Writers tell tales of winding road from script to screen

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Eight of this year's nominees for the WGA's two feature screenwriting awards gathered to ponder such questions as the thin line between drama and comedy, whether a screenwriter must know how his screenplay ends when he begins a project and how to ensure that a comic bit in "Borat" about human waste was guaranteed to get a laugh.

WGA president Patric Verrone welcomed guests Thursday night to the WGA Theatre in Los Angeles for the annual gathering, sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter, Final Draft and the Writers Guild Foundation.

Dubbed "Beyond Words," the discussion, moderated by THR film reporter Borys Kit, drew a healthy share of laughter from the packed house, in part because comedies figured prominently among both the original and adapted screenplays.

Some projects, like "Little Children," a tale of suburbanites run amok that director Todd Field and novelist Tom Perrotta adapted from Perrotta's novel, even bridged the two camps.

Perrotta explained, for example, that when he first wrote a scene in which a mother takes out a singles ad for her son, a convicted sexual offender, he saw the scene as pure comedy. But when he saw it acted by Phyllis Somerville and Jackie Earle Haley, it took on the deeper emotions of a mother's love and became quite sad.

Field testified of Perrotta's ability to meld the comic and the tragic. "I think what Tom did so well in the novel was braiding these two things," he said. "There's the foolishness of life and the foolishness of who we are as human beings."

Michael Arndt, whose "Little Miss Sunshine" draws laughs out of a family's efforts to come together in support of their daughter's dream of winning a beauty pageant, observed that, "The problem with most comedy is it's not serious enough."

While agreeing that comedy and tragedy are often intertwined, the panelists admitted to very different working methods.

Arndt, who had supported himself as a script reader, reading thousands of screenplays, emerged as an advocate of plotting out a structure from the very beginning.

"I would never start writing without knowing what the ending is," he said. "I'm totally structural."

Zach Helm, author of the idiosyncratic screenplay for "Stranger Than Fiction," took the opposite approach. "I tend not to think what the narrative is until I've written at least a dozen scenes," Helms said. In fact, the first scene he wrote for "Stranger," in which Dustin Hoffman's literature professor questions Will Ferrell's IRS agent about the type of story Ferrell is living, actually occurs in the middle of the finished movie.

Guillermo Arriaga, who devised the intersecting narratives that make up "Babel," took that proposition even further.

"I never know the ending of my movies when I pitch them," he said. "I never write outlines, I never write notes, I never do research, I never know anything about my characters." In fact, he added, "If they begin talking to me, I would go to the psychiatrist."

The innovative screenwriter did set the record straight on one point, though. While his movies often jump back and forth in time and place, he observed that the shifts follows a logic he discovers as part of the writing process. "I didn't write it linearly and then chop it up," he said.

As different as the works under discussion were, many of them did, however, share autobiographical impulses.

In adapting Lauren Weisberger's novel, "The Devil Wears Prada," Aline Brosh McKenna said that she related to both the main character, aspiring journalist Andy Sachs, as well as her antagonist, fashion editor Miranda Priestly. In writing Sachs, she drew upon her own experience as a young woman new to New York, and in crafting Miranda, she drew upon her experience as a working mother. "Every character you need to connect to in some way," she said.

Joked Helm, "I tend to draw on personal experiences, and then, pardon my French, fuck with them for a number of weeks."

As Anthony Hines and Peter Baynham, two of the five writers nominated for "Borat," spoke of that project's writing process, their fellow panelists peppered them with questions.

"In terms of the writing process, you try to 'flow chart' as much as you can what people will say to what Borat says," Baynham said. By providing Sacha Baron Cohen, a member of the writing team as well as the man who played Borat, with as many responses as possible to any given situations, the writers provided the reality-based comedy with a road map. "You constantly had to readjust and rewrite," Baynham added.

Just to demonstrate that much in the seemingly spontaneous "Borat" was planned down to the most seemingly trivial details, he confessed that Baron Cohen and his writers even debated what sort of package Borat should be carrying when he returns to a dinner party after visiting the bathroom so that audiences would immediately get the joke that Borat was unacquainted with the flush toilet.

Several of the projects discussed took unexpected turns. Field revealed that he originally envisioned "Little Children" as an eight-hour miniseries for HBO, with time allotted for each character's back story. Arndt told of how, at one point in "Sunshine's" development, studio execs pressured him when "Sunshine" was in development at Focus Features (which eventually put it into turnaround) to tell its story from the point of view of the father, a move that directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris resisted.

Summarizing the originality in display among all the nominated screenplays, Arriaga said, "Screenplays have structure, but we can't follow the same structure for every screenplay."
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