Roundtable: Feature screenwriters

Five scribes hash over the strike, becoming novelists and the "disgusting" screenplay

With the WGA and the upcoming awards season being two of the most-talked-about subjects in town these past weeks, it made sense to pull some of the writers off the street and into The Hollywood Reporter's offices for a quick chat. On a November afternoon, three Oscar-winning screenwriters joined two of the most promising newcomers in Hollywood to talk about the recent WGA strike, the challenge of self-discipline and the differences between original screenplays and adaptations at a recent roundtable moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's Elizabeth Guider and Stephen Galloway. The writers taking part were (pictured from left): Ben Affleck (who wrote "Gone Baby Gone" with Aaron Stockard for Miramax), Ronald Harwood (Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and New Line's "Love in the Time of Cholera"), , Diablo Cody (Fox Searchlight's "Juno"), Paul Haggis (director and screenwriter of Warner Independent's "In the Valley of Elah," from a story co-written with Mark Boal) and David Benioff (Paramount Classics/DreamWorks' "The Kite Runner").

The Hollywood Reporter: Hollywood is in the middle of a writers strike. Is it justified?
Paul Haggis: The corporations want everything, and they want to give us nothing. It's as simple as that. It's complicated by massive corporate greed that we've seen seep into this country in the last 20, 30 years. It's the Walmart-ification of Hollywood. I was talking to a "Jeopardy" writer on the (strike) line. They were saying their DVDs, for example, sell for $60 and the writers get four cents out of that -- and (the studios are) up in arms to give them another four cents! How ludicrous is that?
Ben Affleck: Isn't the idea that it's a repetition of the thing that happened with DVDs? It was negotiated when the medium was ill-defined, which is how you ended up with that kind of a paltry sum.
Haggis: We actually had a good definition, and we gave it up after a six-month strike last time (when) they said, "You can't have that. That'll bankrupt us." You just can't trust (the studios) any more. I guess they think we don't read the Wall Street Journal or something.

THR: Are writers better treated in England, Ron?
Ronald Harwood: No, we don't get as much. This is much bigger money here -- much.
Haggis: But you keep your copyright in England, do you not?
Harwood: No.

THR: As a member of both the British and American guilds, can you write for British companies?
Harwood: I don't know, but at the moment I don't want to do anything. I'm writing my autobiography and I'm enjoying it. And I'm very old, so there's a long story to tell. Lots of American writers might write now for the theater. If it's a long strike, they might write plays.

THR: David, are you writing a play?
David Benioff: I have a novel coming out in May that I am in the middle of editing.
Harwood: It's fun, that, isn't it? After the pressures of screenplays?
Benioff: Well, it's fun, but it was excruciating the first two months of writing because I got so used to writing "Int. Restaurant" (in screenplays). (Laughter)
Harwood: "There were tables around the wall."
Benioff: Exactly. I got so lazy about writing description -- and writing a novel again for the first time in seven years, I hadn't exercised those muscles. But then, once I got into it, it was like when your mom would say "Take a bath" when you were a kid and you don't want to, and she finally throws you in and you then love it. It's nice not having studio notes for a change.

THR: What's the novel called?
Benioff: "City of Thieves." It's set during the Siege of Leningrad. All the characters are Russian.

THR: What is the most difficult thing about doing a novel, compared to a screenplay?
Benioff: It's a solitary endeavor. You get so used to working as a collaborator on a screenplay -- you're working on your own for the first part of it, but then you're working with directors, with producers, with the whole group of people. Which can be really rewarding --
Affleck: -- or they can just ruin it! (Laughter)

THR: Ron, you went from writing novels to writing plays. Why?
Harwood: I was always into theater. I was an actor -- a very, very bad actor. When I wrote novels, I did it because the English theater then was so obsessed with the class structure, and I, being an immigrant -- I was born in South Africa -- and a Jew, can't be more of an outsider than that. I didn't want to get involved with the British theater in the '50s. And then when it started to change -- when Mrs. Thatcher came -- I started to write for the theater. I was already in my mid-40s.

THR: Do you approach screenwriting in a different way than Americans?
Harwood: No, I hope not. American screenwriters are the best in the world because they believe in film in a way that we don't. American screenwriters believe that (film is) the way a writer can express himself, whereas we always say, "Well, perhaps I'll write for the theater."

THR: Do people there talk in similar terms, about character arcs and a three-act structure?
Haggis: That's a bit of a stereotype. I don't think they really say that here.
Diablo Cody: They just say, "What's the poster?" (Laughter)
Harwood: You don't actually have construction in your mind. You want to know first what story you're going to tell and how you're going to tell it. And if there are breaks, there are breaks.
Benioff: When people are asking me about the three acts, it's usually students at film schools. I don't even know if I believe in it totally. I certainly believe that many screenplays follow the three-act structure, but I also think you could give the same screenplay to the five of us and we would find different act breaks.

