Roger Ailes. Harriet Tubman. Hitler. These are three of the real-life characters who feature conspicuously in the current awards-season movies, a thicker slice of historical fiction than at any time in the recent past. What’s striking about these men and women is how differently they’ve been treated — from the meticulous re-creation of the former slave’s life in Harriet, by Kasi Lemmons, 60; to the blend of fact and fiction in the living pontiffs’ meetings from Anthony McCarten, 58, in The Two Popes; to the comical portrait of Hitler by Taika Waititi, 44, in Jojo Rabbit.
These screenwriters were joined at this year’s Writer Roundtable by three others who’ve tackled real life with varying degrees of fictionalizing: Destin Daniel Cretton, 41 (whose Just Mercy tells the tale of attorney Bryan Stevenson’s attempt to free a wrongfully convicted prisoner), Charles Randolph, 56 (whose Bombshell looks at former Fox News chairman Ailes and the women who brought him down), and Lorene Scafaria, 41 (whose Hustlers is a fact-based narrative about a handful of strippers who stole money from their clients).
Are there any subjects that you wouldn’t touch today that you might have a few years ago?
CHARLES RANDOLPH The model of appropriation for a screenwriter is complicated. Because, on one hand, you want to have a rich variety of characters in your films, and on the other, if you are wholly embodying a subject that is alien to your culture, you feel like there are other people who can do it better than you. There are things that I wouldn’t do today. There’s an adaptation of a book about three African American kids in New York who kidnap a white state attorney [The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival by Stanley N. Alpert] that I wrote a decade ago that’s one of my favorite scripts. It will never get made and probably shouldn’t get made. It relies too much on me being in a world that I don’t fully understand. And no amount of research would get me there.
KASI LEMMONS One thing we have to understand is that the language of the dominant culture is one we all speak. But there are specific cultures that we don’t, where you’d have to be versed in those languages. You have to do the work to figure out what that is.
ANTHONY MCCARTEN Freedom is the operative word. Fiction means freedom, and we have to fight for that. Writers must be free to travel. We have to have passports into every territory. If we’d pigeonholed ourselves by saying, “I can only write about being a middle-aged white man,” Shakespeare would never have written about anything outside England. We would never have had The Merchant of Venice. He was not a merchant, never went to Venice. We have to fight for that against some strong headwinds. There’s opposition to writers who imaginatively journey into a world they don’t know, but that they want to know, and they’re not backed by people who are saying, “You are not of that culture. Get back in your box.”
LEMMONS Don’t you agree you can’t be just a tourist, though? You have to do some immersive work.
MCCARTEN Wholeheartedly agree with you. You can’t flippantly go in. But isn’t that true for every character you do?
LEMMONS It is. But some are more challenging than others. So much great work has been written by so many people. As a writer you should be able to explore humanity and be —
MCCARTEN — borderless.
What are your responsibilities to the factual truth? Taika, is it OK to fictionalize Hitler?
TAIKA WAITITI That version of Hitler that I wrote shares nothing with the real guy other than that mustache, because he is conjured from the mind of a 10-year-old, so he can only know what a 10-year-old knows. I had no interest in writing an authentic portrayal, even though I played him, too. Because I just didn’t think he deserved it. And I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of me actually having to read about him and study his nuances and mannerisms. I was like, “Screw this guy. I’m not going to do that.”
MCCARTEN Can we put your feet to the fire a bit on that one? Because it is Hitler. We identify him as Hitler. Would you not agree that a lot of the power of the jokes derives from the fact that the voice in this boy’s ear is Hitler?
WAITITI Absolutely. It’s funny because [a boy’s] ideas are coming out of the mouth of this tyrant.
MCCARTEN You make the serious unserious. That’s how you skewer power. That’s the nature of satire.
LEMMONS What’s scary is that a child’s view is cartoonish and there is this cartoon friend that’s an extremely dangerous person. It makes you understand indoctrination of children.
Destin, what liberties with the truth did you take in Just Mercy?
DESTIN DANIEL CRETTON We, fortunately, did not have to take many. Bryan Stevenson was helpful in filling in gaps. We created the dialogue in the scenes, but we didn’t have to make up events. We did shift things around.
WAITITI Even documentaries [do that].
LEMMONS It’s a story.
Lorene, how much did you stick to the real characters in Hustlers?
