Roundtable: The draft board

Gather together five screenwriters to discuss this year's script award prospects, and no one's at a loss for words.

For the most part, the writing process is a solitary one. Holed up in a brownstone garret in New York, a writer could go days without looking out the window. The good news is that apparently, they can be lured from their natural habitat with the promise of lunch, which is how The Hollywood Reporter's Randee Dawn gathered together five Big Apple-based (or in one case, just visiting) screenwriters -- none of whom will be in contention for awards this year. But just because they won't be up for the red-carpet treatment doesn't mean they haven't kept an eye on the local multiplex or art house. Appropriately, every writer has a story. There's newcomer Aleksandra Crapanzano, who's been adapting Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books," and her fellow New York University film school classmate Joshua Marston (2004's "Maria Full of Grace"), who recently finished adapting Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude"; Lauren Versel, who has scripted 25 screenplays for Hollywood studios, only to see none of them get made, and whose Lucky Monkey Pictures is co-producing "The Trespasser" for Fox; there's Neil LaBute (2003's "The Shape of Things"), in town to work on a new play called "Swallowing Bicycles" and pen a BBC TV series called "Autobahn"; and Shari Springer Berman (2003's "American Splendor") has just finished co-writing and co-directing "The Nanny Diaries" for the Weinstein Co. All agreed to put their pencils down, abandon their sleepwear and gather at the Union Square Cafe in early December for a frank look at films that have left them reeling, for good or ill, including Paramount Vantage's "Babel," Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson," Fox's "Borat," Kino International's "Old Joy" -- and even Paramount's "Jackass Number Two."

The Hollywood Reporter: So, how active have you all been in seeing films this year?
Aleksandra Crapanzano: I have a baby, so I only see things that come to the house, basically.
Shari Springer Berman: I find that when you're making a movie, it's very difficult, so I have this huge gap while we were in production (with "Diaries"), and I'm trying to catch up now.
Lauren Versel: The (Writers Guild of America) needs to send us more screeners.
Joshua Marston: It's always an indication of what films have truly big campaigns when they send the screeners to all WGA members.
Berman: I prefer to see a movie in the theater. I think that's the way it was meant to be seen, so I use screeners as a last resort.
Marston: The truth is, none of us has seen anything.

THR: Now, that's not true. What screenplays this year jumped out as particularly noteworthy?
Crapanzano: "Babel" was extremely good.
Berman: Incredibly harrowing. I needed a drink after I saw that movie.
Neil LaBute: The script is interesting to talk about with that one. The script was there, obviously. It has to be, but I didn't feel it so strongly. The timeline, the break in the timelines, the pacing -- they were very tenuous. And I thought the connection to the Japanese story was very slight.
Berman: I had a little problem with that; I thought the Japanese story stood on its own very beautifully, but I didn't quite see how it tied in.
Marston: For me, the first time you go into the Japanese story, it's like, "Wow! OK, they're taking me into a world I've never been to: deaf Japanese teenagers playing volleyball." I totally commend the writer who manages to take me there.

THR: I keep coming back to "Little Miss Sunshine." I recall reading that the screenwriter -- Michael Arndt -- went through 100 drafts to get it to the final version.
Berman: That's hard to believe.
Marston: That must be counting every sentence revision. The word "draft" is so fluid that the claim in itself makes me suspicious.
Versel: I really liked that script a lot. I thought it was very enjoyable -- and surprising that it became popular. It's nice to see something that original reaching the masses in a way that (2004's) "Sideways" did.
LaBute: I'm less surprised, perhaps. I think it has the elements that make sense for it to be popular. There are enough feel-good things. Anytime someone sort of triumphs over -- or rather, mediocrity rises to the top and says, "We rule," that appeals to a lot of people.
Marston: And yet, what's interesting is that it's a script that a lot of people -- everyone! -- passed on when they were trying to get financing. That's fascinating to me, when a script that all these people passed on turns into a movie that's not only really popular, but suddenly the script itself is getting recognized and talked about as a possible Oscar nominee.

THR: It strikes fear in the hearts of studio executives.
Marston: It damn well better!
Berman: When you say he did a hundred drafts, did he do that voluntarily?
Versel: That's the question! He's not getting paid for 100 drafts.
Berman: Not on an independent film like that.
Marston: I think it's the opposite. I think that's an independent film where it took many years to keep tinkering and tinkering while you're waiting for all those people who are passing to finally say yes.
LaBute: They could say, "While we're waiting, why don't you maybe work on this ..."
Marston: Also, while you're waiting, you're obsessing about it and thinking about it. Quite honestly, that's one of the things that separates independent film from studio filmmaking. The writer-director who is not being paid is sort of forced to take all that time -- not that anyone wants to have to take that much time -- to give the script the attention it needs, instead of a studio situation where you're rushed into production.
Berman: I had the opposite experience. I directed for independent, but I write a lot of studio scripts, and I found that the studio scripts are the ones they want to tinker with forever because nobody wants to greenlight a movie. The overdevelopment in the studios -- that's why I asked if it was voluntary -- overdevelopment can destroy a script.
LaBute: I've gone through what I would consider a bevy, a gaggle, a murder of producers -- which doesn't help anything. You can tell the people who are justifying their jobs versus the people who are really interested in what you're doing. But in the end, you really hope that someone's been hired to guide the ship and make choices and live with it. Then there's that weird crossroads when something is greenlit, and there's no time. Whatever stage it's at, people stop worrying about it.

