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The “Reverse of the Spielberg Gaze”: Jordan Peele, Rian Johnson, Tony Kushner and More Talk Shop on THR’s Writers Roundtable

The Oscar-contending group that also includes Chinonye Chukwu ('Till'), Daniel Kwan ('Everything Everywhere All at Once’) and Martin McDonagh ('Banshees of Inisherin’) confess who among them never outlines and who finds actors that go off-script annoying.

What happens when you gather at one table — as The Hollywood Reporter did in mid-November for its annual Writer Roundtable — six of the world’s most talented screenwriters, who wrote or co-wrote a half-dozen of 2022’s most inventive and acclaimed films, and among them have won two Oscars, two Emmys, two Tonys, one Pulitzer and one National Medal of the Arts? A lot of marveling at one another’s work and very different approaches to writing, some of the group venting about actors deviating from their scripts, and a brief (metaphorical) discussion of the Thanksgiving dish turducken.

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This year’s panelists are Chinonye Chukwu, who wrote, with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, Till, an original screenplay about Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till and a catalyst for the civil rights movement; Rian Johnson, who penned Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, about a detective solving a suspicious death on the private island of a tech billionaire; Tony Kushner, scribe of The Fabelmans, an original semi-biographical screenplay about co-writer Steven Spielberg’s days as a young aspiring filmmaker; Daniel Kwan, who dreamed up, with Daniel Scheinert, the multiversal Everything Everywhere All at Once; Martin McDonagh, who wrote The Banshees of Inisherin, an original screenplay about two men whose close friendship suddenly ends in 1923 Ireland; and Jordan Peele, from whose imagination came Nope, about a pair of sibling horse wranglers who attempt to capture evidence of a UFO.

If, to quote the greatest writer of them all, past is prologue, then this highly literate sextet will be collecting accolades for their work throughout the rest of this awards season — and well into the future.

Tony and Martin, you’re two of the great playwrights. How would you compare writing for the theater to writing for the screen? Martin, you once said, “One of the fears I had, being a playwright, was to make a playwright’s film.” What does that mean?

DANIEL KWAN (Laughs.) Shots fired.

MARTIN MCDONAGH Shit! I guess I meant something that was very wordy and not cinematic, just a couple of people drinking tea, speaking in an English accent and nothing happening for three hours. That’s the not-good side of playwriting. To try and write for film? I couldn’t get my head around it for years. With screenplay writing, you can jump around in time and space, and scenes can be two lines long and then three pages? We don’t really do that in plays. A scene is seven pages long or it’s an act long. So that stuff was a learning curve. Now I find it harder to go back and write plays because I love being able to jump around.

TONY KUSHNER I still feel like I’m a playwright, and I actually love movies with enormous amounts of talk. With Lincoln, there were people who said, “This is not a screenplay, it’s a play.” It was during the making of Lincoln that I had this thunderclap moment: “Oh, actually I could try and indicate somewhere in the script that what we’re seeing is not from an objective viewpoint, it’s somebody looking at something.” I mean, that’s film-school kindergarten, but it was like, “Wow.” That was exciting to me. It’s one of the things that I love about Nope, that it does reverse the Spielberg gaze, that you keep your eyes to the ground and don’t look up at this insane thing that’s happening.

JORDAN PEELE Thank you so much. “The reverse of the Spielberg gaze” is such a cool way to put it. Obviously, I’m hugely inspired by his work and filmmakers who really shoot for the moon and go for the magic. When I was writing this in 2020, the George Floyd protests were going on, so I also wanted to create a film that indicted the industry that’s kept us out of the conversation, in a way, and present the dangers of bad miracles and chasing them, but also give my characters their weapon and agency to get there and reclaim something. So this was, in many ways, a love letter to all those films, but at the same time, I found something in myself that I had to be honest about, which is that I’m chasing a spectacle.

Let’s discuss the origins of these projects. Tony, Steven Spielberg has made many films that draw upon aspects of his adolescence, but The Fabelmans is his first film to deal with it directly. How did you guys decide to write it together?