LORENE SCAFARIA I didn’t get a chance to meet the real women ahead of time, which was hard, because creatively I’d have loved to have heard every detail, and truth is stranger than fiction. But I had the article [on which the film is based, The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler] and so I felt a responsibility to what happened. I didn’t want to water the crimes down, but I felt a bit of freedom because we were there to tell the movie version of a story. It’s kind of a love story between [two of the women] and, in reality, they were more like business partners.
You went to strip clubs for research. What surprised you?
SCAFARIA There’s no job security for these women. They are not employees. They pay house fees. They tip everybody [they work with]. So the difference between a good night and a bad night is a lot. It’s not, “Did you have a great or bad interaction with someone?” It’s, “Did you go home with minimum wage?”
Did you like the women you met?
SCAFARIA A lot. I feel a real kinship: I danced for the money. (Laughs.) I’m dancing right now.
RANDOLPH I loved the class elements in the film. Had you some interaction with people from the boroughs or Long Island before?
SCAFARIA I grew up in New Jersey, so I grew up with these girls. I worked in a boiler room when I was 18, just doing secretarial work, but it was a room full of phones with guys who were selling bad stocks to old people. My mom worked there for a time. A guy said he was going to hit her in the head with a baseball bat, and the bosses said to her: “Bottom line, can you keep working with him? Because he’s bringing in the money. And you are just typing stuff into a computer.”
SCAFARIA It was remarkable. And another guy was on a headset for six months, talking to nobody. He was losing his mind.
RANDOLPH I want to see that movie!
What’s the worst job you’ve had?
RANDOLPH In Dallas-Fort Worth, I worked in the Pepsi plant shoveling saccharin into the syrup formula. Three weeks after I quit that job, I could pull a hair and taste the sweetness. I also worked on the UPS night shift, where you put the packages in the trucks.
MCCARTEN I worked in a coal yard bagging coal, 80-kilogram bags, and getting them into trucks.
CRETTON Can’t beat that. I shot wedding videos. That’s how I paid the bills for a long time, but it was one of the most rewarding creative jobs I’ve ever had. I also worked as a counselor at a group home for teenagers, which I didn’t realize was going to be the inspiration for my first feature [Short Term 12].
Was that difficult?
CRETTON It was extremely difficult. I didn’t realize how sheltered I was as a child growing up in Hawaii until I took that gig. It was very eye-opening to the ugliness in the world. But it also opened my eyes to the beauty of humans and their ability to find life and laughter in the darkest places. You’re on a floor with 20 kids and every single one of them is struggling because of the effects of some type of abuse or neglect.
LEMMONS I would have to go with naked life modeling. (Laughter.)
LEMMONS Yeah, it’s very uncomfortable, sitting on a table in the same position for hours.
CRETTON How long do you have to keep one pose?
LEMMONS A really, really, really long time.
CRETTON And was it mainly young kids looking at you?
CRETTON That’s awkward.
Back to taking liberties with the truth. The Two Popes, is it true? It’s hard to imagine Francis and Benedict XVI as friends.
MCCARTEN It’s a complex question because you get to the heart of: How much license should you permit yourself when you are doing anything based on a real story? In this case, it’s probably the most adventurous use of artistic license that I’ve had. But I would still put my hand into that fire and say this is more than any other [film I’ve written] in the service of the truth.
LEMMONS That’s such an interesting phrase, “in the service of the truth.” When you are doing historical representation, you have to invent conversations. We know Harriet Tubman went to this place and met with these people, and I did seven months of research on Harriet and the Underground Railroad. But even the best scholarly books will say something like, “She made her way to Philadelphia.”
MCCARTEN It’s not necessarily literally true that [the popes] had these conversations. We don’t know what they said to each other. I know they met three times.
They only met three times?
MCCARTEN They have only met three times. So it’s imaginatively speculating on what transpires between two people. It’s embedded in the truth, and there’s a lot of research that went into what their stated positions were. My area of confection, if you like, was that I put those two positions into dialogue with each other and built a dialectic around that. But anytime you go into this area, it’s like a road washed out at intervals. We have known details, but in between those gaps we surmise and try to be as emotionally authentic as we can.
If you could meet Harriet Tubman, what would you ask her?
LEMMONS I came to really feel I was in conversation with her. When I had a question, I would ask her: “Harriet? How do you feel about this? Are we cool? Am I going too far?” And I would wait until I felt that I was getting the answer. I do have one [unanswered] question. Her last line is quoted as being, “I go to prepare a place for you.” That is one of the most beautiful lines, you know? That was the one I didn’t quite have the answer to. Did you actually say that?
