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Writer Roundtable: Aaron Sorkin, Emerald Fennell, Kemp Powers, Radha Blank and Sam Levinson on the Journey to Get Their Stories to Screen

Five top screenwriters — behind the films 'The Trial of the Chicago 7,' 'Promising Young Woman,' 'One Night in Miami'/'Soul,' 'The Forty-Year-Old-Version' and 'Malcolm & Marie' — open up about the struggle and satisfaction of finding their voice and harnessing their power.  

Ask a collection of celebrated screenwriters if they’ve found it harder to get work done during this crazy time, and any subsequent confusion can be forgiven.

“Are you talking about COVID? Are you talking about the insurrection? Are you talking about everything?” asks The Trial of the Chicago 7’s Aaron Sorkin, one of five convened via Zoom for The Hollywood Reporter’s Writer Roundtable on Jan. 12, less than a week after the U.S. Capitol was raided.

“Take your pick,” offers Radha Blank, writer, director and star of The Forty-Year-Old Version. Blank’s found herself in an ongoing struggle to come up with new ideas during the past year. “People who look like me aren’t making it out there, and I can’t help but see myself in them and their experience, whether it’s COVID or Black Lives Matter,” she says. “So, there were times when I felt, if I’m being completely honest, a little self-indulgent to be thinking about making film.”

By contrast, Sam Levinson conceived of, wrote, directed and released his film Malcolm & Marie entirely during the pandemic. His TV series, HBO’s Euphoria, had shut down filming in early March, and he and the show’s star, Zendaya, were eager to get back to work. Their early lockdown conversation, per Levinson, ended with him saying: “If I can write something, and we can do this in a safe manner where we’re quarantining, then maybe we could take what we’ve learned and share it with the rest of the community.”

Over the course of an hour, the trio — along with Kemp Powers, who adapted his own play, One Night in Miami, and co-wrote and co-directed Pixar’s Soul; and Emerald Fennell, the writer-director of Promising Young Woman — dove into a wide-ranging conversation about the benefits of helming their own work, the complicated emotions of shifting to a streamer and the politics of who can (and should) tell what story.

All of you, save Sam, embarked on these films assuming people were going to see them on the big screen. How have you processed that not being possible?

KEMP POWERS We’re really lucky that we have a device to get Soul out to people the way that Disney+ allows us to do it. I don’t ever want to seem like I’m being thankless, but, at the same time, we made it to be on a big screen.

SAM LEVINSON I know it’s not the way it was intended to be seen, Kemp, but being able to sit in bed with my 4-year-old and my wife on New Year’s Eve and watch Soul, and to pause it and talk it through with my 4-year-old, who had so many questions and was so in awe of it, was such an unusual and beautiful experience that I think made the film more profound for him and for me as a father.

POWERS If I’m being completely honest, I felt relieved, considering that Black people are inordinately affected by COVID, to not have to ask a single Black person to go to a movie theater and risk their life to see my damn movie.

Aaron, your film was originally set up at Paramount, but ended up with Netflix. How did that happen?

AARON SORKIN Back in the spring, I was on a call with Jim Gianopulos, the head of Paramount, and at the end Jim said, “Listen, we’ve done some market research to try to find out when people are going to come back to movie theaters. The first group of people that are going to come back are people who think that COVID is a hoax.” I agreed with Jim that chances are the Idaho militia was not going to show up for the film on its opening weekend, and that we might be in trouble. We wanted the film to come out before the election, not because we thought we could persuade anybody or affect the election in any way, but because right now is when we’re talking about these things. So Jim said, “Should we check out what the streamers’ appetite for the film would be?” And Netflix came along and made an offer.

“I need four walls really badly. The idea of going outdoors scares me in a script.” Aaron Sorkin was Photographed by Peter Yang on Jan. 6 at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

Emerald, you took an uncommon path to your first screenplay.

