The Writers Roundtable
The creative process, a WGA debate and how to deliver bad news to Mel Gibson — all in one hour.
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.)
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.
Moreover, because the vast majority of the members of that union are not employed, frankly, the union — the Writers Guild — works best as an organization not to protect writers from management but to protect people who want to be writers from people who already are.
I have never had any trouble with a studio, with a network, with a producer, with a director, with a star. I have only ever had trouble with the Writers Guild. Just the credit process, which says that the first writer on a movie gets an irreducible story credit — just that. Even if you come in and you do an absolute Page 1 rewrite, [and] none of this first writer’s work ever appears on the screen. What you’re saying is that a writer’s credit is a reward for effort — that writer got paid for their effort. The writing credit should be information to the audience — who wrote what you just saw on the screen.
I was one of a couple writers on Moneyball, which just wrapped. Very famously, Steven Soderbergh was the original director on that, [but] Bennett Miller ended up directing the movie. In a million years, the DGA would not allow a credit that said: “Original directorial concept by Steven Soderbergh. Then directed by Bennett Miller.” The DGA doesn’t want to dilute the power. The Writers Guild is very happy to give the impression that a movie is written by five different people, which ultimately gives the impression that the director was the author of the movie because [the audience] sees one name at the end.
Phillips: That’s the best argument: They dilute it. They’re their own worst enemy.
Sorkin: I’m also part of the 9% of the membership that did not vote to authorize the strike. By the way, I will now not get a WGA Award nomination. (Laughs.) It’s not a coincidence that 9 percent is roughly the same as the number of people who are employed. The fact of the matter is that for many, many members of the Writers Guild, being on strike represented a career step up. They weren’t unemployed, [but] they could now say they’re on strike. There was an odd camaraderie to it. I kept reading these articles that were cringe-worthy about how much fun people were having on the picket line. Meanwhile, the members of the 19 different craft unions who work on television series, who work on a movie, who are union wage-earners — their unions make sense — who are the principal wage-earners for their families, they’re out of work.
Phillips: That was my biggest issue. I make more money as a writer on Old School than my sister, who is a pediatric oncologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I’m embarrassed to be talking about money and standing in front of a studio holding a sign fighting over 3 cents a DVD when we’re already overpaid.
Sorkin: I never even understood the issue behind the strike because I don’t know anything about technology. If you want to get the extra 3 cents, write better. Your agent will get it for you. Let the markets work.
Beaufoy: [But in England], we don’t have the great luxury of an incredibly strong union. There’s virtually no Writers Guild. It doesn’t have health plans; it doesn’t come to your aid legally if you need it; it doesn’t give you a pension plan. I always thought the point of unions was to help the weaker ones, the people at the bottom of the pile. You say if you’re a really good writer, you’ll be employed. [But] I bet everyone at this table knows good writers who aren’t employed.
Wells: In fact, just a little over 50 percent of the Writers Guild members who vote on contracts are employed during every 12-month period. So it’s not 9 percent of the membership that’s actually employed.
Sorkin: All right.
Wells: The guild was formed for the exact reasons you’re talking about. I would be the last person in the world to try and defend all of the specifics of the credits manuals. But there has recently been a change that the membership passed. Just to address one of those [changes], the percentages you’re talking about still exist on original material but no longer exist on material that’s based on other sources. Which was a huge thing to pass. I appreciate there’s a lot of frustration about that. The union was formed for a couple of different reasons. Primarily, the thing we still do is to protect the credits. Very often, in the old system — before there was any credit system controlled by the guild — those credits routinely went to a producer’s friend or the producer himself at that time. It is one of those things that I defend only as the best alternative to a horrible situation.
Phillips: That’s an easy thing to fix, but …
Wells: The union attempts to help those writers not at this table, but people in a position in their career where they do need additional help. And where certain things do matter — as an example, making certain that we have coverage over some kind of residuals, like in the case of The Full Monty.
Beaufoy: That wouldn’t have happened if I was a member of the WGA.
Wells: He would have made a lot more money.
THR: If you didn’t write, what would you do?
Sorkin: I’d be unemployable.
Wells: My ambition coming out of school was to end up working in a regional theater someplace.
Arndt: I would be happy owning a surf shop in Costa Rica and renting surfboards and going surfing in the morning.
Beaufoy: I’d be a potter, a ceramacist — that’s what I started out as. I think about it every day, and it keeps me sane.
Lindsay-Abaire: My dad sold fruit out of the back of a truck for all of his life, so I could easily imagine that. When I was growing up, I always thought I wanted to be an architect and build buildings.
Phillips: I’d probably be in women’s footwear. (Laughs.) I have a thing for women’s feet. I’d probably own a women’s shoe store. I might do that anyway.