicles the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in his still-unfinished Zero Dark Thirty, while comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, 44, takes funny aim at his own family life in This Is 40. German auteur Michael Haneke, 70, brought along a translator to help him discuss his Palme d'Or-winning Amour with sitcom star-turned-scribe John Krasinski, 33, who wrote the anti-fracking drama Promised Land with Matt Damon. And veteran writer David Magee, 50, shared stories about his fantasy spectacle Life of Pi with Chris Terrio, 35, whose Argo marks his first feature screenwriting credit.

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The Hollywood Reporter: We've seen the impact this Innocence of Muslims film has had around the world. Are writers and directors responsible for the reaction to their work?

Mark Boal: I've seen it. It's hard to have that in the same conversation as the kind of stuff we do.

Judd Apatow: It's meant to incite a riot, so it's not really a creative endeavor. It's like picketing outside a funeral.

Boal: Of course, there's a responsibility, but that means different things to different people. I feel, first, a responsibility to tell a good story, and there's also a responsibility to not play fast and loose with history. And there's an ethical duty if you're writing about people -- which I was -- who are still participating in the events that you're writing about. Most of the characters in my movie are still working. There is a responsibility to protect their identity. 

THR: You're also making popular entertainment. When it comes down to a battle between story and truth, how do you choose?

Boal: It's always entertainment, but that's not mutually exclusive. It's not a documentary, but in some ways it's more exciting than a documentary because you can bring things to life in a more vivid way.

David Magee: All of us are very careful about how we portray different people's sensibilities, even if we're critiquing how people are behaving in the world. That film was all about irresponsibility and trying to get a negative reaction.

THR: Mark, did the CIA get to read your script?

Boal: Look, we made the movie independently. When you make a movie with a studio, and it involves the military, there's some give and take creatively. We decided to forgo all that -- forgo the access to helicopters, forgo the bases -- and make the movie in the Middle East without any sort of government involvement. So there was no official government vetting.

THR: Do you show Osama bin Laden in the film?

Boal: It's an interesting creative choice, and I would love to have this conversation with you after you've seen the movie.

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THR: OK, if you were going to show Osama bin Laden, to what extent do you humanize a guy like that? There was a very good German film, Downfall, about the last days of Hitler, and it was an extraordinary human portrait. The danger is whitewashing what he's done.

Boal: I wouldn't even know how to begin to do that movie, to be honest with you. I like to write about things that I know or people that I've met or field research I've done.

Apatow: It helped that you hired Alan Arkin to play bin Laden. (Laughter.)

Michael Haneke: I have to say that I argued with Downfall writer-producer Bernd Eichinger about the film. I found it both repulsive and dumb. When you're dealing with a figure of such a deep historical context, what are you doing with him? You're creating melodrama. You're trying to move your spectators, but what emotions are you calling on? Your responsibility entails enabling your audience to remain independent and free of manipulation. The question is, how seriously do I take my viewer and to what extent do I provide him with the opportunity of creating his own opinion? Am I trying to force my opinion on the spectator?

THR: Would you make a film about Hitler?

Haneke: No. It's impossible for me, turning this into entertainment. That's why I have problems with Steven Spielberg's film about the concentration camps [Schindler's List]. The mere idea of trying to create suspense out of the question of whether the showerhead gas is going to come is unspeakable. For me, the only film about the Holocaust that is responsible is Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. Resnais asks the spectator: What do you think about this? What does this mean to you?

Chris Terrio: I'm very interested in what Michael said about the suspense of the shower in Schindler's List because in a sense it's the same in Argo. I'm not sure about the ethical implications of taking real people's lives and trying to make it a nail-biter.

THR: Are there some subjects filmmakers should not touch?

John Krasinski: The idea of manipulating your audience to believe something is incredibly dangerous. But to delve into certain subject matter is always important. The end is not, "This is what I believe happened; you should all take this as truth." And that's where we are getting into trouble with Innocence of Muslims and, in Michael's opinion, Downfall.

Terrio: In Argo, it would be very easy to depict the Iranians as just these nameless people out there who vaguely want to kill you. We had no interest in doing that, so right from the beginning, Ben Affleck and I talked about how we had to have some context for what was going on in Iranian society, that you had to understand this isn't just a generic image of what we think of as "the Arab street." You need to understand the source of the rage.

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