THR: How do you balance the strong passion you might have for a script you've written with knowing that you might have to do rewrites or edits when everyone has "suggestions?"
Marston: For me, the answer is knowing your script very, very well so that any conversation you have can be grounded in your knowledge -- the characters, the stories, the themes -- so that ultimately, anything you disagree with, you can disagree with it from a place of knowing best what your story is.
Crapanzano: Also, you need to second-guess the questions you're going to get from the studios. You have to know in advance what the opposition is going to be and prepare for it and have a strong sense of what you're doing.
Berman: Sometimes, it gets to the point where it's no longer the movie you want to make. I've dropped off projects because they were developed in a direction I couldn't abide.
Versel: A lot of the time, the people asking you to make changes don't really understand what that entails, and the script is a very delicate creature that's built block by block from an infrastructure. A good writer can explain every single thing they've written and why they did it. Asking them to take that and change this to that -- it affects the whole thing, something you've thought about so much that a lot of the time, it ruins it. I'm sure everybody here can remember a movie where you see the fat hand of the studio in it. It's a sad thing, which is why I think people are much more interested in working with independents.

THR: What other films come to mind that you've enjoyed this past year, script-wise?
Versel: Can we talk about "The Departed?" I didn't love it as much as I've loved all the other Scorsese films I've seen. The casting was odd for me. I couldn't tell the difference between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon; I kept thinking they were the same character and we were flashing back and forth in time. I kept thinking, "Oh, this is interesting. Marty is going for a nonlinear structure."
LaBute: I liked a lot of the peripheral characters. Mark Wahlberg was great. Alec Baldwin made me chuckle. Baldwin is great when he's doing these supporting characters; he's a really good supporting actor. Cops are hard to write now because television does them relatively well all the time. The thing about "The Departed" for me is, I didn't find it as visually exciting as I expected. (Scorsese's) films are like a master class in directing, and I didn't have a "remember that shot" moment I've had from almost every other film he's done.
Berman: There was that sequence where Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are on the phone at the same time, and they're each waiting for the other to talk, and it's like a Mexican standoff with cell phones. That's something that stayed with me -- he wasn't afraid of a long silence.
LaBute: He seemed more enamored of his script and what was going on between people than coming up with a beautiful way to shoot a scene. I felt like he was trying to be the ringmaster of a difficult script.
Berman: It was a very male movie. I think Scorsese usually has very strong female characters, but the female (lead) in this was the weakest. (Once), I allowed myself to say the woman was just there as a foil and not really a full character. I really enjoyed (the film).
Marston: If you're talking about nominating scripts, for me it's a major issue that the one and only (lead) female character in a script feels contrived.

THR: Speaking of directing, some of you have helmed your own scripts. Is that an ideal way to do things in order to present a complete vision of the project?
LaBute: It makes it easier, yes. I can't imagine that it wouldn't be easier. But that's often for better or worse when there isn't another voice up there telling you what to do for any number of reasons. Me, I'm very particular about my writing, but I don't treat a script like it's scripture. I'm aware that the process will continue to be fluid for a long time. Right up until the last time you do a take, you may find some moment -- and it may be somebody else's idea -- that you can appropriate and call your own. Anything wrong with that?
Marston: The Screen Actors Guild is going to be calling you.
LaBute: There is that. But there's always that happy chance that something will happen. In the most independent situation I was in (for 1997's "In the Company of Men"), I was the most free to say -- for better or worse -- what I wanted to put on the screen is there. And since then, there's always been some influence there, largely based on monetary investment.
Crapanzano: There is a kind of reverse order that the bigger your films get, the more success you have, then the more people give you notes.

THR: Or maybe it's a bell curve: You start out with little interference because nobody knows you, but after continual successes you can wrest back more complete control.
Berman: I think there are very few writer-directors who have final cut.
Marston: If Harvey Weinstein can dictate to Martin Scorsese to cut things out of (2004's) "The Aviator" ...
Berman: It's interesting because my script supervisor always works with Sidney Lumet, and (Lumet) gets final cut.
Marston: I've heard (Paul Thomas) Anderson gets final cut.
Berman: And Steven Soderbergh, I bet. It's very rare.
Marston: At least when you're the writer-director, you can tweak your script all the way through shooting and editing, so you end up with something onscreen that is claimed as the script but is really the film. You get the benefit of the doubt, I think. It's true of all films -- I'm thinking specifically of (ThinkFilm's) "Half Nelson," which is a film I love, and I would be very happy to see recognized. But as I was watching, I was thinking, "What must this have looked like on the page?" A lot of scenes are short and are an exchange of glances. I spoke to (co-writers) Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden afterward, and asked if they'd found that in the edit room, and they said they'd found certain moments and condensed certain things (postshooting). If you were to imagine what the script would look like based on what's on the screen, you'd be like, "Holy shit, that's amazingly prescient to be able to script out such short scenes." And yet, of course, it's a process.

