Oscar Roundtable: The writers

Nearly a year after they walked off the job in a 100-day strike, six screenwriters met at Crustacean in Beverly Hills to talk about their work.

Nearly a year after they walked off the job in a 100-day strike, six screenwriters met at Crustacean in Beverly Hills to talk about their work in a discussion moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's Jay A. Fernandez. In attendance were Dustin Lance Black (Focus' "Milk"), Jenny Lumet (Sony Pictures Classics' "Rachel Getting Married"), Thomas McCarthy (Overture's "The Visitor"), John Patrick Shanley (Miramax's "Doubt"), Andrew Stanton (Disney/Pixar's "WALL-E") and J. Michael Straczynski (Universal's "Changeling").

The Hollywood Reporter: How are you guys with discipline?

John Patrick Shanley: When I write the first page, I'm fantasizing about finishing, and that is the propulsion that drags me through a screenplay. It makes me keep up the narrative pacing. I also know that if I think about what I am going to write in advance, and then I write fast, you're going to feel that when you read it. You're going to feel the action of forward propulsion. You can do anything once you have a first draft, but if you don't have a first draft, you're screwed.

Andrew Stanton: So you don't go back?

Shanley: I go back. Sometimes I'll write the first five pages over and over again, which is pleasurable to me, to get a deeper sense of the world. But once I get into the narrative of it, I want to get to the end. To establish style, worldview, sense of place, I might really go over the first few pages a lot.

Stanton: My mantra is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Because I have to have the liberty to know it doesn't have to work so that I'll just keep moving.

Jenny Lumet: The nature of my life: There are screaming children involved. I don't have a choice about when I work, so I have to fail really fast. There are three hours in a day when I can write. Those are the three hours where I have to fail miserably.

Dustin Lance Black: Getting going is tough. I'll stare at blank screens, and I'll check my Web sites and blogs. But once I get going, it's six hours in the morning, then lunch, and then six hours after that, then dinner. I get really obsessive. But I just plow through it. For me, that first 10 pages, I really get detailed, detailed, detailed. And then it's just kind of a disastrous mess.

Stanton: I heard David Sedaris say that he tried to be on a writing schedule once and all he would do is find himself in the mirror looking at his hair, trying to see what it would look like parted in the middle. I thought that encapsulated writing the best way I'd ever heard.

J. Michael Straczynski: I found a long time ago that if you have a compulsion, discipline isn't necessary. I have to be at the keyboard. I'm there 10 hours a day, every day, and if I'm not, I get nervous and twitchy. My wife and I took our first vacation in 20 years and she said, "You're gonna go to London. You're gonna have a good time and not do any writing." Within two days I was vibrating so badly that I got a little notebook in the pharmacist's and was in the bathroom working on my next novel.

THR: Joe and Lance were working with material that was literally true. How do you balance your fealty to the real events with the needs of dramatic storytelling?

Black: I did so much research on this. It was years of going up there and trying to find the real-life people who had been involved in that political scene who were still willing to talk about what had happened. There was some real sadness around some of these folks. It was like they had their father stolen away from them, and they had been trying to get this story told for so long and kind of given up. So that was tough. When the dam finally broke, it was a ton of information.

Straczynski: I had to go against my own instincts because the story was so surreal and so bizarre. I thought if I fictionalized it too much, I (would) call the integrity of the whole thing into question. I felt I should treat it as almost an article, rather than as a movie, so that virtually every line of every scene is based directly on testimony or transcripts or articles or whatever from the time.

THR: For those of you who were free of those constraints, was there anything you drew from research that really helped crystallize the story?

Stanton: One of the faux pas of fantasy is that people don't put strict rules on it. I needed to come up with a conceit of where humanity was in the future that was helpful. We were talking to a guy who was an adviser to NASA for long-term residency in space, and he basically said, "Kubrick got it right (in 1968's '2001: A Space Odyssey')." Unless you have some sort of engineering device that's allowing, like the wheel, to constantly create gravity 24/7, you will slowly lose your bones.

We had gone with a very silly route of, "Let's just make people big Jell-O blobs." We were just doing that for silly purposes; we wanted humanity to have forgotten who they were, and we just loved the idea of these gelatinous people that had no real function and they just had to push buttons. And those were the fascinating things, where you can grab a scientific fact, and, in my instance, it supported something we were already thinking.

THR: Jenny, to what extent was any of your script autobiographical, or was there any research with regard to rehab?

Lumet: Rehab and the language of psychiatry and psychology and healing and closure are in our vocabulary, for better or worse. I also think that everybody knows somebody. I pilfered funny shit from my friends and family. Mostly I pilfered from my dad, with the sandwich-making and the dishwasher stuff. But these people are amalgamations of people who I listened very, very carefully to.

THR:John, you went to a Catholic school, right?

