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

 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.


THR: What is your writing process like? Do you have regular hours?

Sorkin: I envy writers that I hear about who go to their office at 9 and write until 5. And by write I mean they're actually typing. I go to an office every day and I throw a ball against the wall and I check ESPN and I talk to my friends and I order a pizza and I take a nap. For me, I'm an on/off switch. If I'm writing well, which means writing at all, really, then I'm happy. I can handle any problem. If I'm not writing, I'm miserable.

Moverman: My process is very different. I made Rampart in a way where a lot of it is improvised, where I encourage the actors to throw out the script. I like it when it's alive like that. Maybe it's because I had the privilege of directing the last two films that I wrote that I feel there's a certain danger in going in without the plan beyond the script. I like the chaos of it.

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Dustin Lance Black: Clint Eastwood said, "I want to make it just like this," which you would think would be music to a writer's ears. [But] I like things that continue to change. That probably comes from having done TV, where things are always changing. So then it became this weird wrestling match where I was having to go to Clint Eastwood, who I was always afraid would shoot me in the face with a .44 Magnum, and say, "I want changes. I think this can be better and this can be leaner." But he wants to stick with the script. In his gut, that's what he liked.

THR: You spent a year researching J. Edgar before you wrote. What do all of you do when you're not writing? 

Black: I do some drinking. 

Moverman: I pay attention to my kids.


Zaillian: I took up guitar 10 years ago.

Sorkin: I'm a father of a young daughter, so I'm happy to take up my time doing that. And I take a cello lesson once a week.

Roth: I've got a lot of kids and grandchildren, and I like to gamble. No one judges you out there. No one gives a shit what you do. It's just you and the fates. I do write on a schedule, but I'll write during the day and then stop and go to the racetrack or play with the kids or whatever, then I'll work until 4 or 5 in the morning.

Almodovar: When I'm not writing or directing, I'm promoting. This is how I summarize my life. So many of the ideas I have come when I am flying or even in a taxi … when I'm in movement, going from somewhere to somewhere.

Black: Airplanes are great. That's my favorite time to write -- when you're trapped.

Roth: Really? I take a Percocet.

Black: Putting Internet on airplanes is the worst invention ever because it was always a great time when you're isolated and feeling a little lonely.

Sorkin: Do you write in hotel rooms, too?

Black: Not so much, because then I want to go do something.

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Zaillian: Oh, I love it.

Sorkin: Me, too.

Zaillian: I write longhand. I'll put it into the computer once it's done. But the first draft will be longhand.

Roth: I have a really old MOBI program [from the company] that went out of business. But I'm afraid to switch. I'm superstitious.

Sorkin: There are certain clothes I want to write in. I wouldn't write in what I'm wearing right now. I have to get into looser clothes. I take a lot of showers during the day. It has nothing to do with germaphobia or anything like that. If I'm not writing well, I just want a new start. I take a shower, I change my clothes, I feel refreshed, I go at it again. 

Roth: I change the weather [in the script]. 

Sorkin: Speaking of the weather, the four or five days a year that it rains in Los Angeles, those are the best writing days. I declare it a holiday. "I'm writing today." There's just something very romantic and dramatic about the sight and the sound and everything having to do with rain.

THR: What's the first step in your writing process?

Zaillian: In the case of Dragon Tattoo, the first step is to read the book and make notes and try to start seeing some semblance of the movie. One place that was important for me not to start was seeing the Swedish movie. I still haven't seen it.

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THR: Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won a Nobel Prize, said writing is about solving problems, as opposed to pure creativity. Do you agree?

Sorkin: There's a drive shaft that you have to build. That, for me, is entirely intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something, and something formidable is standing in their way of getting it. Until you've found that, you can't write. It'll just be finger-painting. You have to build a firm structure for a house before you can do the things that you want to do, the things that are fun to do, which is writing a lot of dazzling [dialogue] … you know, the reason we all became writers. Any time you're in trouble, if you just go back to the poetics, just go back to Aristotle, a 64-page pamphlet that essentially gives the rules of what drama is. Chances are you have broken one of those rules.

Black: That's the challenge with these real-life stories, which a lot of us have done. Lives aren't lived by Aristotle's poetics. They're not. They're not necessarily in those acts. So for me, I get all these wonderful, interesting things that I learn about people, and I put them all on note cards. And then I have this very small table in my house and I arrange them into something that fits … I love the constraint of the counter because it makes it so that it will fit into a movie. If you've found that spine, hopefully at the end of the day you have a movie instead of just a timeline. 

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THR: Is there anything you can't write? Let's throw out a test: the Oscars show.

Moverman: Why would you want to write it? 

Sorkin: I'm going to take the opposite approach. Why don't they ask us? (Laughter.)

Roth: I'm sure [producer Brian Grazer] will call you tomorrow morning. He happened to write me last night, and I said good luck. 

Sorkin: I hope that Brian does a really good show. It always baffles me that the greatest entertainers in the world cannot put on a show that honors movies.

Roth: But the Writers Guild show, which is written by writers, is not your best evening. (Laughter.) 

Zaillian: If there's one thing that I think everybody would agree on is that the Oscars are too long. They don't let us make four-hour movies. If it was shorter, it would be better.

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Sorkin: I would look at the best of the Oscars from over the years. I think you would find that the greatest moments in the Oscars, aside from who's winning and who's not, are tributes that really say, "Hey, film is the one truly indigenous American art form. We're great at it. It moves people. It changes people. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you do all those things and just celebrate it. Run as far as you can from cheesy."


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