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“Screenwriting Is Really a Bastardized Form”: The Writer Roundtable

Scribes behind six of the season's most acclaimed scripts — including John Krasinski, Tamara Jenkins and Peter Farrelly — dish on the bittersweet beauty of a great love story, those wrongheaded studio notes, the "holy" state of stillness and how they'd bring the story of Donald Trump to the big screen if given the chance.

With the midterm elections just three weeks away at the time, it was perhaps inevitable that the conversation would turn to Donald Trump at The Hollywood Reporter‘s 2018 Writer Roundtable. Not so inevitable was how some of the year’s most acclaimed writers, gathered Oct. 18 at a Hollywood photo studio, said they would tackle his story if given the chance to bring it to the screen. Their ideas ranged from resisting the idea altogether (Paul Schrader, 72, First Reformed) to approaching it obliquely (John Krasinski, 39, who co-wrote A Quiet Place with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) to exploring the backstory of a small building that happens to bear the name of the 45th U.S. president (Tamara Jenkins, 56, Private Life).

These writers were joined by Bo Burnham, 28 (Eighth Grade), Peter Farrelly, 61 (who co-wrote Green Book with Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga), and Eric Roth, 73 (the only member of the group who did not also direct his project, A Star Is Born, which he wrote with helmer Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters). Their conversation, condensed and edited here, ranged from the political to the politically correct.

You’ve all been assigned to write a film about Donald Trump. Where do you begin?

PAUL SCHRADER You immediately ask for 10 times as much money as they’ve offered.

TAMARA JENKINS On the way to the airport from Manhattan, it says Trump Pavilion. It’s a really sad, desolate-looking nursing home. That would be a striking first image. Nobody cares about it, yet it has the Trump name.

ERIC ROTH My problem would be, I keep trying to find something Shakespearean about [Trump’s story] and I can’t. It seems to always fall short of great drama. And I don’t find much humor in it. You could play him as the Fool, but I don’t think he’s quite Falstaff. Shakespearean characters seem to be aware of their fate in some way, and I don’t find him aware of mostly anything except his own ego.

JOHN KRASINSKI I’d be interested in the circle of people around him. I always like movies that are about a person you never see.

ROTH I’ve been offered three times to do a Hitler movie. Michael Cimino, Jim Sheridan and I forget the [third director]. But each time I balked because I felt I was going to humanize him, and I was concerned about that. Then I saw Downfall and realized I was completely wrong because he can be human but also a type of human being that shows all sorts of dimensions that you may not want to be part of. I’m actually helping my son write a screenplay about [Nazi physician Josef] Mengele now, so there you go. (Laughter.) It’s a lot of fun.

PETER FARRELLY That’s what The Sopranos did. Tony Soprano is a bad guy, but they humanize him. He’s murdered 50 people, and we’re rooting for him to get away with it.

Paul, you’ve humanized a lot of seeming villains. Would you do the same with Trump?

SCHRADER I wouldn’t do it. For me it’s a mental health issue. It’s like choosing to live in a polluted space or drink polluted water — not enough time left in my life.

BO BURNHAM The weapon that doesn’t seem to work is satire. Trump is self-satirizing. He is his own art installation. (Laughter.)

SCHRADER I’m old enough to remember when [satirist] Terry Southern was thought to be implausible. And now we’re living in Terry Southern’s world.

Why write if you’re so pessimistic?

SCHRADER It’s like [writer Albert] Camus said: “I don’t believe; I choose to believe.” And we’re at a point now where there is no reason to hope, but you can choose to hope. And you can choose to write. It’s probably one of the few things left you have control over.

ROTH I’m enamored with words and the sound of words. And the director could fuck it up, I guess, but they can’t take that away from me.

BURNHAM Writing is how we process the moment, not because it’s necessarily productive, not because it’s going to solve anything.

JENKINS The stillness that is necessary to write, the act of silencing yourself, your cellphone, silencing everything to think, to bring words — there is something holy about it.

