Roundtable: George Clooney and 6 Top Writers on Awful Agent Advice and the Accuracy Police
Superstar scribes Clooney, Grant Heslov, Julie Delpy, Nicole Holofcener, John Ridley, Danny Strong and Jonas Cuaron reveal to THR the secrets of how they work, the public figures they really want to write about and how Janet Jackson's breast impacted their work.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When The Hollywood Reporter invited George Clooney and Grant Heslov to participate in this year's Writer Roundtable, their Nazi art-heist drama The Monuments Men was considered likely to contend in multiple awards categories. Alas, four days after the Oct. 18 discussion at The Los Angeles Athletic Club, Monuments Men was bumped by distributor Sony Pictures to Feb. 7 -- unfinished visual effects were cited as the reason -- and out of the awards race (at least for this year).
Luckily, Clooney, 52, and Heslov, 50, are such good talkers, THR readers likely won't care that their movie isn't in contention yet. The duo joined Clooney's Gravity writer Jonas Cuaron, 31 (he penned the action-heavy script with his director father, Alfonso), Before Midnight co-writer Julie Delpy, 43, Enough Said writer-director Nicole Holofcener, 53, 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley, 49, and Lee Daniels' The Butler's Danny Strong, 39, for a conversation that veered from Paddy Chayefsky to Sarah Palin and Edward Snowden. Said Clooney, "Now we're getting in some deep shit!"
What's been your toughest moment as a writer?
GEORGE CLOONEY: Test screenings. (Laughter.)
JOHN RIDLEY: [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?
DANNY STRONG: For me, 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.
JULIE DELPY: 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."
John, Three Kings (1999) was considerably rewritten. Did you fight it?
RIDLEY: I was in no position to fight for it. I had had one movie made with Oliver Stone [1997's U Turn].
CLOONEY: Also, Three Kings was brought into a studio system. They'll bring things in and go, "It's good, we like it, we're going to bring another writer in." Grant and I have been writing for over 30 years together, and we've been through [studio and network] processes. Good Night, and Good Luck began as a live television show, and everything was going great, and then Janet Jackson took her breast out on live TV and CBS goes, "You're out!" And we were sitting in the office like, "What happened?"
What are the best and worst notes you've been given?
CLOONEY: We actually get good notes because they're mostly story points. Worst note: We did get one guy saying, "How do we know they're Hitler youths?" It's a kid in a Nazi uniform!
Gravity is such a visual film. What was the process of writing it?
CLOONEY: When Alfonso started talking about it, we said: "It's an easy film. It's two characters floating …"
DELPY: … in space.
CLOONEY: We'll do it in six months, right?
JONAS CUARON: A couple ropes … (Laughs.)
CLOONEY: Literally, that's what he thought. And you know, three years of shooting …
Was there a moment when Warner Bros. said no?
CUARON: I guess. But at the end, they were supportive. I mean, you're always struggling to fight for your concept. Our main concept [was to have] a subjective film, where you're with the character throughout the ride. But when you're doing a space movie, everyone wants to cut down to Ed Harris and Houston and have that separate story or have a flashback.
Is it still harder to get a screenplay off the ground if a woman is the lead?
GRANT HESLOV: Not when it's Sandra Bullock!
NICOLE HOLOFCENER: There's six women or so that you could make it with. But I don't want to do the woman question.
How hard is it to get a film like Enough Said off the ground?
HOLOFCENER: 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?
Several of you also act. Does your writing change when you're writing for yourself?
DELPY: 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?
CLOONEY: I feel perfectly comfortable! What are you talking about? (Laughter.) But I've met a lot of insecure writers and directors.