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THR's Writer Roundtable: 6 Top Scribes Talk Standing Up to Clint Eastwood, Dealing with Rewrites and Being Fired by Your Wife

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Writer's Roundtable Group Shot - H 2011
Art Streiber

Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian reveal who did what on "Moneyball" and Eric Roth explains his fights with Michael Mann as Hollywood's star screenwriters dish about their craft in the third of THR's annual awards season series discussions.

This article first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Together, the six A-list screenwriters invited to participate in The Hollywood Reporter's annual awards-season roundtable have received a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations (plus five wins). But not once during the lively hourlong discussion at Hemingway's Lounge in Hollywood did the subject of awards or accolades come up. Instead, the panel -- Pedro Almodovar, 62 (The Skin I Live In), Dustin Lance Black, 37 (J. Edgar), Oren Moverman, 45 (Rampart), Eric Roth, 66 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Aaron Sorkin, 50 (Moneyball) and Steven Zaillian, 58 (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball) -- discussed their insecurities, how Oscar winners can collaborate and what they would do if they couldn't write. "I always thought in the worst case to raise my family I could drive a taxi," said Roth, who won his Oscar for Forrest Gump and was nominated for The Insider, Munich and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. "I didn't think that was so horrible."

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The Hollywood Reporter: Forget, for a moment, all your success. What has been your worst experience as a writer? 

Pedro Almodovar: There is one awful, awful experience. May I say it? 

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THR: That's why we're here.

Almodovar: I made a movie about someone that wants to impersonate a transvestite [Bad Education]. They had the makeup artist make up an actor when he was asleep. Suddenly he woke up dressed as a woman and he started to have a panic attack. (Laughter.) Can you imagine? So I completely changed the script.

THR: You changed the script once you started shooting?

Almodovar: Yeah. Sometimes you have to do that. I don't know if directors ever ask you to change something. But everything is alive when you are shooting. 

Oren Moverman: That happens all the time. 

THR: If a director started shooting your script and said, "You know what? Let's change it," how would you react?

Aaron Sorkin: Well, it'd be troubling. Frankly, I don't want the director to have to make any decisions except to say "action" and "cut." You want the script as tight as it can possibly be before the first day of rehearsal and certainly before the first day of shooting.

THR: And what's been your worst experience as a screenwriter?

Sorkin: My very first movie was A Few Good Men, which was an adaptation of my play. There was an executive on the movie who gave me a note: "If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren't going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?" I said the obvious answer: Women have purposes other than to sleep with Tom Cruise.

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Eric Roth: I've had a lot of fights with certain people, like Michael Mann [on Ali and The Insider], who I love. The fights were good fights. They were about the creative things you should fight about. Another [bad experience] was a movie called Mr. Jones, which was not a good movie. I liked the director, Mike Figgis. Eventually. But my wife [Debra Greenfield] was actually a producer on that. We got a call one day from the original director [not Figgis]. I sat at a little study and she was sitting on the couch and she answered the phone and she hung up and said, "You're fired."

THR: You were fired by your wife?

Roth: Yeah. Well, the studio fired me. I don't know. She said, "What should I do?" I said, "Well, go make this [movie]."

THR: What is the relationship like when someone rewrites your script? Steven and Aaron, you share credit on Moneyball. Did you talk to each other?

Steven Zaillian: No, we didn't.

Sorkin: We talked a tiny bit. I had just turned in the script for The Social Network to Sony, so they were pleased with me. This very dramatic event had just happened with Moneyball [when director Steven Soderbergh was fired shortly before production was to begin], and they wanted me to work on it. When you're being asked to rewrite any writer, it's a tricky situation. When you're asked to rewrite Steve Zaillian, who is a hall of famer, that's not a job you leap at. So, I told them that I could only do this with Steve's blessing. I tracked down Steve -- he was on vacation in Rome with his family and … well, in his voice it didn't seem like being rewritten was Christmas morning for him. He was extremely gracious and generous and very professional. I'll never forget what he said: "Listen, do me a favor, don't change the movie. Just write more of it." So I took that note to heart.

Zaillian: I meant if what they're looking for is for you to add something -- and that was how it was being advertised to me -- that's different than reconstructing something. That was easier to take.

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THR: Have you seen the finished film?

Zaillian: Yeah. Here's the thing: Most people imagine that I wrote a script and Aaron rewrote a script and then the movie came out. It wasn't quite that simple. He wrote a draft, then I came back, then he came back, and we were both at a certain point working independently of each other on the same thing. Neither one of us is accustomed to that sort of thing happening. So it was tough. But the film turned out well. I don't think anyone ever said writing was easy, but the worst experiences have turned out well. 

THR: Give us an example.

Zaillian: A long time ago, I wrote a script [Searching for Bobby Fischer] that a director wanted me to change in such a way that I thought it was going to wreck it. At a certain point, I said, "I really can't do any more." He said, "Well, here's the deal. If you don't do it, I'm just going to do it myself." So, psychologically and emotionally, I just detached at that moment. [Producer] Scott Rudin, who has some kind of radar about these things, called me and said, "How would you like to direct the movie?" That's how Searching for Bobby Fischer came about.

Almodovar: This struggle against directors asking for silly things -- in my case, I'm the director, so I ask the silly things to myself.