The Writers Roundtable
Putting six intelligent, opinionated screen
writers in a room usually produces one of the most interesting discussions in The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Season Roundtable Series. But this year’s panel was especially pointed, with spirited debates about the ethics of writing and the effectiveness of the WGA. Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3), Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours), David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), Todd Phillips (Due Date), Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and John Wells (The Company Men) gathered at Capital Grille in West Hollywood for a conversation moderated by THR’s Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway.
The Hollywood Reporter: Let’s start by talking about the ethics of writing. How morally responsible are you for what you create?
Aaron Sorkin: The movie I have out now is a true story about people who are still alive, and they’re young people, too. So knowing that a Hollywood movie is going to make a lot of noise and is probably going to give most people their best and only impression of these people and what went on, you feel a great moral responsibility. You are aware that you have two important things in your hand — you have history, and you have somebody’s life — so you’re not going to play fast and loose with that. That’s your own moral compass at work; if your moral compass is broken, there is also the law stopping you from messing around.
John Wells: You have to be careful. The Company Men [out Dec. 10] is based on research in which I interviewed about 200 people in person and a couple thousand people who responded to my various e-mail requests on some of the downsizing websites. You hear people’s stories, and you become responsible in some way for trying to get across the emotion that they felt.
Simon Beaufoy: I’ve been wrestling with the responsibilities of actuality and truth, emotional truth and authenticity. Not only was 127 Hours about the most defining moment in this guy’s life, but he was quite often sitting right next to me with his metal prosthetic, so you have a huge responsibility to get it right. His whole life changed because of this incident. He wanted to make it as a documentary some years ago, so to persuade him to fictionalize it, he had to let go of the control of his life story, which is a very risky thing to do. We talked a lot about the facts and how possibly fiction can get at the greater truth underneath the facts in a way that documentaries don’t often do.
THR: Can great art not be ethical? I’m thinking of Leni Riefenstahl: Is that great, or is it inherently not because of the content?
Michael Arndt: Oscar Wilde would say that art exists outside the realm of morals or ethics.
THR: Do you agree?
Arndt: I don’t. It drives me crazy when people say, “All we’re trying to do is create entertainment.” I feel like people go to movies for more than that. As we grow up, especially when we’re kids, we learn so much about life and how to behave and how to act toward each other by watching movies. They’re very instructive in that respect, so it doesn’t have to be a strict moralism, but it can give you models of how you live your life and how you behave. I remember there was a moment in my life where I was very tempted to act very badly, and I had every reason in the world to act badly. I was thinking: “What do I do? How should I handle this situation?” And I thought, “What would Cary Grant do?” He would be a gentleman. The one thing I’m proud of with Toy Story 3 is Woody is a sort of throwback to this All-American Western hero. It’s this very old-fashioned sense of stoicism and heroism. I didn’t want to turn it into a big moral piece, but I do think that, especially for a family film that kids are going to be watching over and over, it is important to have characters behave in a way that you think, “OK, that’s appealing to the better angels.”
THR: Todd, do you agree with that?
Todd Phillips: No, I don’t, but only because I was raised by my mom. She taught me how to be a gentleman; nobody in the movies taught me. I think people are raised by their parents. If you’re raised by movies, it’s a whole other set of problems. I don’t think it’s as simple as me saying [movies are] meant to entertain, but I certainly don’t feel moral responsibility in putting this out in the world and being like, “OK, this is going to affect how guys make decisions because they see The Hangover or Old School or whatever.” I just don’t.
THR: A lot of people wouldn’t work with Elia Kazan because he testified about the blacklist. Todd, you chose to work with Mike Tyson on Hangover despite him being a convicted rapist. Did you think about that?
Phillips: We didn’t cast him because he was a convicted rapist. We didn’t cast him as a sensationalistic thing, either. We cast him because the story took place in Las Vegas. I had heard Mike Tyson had seven tigers when he was living in Las Vegas. He played Mike Tyson in the movie — it makes sense. I don’t think we are putting out the wrong message. I also have an incredible amount of empathy in my life for people who have struggled with addiction and have come through on the other side. I felt the same way with my casting choice with Mel Gibson [on The Hangover Part II]. Here’s an alcoholic who struggled. For some reason, in this town, we’ve forgiven many, many alcoholics and drug addicts who have struggled. Maybe not him; maybe it’s too soon. I get it. But that’s where that came from. I don’t feel that putting that person in the movie, playing himself, is condoning any sort of behavior.
THR: So, how much do you stand up for what you believe? You went with Tyson; you didn’t stick with Mel Gibson.
Phillips: You stand up to a point, and then you have to put it in perspective. It’s a two-minute cameo; it’s not defining the movie. Never did I want it to define the movie, and Mike Tyson didn’t define the first Hangover. We’re all in this together. A lot of these crew guys I’ve worked with on eight films, you know? A lot of the cast I’ve worked with a few times. When you work on a movie or a TV show, you’re a family, so if something that’s a two-minute thing in the movie is causing a rift in the family, you also have to think about at what point do you fight this, and at what point is this rift worth having in this very small, very tight group of people who are just there to make something great and funny.
THR: Did you personally call Mel and say it wasn’t going to work out?
THR: What was his reaction?
Phillips: We had a long talk about it, and I explained it. He certainly understood. He wasn’t happy; he certainly was upset. It just was kind of a bummer. He understood the intention of the casting and the role. It’s very different than Mike Tyson. He wasn’t playing himself; he was playing a character. I’d argue Mel is one of the finest actors in that age range — certainly one of the finest directors. It was a bummer.
THR: What’s the most difficult decision you’ve made professionally?
Arndt: To keep going. I got to a point where I was trying to write for 10 years, and nothing had happened. I finally had to sit down and think,“Well, maybe nothing is going to happen, and what am I doing with my life?” And I remember my mom saying, “Well, maybe you can write children’s books.” Thanks, Mom.
David Lindsay-Abaire: I’m a playwright by trade, and in theater, writers have complete control over everything. Nobody can change a word without your permission. I’ve had a couple screenwriting experiences that weren’t terrible, but they were typical, where executives came in and gave you sometimes good notes and sometimes horrible notes — but they wanted to change the movie that everybody had agreed to make. After a couple of times, it’s like, “Why are we doing this?” The story is not going to turn out very good when 13 people are writing it together. So when Nicole Kidman came along and said, “Hey, I’d like to do Rabbit Hole, and I want to make sure that you write it, and I want to make sure that your vision is up there on the screen,” I crossed my fingers and said, “OK, let’s do it.” And that’s what happened.
Sorkin: Having won the Pulitzer Prize must have helped. (Laughs.)