Roundtable: George Clooney and 6 Top Writers on Awful Agent Advice and the Accuracy Police

Superstar scribes Clooney, Grant Heslov, Julie Delpy, Nicole Holofcener, John Ridley, Danny Strong and Jonas Cuaron reveal to THR the secrets of how they work, the public figures they really want to write about and how Janet Jackson's breast impacted their work.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When The Hollywood Reporter invited George Clooney and Grant Heslov to participate in this year's Writer Roundtable, their Nazi art-heist drama The Monuments Men was considered likely to contend in multiple awards categories. Alas, four days after the Oct. 18 discussion at The Los Angeles Athletic Club, Monuments Men was bumped by distributor Sony Pictures to Feb. 7 -- unfinished visual effects were cited as the reason -- and out of the awards race (at least for this year).

Luckily, Clooney, 52, and Heslov, 50, are such good talkers, THR readers likely won't care that their movie isn't in contention yet. The duo joined Clooney's Gravity writer Jonas Cuaron, 31 (he penned the action-heavy script with his director father, Alfonso), Before Midnight co-writer Julie Delpy, 43, Enough Said writer-director Nicole Holofcener, 53, 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley, 49, and Lee Daniels' The Butler's Danny Strong, 39, for a conversation that veered from Paddy Chayefsky to Sarah Palin and Edward Snowden. Said Clooney, "Now we're getting in some deep shit!"

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What's been your toughest moment as a writer?

GEORGE CLOONEY: Test screenings. (Laughter.)

JOHN RIDLEY: [Being rewritten] is not pleasant. But I know that it helped drive me forward, to try to have more ownership of my material. If it's something that I really cared about, why did I get in a position where I gave it away too early?

DANNY STRONG: For me, the toughest part was all those years writing specs, not selling them, not progressing. I kept writing these really broad comedies, thinking, "I'm gonna break into show business writing these big, funny, Jim Carrey-esque comedies," because that was big at the time. And then, finally, I said, "I have to give up." Nothing against Jim Carrey comedies, but that's when I wrote Recount [2008]. I sold it as a pitch. I still don't know why HBO bought that project. Maybe they were drunk.

JULIE DELPY: When I wrote the first draft of Before Sunset [2004], I remember giving the script to my agent, who fired me the same day. He thought I was wasting my time. So I was full of doubt, like, "My God, am I doing the right thing? I'm crazy."

John, Three Kings (1999) was considerably rewritten. Did you fight it?

RIDLEY: I was in no position to fight for it. I had had one movie made with Oliver Stone [1997's U Turn].

CLOONEY: Also, Three Kings was brought into a studio system. They'll bring things in and go, "It's good, we like it, we're going to bring another writer in." Grant and I have been writing for over 30 years together, and we've been through [studio and network] processes. Good Night, and Good Luck began as a live television show, and everything was going great, and then Janet Jackson took her breast out on live TV and CBS goes, "You're out!" And we were sitting in the office like, "What happened?"

What are the best and worst notes you've been given?

CLOONEY: We actually get good notes because they're mostly story points. Worst note: We did get one guy saying, "How do we know they're Hitler youths?" It's a kid in a Nazi uniform!

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Gravity is such a visual film. What was the process of writing it?

CLOONEY: When Alfonso started talking about it, we said: "It's an easy film. It's two characters floating …"

DELPY: … in space.

CLOONEY: We'll do it in six months, right?

JONAS CUARON: A couple ropes … (Laughs.)

CLOONEY: Literally, that's what he thought. And you know, three years of shooting …

Was there a moment when Warner Bros. said no?

CUARON: I guess. But at the end, they were supportive. I mean, you're always struggling to fight for your concept. Our main concept [was to have] a subjective film, where you're with the character throughout the ride. But when you're doing a space movie, everyone wants to cut down to Ed Harris and Houston and have that separate story or have a flashback.

Is it still harder to get a screenplay off the ground if a woman is the lead?

GRANT HESLOV: Not when it's Sandra Bullock!

NICOLE HOLOFCENER: There's six women or so that you could make it with. But I don't want to do the woman question.

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How hard is it to get a film like Enough Said off the ground?

HOLOFCENER: It was not hard at all. Fox Searchlight said, "We want to make a movie with you, but we want this one to have a little more plot and just give us a little more to market." Actually, I didn't really mind because I wanted the challenge of having to write a script that was possibly more commercial but still mine. Something that I wouldn't be embarrassed about, you know?

