“Is there a world in which …?” As The Harder They Fall co-writer (and director) Jeymes Samuel recounted how Idris Elba — his friend and one of the stars of his all-Black Western — prefaced his not-infrequent on-set requests to veer from the script, several of his fellow screenwriters seated at The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Writer Roundtable knowingly chuckled along. In addition to Samuel (who penned his screenplay with Boaz Yakin), the Oscar-contending scribes who convened in mid-December at PMC headquarters included Maggie Gyllenhaal, who adapted Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel about motherhood, The Lost Daughter, and made her directorial debut helming it; Sian Heder, who adapted the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier into CODA and also directed it; David Chase, who wrote Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark with Lawrence Konner; and Zach Baylin, there on behalf of his first produced screenplay, King Richard, which recounts the origin story of the first family of women’s tennis, the Williamses. The quintet spent an hour discussing their varied paths to screenwriting, the tricky terrain of writing about people with different life experiences from their own and the challenges of being productive during a pandemic — and then hung around and chatted for a half-hour more.
We have at this table people whose backgrounds are in television, music, acting and even art direction. How did you each arrive at the realization “I’m a screenwriter”?
ZACH BAYLIN I always knew I wanted to write, and I moved to New York trying to find a foothold into the industry. I started P.A.-ing and I ended up working in the art department as a set dresser. But I wasn’t a very good employee, because I would just go in the truck and write my own stuff on the back of the sides all day.
SIAN HEDER I went to Carnegie Mellon for acting. As I was telling David earlier, an episode of The Sopranos was my first acting job out of college — and I got cut out, so maybe that’s the reason I’m not an actor anymore. (Laughs.) When I moved out to L.A., I was a part of groups where writers would bring pages and actors would cold-read them, and it felt like a safe space to start bringing my writing in and be on the other side of it. Eventually I applied to AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, and a short film that I made (Mother) ended up in competition at Cannes and won an award. Then it took me nine years to get my first feature made from that short. In that time, I wrote on Orange Is the New Black for four seasons, honing my skills in a TV writers room and producing my episodes and watching every director closely.
JEYMES SAMUEL Most people know me as a musician, “The Bullitts,” named after the Steve McQueen movie. But I’ve always seen script and song as the same thing — three acts in a script, three verses in a song, a chef serves three courses. I was always writing and shooting short films in the ‘hood that I grew up in, and putting the music behind them. All of my music had a cinematic tone to it — my debut album was called They Die by Dawn and Other Short Stories — and I’ve always said I see music and hear film. I wrote and directed a short 10 years ago called They Die by Dawn, a Western with a lot of the same characters that are in The Harder They Fall. I knew that people wanted to see people of color in a Western, even if they didn’t know it. And then I wrote the initial draft of The Harder They Fall after I directed that short.
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL I was always backing up against something as an actress. I was never really satisfied. Rarely are people interested in actresses with ideas. On The Deuce, I played a prostitute who gets involved in porn. She was originally supposed to be a porn producer, sort of excellently money-minded, but I said to David Simon, “She’s got to be an artist. She’s got to be a director, because someone who’s willing to die for money is very different than someone who’s willing to put their life on the line for their work.” So she became a director, and then two things happened. One: I was not just pretending to be a director, but really deeply imagining, “How would I shoot this scene? How would I treat my actors? How would I deal with this editing situation?” And then, because I was a producer on The Deuce, I was seeing early cuts and had hundreds of ideas about them. I would write four-paragraph essays about why a scene couldn’t be cut or must be cut. Before that, I hadn’t let myself even consider the possibility that I was a writer and a director. So writing, for me, came out of wanting to direct.
DAVID CHASE At first I wanted to be a cinematographer, but I have red-green color problems, so I thought, “Well, you can’t do that job.” Then I wanted to be a director. But when I was still in film school, a friend and I wrote a screenplay that our writing teacher sent to a TV producer. He liked it, so I moved to L.A. After being in L.A. for a year and a half looking for work, I got a TV job, and I was so happy that money was going to be coming in that I remember my wife and I dancing around the living room. So I got involved in TV and I sold out, I guess. I kept writing film screenplays, but I couldn’t sell them. Eventually the opportunity to do The Sopranos came along and that was just another TV job, except it was potentially going to be on HBO. I showed it to friends and they were really into it, so I thought, “Well, maybe, if HBO doesn’t pick it up, I could get them to spring for another $500,000, shoot another 30 minutes and take it to Cannes [as a feature].” That was my dream. But that’s not what happened.