EMERALD FENNELL My first job out of university was acting, and quite quickly I realized I was going to have a lot of time off. (Laughs.) I was on a TV show in England [Call the Midwife], and in the hiatus every year I wrote a book. The first two were horror for kids, that famously popular genre. The most recent was a dark comedy for adults. So I was doing those two things alongside each other, and then an amazing writer named Jessica Knappett read my most recent book and asked me to come work on her TV series [Drifters], and it went from there. But I’ve always written more than anything, ever since I was small, and always horrifically violent. There was lots of my parents being called into offices asking if I was OK.

POWERS Wow.

FENNELL I realized that if I really wanted to make something, I needed to make it — not just write it, but direct it too. And in order to do that, I made a short film [Careful How You Go]. That went to Sundance in 2018. And it was off the back of that that I was able to convince people I could direct Promising Young Woman.

“I wanted to look at what happens when seduction culture isn’t seduction culture, it’s abuse — and also make it funny.” Emerald Fennell was Photographed remotely by Sami Drasin on Jan. 8 in London.

Radha, what inspired the “Radha” in your film, and your decision to play her?

RADHA BLANK This is probably my first and last acting job — I have too much respect for actors to even call myself an actor. I’m playing myself, so even calling it a character — 75 percent of the film is real. We shot in my apartment. That is my annoying big brother. That’s my father’s music, my mom’s artwork. It came out of adversity. I’d gotten fired off a film, and I wasn’t necessarily a “young” writer, but I was new. I’d just gotten into the guild, and it was such a big deal that I get this screenwriting credit. I was devastated, but it gave me the fuel, like my character, to create something that was my own. I was like, “I’m going to write, direct, produce and star in a web series so I can’t get fired.” Two weeks before we were going to shoot, my mom passed away. She and I were very close, and I scrapped the project because I was like, “If my biggest champion and cheerleader isn’t here to see it, then I’m not interested.” But I had created all this music on Garage Band, and I just started going out and performing it. I did that for two years — that was my catharsis. Then, when I came back to look at the web series, it felt like it was a millennial’s platform, and that’s when I started transforming it.

“I do think there are ways to tell other people’s stories responsibly. But do your due diligence.” Radha Blank was Photographed by Schaun Champion on Jan. 18 in Baltimore.

That’s an example of a film about something deeply personal. Aaron, I don’t believe that was your experience on Chicago 7.

SORKIN In 2006, I was asked to come to Steven Spielberg’s house on a Saturday morning — and just to be clear, that’s not common. He said he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago Seven. I said, “Sounds great. Count me in. It’s a great idea.” I left his house, called my father and asked him who the Chicago Seven were. I had a lot of learning to do. There are a dozen or so good books about the Chicago Seven, and there’s a 21,000-page trial transcript. But most critically, I got to spend time with Tom Hayden [the activist played by Eddie Redmayne]. Eventually I wrote the script, which then went through the hands of every member of the DGA. Steven decided he was going to produce it but Paul Greengrass should direct it, so I was with Paul for a while. I was with Ben Stiller for a while. And others. But the movie kept not getting made. That kept going on until Trump ran for and got elected president. Steven said the time to make this movie was now. By then I had directed my first film, Molly’s Game, and he was sufficiently pleased with it that he thought I should direct Chicago 7.

Is it purely coincidental that many of the best Sorkin scripts take us into a courtroom — A Few Good Men, your stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and now this?

SORKIN Listen, I’m a playwright who kind of fakes his way through movies and TV shows, so things like One Night in Miami — plays that are movies — I love. They say if you’re bringing home a new puppy, you should get a crate that’s just big enough for the dog to be able to turn around in, but no bigger because those confines give the puppy a sense of security. They like being in that tight space. I’m the same way. I need four walls really badly. The idea of going outdoors scares me in a script — you know, writing “EXT.” scares me — so riots and violence and action was new territory for me. Also, in a courtroom the elements of drama are so clear. The intention and obstacle are clear. The stakes are clear. The jury is a stand-in for the audience — the jury knows as little as the audience does, so there’s a reason for exposition. And the dynamic between a lawyer and a witness who’s being cross-examined is the essence of drama.