Charles, did you ever meet the real Fox News characters you write about?
RANDOLPH I did not meet Roger Ailes. He died when I was about halfway through [the script]. I did meet quite a few of the others [including many of the women Ailes harassed], 12 or 13 of whom have NDAs so we can’t talk about who they were.
Did they talk to you despite the NDAs?
RANDOLPH Yes. Generally speaking, the female characters were so much easier to write than the males, because so many women had raised their hand and in great, granular detail said: “This is exactly what happened to me. This is the power dynamic behind it.” Whereas obviously the guy who is the perpetrator doesn’t raise his hand. Fortunately, Roger had been the subject of a great deal of very good journalism.
MCCARTEN When you are writing a character whose views roughly align with your own, it’s much more effortless. And then you have to write a character whom you have no empathy for. And yet we have to love our characters equally. How do you write empathetically for someone you don’t have any instinct for?
RANDOLPH I prefer it. Maybe it’s a form of self-hatred, but I prefer to write people I don’t agree with. Because I can “turn” the scene so many more times. I have an instinct to counter their ideas, and then force myself to go back and do that tit-for-tat. I much prefer it.
MCCARTEN Does it change your view of that person?
RANDOLPH Anytime you write a human being, it does some — “normalizing” is too strong a word, but it does give you an empathetic relationship to their place in the world.
WAITITI My favorite characters are ones who are desperate to be liked. Or to be loved and to be accepted or cool and who are overcompensating so much that they become horrible. I like writing horrible people who aren’t necessarily villains but are trying hard to have an opinion. I find them really fun to write.
SCAFARIA Writing is an exercise in empathy. So I tend to prefer characters that I don’t necessarily agree with. And I like making them convince me a little bit.
Was there anything to like about Roger Ailes?
RANDOLPH Yeah. Roger was genuinely beloved by a lot of people and even by lefties. And so he was someone whose capacity for seduction was pretty profound. He wasn’t Harvey Weinstein.
Did you ever have any encounters with Weinstein?
RANDOLPH I never had a good experience with him. I don’t know a lot of people who have real love for Harvey. Even 10 years ago, I didn’t know a lot of people.
Anthony, you refused to work for him. Why?
MCCARTEN It was — I don’t know what — some sort of compass that just said, “Danger, Will Robinson!” It was my self-defense mechanism that kicked in.
Is the industry an easier place to work today?
LEMMONS I haven’t worked with a screamer in a long time. But I know they are out there. When I was an actor, I worked with somebody who was just cranky. He yelled at so many people. You know: “Was that OK?” “Yeah, I would have yelled at you if it wasn’t!” But is it a gentler business? I don’t know.
RANDOLPH On the business side, there are women in the room now. There weren’t 10, 20 years ago.
WAITITI I feel it’s easier now. Especially with the web, it’s so much easier for people to speak out. “This person just screamed at me.” People won’t stand for it.
SCAFARIA I wonder if it’s just changed for us sitting at this table, because recently I was not sitting at tables and it’s not easy when you’re not in a position of power. Once you are in a position of power, you might be facing different people who are treating you differently.
Since Hustlers, have people been treating you differently?
SCAFARIA Yes. My agent came over the other day. (Laughter.)
What do you all think about the WGA/agency war?
MCCARTEN We want it to be resolved as quickly as possible. I stand with the Writers Guild.
WAITITI I want a quick resolution. I’m too stressed out to have to think about stuff like this. Finishing a film and getting it out there, that’s the stress relief.
CRETTON I’m in prep on a movie and I get anxious anytime I am leading up to a project. It feels like I am going to die. I tell my wife, “Don’t ever let me do this again.” But it is like how my wife describes childbirth. The memory of it becomes so beautiful that I’m like, “Yes, let’s do this again.”
Does writing relieve stress?
CRETTON I find writing very stressful. I find it psychologically damaging and challenging because I have so much room for self-doubt. It’s different on set. You’re just like, “Boom, boom.”
SCAFARIA I find it freeing. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I was writing scripts when I was in fourth grade, attempts at screenplays. But it’s definitely lonely.
WAITITI I’ve always found it lonely, but my favorite thing is, after people have gone to bed, I don’t have to talk to anyone …
SCAFARIA That’s right!
WAITITI … and I come up with ideas. Starting with that blank page, you’re just feeling, “Oh my God, I’ve got 120 of these to fill up!” (Laughter.) But when I’ve got a flow going on, it’s amazing.