Maggie, how did you come to Elena Ferrante?
GYLLENHAAL I had read the Neapolitan Novels [series], the best-selling books of hers, and I was stunned by how truthful they were. She was saying things that I felt about being a woman in the world, being a mother, being a lover, being a thinker, being an artist. There have been fascinating and excellently made movies about women, but so often they leave out huge aspects of my experience — the strange edges of perversity and despair and terror and darkness and hunger and desire and ecstasy and all of it. Ferrante includes that. So we wrote to her — my amazing producers who I’d worked with on The Kindergarten Teacher got in touch with her publisher, and the publisher was like, “You’ve got to write to Ferrante.” I spent three weeks writing an email to her right before my 40th birthday. And she wrote back and said, “Yes, you can have the rights — but the contract is void unless you also direct it.”
David, people have been trying to get you to revisit The Sopranos since its run ended in 2007, but you resisted for a long time. What changed?
CHASE I really didn’t want to do a Sopranos movie of any kind. [Warner Bros. chief] Toby Emmerich kept on me, but I still wasn’t really into it. Then we had a couple of medical crises at my house and I really needed to work. My co-writer, Lawrence Konner, said, “Well, let’s get to work.” On my first film, [2012’s] Not Fade Away, I made a lot of mistakes. It was a studio film and I listened to the studio. I wish I could do it over again — they just got me panicked about length and all that. I was not used to listening to anybody during The Sopranos, but I thought, “This is your first film, maybe you should listen to people.” Then I wrote a big, six-hour thing about early Hollywood, and HBO didn’t want to do that. So I was just trying to think of an idea, and this came along.
I want to bring up something that must be on the minds of all writers these days: the discussion about who “can” and “should” tell which stories. Zach, you’re a white guy writing about a Black family. Sian, you’re a hearing person writing about the deaf community. Some argue that a writer should be able to write about anything and anyone as long as he or she does so in a smart and sensitive way. Others feel differently.
HEDER It’s always on my mind. I did not live that experience, but I felt like I could be the conduit to it. It meant that I needed a team of people who were true collaborators at every step of the way. I had deaf eyes on that script, and I was like, “Hey, help me shape this story.” I had two directors of ASL who were my key creative allies on this movie; they were not just doing the translation of the script, but calling me out on my hearing gaze all the time. For example, the way that we set up the living room furniture on the set — Anne Tomasetti, my ASL master, walked onto the set and was like, “No deaf family’s going to put their furniture like this. Everything needs to be circular [to facilitate ease of sight lines]. Deaf spaces are very specific.” There’s a saying within the deaf community, which I think holds true for any marginalized community: “Nothing about us without us.” I don’t think that means that the person sitting at the keyboard necessarily needs to be the exact thing, but you have to do your research. You have to give people a real voice. That doesn’t mean that you hire a consultant at the end of the movie, which I see in Hollywood a lot now — like, “Shit, we messed up. Let’s go get a Native writer to come in and put a stamp on this and say, ‘Oh no, you guys did it right.'” You cannot do that. You have to have real, powerful voices in the mix that you honor creatively from the very beginning, and you have to have a certain amount of humility of knowing what you don’t know.
BAYLIN I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to make sure that we got it. Any time you’re writing or doing anything creative, you are trying to step into someone else’s shoes and have empathy and understand that experience. I felt like I understood the emotion of it and the journey, but yeah, the nuances of the world and the experience? I knew I was not going to be able to get that without really opening up to being a collaborator. I wrote a draft of the script before we approached the family — I didn’t have any credits and we knew that, being a white guy, if we were to approach them at the beginning, I probably was not going to be the person that would be chosen to write that film. But I was so in love with it and we said, “OK, well, we take this to them and say, ‘I’m sure I fucked up a lot of stuff in this, but I want to hear your voice. I want to hear your experiences.'” We did that throughout the course of the film, and not just with Venus and Serena. I spent a lot of time with [their mother, Oracene Price]. Richard was so front-facing, but Oracene was very private, and I think my original drafts did not get that character right because I was probably bringing in whatever expectations I had of who she was. And Aunjanue [Ellis, who plays Oracene] is also a writer. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is toward the end, where Oracene is braiding Venus’ and Serena’s hair; full credit to Aunjanue and Oracene. Oracene had said that those beads were so important, to very outwardly and proudly own their heritage, and Aunjanue talked about really wanting to honor that in this movie. That’s not something that I would’ve brought to the script. So being able to have those conversations, I just felt very fortunate.