THR: Diablo, did you think about things like that when you wrote "Juno"?
Cody: No. I was actually completely ignorant about structure, and I think I probably still am. I didn't pick up any of the manuals. But if you're a person that loves films and has been consuming them voraciously your entire life, you almost have an innate knowledge of act structure because you know how films unfold. You can see them in your mind. And so I was able to visualize it that way. "Juno" might have an unconventional structure, but I've never really thought too hard about it. And now I'm superstitious about overeducating myself.
Affleck: There is a kind of an internalizing of (structure). You mostly get educated by watching movies that you love. And there's a sort of intuitive sense of what happens.
Haggis: Does anyone here have a formal education in screenwriting?
Affleck: When I came out to L.A., it was the time of (1991's) "Slacker" and (1989's) "Do the Right Thing" and (1992's) "Reservoir Dogs," and it was the first time people thought, "Oh, you can make your own movie and it can be outside the conventional studio system." At the same time, there were those (writing) schools and Robert McKee was the big, big thing. But they had very rigid rules. I looked at (notes from his class) and thought, of course, "Here is the bible. There are rules. You have to do this." And then I was intimidated and thought, "Well, geez, I don't really know." And I eventually figured, you learn the rules, and then you're allowed to break them.
Harwood: This is the golden rule of screenwriting: There is no golden rule. Every screenplay is different, isn't it?

THR: Has being an actor shaped your writing?
Affleck: I had a drama teacher who taught us that there was a blur between acting and writing. We learned to write through improvisation, which was sort of how we (Affleck and Matt Damon) wrote (1997's) "Good Will Hunting." We'd come up with the scenes and then we'd improvise them. And we'd tape-record it, and we'd listen to the tape for what we thought was the good stuff. The best discovery from that process was that the scenes tended to work better when they weren't linear. We stumbled across it like that. And I thought that was interesting -- connecting improvisation to writing. The other asset as an actor is the innate understanding that, at the end of the day, somebody has to say the words. You can't just write them. Eventually they have to be delivered.
Haggis: Sometimes it just scans great on the page, but you read it and it's just too fucking clever.
Harwood: Most of the directors I've worked with, we've played the scenes -- especially Roman Polanski (Harwood won an Oscar for his screenplay for 2002's "The Pianist," directed by Polanski). He's a wonderful actor.

THR: You sit down and you read one part, he reads another?
Harwood: Yeah, and then we change over. I always read better than he does!

THR: How do you start? Do you make an outline? A prose version?
Cody: I did make an outline at one point, but it was very rudimentary. Just a bullet-pointed list of what was going to happen. I have experience writing prose, short stories, and I would go into those ventures completely aimless. I actually never knew what was going to happen, so it was a really disorganized way of writing -- whereas I realized from the beginning when I was writing this script that it wasn't going to work that way. It had to have a skeletal structure.

THR: Did you read it out loud to yourself?
Cody: That's the problem. I envy actors because I cannot deliver a line convincingly to save my ass! My husband and I would read the dialogue together and it sounded like a fourth grade production of "The Three Little Pigs." It was the worst thing ever.
Affleck: It's so weird, because your movie is so readable and actor-oriented. Were there scenes that you constructed around smart interchanges?
Cody: No, actually. Honestly, I am very self-conscious about that now. "Juno" was my first screenplay. I wrote the script a couple of years ago, and I feel I might have dialed things down a little bit, stylistically. I know people love that about the movie and are responding to it. But sometimes it seems kind of masturbatory to me. I thought I needed to fill the page as much as I possibly could.
Harwood: As a form, it's disgusting. I mean, David, you've just done your novel, which is a beautiful thing. But a screenplay is a technical document. It's vulgar. It's awful.
Benioff: But it's so fast to get to the bottom of the page! I'm all distracted now, because I'm pissed that "Juno" is Diablo's first screenplay. My first screenplay was about a headmaster at a boarding school who turned out to be Satan. And then there were nine after that which were just as bad.

THR: What changed?
Benioff: It's probably impossible to quote Beckett without sounding really pretentious, but he has a line: "Fail again. Fail better." And I think you keep screwing up and you get a little bit better each time, hopefully.

THR: Is it easier doing an adaptation than an original?
Benioff: Well, you have an inherent structure. In "The Kite Runner," there is a very clear beginning, middle and end.
Haggis: I find it much harder adapting.
Benioff: You've adapted short stories. "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) was a short story.
Haggis: But I suffered with that for a year and half. I just couldn't figure out how to do it. I sat there forever going, "I'll take 17 stories. I'll jam them into one." It was such a lovely book of short stories, I wanted to use everything. And then when I got done, it was a mess. I keep thinking, "I'll adapt something and it will be so much easier." But everything I've adapted has been a much bigger struggle for me.
Affleck: I thought the same thing. I felt, well ("Gone Baby Gone") will be easier. I thought, "Well, I have this story architecture that I can rely on." But trying to distill that into something that was an hour and 54 minutes was complicated. The noir crime procedural was the least interesting aspect of the movie to me. What was really interesting was the fact that that was just a mask; the story was a sort of morality play about social politics, the cycle of poverty. You couldn't let that get subsumed by all the other stuff. And also, speaking of structure, it didn't really have a three-act structure. Part of me thought, "This is wrong. This really goes against the rules." And, "Are they going to let me do this?" -- because it's not three acts.
Haggis: "Million Dollar Baby" just had two.