John, you wrote a movie about silence. Was it different writing with almost no dialogue?

KRASINSKI Very different and terrifying.

FARRELLY It’s only four pages long, so … (Laughter.)

KRASINSKI I basically cheated. It came in as a spec script to me as an actor. The idea was fantastic — a family living silently to protect themselves from creatures. We [Krasinski and his wife, actress Emily Blunt] had just had our second daughter, so I was holding a 3-week-old baby, reading about what a family would do to protect their kids. I connected to this material more than anything I’ve ever connected to because I was living it. And I said, “If I could rewrite this script, I could bring this to be the best metaphor for [family].” So I pitched my wife. I said, “It’s a love letter to our kids.” And she’s like, “The one about creatures killing everybody?” (Laughter.)

Do any of you go to other writers for advice?

FARRELLY In grad school, we had a master class with John Irving. I remember him telling me this one thing that stuck with me. He writes 900-page novels and he says he’ll never begin a novel until he knows the last sentence. Exactly the opposite way that I write.

SCHRADER I can’t write unless I know the title.

ROTH I need a title, names of the characters, and I need to know the beginning scene and the last scene.

JENKINS I never know my ending, and I feel like I’m doing it wrong. But I have a few secret weapons. My husband is a screenwriter [Jim Taylor, who works frequently with director Alexander Payne]. I’m married to one of them — actually, my husband is probably married to Alexander. But those guys, when you give them your screenplay and it comes back with a lot of lines running through it —

Was there a “big idea” one of them gave you about Private Life?

JENKINS It’s always incremental, it’s always very small ideas that accumulate details that then reveal characters.

BURNHAM I have to work inside out. It has to work moment to moment before I even start to extrapolate from a scene to feature-length. It has to breathe. So I just dive in and start writing. Eighth Grade, the initial impulse for the script was watching videos of young kids online speaking about themselves and just transcribing those monologues. Because I found the way these kids expressed themselves to be so visceral and in really sharp contrast to the way I had seen young people portrayed onscreen, perfectly in command of their own narrative. And for me, what it means to be alive right now is to be out of control of your narrative; to be constantly trying to be your own biographer and failing.

What led you to those videos in the first place?

BURNHAM I am from the internet. I got my start on the internet.

KRASINSKI You’re a 3D-printed human.

BURNHAM I am. (Laughter.) But the internet is a well of humanity if you dig past the surface. All you see is trending viral videos, but if you search, you’ll see it’s the most pure exchange of material between the public and us.

Do the older writers here agree? Do you ever feel out of touch with the zeitgeist?

KRASINSKI I feel like I’m 92 years old all the time. I thought I was pretty hip, and then I found out the iPhone has 10 versions.

SCHRADER I used to think we were going through a period of transition. Now I realize we’ve entered a period of constant transition.

KRASINSKI But I hope romance and romance stories are always a [part] of the zeitgeist. If we lose that, we’re out of it. I don’t know the last time I saw a classic romance [other than A Star Is Born]. People are afraid to do that type of beautiful, honest story about two people.

JENKINS Love stories come in lots of different packages.

ROTH A good love story will always have a heartbreaking ending, or at least an ending where people’s dreams are not quite fulfilled, so there is a bittersweet quality. But people are cowardly about doing it; it’s not branded.

Is there a major film that you’d like to remake?

SCHRADER That’s all we do. You’re picking and choosing, you don’t actually originate anything. You just go through this huge buffet of cinema and make your own plate. And everybody’s plate is different.

ROTH Part of it is your sense of yourself. I write from a place of loneliness and a little bit of depression. So my things would necessarily have a tragic element, even if I don’t want that.

JENKINS I certainly feel connected to depression, and it’s always driving me into sitting there by myself and writing.

SCHRADER If you’re going to get into the things that are motivating you, with my first script, Taxi Driver [1976], it was loneliness. You find a metaphor — a taxicab — take a plot and run through the metaphor. But most of my scripts are spec. I’ve wished many times that I could be a better employee, because there is certainly money to be made, but I’ve tried a number of times and it’s not really worked.