When you write, do you start at the beginning?
WAITITI This is one of the few times I have written a script where I don’t remember doing it. Usually I start in various places, and often at the end. Then maybe a bit at the beginning. Then sort of figure it out. This one, I just went from the beginning all the way through in a linear fashion and I don’t know how it happened. It’s inspired by a book called Caging Skies [by Christine Leunens] and the book is a much darker relationship drama about this boy and girl. So I had to add on things that are specific to how I tell stories, which is with humor, fantastical elements, little heightened moments and this imaginary character. None of that was in the book.
SCAFARIA I jump around, too. For Hustlers, I wrote the scene where Jennifer Lopez’s character wraps Constance Wu’s character in a fur coat. That was the first scene that I wrote and the last thing we shot.
Name a writer who’s shaped you.
LEMMONS The late, great Toni Morrison had such a profound effect on my worldview in terms of literature and African American literature and the way that I approached character.
MCCARTEN I wasn’t a writer until I sat in on an English literature course. I was keen on a girl and followed her into this room. Sat beside her and asked if I could have a look at her text. Soon she was the mother of my first child. The book was The Norton Anthology of American Literature Since 1945. I started reading it and it was a real epiphany because it said to a somewhat working-class kid from Taranaki, New Zealand, that you didn’t have to be a professor to be a writer. You could write about the domestic, you could write about the banal. But you had to do it with passion and insight.
RANDOLPH Often, in association with a project, I will fall in love with a writer. Currently, I rely a lot on Anthony Appiah’s work, just because his worldview is so delightful for this chaotic time.
SCAFARIA I wish I read more. I grew up loving plays — Sam Shepard — and then I loved [novelist] Anthony Burgess.
WAITITI Oscar Wilde is the guy I have gone back to. The humor and the wit. And he’s just cheeky.
CRETTON I struggled with writing, growing up. I have never considered myself smart enough to write. I have tried to be as vulnerable as I can through the writing that I do. The last two movies that I have written and directed, I was 100 percent inspired by the people who wrote those memoirs [Just Mercy and The Glass Castle].
If you could change one thing in the industry, what would it be?
LEMMONS [It would relate to] inclusiveness and parity. Other places are doing much better at it than we are — France, for instance. Film has to be a time capsule for who we are now and what we are interested in, and it doesn’t feel that way yet. It’s a real tragedy that for so many years [there’s been] a predominance of white men. It’s out of step with reality.
CRETTON Our movie was the first movie that Warner Bros. officially did the inclusion rider for [a contractual guarantee of diversity on the production] and it allowed us to hire department heads who were African American women, who’ve been doing amazing work for 30 years and have never been a department head before. Brie Larson came to our set and said it’s the first time she has ever been in the minority on a set. I hope that happens more.
SCAFARIA I would love to see more diversity in the finance department, because money makes the world go around. In 2008, the financial crisis had such a large effect on the movies that were getting made. Cynicism took over and in a way these superhero films are a response to that cynicism. There are a lot of epic stories that don’t necessarily fall into that category.
Which of your characters would you like to be with on a desert island?
MCCARTEN Freddie Mercury [whose story was the basis of McCarten’s Bohemian Rhapsody]. He’d be way more fun than anyone else. He’d show me something about living passionately. That guy burned, and for a quiet writer that’s probably the best life lesson.
RANDOLPH [Investor] Steve Eisman from The Big Short. He would certainly not stop talking.
SCAFARIA Not my film, but Jojo maybe. Seems like a cool kid.
WAITITI Thor. ‘Cause he is a really fun guy. He’s my mate.
Martin Scorsese says superhero films are theme park rides. Agree?
WAITITI Having worked for Marvel, I know how much work goes into breaking stories for those films, the shooting and the postproduction. It’s all based on story and affecting people emotionally. Maybe it’s too colorful for him.
MCCARTEN I can only imagine he’s worried about the dominance of that type of film. That’s just the economics of it. We need to come up with stories that make an economic case to say, “There is a massive audience for this.”
SCAFARIA They say the movie star is dead, but it’s often a combination of the actor and the character. That’s what Iron Man did: It was Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. That’s what people might turn out for more.
WAITITI Comics and graphic novels, people have always laughed at them as not being real art or real stories. It’s simply not true. Superheroes are our new mythology. At the end of the day, stories are either teaching us lessons or helping us experience the human condition in different ways.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.