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.
George, what do you and Grant argue about when you are writing?
CLOONEY: We've never had an argument in our lives.
HESLOV: Lunch is the biggest discussion of the day, that is true.
CLOONEY: And we've actually never had an argument. Even on the basketball court.
HOLOFCENER: So what happens if you disagree? You know, "This scene is horrible, let's throw it out."
HESLOV: We throw it out. We literally just sit down in a room and we just …
HOLOFCENER: … make love?
HESLOV: Yeah. (Laughs.)
CLOONEY: But we do it an old-fashioned way. We cut and paste. We literally take scissors. We act out all the parts.
HESLOV: But we plot it all out first. We do that classic thing: We have a big board, and we put Post-its [everywhere], and we'll spend a couple weeks just doing that, particularly on a film like Monuments Men, which is very plot-heavy.
Many films based on real-life events are being attacked over accuracy. What responsibility do you have to the facts?
STRONG: Well, in the case of The Butler, I made very clear that this was a fictionalization. So much so that I changed the character's name to Cecil Gaines in the hope of saying: "This isn't Eugene Allen. This is something else." But the history in the film is all true; it's a father-son relationship that's used as a conduit to tell the story of the civil rights movement. It doesn't really matter if you change who was here, who wore what. You just need to make the best movie you can make, being as responsible as you can to the overarching history of what you're trying to portray.
CLOONEY: This is a new thing, by the way. This is all, like, bloggers -- if that existed when Lawrence of Arabia came out, believe me, Lawrence's own autobiography would not hold water. Patton wouldn't. You can go down the list of movies -- Gandhi -- these movies are entertainment. And that's what we have to get back to. A movie like 12 Years a Slave, somebody will go looking for something that doesn't jibe and they'll try to disenfranchise the whole film because of it. Because there's this weird competition thing that's going on now that didn't exist 10 years ago. That happened with us on Argo. It's bullshit because it's got nothing to do with the idea that these are movies. These are not documentaries. You're responsible for basic facts. But who the hell knows what Patton said to his guys in the tent?
CUARON: When we wrote Gravity, we wanted it to be as plausible as possible, so we did a lot of research. There are things -- when I see the movie -- I know they're not plausible.
STRONG: I loved Gravity so much that when I read these [attacks], I was so annoyed. I said, "This is an amazing movie, are you kidding me?" It's a ballet at times. It's an opera at times.
RIDLEY: The only allegations that I'm aware of around 12 Years a Slave are actually pointed back toward [Solomon Northup's book about his experiences in slavery] -- which, to me, is very troubling because there were court cases, you know? These are things that have been documented.
Several films this year are from an African-American point of view. Danny, did you have doubts writing about the black experience?
STRONG: Only in the way that I have doubts about everything that I write. And I always get through that with research. I just start doing lots of research, and then I start to feel comfortable, and then I'm sick of research and I just want to start writing. I mean, I've written female characters, and I'm not a woman.
HOLOFCENER: (Smiles.) That's not right!
Is there a point where you start a script and just put it down because you can't crack it?
HOLOFCENER: Oh, yeah. I know with this script, I had to put it down. I just couldn't bear it anymore. I couldn't make it work. Couldn't figure out how to make that plot device work and where to put it and have it not be stupid. Almost all of my movies, I am disgusted with at some point, and terrified and put it in a drawer. And then somehow I take it out of the drawer.
CLOONEY: How long did you put it down?
HOLOFCENER: Maybe a month.
DELPY: Do you write many scripts at once so when you're tired, you can go to another one?
HOLOFCENER: I never have another one. But you know, a month goes by quickly. You clean your house, take your kids to school. It's really easy how fast time goes by.
CLOONEY: It took a long time to get Argo made. But we've got other films that are in that sort of vein. We have one called Our Brand Is Crisis that we've gone through a long period of time trying to figure out. It's a really smart, political film about going down to Bolivia and bringing in American consultants to get this guy elected. And it's a true story. [We're] trying to figure out the tone.
What's the best and worst advice you've been given about writing? Except by the agent who fired you.
HOLOFCENER: Yeah, I was told to quit. By an agent.
DELPY: Probably the same one!
HOLOFCENER: But I was writing bad scripts. And he was like, "I think you should stick to directing." But you should never tell that to somebody, even if their scripts are bad.
DELPY: I had written a screenplay when I was 19, and I gave it to a very famous writer, and he read one page and he said, "You're a very pretty girl." (Laughter.) Then I didn't write for four years.
Do you read books about writing?
CLOONEY: Why would you read when there's these good reality shows out there? (Laughs.)
HESLOV: I read everything from Elmore Leonard to Philip Roth. I try to read as few scripts as possible.
CLOONEY: I love Paddy Chayefsky. And, again from television, Rod Serling. Because I didn't grow up really watching movies. There wasn't a movie theater in my town in Kentucky. You drove to the drive-in theater about 30 miles to see a movie. So you know, you're sort of caught with old black-and-white television. Twilight Zones and things like that. That was a big influence on my life and storytelling.