David and Maggie, before The Sopranos there was great pressure to have a “likable” protagonist. That’s obviously changed in TV — thanks to The Sopranos, we now live in the age of the antihero — but does that pressure still exist with films? Both The Many Saints of Newark and The Lost Daughter have protagonists who do “bad” things. How much, if at all, were you concerned about keeping the audience on their side?
CHASE When I started writing, I didn’t plan on being a writer, so it never occurred to me, “Don’t say this or don’t show that.” And when I did that on television, it wasn’t a scary move to make because I was so desperate to not be in network television anymore. The thing about TV is, so little of it actually goes. You pitch something or you write a script, and if they like it then they go to produce a pilot. If they produce it, then you’ve got to figure out, “Are they going to buy it?” And if they buy it, “How many?” And then, even still, sometimes it’s going to be gone after three episodes. I figured this project was the same and nothing would happen with it, so I just never gave one thought to that.
GYLLENHAAL I think for women, it’s been much more difficult. There’s been a different onus on us to be appealing — to look a certain way and to express ourselves a certain way inside a pretty small spectrum. But to me, honesty is electrifying. I think all of us have aspects of cruelty, perversity, strangeness and darkness, as well as friendliness and all the rest of it. After seeing an early cut of our film, somebody said about Callie, the pregnant character played by Dagmara Domińczyk, “I’m not sure about her. I wasn’t able to tell if she was supposed to be friendly or ominous.” And I was like, “Well, that’s great — both!” That’s how I think about many people I come across: “Are you friendly or ominous? I’m not sure. But you’re compelling or you’re not compelling.” There’s a whole tradition of filmmaking about crazy women. It’s almost like porn — there’s some sort of appeal in watching powerful, interesting, crazy women. And the thing about my film is it’s very important that she not be crazy. If she’s crazy, then basically we’re just reaffirming everything that we’ve been told forever about the tiny spectrum of feelings that we’re allowed to have to be considered normal, when, in fact — especially about parenting, but probably about being a woman in general — so much more is normal.
Have you found it easier or harder to write during the pandemic?
SAMUEL Easier. Usually people never leave me alone, but in the pandemic —
GYLLENHAAL They left you alone!
BAYLIN I’ve written a lot more, but I found it harder just because I have little kids in the house.
HEDER Harder, because I’m used to absorbing the world and people and every interaction. Isolation is really weird because you’re like, “No, I need to be watching people in a cafe.”
GYLLENHAAL I haven’t written. I was making my film and cutting.
CHASE Well, I’ve had a very hard time, but not for any reason having to do with the pandemic.
Where is the place where ideas most frequently come to you?
HEDER Sometimes right before I fall asleep. Even in the middle of directing, I would keep Post-its by my bed because I didn’t want to fully wake up, but I wanted to write whatever I thought. And then I wake up with Post-its next to my bed with illegible things on them.
BAYLIN When I’m running. Or in the middle of the night when I wake up.
Where do you most like to write?
GYLLENHAAL I wrote a lot on airplanes. Nobody bothers you.
SAMUEL My bed.
BAYLIN Wherever my kids aren’t.
HEDER Me too.
GYLLENHAAL Me too.
When writing, do you prefer silence or music or something else?
SAMUEL I need music. I write to music all the time.
HEDER I can’t do music, but I like banter.
CHASE Anyplace, really. With TV when I started, you had six-day deadlines, so you just learned to do it wherever you were.
BAYLIN Ambient conversation is good. And sometimes I’ll put on the score from Shame or something.