KUSHNER The first day of filming Munich, there was a night shoot. We didn’t really know each other at that point, and I asked him to tell me about when he decided that he was going to be a filmmaker. He told me the story that’s the central incident in The Fabelmans. I said, “That’s an amazing story, and you should make a movie of it someday.” And he said, “Maybe someday I will.” We’ve worked together now for 20 years. During West Side Story, his mother had died two years before, and his father, who was 102 at that point, was beginning to reach the end, and I think Steven was bracing for that loss. So we started doing more formal interviews. Then, during COVID, we decided to get together three days a week, for four hours each time, on Zoom, and start writing.

Jordan, apart from being partly inspired by Spielberg’s films, you’ve also said that you wanted to make a movie that couldn’t have been made five years ago.

PEELE I’m always shooting for something that’s impossible to pull off, to try to craft something that shouldn’t work, while taking all the care and love to put a piece of yourself in it — put some truth in it — and to try to honor the audience and give them a true journey.

Chinonye, people have been talking about a film about Emmett Till for years, not least Barbara Broccoli, the producer best known for the Bond movies. How did you hear about her efforts and wind up redirecting the approach?

CHINONYE CHUKWU Barbara reached out to me about a month after my last film premiered at Sundance. [Clemency won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic Competition there.] My immediate response to myself was, “No, I’m not in the emotional space for this.” But Barbara is a persistent person, and I met with her and the other producers, who included Whoopi Goldberg, and it was such an extraordinary experience where I felt seen and heard and appreciated. And they said the magic words: “We believe in your artistry and want you to tell this story in whatever way you believe it needs to be told.” Thankfully, when I told them that this had to be centered in Mamie’s emotional point of view, and she needed to be the protagonist and we needed to follow her specific journey, they said that’s what they wanted too, and we started from there.

From left: Peele and Chukwu during THR’s Writer Roundtable.
From left: Peele and Chukwu during THR’s Writer Roundtable. Photographed by CHARLES W. MURPHY

Daniel, how did you and Daniel Scheinert — aka Daniels — begin working together? And how did this project evolve into a tribute to your mother?

KWAN We met in class and really hated each other. Then we both ended up working at a filmmakers summer camp where we had to run around Boston with kids with cameras and tried to push them out of their comfort zones. At that point, both Daniels looked at each other like, “Oh, that person has a very similar energy and attraction to the filmmaking process.” So we started making stuff together about 12 years ago, and we started writing this around 2016 or 2017 — and we all know how that moment felt. We were trying to create a film that tapped into that feeling that we were all experiencing, where everything was happening at the same time, every narrative was colliding, every contradiction was passing through our chests and shooting out the back of our heads and we never had a chance to process any single one of them. We were like, “Let’s try to make a movie that feels like that — and still gives you some hope at the end.” And yes, my mother emigrated here from Taipei and has always been, on the one hand, very stereotypical of what an Asian American immigrant mother can be — but, at the same time, constantly pushing past that. One of the things that’s always shocking to people is that she was the one who told me to become a filmmaker, which (turns to Chukwu, who was born in Nigeria to Nigerian parents) — you’re an immigrant, too.

CHUKWU Oh, I know.

KWAN For the kids to pursue their arts is not why they moved here. But my mother saw something in me really early on and was like, “I see you have a spark toward story, and I want you to be happy and I want you to do something good with your life. So even though all my friends think I’m crazy for telling you to go film school — go to film school.” So this movie was a way for me to honor that relationship but also to try to be honest about all the ways I’ve made her life hard.

Martin, in your movie, Brendan Gleeson’s character goes to extreme lengths to protect what time he has left for his art, including cutting off a friendship with Colin Farrell’s character. Have you thought much about whether an artist should be willing to give up everything for art?