Have you ever been fired?

SCHRADER Well, not so much fired as: You hand in a first draft, you get no notes, you get paid for your rewrite and the phone doesn’t ring.

ROTH I was actually fired twice. The one I remember, I knew was coming, because the director was very narcissistic, and I knew he was not going to want to see me in that mirror, and sure enough he didn’t.

FARRELLY We [Farrelly and brother Bobby] only started directing because we had a movie made from our script that was so horrible, we left our names off it. We’d been out here nine years when we finally had a movie made and were like, “Oh no! That’s not our movie!” We put our brother-in-laws’ names on. (Laughter.) I remember my agent saying, “Are you crazy? You have zero credits. Get a credit.” I said, “I’d rather die with no credits than have that as my only one.” The next movie that we were on, Dumb and Dumber, when we went in the room and they said, “Who’s directing?” we said, “We are.” Just to protect it. I needed somebody that I trusted, and they never came along.

Why are you working without your brother now?

FARRELLY The truth is: My brother had a tragedy in his immediate family, a big one [Bobby’s 20-year-old son died in 2012], and he had to step away. He needed time. And at that moment I ran into the guys who told me this story [Green Book]. I said, “This is a home run. I love this story.” And so I just jumped into it. But believe me, this movie would have been better if my brother were involved. He always makes things better. I miss working with him.

SCHRADER I did four scripts with [Martin] Scorsese and on the fourth one I could tell this would be the last because I was thinking like a director now — there were two directors in the room, and one was calling himself a writer. I realized, I’m going to retain my friendship with Marty — I’ve known him all my life — but I could feel the friction.

What’s the worst script note you’ve been given?

JENKINS I was at the Sundance Lab when I wrote my first movie, The Slums of Beverly Hills [1998], and you do a mentor session where they tell you what they think. And this man, a male screenwriter, incredibly successful, sat me down and said: “You can’t start a movie with a girl getting fitted for a bra. You can’t waste five pages with a girl getting her first bra.”

ROTH Yeah, you can.

JENKINS I said, “I’m going to keep that.”

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Peter, I seem to remember Fox saying you can’t have the guy jerking himself off in There’s Something About Mary.

FARRELLY We got a lot of resistance to that — that it would be NC-17 — and we said, “No. If it’s for titillation, it’s NC-17, if it’s for humor, it’s R.” We had to fight. We were in a meeting and we’re like, “We’re not cutting it. Give it a chance.” And finally I looked at [then-Fox chief] Bill Mechanic and said, “Bill, how many movies are you guys making this year?” He said, I think, “Twenty-two.” I said, “How about you make 21 and let us make one?” (Laughter.) And I swear, he looks at us and goes, “All right, let ’em do it.” We never heard another peep.

ROTH [Executives always say] less is more, right? I happen to write 180-page screenplays. Anyway, there’s a famous story about John Huston working with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was writing [1962’s] Freud. Sartre turned in his draft. It was 180 pages, let’s say. And Huston said, “Spectacular. But it’s way too long. So we’ll get somebody to cut it.” And Sartre said, “I’ll take care of it.” He left and came back with a 224-page draft. (Laughter.) On [the upcoming] Dune, I wrote a 200-page draft. And the head of the studio said, “This is never going to work.” And they eventually got somebody to shorten it because I can’t do it.

SCHRADER The additive process is much more creative than the subtractive one. If you can have a first draft that works at 70 pages, you know you’re going to have a draft that works at 90 pages, and it’s just going to get better. And the same thing with the editing process. At some point you say to the editor, “Let’s make a cut of the film with just the stuff that’s good.”

JENKINS Then you put the bad stuff in. (Laughter.)

What did you change from the original script for A Quiet Place?