POWERS I’ve got to challenge you, Scott, on his best scripts being courtroom dramas, because in terms of a model for how to do a biopic, I consider Steve Jobs the gold standard.

SORKIN Well, I really appreciate that — and I would like the rest of you to talk about what you like about my work, too. (Laughs.) But that was a really good example of the puppy crate. I didn’t want to start with a little boy looking in the window of an electronics store and go through all of that, so I just got as small as I could. I said, “What if I just wrote a play with three real-time scenes, and they each take place in the 40 minutes before a product launch, backstage? And let’s give him some intentions and obstacles.”

POWERS I will be stealing that structure, just to make it official right here.

SORKIN I promise you, I didn’t invent it, so have at it.

“

Kemp, you wrote the play One Night in Miami back in 2013, seven years before it became a screenplay.

POWERS When I wrote the play, I had no intention of ever adapting it into a film. Some of the things that Radha discusses in her film about being a Black playwright forced me to decide, “If I’m going to get this story out, I guess theater’s not going to be the medium.” Because people questioned the viability of that story as a play. That’s the irony of seeing some critics say it’s too much like a play as a movie. It’s like, “Oh, you must not have been there when it was a play.” They said it wasn’t worthy of being a play because “nothing happens in the room.”

BLANK It’s a loop.

POWERS I’m like, “No one ever saw 12 Angry Men?” (Laughs.) I saw it as an opportunity to have this discussion that I think Black folks have been having since way before that night, and are still having now: “What, if any, social responsibility does the Black artist, singer or athlete have to his or her people?” And then translating it into a film? I didn’t even want to option it, but the play hit walls and people didn’t want to produce it because it wasn’t “viable.” We got nominated for an Olivier Award, but it didn’t transfer to the West End. Even though you’re breaking records and selling out runs, the viability of your voice is questioned. I was moving into Hollywood and I was getting to the point where I felt like my screenwriting capabilities were good enough that I [figured], “I’ll option it now if I get a chance to write it myself,” because I also was concerned about what Hollywood would do to this story. There were people who were like, “You did it all wrong. The only person anyone cares about is Ali. No one knows who these other guys are.” “Malcolm X is too controversial.” You’re told all these things by people who know so much more than you do, and it makes you question your own voice. Pete Docter hired me [for Soul] at Pixar after reading my play One Night in Miami, so that thing that people said didn’t work was the [same] thing that made what I saw as “the house of master storytelling” interested in my voice. They were like, “You’re different. We want to work with you.”

Emerald, I’m curious: Was Promising Young Woman inspired by the #MeToo movement?

FENNELL The #MeToo movement made people more open-minded about making something like this, a subversion of the revenge genre. But no, I started writing it a while before. I wanted to talk about a kind of gray area that was not a gray area, when I was growing up, in mainstream studio comedies: girls waking up not knowing what happened to them the night before and going on a walk of shame, and guys filling up a girl’s red cup at a college party because they need to lose their virginity. This is just stuff that happened. I wanted to look at what happens when “seduction culture” isn’t seduction culture, it’s abusive — and then also make it funny. For me, it was, “Well, if you’re going to talk about this stuff, it not only needs to be deeply serious, but it needs to be accessible and it needs to be pleasurable to some degree, because that’s part of its trap.”

“I know that as a white filmmaker, if I’m writing a Black character, there is going to be a little bit more scrutiny.” Sam Levinson was Photographed by Damon Casarez on Jan. 6 in Los Angeles.

Sam, how did you decide to focus on a couple dealing with relationship problems while working in the same field?