MCDONAGH I think it’s something that we all tend to think about, in terms of, “Are we wasting time? And should we be devoting more of our energies to our work?” I leave big gaps between movies, mostly because I’m lazy, but should I get over that? Should I start making one every four years instead of every five? So, yeah, that’s something that’s always been there and is a part of the film — but also the debate is, “Should you be a jerk about being an artist and cut off other people? Is it OK to be a shit in the service of art?” Of course, it’s better to be nice, but the debate is an interesting one. My allegiances were obviously toward Colin Farrell’s character, as a dimwit myself, but I wanted to try to be as evenhanded with both points of view as possible.

Rian, the original Knives Out in 2019 revived the murder-mystery genre, and just three years later, we have another one by popular demand. What made you want to revisit the world of Benoit Blanc, aside from everyone wanting you to?

RIAN JOHNSON I’ve had a love of this genre since I was a kid. It came from me falling in love with Agatha Christie’s books and also the movies that I watched with my family growing up, like the original Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. But more than that, I feel like it’s a genre almost manufactured to engage with current society. Growing up, these movies were period pieces set in a quaint other world in the past, but that’s not how Christie was writing; she was writing to her time and engaging with the culture. So it just felt very exciting, the notion of doing a traditional whodunit, setting it in modern-day America and unabashedly engaging with it. And it continues to be exciting to me what the genre can encompass and how it can be completely different with each film.

Chinonye, you’ve said that the most revolutionary thing about the Emmett Till story is that his mother made sure people could not turn away. The image of his brutalized body was one of the first “viral” images in a line that continues through the video of George Floyd’s murder.

CHUKWU Yeah. I’ve thought a lot about what Mamie did versus the video of George Floyd being lynched. It was, in a way, an extension of her critical care for the Black community. It was a call to action, and she had full agency and ownership and control over that experience. She was very intentional, from the photographer that she chose to capture the image, to the magazine that the image was in, to how the open-casket funeral was curated. That’s very different from what we’re seeing now, where sometimes it’s like, “If I don’t capture this, no one will ever know,” or it’s exploitative or it’s a “gotcha” kind of thing. So it’s a different kind of intention and ownership and agency over the image, but the power of the image is the same.

PEELE For anybody who asks what the need is to tell these stories, it’s quite clear when you see Till what the need is. Especially in a world where they’re trying to take our stories out of classrooms, it’s very important to tell them.

From left: Chukwu, Kwan and McDonagh during THR’s Writer Roundtable
From left: Chukwu, Kwan and McDonagh during THR’s Writer Roundtable Photographed by CHARLES W. MURPHY

Daniel — and this also applies this year to Tony and Chinonye ­— what are the challenges and rewards of writing with someone else?

KWAN I look at ideation and all culture through the lens of memetics. Ideas are battling it out constantly, through natural selection, to evolve. If you look at a single environment versus two environments, with two you have this ability to allow ideas to bounce back and forth, and basically challenge yourself until you get to a place where the best idea rises to the top at a much faster rate than with one. When you have two people, you can just be braver, you can try things out, you fail faster. That’s what we do. And look at some of the other duos: The Coen brothers were constantly playing with genre in ways that no one else was doing; what the Wachowski sisters did with The Matrix blew everyone’s minds; [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller, with every one of their movies, push the medium a little bit further.

Quick follow-up, Daniel: What’s “a hat on a hat,” to bring up something you once said in an interview?

KWAN (Laughs.) That’s where you put a joke on a joke and it’s no longer funny. You ruin the joke because you stack too many concepts on top of each other. And for me and Daniel, our favorite version of a joke is where you don’t stop at a hat on a hat; you put a hat on a hat on a hat on a hat, and then you flip it upside down and you realize the first person was a hat, too. The whole thing is just, “How far can you go?” And I think we’re allowed to do that now because audiences are so savvy about tropes and understand all the different conventions. So when you do that, you’re actually watching someone create a turducken —

PEELE Turkey, duck —

KUSHNER Chicken in the middle.

CHUKWU That’s a thing?

KWAN Exactly. You would never get to understand what a turducken is unless you understood what each of those individual pieces were. And now that society understands what each of those individual pieces are, they’re ready for a turducken.