Several of you also act. Does your writing change when you're writing for yourself?

DELPY: No. I mean, there is the period of writing where we're excited to write lengthy monologues, and then we get to rehearsing, where we look at the monologue, and we're like, "Argh!" It's very schizophrenic. And then we go into the acting process, and we become insecure, we don't sleep, we don't eat, we're freaking out. Actually, it made me realize acting is a very unsettling job. It makes you emotionally a mess, you know?

CLOONEY: I feel perfectly comfortable! What are you talking about? (Laughter.) But I've met a lot of insecure writers and directors.


George, what do you and Grant argue about when you are writing?

CLOONEY: We've never had an argument in our lives.


HESLOV: Lunch is the biggest discussion of the day, that is true.

CLOONEY: And we've actually never had an argument. Even on the basketball court.

HOLOFCENER: So what happens if you disagree? You know, "This scene is horrible, let's throw it out."

HESLOV: We throw it out. We literally just sit down in a room and we just …

HOLOFCENER: … make love?

HESLOV: Yeah. (Laughs.)

CLOONEY: But we do it an old-fashioned way. We cut and paste. We literally take scissors. We act out all the parts.

HESLOV: But we plot it all out first. We do that classic thing: We have a big board, and we put Post-its [everywhere], and we'll spend a couple weeks just doing that, particularly on a film like Monuments Men, which is very plot-heavy.

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Many films based on real-life events are being attacked over accuracy. What responsibility do you have to the facts?

STRONG: Well, in the case of The Butler, I made very clear that this was a fictionalization. So much so that I changed the character's name to Cecil Gaines in the hope of saying: "This isn't Eugene Allen. This is something else." But the history in the film is all true; it's a father-son relationship that's used as a conduit to tell the story of the civil rights movement. It doesn't really matter if you change who was here, who wore what. You just need to make the best movie you can make, being as responsible as you can to the overarching history of what you're trying to portray.

CLOONEY: This is a new thing, by the way. This is all, like, bloggers -- if that existed when Lawrence of Arabia came out, believe me, Lawrence's own autobiography would not hold water. Patton wouldn't. You can go down the list of movies -- Gandhi -- these movies are entertainment. And that's what we have to get back to. A movie like 12 Years a Slave, somebody will go looking for something that doesn't jibe and they'll try to disenfranchise the whole film because of it. Because there's this weird competition thing that's going on now that didn't exist 10 years ago. That happened with us on Argo. It's bullshit because it's got nothing to do with the idea that these are movies. These are not documentaries. You're responsible for basic facts. But who the hell knows what Patton said to his guys in the tent?

CUARON: When we wrote Gravity, we wanted it to be as plausible as possible, so we did a lot of research. There are things -- when I see the movie -- I know they're not plausible.

STRONG: I loved Gravity so much that when I read these [attacks], I was so annoyed. I said, "This is an amazing movie, are you kidding me?" It's a ballet at times. It's an opera at times.

RIDLEY: The only allegations that I'm aware of around 12 Years a Slave are actually pointed back toward [Solomon Northup's book about his experiences in slavery] -- which, to me, is very troubling because there were court cases, you know? These are things that have been documented.

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Several films this year are from an African-American point of view. Danny, did you have doubts writing about the black experience?

STRONG: Only in the way that I have doubts about everything that I write. And I always get through that with research. I just start doing lots of research, and then I start to feel comfortable, and then I'm sick of research and I just want to start writing. I mean, I've written female characters, and I'm not a woman.

HOLOFCENER: (Smiles.) That's not right!

Is there a point where you start a script and just put it down because you can't crack it?

HOLOFCENER: Oh, yeah. I know with this script, I had to put it down. I just couldn't bear it anymore. I couldn't make it work. Couldn't figure out how to make that plot device work and where to put it and have it not be stupid. Almost all of my movies, I am disgusted with at some point, and terrified and put it in a drawer. And then somehow I take it out of the drawer.

CLOONEY: How long did you put it down?

HOLOFCENER: Maybe a month.

DELPY: Do you write many scripts at once so when you're tired, you can go to another one?

HOLOFCENER: I never have another one. But you know, a month goes by quickly. You clean your house, take your kids to school. It's really easy how fast time goes by.