THR: Speaking of process: Where do you do your best writing?
LaBute: Starbucks.
Versel: Really?
LaBute: No. But I marvel at the people I see writing at Starbucks. I sometimes watch those people to see how much writing they do, and they do a lot of going up to the counter to see if anyone is watching them write. There's a certain showmanship to it, but I can't write there.
Crapanzano: I live in a house, so I work on the top floor of our brownstone, but if I'm at a point where I need to rethink something, I take a walk.
Marston: I do my best work on a small tropical island ...
LaBute: That should be built into any deal.
Berman: I work in my apartment. I'm trying to train myself to write in my office. It's very weird writing there, when it's 4 in the afternoon and you're still in your pajamas and you haven't seen a person all day.
LaBute: I can write pretty much anywhere. I'm very good at blocking it all out.
Versel: I write in the top floor of my brownstone, too. I think when you're really into something you're writing, it doesn't matter where you are. Writers are always in their pajamas, and there's terrible sloth, and then you climb out, and you have to go outside, and there's lights on, and it's weird.
Crapanzano: Something has to get you out of the house.
Marston: That's the reason we all came to lunch today.

THR: What other films do you think are worth discussing?
Marston: There is another film where I felt the script was phenomenal and was probably only a few pages long. And it's a film that will probably never get recognized by the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). It's called "Old Joy." I thought it was beautiful, and what was beautiful to me was the way in which it was understated. It was written in a way that the writer really knew the characters; he was writing from a very specific interaction and isolated a very particular moment in the relationship and delved into it incredibly well.
LaBute: I saw it. That's a hard one to talk about because you know there's a script, yet what was it? That's one -- even more so than "Half Nelson" -- that I'd love to see how much was interaction between two actors and the director and how much was script. It's so simple, it's like a (Eric) Rohmer film -- just these long takes, very delicate, simple. I don't even think it's 80 minutes long. It's like this long, wistful tone poem.
Versel: Speaking of things that may or may not have had a script, can we talk about "Borat?"
Marston: The interesting thing about "Borat" is that comedy depends on the straight man. And the straight man is what's in the script. Yet, it's being talked about -- I presume -- as a possible Oscar script.
Crapanzano: But is there a script?
LaBute: I think there was a framing device.
Marston: Would you give an award to "Candid Camera?"
Versel: It is "Candid Camera," I was thinking about that. But what came before "Candid Camera?"
Berman: Cinema verite.
Versel: Right. You would not give a nomination for screenplays to those films. Did anyone see it?
Berman: It's really hysterically funny.
Versel: I took my daughter; she was begging. I thought it was inappropriate, but I broke down. It's funny, but I was expecting it to be so much funnier.
LaBute: Well, I liked "Jackass." Part of it is you're laughing at them because there's no better word -- they're jackasses.

THR: But you wouldn't give "Jackass" a screenplay nomination -- or would you?
LaBute: It depends on how many drinks I've had. Half a bottle of something, and you never know.
Marston: Would you give (John) Cassavetes a writing award?
LaBute: Yes.
Berman: Well, a few years ago, Michael Moore won best original screenplay for (2002's) "Bowling for Columbine" from the WGA.
Marston: Yeah, but we accept that there is such a thing as a writing credit for a documentary.
Crapanzano: And it's a political move.
Berman: I think it's great that we're in the situation that there are things that don't fit into obvious categories. I think it'd be great if we did more things every year that were like that.

THR: Do you sense the Academy is likely to recognize projects that fall outside the boundaries?
Crapanzano: There's less competition from the studios this year, I believe.
LaBute: They will have to fill up that space in some way.

THR: That said, the Academy is known for not awarding some of the best the industry has to offer. Both Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock only ever got honorary awards. Does it mean less to win an Oscar when some of the acknowledged giants of the industry never got one?
Versel: You can say that only if you never get one.
LaBute: After you've got one, it's the most important thing that's ever existed.
Berman: I think it's great to get one, but it's more important to make movies that you believe in. If you happen to make one that speaks to the Academy and they award you, that's fantastic. But I don't think going out and making a movie like, "This is my Oscar movie," is ever going to work.
LaBute: It carries as much a mystical weight as anything, for me. It's one of those things you've heard about for so long. Then you get older, and you think, "Is it really on merit alone?"
Marston: Once you get mired in the actual (Oscar) process, you're really fairly horrified.

Oscar Watch: Writers