Shanley: I went to a Catholic church school in the Bronx that was run by the Sisters of Charity, who wore a very particular kind of bonnet. It stayed with me. This might be a bad analogy, but you know when dogs put those collars on, those plastic lamp shades, so they can't interfere with themselves? The nuns had that on, and what it meant was that, wherever they looked, it was sort of like a light fixture turning on you or off you. I knew that that was something that was very particular that I had experienced that a lot of people hadn't. But I never would write about it because I felt I didn't want to write something that was a travelogue through some period of my past. Then I started to notice in this country this very peculiar certitude all around me that started to remind me and ghost up this place like Brigadoon. That's when I began to think, "It's getting to be time to write about that now."

Thomas McCarthy: I started reading more and more about these detention centers. I had been working on the story for a while, and I didn't really know much about these places. The Riverside Church in New York has these huge social outreach programs, nondenominational, and I joined this group called Sojourners so I could have access to one of these facilities. I went like a reporter, not knowing where it was going to go. And the moment I walked into one of these places, I was so struck by it. I found it so disturbing and compelling, and immediately that's what compelled me through the rest of the screenplay. I remember I walked out of there, and there were these little picnic tables where the guards have a smoke and a sandwich. I sat down there and quickly fleshed out the rest of the movie. Having that experience, I felt like I was not just sticking my head in the sand but it felt like I was writing about something.

Straczynski: The incremental process you describe is emblematic of what people ask: "Where do stories come from?" Stories are created like lint on a sweater. Over time, it gathers. And you do this one day (brushes his hand down his arm) and -- oh! --there's a story there, suddenly.

THR: Charlie Kaufman was quoted in the Los Angeles Times this morning musing about moving on from screenwriting because -- I'm paraphrasing -- such a heartless business process is applied to work that is so deeply creative and soulful. Do any of you find yourselves experiencing similar conflict internally?

Shanley: It's brutal, the business aspect, but also life itself is brutal. And we're basically dreamers. We come up with our perfect worlds, but we don't leave it at that. Then we go out, and we get involved in the machinery and money and egos. And it's a bloodbath! It's just a f***ing nightmare! It's kind of exciting, too. It's kind of gladiatorial.

Stanton: For me, it's the complete innocence of how much it thrilled me as a kid to be moved by a movie, and the opportunity to do that to somebody else is such a privilege. It eclipses all the reality of it for me. It seems harder to get into that mode sometimes, but it only takes the right movie and I'm 10 again and I want to be a part of it.

Black: For me, this was a very personal journey because it was the movie I wish I had when I was growing up. I wish I had a gay hero growing up in Texas. I didn't. It really was tough, especially because this was a spec script and then it became a business on top of it and I wasn't used to that. I was in this safe nest at HBO and all of the sudden it was this big world. But it is that hope that this really could change lives and that people will see it and identify with it and it will give them some piece of hope.

Straczynski: I hate the process enormously -- and I hate it for the same reason I hate going into the ocean: You're entering the food chain -- but it also implies that there's a choice. For some people, not writing is suicide, and I kind of fall into that category: You can't not do it. What are the options?

McCarthy: But also, we'll sit around and talk about how hard it is and all this stuff, but it's a lot of fun. Really, it's a great job. You get to sit around and read a lot and see a lot of movies and talk about it. I mean, it's a great thing.

Lumet: My mom, she's an academic, and she wrote a book about African-American military history from the Civil War to the Gulf War, and it took her 14 years. She got up, got her tea and went to the room next door to her bedroom every day for 14 years to write this book. I thought, "That's freaking badass." And it seems like, I get to live in this world and then I get to leave this world and create my new world, and this is not a 14-year commitment. That makes it a little easier.

THR: What's the most unusual place that you find inspiration?

Lumet: My students. I teach seventh- and eighth-grade drama. I'm a drama lady. And they're vital and they're beautiful and they make me remember what it means to be 12 and 13, and all this stuff's ahead of you and you don't know what's going on. My students blow my mind: How brave do you have to be to be 13? And if I'm not being a brave writer or I'm not being an honest writer, I think it's a lot harder to be 13 years old.

Black: Family reunions. Everyone lives in Texas or Utah, and so it's Mormons meeting Pentecostals meeting Southern Baptists. Our family's from every walk of life. I definitely always leave there going, "Oh man, there's a movie, just in that aunt alone."

Stanton: I think inspiration comes from all over the place, but as far as what fuels me to do something about it? Seeing a great movie, a great play, or just some great artistic performance. I can't sit still, and I want to go grab whatever was sitting on that shelf or in that notebook. The only other thing is that whenever I just need my brain to wander, I drive. I find that things just start coming out of my head.

McCarthy: I travel alone a lot, and that is really good for me, I think, because it gets me out of my rhythm, out of my world, out of the calls, out of the things I do. I can become so habitual that way. So when I'm someplace else, it slows me down and it makes me notice little things and start to lock in on images and thoughts. And usually when I'm traveling, I'm reading more than I have been in my own place. I have more time.

Straczynski: Music. I have music going all the time. The rhythm of the music unlocks the brain a little bit. And good theater. But mostly just sitting behind the keyboard and hoping for the best.

Shanley: For the last couple of years, I've read the newspaper every day to see what isn't there, and that's what I want to write about. But I'd have to amend that now. Now, I read the newspaper every day and it bursts into flames in my hands! It is an extremely interesting, exciting, stimulating time, and if you can't think of anything to write about, just get bent.