Screenwriters reflect on the writer's path


(Paramount Classics/DreamWorks' "The Kite Runner")
"I read the book when it was in hardback -- it didn't become a phenomenon until it went to paperback. I loved it, but the producers had hired another writer. About a year later, I got a call saying it is available and there is no script, and would I like to meet the producers? We had a long talk about the book. I didn't have a fancy pitch -- it was more an expression of my passion and what I thought were the various pitfalls. There are certain structural complications. The way the book is structured, you've got the long opening section in Afghanistan, and then the family comes to America, and then there is a return to Afghanistan and after that an extended stay in Pakistan. I felt it would be next to impossible to do the long section in the U.S. unless you had a three-and-a-half-hour film. In any adaptation, you are making serious cuts, but this one involved a fairly radical compression. The first draft was 150-some pages. At that stage, Sam Mendes was attached to direct. We went through other drafts over three years -- the shooting draft is marked No. 13 in my computer -- and cut a lot. We kept trying to get it down. Many scenes were cut, including some of my favorites from the book, like the harelip (which marks one of the main characters). As marvelous as that is in the book, it's possible to extract it without damaging the overall integrity of the story. The whole language issue was one of the big challenges. Initially, we didn't think there was any chance we could shoot in Dari because we were told by the studio that we couldn't. But (director Marc Forster) said, 'I won't make the movie unless we can shoot in Dari.' The research was pretty extensive because I didn't know that much about Afghanistan and about politics there in the '70s. But the most useful research was talking to Khaled Hosseini (the book's author) because nothing is a substitute for the experience he had growing up in Kabul."

(Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille")
"I came way late into the project. When I became involved, (Pixar) had the character design, they had the premise and they had two of the most important sets 'built' in the computer. But they were at a crisis point. Everyone loved the idea and the way it was looking, but the story was not at the point it needed to be. I had a year and a half to write a whole new script, do a brand-new set of reels, recast the movie, record all the sound, cut the sound to a new storyboard, design 22 of the 25 sets and get it all done. These things usually take four to five years. It was a hard script to write, and I had to write it quickly because we had committed to a start date for the animation; I had to have parts of the script ready to go before the rest was finalized. The basic story stayed the same: It was about a rat named Remy who wanted to be a cook. But I changed a lot of things. I killed off Gusteau, the main character Remy was trying to please -- then made him come back as part of his imagination. I reworked it structurally a lot and added a few characters. Then I took my story outline and wrote a brand-new screenplay and did a whole new soundtrack and a set of story reels. I don't think it is in any significant way different to write a screenplay for an animated film than a live-action one. What's different is that I know what animators can do and I try to write scenes that I myself would want to animate. I used to be an animator and know what it is like to be assigned these deathly scenes where you have to inject a lot of shtick to make them interesting to watch. What makes (an animation screenplay) work is having a heightened sensibility that is a little bit caricatured. Many people view that as a negative because caricature is meant to suggest over-the-top. But I view the word caricature in a much more positive sense. Good caricature simplifies things down to the essence."

(Focus Features' "Atonement")
"I first read the book (by Ian McEwan) in Thailand. I was there working on a movie called "The Night-Comers," (based on a book) by Eric Ambler, about the struggle between fundamentalist and liberal Muslims. I bought (McEwan's) book at the airport in London -- he's one of my favorite writers because there is always something very rigorous and surprising about him. And that was true here. It starts off as one kind of book -- the languorous, country-house-party kind of thing -- and suddenly you are plunged five years forward into the middle of the Second World War, and then you have the completely surprising coda, or epilogue. It's basically a story about a writer and about the pressures on a writer, and that interested me. It was a meditation on what writing can achieve, as opposed to what life can achieve. But in the adaptation, we thought it was sensible to operate at a slight tilt. So what moved to the center of the film was the romantic relationship that the writer was observing. That reads more naturally to an audience than the various meditations about writing. We made a change in emphasis, a move toward the young lovers. Initially, when I wrote it, there was just one young Briony. That was the first stage of my thinking -- to have one young actress who could play her as a 13-year-old and then as an 18-year-old. You never know what is going to be the most vital decision anyone will make on a film, but it was the decision later to have two actresses. The whole of the first half of the story is about the misunderstandings of a child, and if you didn't have a child playing the part, it would be very difficult. The toughest sequence was the epilogue. You are pulling the rug from under the audience's feet, suddenly telling them that what they thought happened didn't necessarily happen that way. I started out with (the older Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave) having lunch with her agent, then had her talking to one of the twins from the beginning of the film, who is now an old man, telling him the story. But it just seemed that a television interview was the correct mixture of impersonal and direct. I think Ian feels happy with the end result. If nothing else, there have been 600,000 copies of the book sold in England since the film opened there!"

(Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")
"What most surprised me about (Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir) was that he was able to write it at all. It is difficult enough to write with your computer -- and to think of him writing it just by blinking! I'd never be able to do that. But there was something about him and his lifestyle that I didn't like: He was indifferent to the mother of his children, and that whole glamorous Elle magazine lifestyle (Bauby was the editor of French Elle) is not so admirable, is it? I didn't like him. If he hadn't had the locked-in syndrome and you made a movie about Jean-Dominique Bauby, it wouldn't be a very sympathetic movie. It is his condition that makes him absolutely riveting and fascinating. But when (producer Kathleen Kennedy) offered it to me, I said yes without thinking because it was such an amazing story. And then I was frozen for a few weeks, until I thought: The way through is that the camera shows his point of view. And that simple breakthrough was a huge relief. I just knew it was right. (The screenplay) starts: 'Blackness. Silence. The blackness slowly, very slowly, begins to lighten.' In the distance, you hear these voices. And then I wrote in capital letters: 'THE CAMERA IS JEAN-DOMINIQUE BAUBY, KNOWN AS JEAN-DO.' It was such a radical approach, I thought, 'God, Kathy'll hate me!' But that was the liberating sentence. Nothing (major) changed after that. I rewrite all the time, but it basically stayed the same. I wasn't worried about the plot. Once I had got this thing from his point of view, I always felt it was like a washing line: I could hang anything on it in whatever order I chose. So I carried it inside me as I wrote, and things suggested themselves."

(DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd")
"My involvement with 'Sweeney Todd' began in 1979. That's when I saw the original Broadway production three times! At first, Sam Mendes was going to direct (the movie). I worked with him for about two years, and then he decided to do (2005's) 'Jarhead.' Then Tim Burton came on, and it became very much a Tim Burton movie. Everything was filtered through that lens. We shared a very similar set of references: He saw it as a horror movie, which is how I have always seen it, and (the musical's creator) Stephen Sondheim agreed. We talked about everything; everything was up for grabs again. The first thing we did was, we put a version of the score together. Through the three years we worked together, we constantly updated that aural representation of the script. My primary challenge was to remake it in the language of the cinema, which meant reducing it to the central human story. In that process, we had to regretfully cut a lot of songs -- an hour of the music -- and make very hard decisions (regarding) what we would focus (on). The young lovers became much smaller parts, and I beefed up Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter). Things changed as it moved forward, even during shooting. Tim's major concern, and mine, was the same: We were telling an emotional story. The danger in a movie like this is, you could alienate the audience with this freak show of blood and gore, and we emphatically did not want to do that. How do we keep the beating heart of that character at the forefront? But we always knew it would be bloody, because anything else would be dishonest. It behooves no one to be coy about violence in a movie."

"Charlie Wilson's War")
"I read the book (by George Crile) and did some investigating and found that (Tom Hanks' company) owned it. (Hanks and I) met in the summer of 2003. What I usually talk about in these meetings is why I shouldn't be the one hired to do it. Honestly! There were a lot of things I hadn't done before -- decadence, action -- and it would have been my first piece of nonfiction. But Stacey Snider (then chairman of Universal) gave me a speech about commitment, and by the time I got home, I called and said: 'I'm going to do it.' I had never adapted a book before, so I called my friend Akiva Goldsman (writer of 2001's 'A Beautiful Mind') for advice, and he said, 'Fall out of love with the book. Your job here is not to do a faithful adaptation -- it's to write a movie.' That freed me up a little bit -- it reminded me that people and characters aren't the same thing. It was an outrageous story that no one had ever heard; it was irresistible. If the two greatest threats to American security in the last 100 years were Soviet Communism and the rise of Islamic fanaticism, here were three people who had a big hand in ending one and accidentally starting the other. And also, Charlie Wilson was a uniquely American hero. This was an alcoholic, a party guy; he was not considered a heavyweight in Congress. He had an exterior that belied a very thoughtful, very smart and very committed heart. I felt, here's a hero the way they really are, and let's not be afraid to show him that way. I met (Wilson) over a drink in Washington. He doesn't drink anymore, so we both had club sodas. With alcoholism, I knew, there is a before and after picture -- and the Charlie I was meeting was the after. He had a great generosity of spirit. He was very clear to me and to (director Mike Nichols) and Tom, too, that he had absolutely no problem with our portraying his indulgences. He didn't want to pussyfoot along about the cocaine, the women, the hit-and-run accident he was in. His only wish was that the film be clear about one thing: that the Afghans were suffering and courageous."