KRASINSKI It was much more a horror movie. As I was reading, I started knowing what I would do with it if I could make this a family drama and really push this idea of family. But one of the things that’s hugely beneficial about being an actor is that I’ve learned from my heroes that collaboration is king and the best idea wins, no matter who it’s from. The ending of the movie was our producer’s idea. He said, “Emily needs to shoot the monster.” And I remember thinking, that’s insane. I was so against it. And bizarrely, I was driving to work the next day and was listening to an old podcast, an interview with Steven Spielberg from the early ’80s, and someone said: “Why is your generation of directors moving away from making art?” And he said, “Why can’t we make art films that you can also eat popcorn to? I’m not going to shy away from making people enjoy really exciting movie moments, too.” And I thought, “Oh my God!” That was my wake-up moment to this idea that shooting the creature at the end wasn’t abusing my artistic take.

SCHRADER My favorite change was on Cat People [1982]. It ended with the protagonist shooting the monster and the house burning down. And I had an insight. I said: “What if, instead of shooting the monster, he fucks it and then puts it in a cage and builds a shrine to it?” And that’s what we did.

BURNHAM It’s a very personal story, yeah. (Laughter.) You just choose what’s meaningful for yourself. And I try not to meta-analyze it too much. I get a little in my head when I start to think about it in the pantheon of other films. That’s toxic for me.

Is there one film that strongly influenced you?

BURNHAM A Woman Under the Influence [1974] and John Cassavetes. The way that people speak to each other feels like they are not only surprising the viewer, they are surprising themselves.

ROTH For years it was Giant [1956]. I believed I was doing Giant with every single movie — till I saw Giant again.

KRASINSKI The Verdict [1982] for me is the seminal movie. I grew up very Catholic, and there was this idea of redemption that felt more spiritual than actual religious teaching.

FARRELLY Something Wild [1986] inspired me in a huge way. It felt like rock ‘n’ roll, it felt great. That’s why I fell in love with Jeff Daniels. After that, I was begging [the studio] to use him. It just had such a fun, happy, cool feeling to it. And for years, every time I was going to do another movie, I’d watch it again. Someone recently said we have a lot of road trips in our movie, and I don’t consciously do that. And then I thought, Something Wild. There is something about being on the road in America that feels a little Kerouac-y. You feel like you’re alive.

JENKINS Dog Day Afternoon [1975] is brilliant. And it’s about dropping characters into action without any backstory and then figuring out why they’re there when you find out they’re robbing the bank.

What advice would you give a starting writer?

BURNHAM I feel there is a specific struggle of being young and creative now — because of social media, because the internet’s creative process has collapsed in on itself. The line between writing something, testing it out, revising it, has collapsed into a single moment. If someone has an idea for a film or a book, maybe they’ll tweet out a little bit of it and see what the reception is. There’s a constant temperature-taking at every moment.

JENKINS I read a book about Twyla Tharp and her creativity process. She writes ideas down on index cards and just throws them in a box.

SCHRADER I tell young writers, “Don’t confuse screenwriting with writing. Screenwriting is part of the oral tradition, it’s not part of the literary tradition.”

ROTH It’s really a bastardized form, screenwriting. You’re not a novelist.

SCHRADER And our jobs are not made easier by people who say, “You shouldn’t do that” and “trigger alerts” and all of that. It’s not very good for the creative process.

On Taxi Driver, you originally wanted the victims to be African-Americans. Wasn’t there a danger of sending a racist message?

SCHRADER I was making a [point about what it is to be] racist. He only killed black people. Because when you’re low on the totem pole, you’re looking for people who are lower — and that’s why these kinds of kids are racist. And [Columbia executive] Dan Melnick said: “There will be riots. There will be violence in the theater if we do this.” And Marty and I, as soon as Melnick said that, we knew he was right. And so we took the main pimp character and made him white and made him Harvey Keitel. In a novel, that [original idea] would not have been irresponsible; but in a crowded theater, it was irresponsible. There’s no hard-and-fast rules.

BURNHAM It’s slightly unfair for us to expect the solution to these [social] inequities to be perfectly fair. The overall mentality is leading to much more diverse, exciting art. So I’m happy to be a part of it.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.