All of you except Tony directed the films you’re here talking about writing, and Tony was a producer of his film, so you were all involved from beginning to end. When does the writing stop? Are you able to just say it’s done and focus on directing or producing or is it always overlapping?

MCDONAGH I do a few weeks of rehearsal at the start, and then that’s the end of the overlap. That’s when things can be tweaked a bit because you’re hearing how the actors are doing it and their opinions on characters. After that, I don’t change any dialogue or anything about the scenes. I got into film directing because the scripts had to be protected. I’d have chosen not to do that if I could have trusted that it would be the way it is in theater, where you’ve got control, no one can change anything, you pick the director, the actors, all of that.

JOHNSON It’s cool to hear Martin say that. As opposed to coming into this from theater, where it’s very much about the writing, I came into filmmaking from the opposite end, which was growing up making movies with my friends on the weekends, where there wasn’t writing — it was just get your stupid buddies together and make a stupid little movie. So for me, the writing process ends when they drag my hands away from the Avid, when you finally have to lock picture.

How strict are each of you about actors sticking to the script?

KUSHNER I have issues about improvising. It’s a really hard thing to do, and most people can’t do it, and very often I can tell when the actors are doing it — they start calling each other by their names every line, “So, Martin, what are you …” And it starts to feel like improv class. When we did West Side Story, Steven and I had a lot of fights. We had these brilliant young actors, not the most experienced group, and a lot of young actors think their job is to come in and rewrite the script, but West Side Story was hard because it was the book before the musical, and the speech had to then match Sondheim’s lyrics and they couldn’t just start talking, so we fought a lot about that. And then right before we started filming The Fabelmans, Steven said, “You’re going to really have to keep your temper about this because Seth Rogen is in this movie. He’s going to make up everything.” I said, “But we wrote this. You wrote these lines with me.” And he says, “But he’s amazing.” And I said, “Yeah, he is amazing.” And Seth didn’t change a single word the entire time!

KWAN Sometimes you get magical moments that you’d never be able to write. The character Jobu Tupaki is this embodiment of the nihilist creature inside the daughter Joy who wants to destroy the film, and so sometimes we’d tell Stephanie Hsu, “OK, make fun of this movie. Destroy the film. You’re above it. You’re up here. You’re now directing it. What would you do to ruin this scene?” Just to see what would happen. It was so playful and exciting to see how she was able to take our ceiling and push it even further. Some of the stuff that she did, we took and put it into the script, with her permission.

Jordan, as someone who has done a lot of improv, do you condone it in your films?

PEELE Well, you definitely want the actors to feel like they are improvising. That’s when they’re doing their best. If you do enter an improvisational space, something you’ll hear a lot on a film is, “OK, let’s get one on-book, just for safety.” As a writer, you’re trying to put the best script forward. As a director, you’re trying to be open and get energy out of it. So the idea for me is always, as long as I get the protected version of the script done, then let’s also try to beat it.

From left: THR executive awards editor Scott Feinberg moderated a talk that veered from process to heroes among the six screenwriters who are Oscar contenders: Kushner, Johnson, Peele, Chukwu, Kwan and McDonagh, who asked: “Are we wasting time? Should we be devoting more of our energies” to writing?
Photographed by CHARLES W. MURPHY

What’s the weirdest writing job you’ve been approached about?

KUSHNER Right after Angels in America opened on Broadway, my first phone call from the film industry was a person calling to ask me if I would be the 47th person to write the script for the Flintstones movie.

