THR's Writer Roundtable: Osama bin Laden, Why 'Schindler's List' Is Irresponsible and When Judd Apatow Was a Dishwasher
Six talented screenwriters spill secrets of their hot movies and reveal whether the CIA gave notes to Kathryn Bigelow.
THR: Chris, you took some liberties with facts in adapting the story. How much discussion went into how far you could bend the truth?
Terrio: There were two fantastic characters, John and Zena Sheardown, who helped house the six [who fled the U.S. embassy in Tehran when it was seized by Iranians in 1979]. It broke my heart, but I couldn't put them in. Ultimately, you look at a narrative and think: "How much information can we present? What's the breaking point?" Although obviously deviating from factual truth, in essence we are saying, "These Canadian people risked their lives." I don't feel we compromised in any essential thematic way. But sure, we had lots of discussions, and all kinds of people fall away.
THR: Judd, This Is 40 seems to be based on you. Your wife, Leslie Mann, and your kids are in it. Is autobiography as difficult as biography?
Apatow: It's tricky because I don't want my wife and kids to be sympathetic! (Laughter.) I don't want to humanize them for the world! It's a soup of real feelings and events, and hopefully within that soup, you don't think it's all perfectly accurate. But it's emotionally 100 percent accurate.
THR: Was there ever a point where your family said, "You can't put this in the script"?
Apatow: All the time. A lot of it is exaggerated and fabricated, so if we show a fight between a husband and wife, it's not exactly how Leslie and I would fight; it's kind of the worst-case scenario. A lot of this has been inspired by the fact that in movies and television, I didn't feel couples were arguing and interacting the way we did at our house. It gets a little more heated around here and raw, and I wanted to show that in a movie.
THR: What's your starting point when you write?
Apatow: I wanted to write something about being this age. I assume probably I was having my own midlife … questioning, let's call it. I'd been reading a lot about it. There's a moment where you just take stock. And that's a tough moment, and I wanted to write about that.
Haneke: Like so many of us, in my private life, my family was confronted with the suffering of someone I love very deeply. And one of the bitterest experiences in my life was having to look on helplessly and watch their suffering without being able to do anything about it. That was the starting point that led me to reflect on the question of mortality, though I should point out that the story I tell in Amour has nothing to do with what I actually experienced myself.
Krasinski: I probably subconsciously wrote the script for my dad. He grew up in Pittsburgh and worked in a steel mill town. Life was simpler, and we believed in each other, and that to me is in a very fundamental way not the case anymore. I brought it to novelist Dave Eggers, and we sat around and hashed out the ideas. Then Matt Damon and I decided to do an actual script. He was shooting We Bought a Zoo in Malibu, so we just worked together every single weekend in his house. I had always heard from my friends that the blank white page was terrifying, and I was like, "Come on, there's a lot of things that are terrifying." And then you realize it's one of the scarier things: To actually put yourself out there and be telling a story that's very personal is really hard.
Apatow: I have to set, like, banker's hours. I used to write late at night; I would start when my family went to sleep and just work until I ran out of gas. But now that I have to wake up at 6:30 and drive the kids to school and attempt to "exercise" so I don't die, the only way I can write is to just tell my assistant, "All right, we're going to start at 9 tomorrow, and let's unplug the phones for four hours." And it's awful. Usually I have to give myself a reward. So I'll say, "If I write a good hour, I'll watch one episode of The Wire." (Laughter.) At one point, I was watching two different seasons of The Wire at the same time.
THR: You write alone?
Apatow: Sometimes I have someone type, and I'll just talk, and other times I type. This was a hard one because I wrote it almost like a documentary, and I had a lot of scenes that could go anywhere in the movie. I mean, there were literally scenes I shot where I put everyone in two different shirts because I wasn't sure where in their lives the scene would take place. It wastes a lot of money!
THR: Mark, how did writing Zero Dark Thirty change as real-life incidents took over?
Boal: I started writing a screenplay in 2006 or 2007 and then got sidetracked. Hurt Locker came out; I began working on a story about the drug trade for Paramount. Then I went back to the Osama bin Laden story and this big, catastrophic failure to catch him. And we were cast and in the early stages of preproduction when they got him. I had been telling people for years that this was an amazing story of how they didn't get him!
Apatow: Were you mad they got him because then you had to do rewrites? (Laughter.)
Boal: It was actually a really personal thing for me because of 9/11 and being a New Yorker. But it presented an odd choice: Do you throw away two years of work and redo it or just sort of walk away? And I chose the first and revamped it. And then we just put pedal to the metal. It was a rewrite [from the beginning].
Apatow: Did you get paid again?
Boal: No. (Laughter.)
THR: You got caught up in big political drama about the access you received from the Obama administration. How did that affect you personally?
Boal: It doesn't make it easier. I had New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calling me and Republicans attacking me -- before I'd even written the new script -- saying what it was and what it wasn't. That was surreal and not helpful.
THR: But you agreed to shift the release date to after the election.
Boal: Well, I don't actually control the release schedule of the Sony Corporation. The original idea was sometime in October, and we only finished shooting in June. So that was a pretty ambitious timeline. A lot of people worked 80-hour weeks and killed themselves to make all those different deadlines.
THR: If you were writing about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as characters, how would you approach them? Comedy? Drama?
Magee: I wouldn't approach the subject at all. (Laughter.)
Apatow: It would be hilarious. It's funny with somebody like Romney, who changes his positions all the time just to get elected. I think that's tragic but also hilarious -- someone who doesn't believe in a lot of what he says -- and there's nothing more interesting than that, and that's why the Sarah Palin movie [Game Change] was interesting.
Terrio: Recently, Maureen Dowd and others have written about Obama as an introvert. Whereas [President] Clinton would go down to the lobby and schmooze every guy and buy them a drink until 2 in the morning, Obama would take stock of the room and then go back upstairs to his hotel room and close the door. And there's something very interesting to me about a guy who can dazzle 40,000 people in a stadium but internally is a very shy, maybe even dark type of guy. Maybe it's not a movie; maybe it's a play or a haiku, but there's something interesting about that character to me.
THR: Is your starting point the characters or the story?
Terrio: You can't really write until the characters kind of show up one day and tell you what they're going to say. You start to hear the rhythm of the way the people talk, and then it becomes easier.
THR: If you weren't writers or actors or directors, what would you do?
Krasinski: I actually was always planning on being an English teacher. I was way too influenced by Dead Poets Society. Then I went to theater school to take the easy way out and ended up getting completely inspired.
Apatow: The most fun I ever had in a different job was, I was a dishwasher at El Torito. And there was something so relaxing about the dishes coming in, you make them clean, you put them back. It was such a clear-headed experience. Through all these years of worrying about, "Is it working? What will people think of it?" -- you know, it's fantastic but really painful to be that neurotic. I dream of cleaning that plate again!
The Hollywood Reporter continues its annual series of exclusive discussions among the year's most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for roundtables with actresses, directors, producers, composers and, for the first time, costume designers. Go to THR.com/therace to watch videos of the full discussions.