THR: How faithful do you have to be to the material?
Benioff: You have to be ruthless when you do these adaptations -- and write what you think is going to be the best movie, not the most faithful adaptation. But I was on an airplane, and there was an old lady sitting next to me, and she asked what I did, and I told her. And she said, "What are you working on?" And I said, "The Kite Runner." And she grabbed my arm and said, "That's my favorite novel. Don't change a word!" It's easier, I think, when you're adapting dead writers.

THR: The platitude is: Write what you know. Do you agree with that?
Benioff: I don't think I'd have many interesting things to write if I was just writing what I know. "The 25th Hour" (2002) is probably the only thing I've written that hewed fairly closely to my life. With "The Kite Runner," I didn't know anything about Afghanistan, and I didn't grow up Muslim. But I wasn't afraid of it because the story was so powerful.
Cody: I've wanted to do an adaptation because I love literature. But I can never wrap my mind around it because when I write, I draw from all of these emotional experiences in my life. And a lot of the time, material written by somebody else feels like their emotional experience.
Harwood: I've only done adaptations. I've never written an original. With an adaptation, in a way, you just play the part of the author. I understand "Love in the Time of Cholera" is a huge novel; what would Gabriel Garcia Marquez do? You take his point of view and you've got to decide what it's about -- that's frightfully difficult with a novel.
Cody: Do you have a specific routine that you follow when you write?
Harwood: I'm very boring. I've been married to the same woman for nearly 50 years. I do the same thing every day. I get up at 7:00, I make coffee, she has cigarettes and coffee with me. I then make breakfast, shower and go to work. I'm at work at 8:30 and I work until 12:30 every day, and then I have lunch with her. I have a sleep in the afternoon, go back to work from 4:00 to 6:00. That's it. And you'd be surprised how much gets written.
Cody: That's a big day for me!
Benioff: I work the opposite hours. I start usually at midnight and work till about 5:00.
Harwood: I was very lucky. When I was writing novels, I knew Graham Greene, and he gave me the best piece of advice ever given to any writer. He said, "Always stop when it's going well."
Cody: Because you'll feel compelled to return to it?
Harwood: No, because you know what to return to. So you don't have those sleepless nights.
Haggis: It's just physics. If something rolls, it continues to move.

THR: Was it hard to get "Elah" rolling?
Haggis: Well, I purposely chose a character I didn't understand. I was writing about the Iraq war and I decided it was much too easy to tell that story from my point of view, so I looked for a man who's quite antithetical. But here's what I didn't know was going to happen: I said, "Halfway through, I'm going to change genres. I'm going to say it's a murder mystery and then halfway through, I'm going to say that doesn't matter any more."

THR: Has the experience of directing changed your approach to writing?
Haggis: Yes. You trust the actors more, and you try to explain a lot less.
Affleck: The lesson it taught me was, it made me want to write less. The actors do so much of it, you don't need to do all that writing.

THR: Did any of you go into writing as a means to directing?
Haggis: I think so. I liked writing, but I always felt as a filmmaker that you wrote and directed it.
Affleck: I went into writing as a means to acting.

THR: What is the hardest thing about writing?
Cody: For me, it's the discipline. I really have trouble sticking to a routine. Just the mechanics of actually sitting down and writing is a challenge for me. Getting started is usually the fun part, when you have a fresh idea and you're in the honeymoon period where your mind is racing and the possibilities are all out there in front of you. And then once you get into it, and you start writing yourself into these labyrinthine corridors, it gets a little more difficult.
Haggis: For me the most difficult thing is getting started every day. I'll plan an hour of email, and then phone calls, and then rechecking my emails. So I'll spend the first three hours doing that. I really wait until I feel so ill that I haven't written that I'm forced to continue writing. Then every single sequence I get to, I say, "That's impossible. I can't write that."

THR: Do you have people you go to for advice?
Haggis: My wife's the only one I trust, because I think -- I'm such a cynical bastard -- anyone I give my script to, they're going to lie to me and say, "It's lovely," when it's not.
Harwood: That's what I want!

THR: Is there anything you'd really love to write that you haven't done?
Harwood: This is going to sound very pompous: I'd love to write something good. And I mean that in the most basic sense. I mean something nobody interferes with, where nothing is changed.