CLOONEY: It took a long time to get Argo made. But we've got other films that are in that sort of vein. We have one called Our Brand Is Crisis that we've gone through a long period of time trying to figure out. It's a really smart, political film about going down to Bolivia and bringing in American consultants to get this guy elected. And it's a true story. [We're] trying to figure out the tone.

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What's the best and worst advice you've been given about writing? Except by the agent who fired you.

HOLOFCENER: Yeah, I was told to quit. By an agent.

DELPY: Probably the same one!

HOLOFCENER: But I was writing bad scripts. And he was like, "I think you should stick to directing." But you should never tell that to somebody, even if their scripts are bad.

DELPY: I had written a screenplay when I was 19, and I gave it to a very famous writer, and he read one page and he said, "You're a very pretty girl." (Laughter.) Then I didn't write for four years.

Do you read books about writing?

CLOONEY: Why would you read when there's these good reality shows out there? (Laughs.)

HESLOV: I read everything from Elmore Leonard to Philip Roth. I try to read as few scripts as possible.

CLOONEY: I love Paddy Chayefsky. And, again from television, Rod Serling. Because I didn't grow up really watching movies. There wasn't a movie theater in my town in Kentucky. You drove to the drive-in theater about 30 miles to see a movie. So you know, you're sort of caught with old black-and-white television. Twilight Zones and things like that. That was a big influence on my life and storytelling.


You two broke through with Good Night, and Good Luck. What was the challenge of that screenplay?

HESLOV: In reference to what we were talking about earlier, that was one where we felt like we had to get it exactly right.

CLOONEY: Also, remember that this was written because we were so angry. I was angry at being called a traitor to my country for saying that I thought the war was stupid.

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Did the attacks make you afraid?

CLOONEY: There was that one moment when, you know, Bill O'Reilly does a half-hour show about why my career is over. He brought in some producer that goes, "I'll never work with him again." I'm like: "I don't know who she is! I've never even seen her before." (Laughs.) And I called my dad and said, "Well, am I in trouble?" And he's like: "Do you have a job? Do you have money?" And I said, "Yes." He goes: "Shut up. Grow up. Be a man. What are you afraid of? A lot of people have taken a lot worse chances. You can't demand freedom of speech and say, 'Don't say bad things about me.' "

Is there a public figure that you would like to write about?

STRONG: I remember seeing the Eliot Spitzer documentary, Client 9, and thinking, "Wow, that would make a terrific movie."

CLOONEY: [Or Anthony Weiner.] I mean, imagine growing up with the name Weiner your whole life, and then this picture, you know?

Danny, did you ever hear personally from Sarah Palin about HBO's Game Change (2012)?

STRONG: Her aides came out guns blazing and attacked us a week before the movie came out. And they said, "We haven't seen the movie, but it's all lies." And I remember about a week or two after that ended, I saw that I got my first gray hair. (Laughs.) And I thought, "Sarah Palin gave me gray hair."

HESLOV: She gave a lot of people gray hair.

DELPY: In the U.S., if you talk about someone that's alive, and you describe their personal life and they disagree with it, can they sue you?

CLOONEY: No. There's literally no libel laws here -- if you're a public figure. The difference now is, what is a public figure? Because now, everybody on Facebook is a public figure. You know, there was a lawsuit a few years ago about a woman who was in a car accident and an emergency helicopter picked her up, and there was one of those on-scene emergency shows in the helicopter. And she was begging to die. She says, "Please let me die," and she ended up living. And she's watching TV one night with her kids, and she's on television begging to die. And she sued [and eventually lost]: "You were in an accident on a public street, made the news, and you are now a public figure, and you have no right to that privacy anymore."

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What do you think of that? You're a public figure, but you also come from a news family.

CLOONEY: Listen, I have the worst of all of it because I agree with the idea. I would never, ever want to change a law that would close off any form of information. I would rather the misery that I get at times. But there is an element of this where you just go, "This is not what was designed." And where do you draw the line?

So what do you think about Edward Snowden and Julian Assange?

CLOONEY: Now we're getting in some deep shit! (Laughs.) I think it's a complicated issue because you look at Edward Snowden, and you say, "Well, these are stories that have yet to be finished." When you did Game Change, there was a beginning, a middle and an end for that version of that story. We know [that] Assange is holed up in an embassy and Snowden is hiding out in Russia. And we're not sure, yet, what the effects [will be]. It may turn out that those guys ended up doing something heroic. It may also turn out that they ended up doing something cowardly. There are all kinds of questions yet to be answered.