Writers' block

This year's buzzed-about original screenplays began with passionate ideas -- but the road from light-bulb moment to bright-light premiere is littered with obstacles.

Inspiration, it seems, is the easy part. Talk to any number of this year's buzzed-about original screenplay writers, and what lies beneath the surface is often a decades-old passion for their subject matter.

Take Shawn Slovo, whose "Catch a Fire" from Focus Features lit up when her late father Joe Slovo, a hero of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, told her about an ordinary man who took a stand. There's Paul Bernbaum, whose "Hollywoodland," also from Focus, came to life thanks to his childhood love of the TV series "Superman" and a latter-day curiosity about star George Reeves. And Emilio Estevez remembers the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- which he saw on television at the age of 6 and wrote about in MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby" -- "as if it happened yesterday."

They join other screenwriters, including Pedro Almodovar (Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver"), Michael Arndt (Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine"), Guillermo Arriaga (Paramount Vantage's "Babel"), Andrea Berloff (Paramount's "World Trade Center"), Guillermo del Toro (Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth"), Paul Greengrass (Universal's "United 93"), Zach Helm (Sony's "Stranger Than Fiction"), Richard Maltby Jr. (MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Miss Potter"), Nancy Meyers (Sony's "The Holiday") and Peter Morgan (Miramax's "The Queen"), in the race for Oscar consideration this year. But no matter how easily their stories came into being, no matter how polished the screenplays are now, the journey from original idea to shooting draft is rarely simple.

Estevez spent years thinking about his script, trying to define the style of film he wanted to see made.

"'Is it a biopic? What is the approach here?' I wrestled with what to do," he recalls. "I wrote 30 pages and got a horrible case of writer's block in the summer of 2000. That lasted for a year. And the 2000 elections came and went, and whenever anyone would ask what I was working on, it became the go-to excuse: 'I am writing this thing.' But I was truly paralyzed."

In the summer of 2001, Estevez's brother, actor Charlie Sheen, suggested he try a fresh environment for writing the script, and he ended up in a ramshackle motel at the beach -- where it all came together. Says Estevez, "I finished the script about two weeks before 9/11."

The events of that September gave Greengrass something to write about, too -- specifically, what happened aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed that day in a field near Shanksville, Pa.

"I very often start collecting pieces on things that might or might not turn into a film one day -- books, cut-out pictures, material," he explains. "At any one time, I have a couple of dozen little things, and I stick them in a file and put it up on the shelf. I started collecting pieces about United 93 quite early on."

Greengrass was intrigued, he says, by "the fact that the passengers on the airplane were really the first people to inhabit our world, which is the post-9/11 world, because they knew what had happened on the ground. They knew this was an attack, and their choices spoke to me."

A 25-page treatment was snapped up by Universal almost at once, but Greengrass had another challenge to deal with next: turning that treatment into a script based in reality. He approached the families of the flight's victims about using their memories and descriptions of the passengers and crew in order to lend veracity to the film. None objected.

But the treatment held the most essential element, he says. "When you make a film like that, the only guide ultimately is whether you feel you've got something to say. You've got to feel in your heart and soul that you've got something to say about it. You are dealing with entirely real events, painful events, personal tragedy. If you didn't search your conscience and approach it very carefully, you'd be making an error."

Bernbaum also found his conscience to be part of the equation as he tackled George Reeves' story, even though it happened decades rather than years ago.

"I really wanted to do right by Reeves because I grew up as a fan of the show," he says. "I ran around in a little Superman costume when I was a kid. This was a project that I wanted to do for years and years, but I always wanted to do right by him."

That task proved easier said than done. Reeves died in 1959, and Bernbaum's only original source still living was "Superman" co-star Jack Larson. Additionally, Reeves' death was the source of much controversy: Was he murdered, or did he commit suicide?

"There was a question of not really knowing that the research was accurate because there was always another side to it," Bernbaum acknowledges. "I found everything that I could on him. I watched everything he did. I tried to get as much information as I could, but there were still areas of contradiction."

Beyond deciding how to deal with Reeves' death, Bernbaum also had to figure out how to approach the narrative of his chronologically fragmented story. Along the way, he chose to do so through the eyes of a detective (played in "Hollywoodland" by Adrien Brody), a composite of several real-life people on both sides of the legal system. Initially, he says, "They were all in the script, and then I kept paring it down until it was just the one private eye who is the gateway into the whole story."

When the real-life people in the story you want to tell include your father, paring down the characters is another challenge altogether. That's what Slovo faced with "Catch a Fire."

Patrick Chamusso was a black South African who had remained passive under apartheid. But when he and his wife were wrongly accused of terrorist crimes, he was inspired to become a freedom fighter -- and was trained by Slovo's father. They eventually blew up the Secunda Oil Refinery, where Chamusso worked.

"He told me the story just a few months after that incident," Slovo recalls of her father. "Like all screenwriters, you are always looking for a good story. He said Patrick Chamusso was an ordinary man who wanted a good life, a family and a future -- all those boring, bourgeois things -- and because of what happened to him, he took a different path. And that's what appealed to me."

This heroic tale took a more individual turn when Shawn Slovo met with Chamusso two weeks after his release from prison on Robben Island. He revealed that it was his wife who had ratted him out to the authorities.

Says Slovo, "Then I thought, 'I have a story!' That is the thing I went for: the effect of the political on the personal."

Research shifted the story further. Slovo was surprised to discover that the security police would take good cop/bad cop routines to extremes just to soften up their captives. "There is a scene where (police officer Nic) Vos takes Patrick to his house, and that came from interviews with the security personnel. This is what they said they used to do: They tried to psychologically destabilize the suspects and confuse them," she says. "Some had prisoners to stay in their house for the week. That was part of their tactics."

Slovo knew these men and their thinking -- they had murdered her mother. And perhaps because of that, she felt willing to take certain liberties in writing about them. But when Phillip Noyce came aboard to direct and the script entered its final stages, she was guided to return to facts over fancy.

"I am a lazy writer. I don't like to travel; I don't like to research," Slovo admits. "But Phillip insisted on it. And the changes brought it much closer to the truth."

That, in its manifold forms, was the ultimate point at which each of these writers wanted to arrive. "The film has a truth that only fiction can give," Slovo says. "A truth and a power."
Oscar Watch: Writers