Scribes behind six of the season's most unusual scripts — including Darren Aronofsky, Anthony McCarten, Emily V. Gordon and Fatih Akin — reveal the struggles and satisfactions of bringing their words to the screen ("Rule number one: Don't bore an audience") and say nothing is off limits (even porn).
At the end of this year's Writer Roundtable on Oct. 10, the six screenwriters gathered together started speculating about whom they'd invite to a fantasy dinner party if they were allowed only three guests.
Darren Aronofsky (mother!), 48, liked the idea of breaking bread with writer-director Werner Herzog, with whom he once shared a place at a THR roundtable, and added two other European auteurs, Federico Fellini and Terry Gilliam. German writer-director Fatih Akin (In the Fade), 44, opted for three women, all actresses: Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick), 38, chose John Hughes, along with Stanley Kubrick and an actress from her recent film, Holly Hunter. British writer Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour), 56, went heavy, going for William Shakespeare, Napoleon and Winston Churchill, the subject of his new movie ("to find out how close I got"), while Jordan Peele (Get Out), 38, selected Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee and Steve Martin. Aaron Sorkin (Molly's Game), 56, mixed literature and politics, selecting Mark Twain, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Jefferson ("the best writer of all time").
Of course, none of those guests could be present for THR's roundtable. Dinner wasn't even served. But that didn't stop the conversation from flowing.
There are hurricanes. There are wars. There are disasters going on in the world. Can writing help?
AARON SORKIN After 9/11, I felt for a while like I had the dumbest job in the world. I felt useless in the face of everything that was going on and all the heroes that there were. And I don't feel that way today. I feel that the best delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story.
DARREN ARONOFSKY That's completely where I started with mother! It was the eighth year of Obama; everyone was talking [about a potential environmental catastrophe]. I had never really [planned] to make a reflection of what's happening; most of my things have been character studies. But then that's what's interesting because the reactions you get [to mother!] are all over the place. I've had everything from "This is an anti-immigration film" to "This is a portrait of Mother Earth" to "This is about the creative process." Which I think is great. I like when there are so many different interpretations and conversations about the work. That's always the goal.
Is writing therapeutic?
EMILY V. GORDON It can be. It depends what you're writing about. Some days you don't want it to be, and some days you feel like you're exorcising a demon. But you don't want everything to be this very intense, cathartic experience. You want to connect to it emotionally but not have it wring you out.
Your film, about a Pakistan-born comic who falls for an American student, who becomes ill — that's autobiographical, isn't it?
GORDON Yeah, that one wrung me out a little.
Is an autobiographical film easier or harder to write?
GORDON It was both. It had been five years since the events of the film, and that helps tremendously because you're far enough away that you can look at it and still feel it, but not so much that it's overwhelming you. If you see someone create a piece of art while they're still in the throes of going through something, it feels too vulnerable for you to be watching — which can be beautiful. But we didn't want this to feel like an overly intense kind of movie, [where] you feel in danger while you're watching.
JORDAN PEELE The power of story is that it is one of the few ways we can really feel empathy and encourage empathy. [With] all the disasters going on in the world today, the worst on a social level seems to be this lack of empathy, this lack of being able to understand each other. We become enemies, we push each other away. Built into the idea of story is the idea that you have a protagonist. When you have a protagonist, the whole trick that all of us are trying to do is bring the audience into that protagonist's eyes, and a good story is one of the few ways we can really [make] somebody feel for somebody else because they're experiencing it through entertainment.
ARONOFSKY That's the power of cinema, that you can make a film about a 6-year-old girl in Iran or an 80-year-old guy in the U.K., and if the filmmaking is working, you can completely connect.
GORDON When I was watching Get Out [a horror film about an interracial romance] in the theater the first time, it was an audience of mostly white people, and at the end, when the police car rolls up and the lights go on, I heard the audience go, "No!" I thought, what a great thing, that we've gotten an audience of white people to be upset about seeing a cop car because they know this is not going to be good, whereas normally the police car means everything's going to be fine.
PEELE You know, I was worried at several stages during the writing that this would be this horribly divisive project where maybe I'd lose black people because we're victims, and that's hard to watch. Maybe I'd lose white people because white people are the villains, and that would be an assault. And one of the most fulfilling things to see was how an audience would go in with their preconceived notions, but by the middle, they were all Chris, they were all the main character.
SORKIN I'm curious: I had heard that there was a time in your writing process when the police car showed up — and it was the bad ending that we all feared it would be. Is that true?
PEELE That's true. I wrote the movie primarily during the post-racial lie [in] the Obama era, when everyone was saying, "Hey, we're past racism. We did it." And so the movie was originally meant to be a wake-up call to say: "No. Guess what?" By the time I had made the movie and started showing it to people, the country had evolved and woken up a little bit. Black Lives Matter was out there. We had attention to the racial issues. It was impossible to entertain the post-racial lie. And it became very clear by showing people the movie that they needed a hero, they needed the movie to be an escape. What I love about that moment you're talking about where the police show up [is] the audience does all the work of the original ending. And then I sort of have my cake and eat it, too.