On what do you write? Computer, typewriter, paper?
SAMUEL My phone a lot of times. Sometimes my iPad — Final Draft is great on the iPad. Notes in my phone. I still write songs by hand.
BAYLIN It depends. I write on Final Draft, but I also constantly have notebooks and notes. I do a lot of voice notes.
HEDER My laptop. But I also really like writing by hand — if I’m interviewing someone, I’ll write by hand. And I’ll use index cards or a whiteboard a lot.
CHASE Ideas on paper — and they usually get lost.
GYLLENHAAL I have to write on something where I can move things around. I just tried to write something by hand and I was like, “Circle this, move it up here! This around there!” I have to do it on a computer.
What do you need or do to overcome writer’s block?
GYLLENHAAL I know that the thing I need is space in my mind. To push anything is never going to work.
SAMUEL I never have writer’s block because I play a game with myself. Like, there are so many versions of The Harder They Fall where an alien comes down. I literally just game myself back into it.
HEDER Research does it for me. If I’m writing, “The Coast Guard boards the boat,” I’ll cold-call the Coast Guard and find someone to talk to me — like, “What’s the language you guys use over the radio when you board a boat?” And, “If there were a boat of deaf guys that you boarded, what do you think might happen?”
BAYLIN I would say it all feels like writer’s block. I’ll just write something. I’ll know it sucks, but I can go back to it.
CHASE I never had it until this past year. It’s terrible.
Who, if anyone, do you turn to as a sounding board for your work while it’s still in progress?
SAMUEL There’s this guy I know. His name is Jeymes Samuel. He’s a G, literally. I just talk to him. I literally talk things out — I always talk to myself. There are about four persons going on at once and they literally just argue things out.
HEDER My husband [actor-producer-photographer] David [Newsom] is a big sounding board for me. He’s a great writer. He’s a great thinker. We have two little kids and now I’m always like, “Can you find time to read that scene?”
GYLLENHAAL My husband [actor Peter Sarsgaard] and my mother [screenwriter Naomi Foner, who was Oscar-nominated for 1988’s Running on Empty]. I often don’t agree with them. But sometimes they give me a note where I’m like, “Fuck, I have to take that.”
HEDER Running on Empty was an inspiration for CODA!
BAYLIN Definitely my wife [producer Katherine Temma Susman]. She gets tortured by having to read and talk it all out.
CHASE My wife [musician Denise Kelly] said in 1980, “I’m never going to read another screenplay.” Because I would just argue with her, “You don’t understand it, that’s the problem!” It was useless.
How do you know when you’re done with a script? Because one could go on and try to perfect things forever …
HEDER My first TV writing job was on the TV series Men of a Certain Age, and I remember co-writing a script with this guy, Lew Schneider, who would always say, “Pencils down, hater!” Because I was always like, “Wait, could we go back and change it?” When you’re directing your movie, you’re going to write it again when you shoot it and you’re going to write it again when you edit it. I actually love rewriting on set. Like, I love watching actors rehearse the scene and then admitting, “That [writing] really sucked. You say that, you say that.” And sort of working it out in the moment.
GYLLENHAAL I don’t think I would like changing things on set. I want to have a solid groundwork. But my [film] editor said something really interesting to me, which I took to mind the next time I wrote; he said, “Here’s what’s going to happen in the cut. We’re going to get to a place where we start making changes and then undoing them. Once that’s happened a few times, we’ll know we’re done.” With the next thing I wrote, I really found that to be true. I’d take someone’s note, and then put it back. Or I’d try to change something, and then put it back.
SAMUEL For me, it’s when I say, “OK, that’s dope.” There’ll always be something else. But a script is exactly like a song. I get to a stage where I go, “Wicked. Now it’s time to hit the streets with it.” On set, Idris always goes, “Is there a world in which …?” Which means he’s going to change what you wrote. So things are always going to change, but you know when you’ve got the foundation, I believe.
BAYLIN I’m not a director, so, for me, I know that whatever I hand off is going to take on different iterations. I just try to close my eyes and throw it out there.
CHASE You know that famous Fellini line, “Movies are never finished, they’re just abandoned”? That’s kind of how I feel about it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.