LEVINSON I knew it had to be a movie that took place in one location with two actors, just for safety reasons, and I wanted it to be a relationship piece, so I thought, “What’s a terrible thing that someone can do to their partner? Well, they could forget to thank them at the premiere of their film.” Which is something that happened to me. I thought it was an interesting way to kick off this relationship. And then I thought, “Well, what if he forgot to thank her, but the movie was also based on her? What does that do? What does it mean when you’re a writer and you’re taking parts of someone else’s life and not acknowledging them? What role does authorship play in it? How does that affect a relationship, the resentments?” I just kept trying to dig deeper into this fictional relationship.

One of the hot-button debates in this industry is about who can or should tell which stories. We saw it with Oscar winner Green Book, a film written and directed by white people that dealt with race in a way that some found problematic. More recently, there’s been back and forth about an upcoming biopic about the Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang after it was announced that Ron Howard was going to direct it. Some said, “How can Howard understand Lang Lang’s experience?” Lang Lang, I should note, is a producer on the film. I want to talk this through: It’s not always the most comfortable conversation, but I think it’s important. Radha, since gatekeepers are directly addressed in your film, can we start with you?

BLANK Sure. It’s not my decision who should tell what story. There was a time when I was performing a solo performance piece called Happy Flower Nail about all these different women in a Korean-owned nail salon in Brooklyn, and I played all the characters — the Korean woman, the Jamaican lady — because when you’re inspired, when the calling comes on you to tell a story, you have this urgency around getting this thing out of you. I do think there are ways to tell other people’s stories responsibly. But if you’re going to do a story that is not germane to your culture, do your due diligence to make sure that people who are from that culture have a response to it.

Sam, did the fact that you, a white man, would be telling a story with two protagonists of color give you pause?

LEVINSON When I sat down to write this, I knew I was writing for [Zendaya]. And then I had to think about, “Who can go toe-to-toe with Z?” Because she’s such a formidable force, I can’t have someone who’s got, like, a boyish sensibility, because she would snap that person like a twig. And so the only person I could think of was John David Washington. I knew his work. His sister Katia is someone I’ve worked with as a producer. And he was the only voice that I heard. So now I was sitting down to write a story about a filmmaker and his partner, and he’s a Black filmmaker in Hollywood. I try to take something that feels true to me and honest to me and put it into a character, and I have faith that throughout the process of going over the script, reading it and rehearsing it, that whatever doesn’t feel true, whatever doesn’t work, whatever it might be, we’re going to figure that out in the room. I know that as a white filmmaker, a Jewish filmmaker, if I’m writing a Black character, there is going to be a little bit more scrutiny, and I’m good with that because I’m good with the process. And I knew going into it that I had two great actors, but I also had two great producers in them, and a lot of different voices.

Kemp, how did Pixar first broach the idea of working with you on Soul? Your association evolved.

POWERS It was a 12-week writing assignment that turned into several years of my life. This is a really complex issue. Of course, the internet and social media are always going to take things to the point of extreme outrage. If you listen to them, then I, and most Black filmmakers, aren’t even “Black enough” to do “Black movies.” To me, what’s important is that there are just opportunities created. It was not very long ago — I’m talking, like, 24 months ago — that it was very easy to get away with telling any story about any group of people if you’re white, and not having anyone from that group involved in any way, shape or form, and having zero accountability. That’s fucked up.

BLANK Yeah.

POWERS Now, I think the desire of some people to overcorrect for that makes them say, “If it’s not a Black writer and director and producer, then it doesn’t work.” And it’s like, “Slow your roll on that one, too.” But that’s the place that it’s actually coming from. I came on board Soul two years into the film’s development, so the question people should be asking is, “Wow, with no Black people involved, you guys [worked on] the film for two years before a discussion even started about inviting a Black artist in?” Now, once I got in and started working, it quickly became clear to my collaborators how valuable my presence was — and I have to say, not just for the Black characters. That’s the other thing the internet will do — they’ll make it seem like everything in Soul with Black people Kemp did, and everything else Pete did. The reality is there’s no scene in that film that me, Mike [Jones] and Pete didn’t write or rewrite.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.