KWAN (Laughs.) I totally see it! Very early in our careers, Jim Carrey reached out. He had just seen Paranormal Activity and was like, “Guys, it’s found footage and it’s horror — have you seen it?” And we were like, “Uh-huh, we’ve heard of it. Where is this going?” And he was like, “I haven’t seen anyone do that — but with comedy. And I have this great idea.” Basically, the set of Dumb and Dumber was famously a haunted set — it was in the same hotel that The Shining was inspired by — and he’s like, “The whole time we were shooting, things were breaking, people were getting hurt, doors were swinging, and it felt haunted. We’re going to shoot Dumb and Dumber To, and I want you guys to do a found-footage horror comedy on the set. While we’re filming, you guys are going to make a feature-length, behind-the-scenes video that slowly becomes a horror film.” We’re like, “OK, we’re in. This is amazing.” We wrote a whole outline and were really excited. Then we sat down with the producer, we pitched the idea, and they’re like, “We’re not actually going to make this. I’m sorry, Jim got really excited, but there’s no way the studio is going to let us do a movie while they’re shooting Dumb and Dumber To.” And we were like, “OK …”

I’d like to close with a few process questions. First, do you outline?

MCDONAGH No.

KUSHNER You don’t outline?!

MCDONAGH Never.

PEELE That’s cool. So you just —

CHUKWU You just write? You just go?

PEELE You have an incredible amount of plot twists in your film!

KWAN If he can surprise himself, he can surprise the audience.

MCDONAGH Exactly.

KUSHNER I write outlines and then they change because suddenly I realize, “Oh, I’m completely wrong about this,” or, “This character is not going to do this thing that the outline says they’ll do,” so then I throw out the outline and re-outline. I do like 80 of them. But if I don’t have some phony-baloney ladder so that I can at least pretend I’ve got something to hang onto, it’s too scary.

KWAN Ninety percent of it is outlining for us as well. I say that structure is where thesis emerges. We wanted to make a movie that starts structurally as The Matrix and ends as Magnolia, but we always were playing with, “How do we arrange the big pieces?”

JOHNSON That’s just the way I learned how to write: The first 90 percent of the writing process is structure, similar to what Tony and Daniel said.

KUSHNER Did you see what David Lynch said? “You get 70 three-by-five index cards, you write a scene on each of them, then you walk away and you’re done.” (Laughs.)

When you’re writing, do you prefer complete silence or a bit of noise?

MCDONAGH Silence.

CHUKWU Strangely enough, I’ve written a lot of outlines while The Golden Girls has been playing on reruns. It’s noise in the background. But when I’m writing the script, it’s complete silence. Or sometimes I’ll put a film score on.

KUSHNER I love writing on a subway or in a coffee shop. Music is the only thing I can’t work with. If it’s a regular tempo, it screws up rhythms.

PEELE Music is good for me. Because I’m writing what ultimately is scary stuff, I find that if I can listen to beautiful or charming music, I end up landing somewhere totally interesting.

KWAN I create playlists for every single script from the moment I sit down. It takes years to write the script, so by the end, the play­list is 10 days long.

Whose opinion about your writing do you value the most before locking it in?

MCDONAGH My girlfriend [Fleabag writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge].

CHUKWU My best friend. She’s the realest with me. Especially as someone who’s a Black feminist woman, I’m just like, “Is Roxane Gay going to write a think piece about me after this film?!”

PEELE My producer, Ian Cooper, who’s probably my closest creative partner.

KUSHNER Well, Steven, obviously. And then also my best friend and a couple of other very close friends. I can tell how much they like something.

Finally, who is the living screenwriter not at this table who you admire the most?

MCDONAGH Paul Thomas Anderson, of recent years.

PEELE Damn!

CHUKWU I know, that’s what I was going to say!

PEELE He writes movies. He puts scenes together that are quintessentially cinematic.

CHUKWU And the dialogue.

KWAN I grew up on all the Korean auteurs, so Park Chan-wook’s work has always been so striking.

KUSHNER A screenwriter I admire immensely is Spike Lee. I love anything that combines deep characterization, rich and complex politics, and wit and originality. Everything that he does is surprising and genuinely profound and beautifully written and stunning. Some of my favorite films of recent years are his, and I think he’s a great writer.

JOHNSON The Coen brothers are two of mine. They’re very much about the writing, but they’re also very cinematic. I’ve heard through interviews that, like Martin, they don’t outline. They start and just let it guide them, which, similar to Martin’s writing, is miraculous to me. It’s like watching somebody do a magic trick.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.