The Writers Roundtable
The creative process, a WGA debate and how to deliver bad news to Mel Gibson — all in one hour.
THR: What’s the worst note you have been given by an executive?
Arndt: I was working on a script for a long, long time. [When finished,] an executive said, “We want you to feel free and go off and do whatever you want.” That is the worst note ever. I’m already done — I already think it’s great — so if you want me to change it, I’m not going to go off and “explore it” and try and read your minds.
Phillips: When we were doing the final draft of Old School, [an executive] never liked the title Old School and crossed it out and said, “I found the perfect title for your movie.” It was crossed out in pencil, and right above Old School was written “The Perfect Girl.” It was frightening. Thankfully, I didn’t have to listen to him. It was such a shockingly bad note. It felt like a Hollywood movie about Hollywood.
Beaufoy: On The Full Monty, they had it all set up [to shoot] in Sheffield [in northern England], and Harvey Weinstein leaned forward and went, “Let’s do this in America.” And my heart sank. Somehow we managed to resist that.
Sorkin: Early on The West Wing, I think it was in the second episode, there was a story where a U.S. Air Force jet had accidentally wandered into Syrian airspace and was shot down. So the [American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee] got very angry. They objected to NBC, and this was very early in the life of The West Wing. We weren’t a hit; nobody really knew what this show was going to be, and everybody was kind of nervous about it. So a couple of episodes later, [there was] just a throwaway line that someone had about Hebrew slaves in Egypt 5,000 years ago. The legal department sent us a note: “Please show your research.” So I sent them Exodus. (Laughs.)
Wells: I was actually thinking of a different one [from West Wing, which Wells executive produced]. When the first pilot script came out [and we were] at the meeting with NBC, Jesse Ventura was the governor of Minnesota at the time, and the note was: “Couldn’t the president be a professional wrestler?”
THR: Was it a joke?
Sorkin: No, it wasn’t at all a joke. It was the NBC regime before the NBC regime that actually put West Wing on the air.
THR: West Wing had a very liberal point of view. Was that right for network TV?
Sorkin: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that. Listen, art — and now we’re talking about fiction — is supposed to have a point of view. It’s not my job to make sure that every possible point of view is heard. Speaking of which, if back when we were doing the show, we had Republican characters on the show like the Republicans that exist today — if we had a Sarah Palin, a Christine O’Donnell, a Sharron Angle — we would be eviscerated by the right for portraying them as monsters.
THR: How much does personal experience and knowledge affect your writing? Are there things you feel you couldn’t write?
Sorkin: I don’t have personal experience and knowledge about anything but theater. I’ve been tutored very well on the subject, but ultimately I’m going back to the rules of drama. There are genres that I like as an audience member that I can’t write as a writer. I can’t write crime, and I like a good thriller as much as anybody.
THR: Simon, you’re a mountaineer. That must have helped with 127 Hours.
Beaufoy: It meant that Aron [Ralston] trusted me. Because I understood the mind-set of the men who walk toward the edge of the precipice, look over it and — most of us step back, [but] the mountaineer tends to go, “Oh, that’s interesting; I’ll go a little bit further and see how far I can tip over the edge before I fall.”
Wells: There’s a quality in everybody who chooses to write. It’s obviously not the same as physically placing yourself on the edge of that precipice, but every time you sit down and write something, I would describe it as being on the edge of a cliff, and you turn backward and let yourself fall.
THR: Are you afraid of failing?
Sorkin: I’m terribly afraid of failure. When your identity is wrapped up in writing and you’ve written something that doesn’t work, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
THR: What has been the most painful failure?
Sorkin: I had a play on Broadway a couple of years ago called The Farnsworth Invention, which I thought was terrific. I thought it was a terrific production of it, and so did most people except for Ben Brantley at the New York Times. That means you’re done. With Studio 60, which was a very high-profile failure, that was a failure of my own doing. I just did too many things wrong on that.
THR: What is the thing you did most wrong?
Sorkin: I made writing errors. I think it was a combination of being too angry when I was writing it, and then with a TV series — which is ongoing, as opposed to a movie or play, where you only have to write once — there’s a dangerous thing that can happen because of the Internet. If you go on there and start reading what people say, you are going to start writing to change their minds. Then, forget it — you’re screwed. It’s like setting the whole set on fire. Don’t read the Internet.
THR: Simon, Full Monty came out of nowhere and exploded. How did the success change you?
Beaufoy: I was immediately sued. My first day in L.A., never having been here before, this wonderful woman said, “Are you Simon Beaufoy?” And I went, “Yes!” “You’re served.” For plagiarism. People came from everywhere.
Sorkin: Is there anyone here who hasn’t been sued?
Lindsay-Abaire: I haven’t.
Beaufoy: Well, it’s coming, then.
Sorkin: If you do movies that have any kind of profile, you’re going to spend your life as a professional defendant.
Beaufoy: All the profits of the movie were frozen. [Producers] were all in a huge panic and basically wanted to do a deal, and I said: “I didn’t get any money out of this film; the only thing I got was my reputation. If you settle, I don’t have that.” I had no backend. And I just wouldn’t [settle]. They weren’t really pleased, but they understood.
THR: That film made $250 million, and you didn’t make any money from it?
Beaufoy: No. It was my first film. My agent did a very poor deal. He is dead now.
THR: Directors who write sometimes look at the script as merely a blueprint. Todd, is that how you work?
Phillips: To me, the script is a living, breathing organism. Comedy is something that is ever-changing and ever-flowing with the vibe and the mood of the movie. I just finished [Due Date] with Robert Downey Jr. If the Writers Guild wasn’t such an obnoxious organization, he should have …
THR: John is the president of the Writers Guild.
Phillips: The Whiners Guild, I call it. I’m very anti-Writers Guild. If it was a normal organization and actually listened to individuals, Robert Downey should have a writing credit on Due Date. We sat in his trailer every morning, three hours a day, and we would just write the movie — that’s where it was written. Of course there was a script, but it was for me to tell [the crew] where to park their trucks.
THR: Todd, why are you so against the Writers Guild?
Phillips: I don’t think that unions should exist. And this is a very unpopular opinion. I voted against the strike.
Sorkin: I’m going in with you. You keep talking; just know that you’re not going to be alone.
Phillips: Autoworkers don’t have agents. There’s a reason for a union for the United Auto Workers of America. We as writers, we have agents who should be negotiating our deal, and if we want 3 cents more on our DVDs — or whatever the hell they were fighting for last year — let my agent figure that part out. Let him fight for it. I didn’t know when I got into being a filmmaker that there were all these groups I had to be attached to; it is the antithesis of who I am. You might not realize that from my movies because they’re about real “guy guys,” but I was raised to be entirely individual and not be part of any group — certainly one that I have to pay dues to, apply to and follow a ridiculous set of rules.
Wells: Do you feel the same way about the DGA?
Phillips: I feel a little bit differently about the DGA because at least they’re for the best interest of their members. That said, I would just as soon not be in the DGA. I’m not worried about residual checks; I have an agent who makes deals for me, and that’s how it works. If you’re a writer in demand, you get residual checks. I don’t believe the eighth writer on TV shows necessarily deserves to. There’s a process here, and as you move up, you get rewarded — and that’s what your agent’s for. I don’t want the Writers Guild fighting my battles; I never asked them to. All I’ve ever gotten from the Writers Guild is f***ed.
Sorkin: I agree with Todd 100 percent, and I am a union guy. My grandfather was one of the founders of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which is not a powerful union but an important union. A union makes sense when people have more power as a group than they do as individuals. I have considerably more power as an individual than as a member of that group, and I am forced to be a member of that union in order to work.