When you go into a story, do you know the ending in advance?
ANTHONY MCCARTEN You ought to, in a perfect world, because the rest of the writing then becomes a preparation for that perfect ending. I often find that writers who disavow the importance of an ending are just not very good at endings. And so they fudge it and try to raise the quality of other elements of storytelling. But to me, it's critical to know what you're working toward so that you can fade and feint away from that and take the audience away and mislead and do all those craft things that are so important to a great story.
FATIH AKIN It's different from screenplay to screenplay. With the last film, In the Fade, one of the first images I had was the ending. It was [about] how I'm going to have to write this to get there. That was kind of like writing it backwards. But sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes I start because I have a great idea for an opening, but I don't know how to end it.
You're Turkish-German, but The Cut showed empathy for victims of the Armenian genocide. How did your friends and family react?
AKIN My family loves me. And they don't want me to get in any trouble. [But] I'm curious about trouble; I like to be involved in trouble. Not trouble on the street, but writing [to] provoke something. I think you can solve everything with dialogue. There's a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and I don't want to get eaten by my fears. Hate mails and stuff, I don't let them "fear" me.
MCCARTEN You couldn't have made that film in Turkey.
AKIN No, I couldn't. But that was not the film I had the most trouble for. [That film] I haven't shot yet. I just put something on Instagram about Kurdish freedom fighters in North Syria. I would like to do a film about that because you have female characters and they fight against ISIS, and this is fascinating to me.
Darren, did you think your film would be as divisive as it is?
ARONOFSKY We knew it was always going to be an assault on the senses and very intense. We knew it would be all over the place and a big explosion, and we were excited about that. We were excited to make a film that would have a big debate.
How do you handle the critiques?
ARONOFSKY My mentor, [director] Stuart Rosenberg, always said, "Bad reviews hurt; good reviews are worse." And I live by that. But in today's world, because of just how connected everyone is, you can't avoid information bombarding you. It doesn't upset me. It excites me. The fear for me is to be a disposable piece of cinema, like a McDonald's meal, and the wrapper goes in the trash and two hours later you're like, "What did I see?"
PEELE What I really cherish about your films is that you are able to show how diving into something completely stressful, completely uncomfortable, completely assaulting can still be entertainment.
ARONOFSKY It should be entertaining. Rule number one is you don't bore an audience. As long as they're engaged and they're with the character, that's our goal.
GORDON If you saw a movie of what actually happened to my husband and me, it would be a terrible movie and you would not enjoy it. And so taking this real-life event and creating a story from it was always a challenge, realizing that just because something was important to you personally, that doesn't mean it belongs in the movie.
SORKIN I read a review of Molly's Game, and the critic noted that I've done a bunch of nonfiction movies in a row about Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and now Molly Bloom [and her famous Hollywood poker game], but what I really do is use these characters for parts and make my own thing. When I do nonfiction, it's not a documentary. It's a painting and not a photograph.
Is that morally OK?
SORKIN I ask myself that question. And I think all of us have a kind of internal moral compass that we use. I have faith in mine. In this particular case, Molly Bloom was very involved. I spent about six months talking to her before the writing began.
Did she like the film?
SORKIN She did. But I had been cautioning her for a couple of years: There's nothing that's going to prepare you for this experience. And listen, we all know that life doesn't play itself out as a series of scenes that form a perfect narrative. People don't speak in dialogue.
MCCARTEN There's a really fine line between artistic license and artistic licentiousness. And history is a lousy filmmaker. It doesn't give you all the ingredients you need. No story will quite fulfill that three-act structure.
SORKIN If I were writing All the President's Men, I wouldn't make anything up about the fall of a president of the United States. However, if Get Out were a true story, I would absolutely want the scene where Allison [Williams] is drinking a glass of milk while shopping for black men on the internet. It's a scene that belongs in that story, and it doesn't matter if it happened or not. The larger version of it happened.
PEELE This goes to the conversation about genre because there are also conventions and ideas surrounding every genre. With a thriller, there's a contract with the audience before they even come in that they're going to see something fucked up, that they're going to be scared.
GORDON Jump scares.
PEELE There's going to be some jump scares. And so genre does dictate a lot of the rules, and I hate using the word "rules" because there are none, but if you look at something like Inglourious Basterds, which is theoretically a historical movie …
SORKIN … and changed the end of World War II …
PEELE … and completely changed the end of World War II, it works because it exists in its own genre of pulp entertainment. That's part of the reason the thriller genre is so alluring — because you're not doing it right if you're not pushing the boundaries of good taste and darkness.
ARONOFSKY I don't think I really fall into genre. I do love genre, and I love creating genre moments for an audience. But that's [not] where my passions lie.
GORDON We didn't think that our movie was a rom-com until the marketing people started talking to us. I always thought of it as a funny family drama.
