The Writer Roundtable
Six talented scribes on the perils of writing (and rewriting) a script about Osama bin Laden, why "Schindler's List" is irresponsible and what it's like to have a not-quite midlife crisis.
Hollywood Reporter Roundtables Typically Draw Diverse groups of talented people. But the six men who gathered Oct. 2 at the W Hotel in Hollywood might be among the most eclectic bunch we've ever assembled. Journalist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, 39, chronicles the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in his still-unfinished Zero Dark Thirty, while comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, 44, takes funny aim at his own family life in This Is 40. German auteur Michael Haneke, 70, brought along a translator to help him discuss his Palme d'Or-winning Amour with sitcom star-turned-scribe John Krasinski, 33, who wrote the anti-fracking drama Promised Land with Matt Damon. And veteran British writer David Magee, 50, shared stories about his fantasy spectacle Life of Pi with Chris Terrio, 35, whose Argo marks his first feature screenwriting credit.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: We've seen the impact this Innocence of Muslims film has had around the world. Are writers and directors responsible for the reaction to their work?
Mark Boal: I've seen it. It's hard to have that in the same conversation as the kind of stuff we do.
Judd Apatow: It's meant to incite a riot, so it's not really a creative endeavor. It's like picketing outside a funeral.
Boal: Of course, there's a responsibility, but that means different things to different people. I feel, first, a responsibility to tell a good story, and there's also a responsibility to not play fast and loose with history. And there's an ethical duty if you're writing about people -- which I was -- who are still participating in the events that you're writing about. Most of the characters in my movie are still working. There is a responsibility to protect their identity.
THR: You're also making popular entertainment. When it comes down to a battle between story and truth, how do you choose?
Boal: It's always entertainment, but that's not mutually exclusive. It's not a documentary, but in some ways it's more exciting than a documentary because you can bring things to life in a more vivid way.
David Magee: All of us are very careful about how we portray different people's sensibilities, even if we're critiquing how people are behaving in the world. That film was all about irresponsibility and trying to get a negative reaction.
THR: Mark, did the CIA get to read your script?
Boal: Look, we made the movie independently. When you make a movie with a studio, and it involves the military, there's some give and take creatively. We decided to forgo all that -- forgo the access to helicopters, forgo the bases -- and make the movie in the Middle East without any sort of government involvement. So there was no official government vetting.
THR: Do you show Osama bin Laden in the film?
Boal: It's an interesting creative choice, and I would love to have this conversation with you after you've seen the movie.
THR: OK, if you were going to show Osama bin Laden, to what extent do you humanize a guy like that? There was a very good German film, Downfall, about the last days of Hitler, and it was an extraordinary human portrait. The danger is whitewashing what he's done.
Boal: I wouldn't even know how to begin to do that movie, to be honest with you. I like to write about things that I know or people that I've met or field research I've done.
Apatow: It helped that you hired Alan Arkin to play bin Laden. (Laughter.)
Michael Haneke: I have to say that I argued with Downfall writer-producer Bernd Eichinger about the film. I found it both repulsive and dumb. When you're dealing with a figure of such a deep historical context, what are you doing with him? You're creating melodrama. You're trying to move your spectators, but what emotions are you calling on? Your responsibility entails enabling your audience to remain independent and free of manipulation. The question is, how seriously do I take my viewer and to what extent do I provide him with the opportunity of creating his own opinion? Am I trying to force my opinion on the spectator?
THR: Would you make a film about Hitler?
Haneke: No. It's impossible for me, turning this into entertainment. That's why I have problems with Steven Spielberg's film about the concentration camps [Schindler's List]. The mere idea of trying to create suspense out of the question of whether the showerhead gas is going to come is unspeakable. For me, the only film about the Holocaust that is responsible is Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. Resnais asks the spectator: What do you think about this? What does this mean to you?
Chris Terrio: I'm very interested in what Michael said about the suspense of the shower in Schindler's List because in a sense it's the same in Argo. I'm not sure about the ethical implications of taking real people's lives and trying to make it a nail-biter.
THR: Are there some subjects filmmakers should not touch?
John Krasinski: The idea of manipulating your audience to believe something is incredibly dangerous. But to delve into certain subject matter is always important. The end is not, "This is what I believe happened; you should all take this as truth." And that's where we are getting into trouble with Innocence of Muslims and, in Michael's opinion, Downfall.
Terrio: In Argo, it would be very easy to depict the Iranians as just these nameless people out there who vaguely want to kill you. We had no interest in doing that, so right from the beginning, Ben Affleck and I talked about how we had to have some context for what was going on in Iranian society, that you had to understand this isn't just a generic image of what we think of as "the Arab street." You need to understand the source of the rage.
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 when it was seized by Iran 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, and 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, and 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 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 clearheaded 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.