Five scribes on movies including 'First Man,' 'Eighth Grade' and 'Leave No Trace' reveal how they crafted these memorable and often heart-wrenching scenes of strife, from a son standing up to his parents to a teen daughter trying desperately to ignore her father and a mother-in-law caught in a "passive-aggressive dance" with her son's girlfriend.
Many of this year's top films explore the complicated dynamics of family, whether that's the tense relationship between a mother who is meeting her son's new girlfriend for the first time or a father who can't accept that his son might be gay. Five top screenwriters spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about crafting some of the most memorable moments from their films, from tough coming-of-age talks and growing pains to awkward family gatherings.
In Focus' gay conversion drama, Jared (Lucas Hedges), the son of a preacher (Russell Crowe), finds himself in a blowout argument with his parents after an anonymous phone call outs Jared to his father.
"Apart from Jared's homosexuality finally being illuminated within the household, it's about setting up this family dynamic," says writer-director Edgerton, 44, adding that on set, it was the first time Hedges, Crowe and Nicole Kidman all worked a scene together. "I look at it like a court, where the father is a judge, the mother is a witness and the son is on trial, but it also allows us to see into the true fear that the father feels — that he might discover the truth, that his son is gay."
It was important "that Russell's character was controlling the discussion," Edgerton says. "But in this instance he's losing control of being able to dominate his son."
The first time Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) meets Nick's (Henry Golding) mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), in the Warner Bros. romantic comedy is in the kitchen of Eleanor's mansion in Singapore. And it doesn't go well. "All the things that make Rachel exceptional in American society don't play over there," says Lim, 43, who co-wrote with Peter Chiarelli. "She hugs Eleanor, and they're not huggers. She talks about her career and wanting to pursue her passion. All Eleanor is hearing is, 'She's a person without a family, truly without roots who just feels entitled to pursue whatever she wants.'" Adds Lim: "Eleanor's smart, and in that culture you don't overtly come out and tell you they disapprove of you that way. So it's a passive-aggressive dance that they do."
Among the first scenes Burnham wrote was one in which teenage Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), eat dinner while the sweet, slightly silly Mark tries to get Kayla to look up from her phone and open up to him. "I had an incredibly loving and attentive parent that just wanted to help me out and wanted to be in my struggles with me," says Burnham, 28. "I wanted to show that even if you're lucky enough to have that, it's still not without its struggles. When you're feeling bad about yourself at that age and you look across the table and see someone with puppy-dog eyes also feeling bad, it's like, 'I'm already disappointed in myself enough, could you maybe not pay attention to me?' There's almost a resentment, wishing I had a parent I could rebel against."
Before Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) heads off to space, his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), makes him sit down with his kids and tell them that he may not be coming back. "In some ways, this scene illustrates the cost to the family more than any other," says Singer, 46, who worked closely with Armstrong's sons while writing the Universal drama. "What we really do there is get across how immensely challenging it is — you're trying to ignore the fact that this is a crazy thing you're about to do, and now you've got to figure out how to talk about that with your son. You've done everything your whole life to?avoid this kind of emotional connection because, if you are to look at it straight on, you actually may not be able to go do your mission. There is a certain coldness and a discomfort to that, which spoke to what had to happen in these families."
For her film about a man (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who choose to escape modern society and live in the forests around Portland, Oregon, Granik decided to go in a different direction from the ending of the book on which the film is based, My Abandonment by Peter Rock. She and co-writer Anne Rosellini had to craft a scene in which the daughter, Tom, has to tell her dad that she does not want to go back into the forest with him.
"Finding those words, it took her months. It took her months of trying to rehearse them, to think about them, to even put language to them," says Granik. "And it took coming to a new setting, it took exposure to other adults and some of the ways they've learned their adaptations."
Granik says the scene was the moment that this division formed in this family. "There's so many different kinds of coming out that we have to do. And I was thinking that those moments, they are unavoidable as part of being a sentient homosapien," she says. "They're universal. so I had: 'Is it worthy? Is it too familiar? Can we even make stories about this anymore or is it something that everyone's like, "ho hum." Well, everyone has to do that.' But the way we emancipate ourselves is different, and that's what interested me.
"When Tom says her line about their difference and, 'What's wrong with you is not wrong with me,' in the discussions I've had after screenings, I've been very, very, very moved by the spectrum of response on that. Some of them really hurt to hear. Some of them have said, 'I wish I would have been able to say that to my parent.'"
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.