Fatih, is there anything you would not do on film, anything you're scared to touch?
AKIN No. There are no limits. I would try everything. Can be porn.
SORKIN I'd like to say that I would like to be hailed as the greatest screenwriter in porn. I would. But the films would be very chatty.
GORDON "You guys are talking too much! Get to it!"
What's been your toughest moment as a writer?
AKIN Once I wrote something for 18 months and had a problem with my computer …
ARONOFSKY Oh, shoot.
AKIN … and I lost the whole file. That was like when you have very old wine, 200 years old, and the bottle broke.
SORKIN Listen, most of the time I really struggle with writing. People ask if I have writer's block. That's my default position. And so most days I go to bed not having done anything except climb the walls because I don't have an idea or I'm stuck where I am. And you really do think in that moment you're not ever going to write again. Those are tough moments. Another tough moment is when you see something in your head that's good, that's really beautiful, and you were just not able to transfer it onto the piece of paper.
ARONOFSKY There's so many struggling moments, making a movie. The amount of "no's" you get as a filmmaker every day are endless. And that's why the only films I know how to make are films that I couldn't live without making. They're just burning from deep inside.
Have any of you been abused by the producers, by the system?
MCCARTEN I knew a film director who said he had an anti-shout clause included in his deal with Harvey [Weinstein]. He said, "I'll do the movie, but if that guy shouts, the rights revert."
GORDON That's a great clause.
SORKIN I haven't been abused by a producer.
But you've worked with some tough producers, like Scott Rudin.
SORKIN Listen, Scott is a great producer in the three phases where you need a great producer. He is a terrific script editor; I think I've done my best writing with Scott. He gets the movie made for the budget that you need. And then he rides herd over a very sophisticated marketing campaign. I've worked with Scott many times before, and I hope to work with him again a lot. Where you need a Scott — and please don't misunderstand when I say this — where you need a Harvey, and I'm not saying that any of that behavior should be excused, I'm absolutely not saying that, is here: Any of us at this table would have an easier time getting a $100 million movie made than a $10 million movie. Studios are much more comfortable making a $100 million movie. They're not quite sure how to market the $10 million movie. And the Scotts and the Harveys are experts at marketing $10 million movies. [Editor's note: The roundtable took place the same day that Ronan Farrow's New Yorker story was published, and Sorkin hadn't read it.]
GORDON I have been lucky in that I have not experienced any direct personal harassment or abuse.
PEELE To the Harvey [matter], first of all, fuck him. He's an asshole. But that goes to this greater question of this systemic problem, as well. The industry is just part of the system, and its shortcomings [are those of] the larger system. There is this systemic issue that holds many of us back and many of us behind. I've never met Harvey Weinstein. But I know that there are many other people who are similar out there.
Fatih, does this make you not want to make films in America?
AKIN I love the films of my colleagues here. They inspired me. I saw Get Out and quit smoking.
SORKIN It may not have been the point, but good.
GORDON I started drinking milk after I saw Get Out. (Laughter.)
Name one screenplay that has particularly influenced you.
MCCARTEN Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. It's a notch above realistic, and it creates a new poetry in the vernacular.
SORKIN Network. Paddy Chayefsky filled that screenplay with great theatrical language, every bit as meaningful as any image in the movie.
ARONOFSKY The Social Network. I couldn't put it down — the musicality of it, of the dialogue. It is real and it is grounded, but it's on a different level.
GORDON I tend to be really appreciative of dialogue, and that's why the screenplay of Moonlight struck me.
PEELE The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby. Both [based on novels by] Ira Levin.
GORDON Good lord!
PEELE What they did within the thriller genre was this very delicate tightrope walk that honored the protagonist in a way that you rarely see in the genre these days. The protagonists are smart and they're investigative, and there's an effort to justify why the character doesn't run screaming. That dance between showing something weird and then showing how easily it can be placed with reality was the technique I brought to Get Out.
Last question. One piece of advice that you would give a starting writer?
AKIN What is the line of [Samuel] Beckett? "Fail again. Fail better."
SORKIN Advice? Intention and obstacle: Cling to that like a lifeboat. Somebody wants something, something's standing in their way. Intention and obstacle. Once you have that, that's the drive shaft of the car.
MCCARTEN Every new writer stands on the border of this undiscovered country called the arts. And you really question, "Do I have any talent?" My experience is: The writer I was when I began was only a fraction of what I feel capable of doing now. Don't stand on that threshold saying, "I'm uncertain about my talent." You can grow that part of yourself.
ARONOFSKY Tell only the story you can tell. If you're trying to tell stories for the largest audience possible, the best way to get to them is by telling the story that really connects with you.
GORDON The best work comes when you are really grappling with something ethically or morally. If it can speak to something that you're personally going through — not literally, but emotionally, that always makes a better piece of work.
PEELE I would say, we all deal with writer's block. We all get in our own way. And my mantra was: Follow the fun. If I'm not having fun, I'm doing it wrong.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.