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Writer Roundtable: Jordan Peele, Aaron Sorkin and More Explain Why the Job Feels Like “Exorcising a Demon”

At the end of this year’s Writer Roundtable on Oct. 10, the six screenwriters gathered together started speculating about whom they’d invite to a fantasy dinner party if they were allowed only three guests.

Darren Aronofsky (mother!), 48, liked the idea of breaking bread with writer-director Werner Herzog, with whom he once shared a place at a THR roundtable, and added two other European auteurs, Federico Fellini and Terry Gilliam. German writer-director Fatih Akin (In the Fade), 44, opted for three women, all actresses: Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick), 38, chose John Hughes, along with Stanley Kubrick and an actress from her recent film, Holly Hunter. British writer Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour), 56, went heavy, going for William Shakespeare, Napoleon and Winston Churchill, the subject of his new movie (“to find out how close I got”), while Jordan Peele (Get Out), 38, selected Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee and Steve Martin. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game), 56, mixed literature and politics, selecting Mark Twain, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Jefferson (“the best writer of all time”).

Have any of you been abused by the producers, by the system?

MCCARTEN I knew a film director who said he had an anti-shout clause included in his deal with Harvey [Weinstein]. He said, “I’ll do the movie, but if that guy shouts, the rights revert.”

GORDON That’s a great clause.

SORKIN I haven’t been abused by a producer.

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But you’ve worked with some tough producers, like Scott Rudin.

SORKIN Listen, Scott is a great producer in the three phases where you need a great producer. He is a terrific script editor; I think I’ve done my best writing with Scott. He gets the movie made for the budget that you need. And then he rides herd over a very sophisticated marketing campaign. I’ve worked with Scott many times before, and I hope to work with him again a lot. Where you need a Scott — and please don’t misunderstand when I say this — where you need a Harvey, and I’m not saying that any of that behavior should be excused, I’m absolutely not saying that, is here: Any of us at this table would have an easier time getting a $100 million movie made than a $10 million movie. Studios are much more comfortable making a $100 million movie. They’re not quite sure how to market the $10 million movie. And the Scotts and the Harveys are experts at marketing $10 million movies. [Editor’s note: The roundtable took place the same day that Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker story was published, and Sorkin hadn’t read it.]

GORDON I have been lucky in that I have not experienced any direct personal harassment or abuse.

PEELE To the Harvey [matter], first of all, fuck him. He’s an asshole. But that goes to this greater question of this systemic problem, as well. The industry is just part of the system, and its shortcomings [are those of] the larger system. There is this systemic issue that holds many of us back and many of us behind. I’ve never met Harvey Weinstein. But I know that there are many other people who are similar out there.

Fatih, does this make you not want to make films in America?

AKIN I love the films of my colleagues here. They inspired me. I saw Get Out and quit smoking.

SORKIN It may not have been the point, but good.

GORDON I started drinking milk after I saw Get Out. (Laughter.)?

Name one screenplay that has particularly influenced you.

MCCARTEN Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. It’s a notch above realistic, and it creates a new poetry in the vernacular.

SORKIN Network. Paddy Chayefsky filled that screenplay with great theatrical language, every bit as meaningful as any image in the movie.

ARONOFSKY The Social Network. I couldn’t put it down — the musicality of it, of the dialogue. It is real and it is grounded, but it’s on a different level.

GORDON I tend to be really appreciative of dialogue, and that’s why the screenplay of Moonlight struck me.

PEELE The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. Both [based on novels by] Ira Levin.

GORDON Good lord!

PEELE What they did within the thriller genre was this very delicate tightrope walk that honored the protagonist in a way that you rarely see in the genre these days. The protagonists are smart and they’re investigative, and there’s an effort to justify why the character doesn’t run screaming. That dance between showing something weird and then showing how easily it can be placed with reality was the technique I brought to Get Out.

Last question. One piece of advice that you would give a starting writer?

AKIN What is the line of [Samuel] Beckett? “Fail again. Fail better.”

SORKIN Advice? Intention and obstacle: Cling to that like a lifeboat. Somebody wants something, something’s standing in their way. Intention and obstacle. Once you have that, that’s the drive shaft of the car.

MCCARTEN Every new writer stands on the border of this undiscovered country called the arts. And you really question, “Do I have any talent?” My experience is: The writer I was when I began was only a fraction of what I feel capable of doing now. Don’t stand on that threshold saying, “I’m uncertain about my talent.” You can grow that part of yourself.

ARONOFSKY Tell only the story you can tell. If you’re trying to tell stories for the largest audience possible, the best way to get to them is by telling the story that really connects with you.

GORDON The best work comes when you are really grappling with something ethically or morally. If it can speak to something that you’re personally going through — not literally, but emotionally, that always makes a better piece of work.

PEELE I would say, we all deal with writer’s block. We all get in our own way. And my mantra was: Follow the fun. If I’m not having fun, I’m doing it wrong.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.