December 5, 2013

Takeaways from This Year's THR Screenwriters Roundtable Discussion

Thanks to The Hollywood Reporter, we've had roundtables of directors, cinematographers and breakthrough performers. Now it's time to hear from the women and men who start the whole process of making the movie with the written word: the screenwriters. Covering topics as diverse as comparing writing independently versus in the studio system, writing screenplays before the technology exists to shoot them and writing fictions based on facts, a wide range of talented screenwriters sit down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss their screenplays and their craft.

For this year's screenwriter roundtable, The Hollywood Reporter gathered together John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), Jonás Cuarón (Gravity), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), Danny Strong (Lee Daniels' The Butler), and George Clooney & Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men). Obviously, this panel was convened before Clooney and Heslov convinced the studio that the film's release needed to be pushed back to February 2014 to complete the visual FX.

The discussion covers a breadth of topics, at times veering way off the screenwriting path and into philosophical discussions about how different truths permeate our culture through specific media outlets. For this post, let's try to stay on topic and highlight a few of the key screenwriting takeaways.

Even the best screenplays can create unforeseen challenges for their writers

Early on in the conversation, Julie Delpy reveals that on the day she turned in the first draft of Before Sunset to her agent, that agent decided to fire her because he thought she was "crazy for writing a screenplay with so much dialogue" and for writing a sequel that the agent thought would never get made. Naturally after getting fired by her agent, Delpy was full of self-doubt, wondering if a film with so much dialogue could possibly work. Thankfully, with the creative collaboration of Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater, Delpy persevered and we now have a truly remarkable trilogy of films covering the unexpected emotional twists and turns of a romantic relationship over 18 years.

On the flipside, Jonás Cuarón said the process of writing Gravity was "painful" and full of self-doubt, especially because the film has very little dialogue. The film only exists because another screenplay he had written for his father, Alfonso Cuarón, to direct had lost its financing. After this setback, he showed Alfonso another script, from which his father encouraged him to pursue the concept of focusing only on two people, using very little dialogue, then putting the audience through a "roller coaster ride" so they would connect with the characters emotionally through the action. Jonás also admits that they didn't even consider how they would shoot the film as they wrote it. As a result, they realized the technology to make the film didn't exist when they finished the script - so they had to develop it.

Collaborating with studios always brings challenges - sometimes for the better

Nicole Holofcener candidly admits that getting Enough Said off the ground was not a challenge because Fox Searchlight liked her body of work. The studio did, however, tell her they wanted this story to have more plot than her previous films so they would have something to market. Holofcener says she actually appreciated the note and wanted the challenge to write a script that was "more commercial", but still felt like her own movie. Nevertheless, over the course of her first studio project, Holofcener was surprised by the amount of input from the studio. Because of Fox Searchlight's respect for her previous films, they never forced Holofcener to implement any of their suggestions, but the sheer volume of notes was an eye-opener for the writer/director.

Speaking of notes, Clooney admits that many notes from the studio are good when they are focused on the story, especially if something in a scene is confusing to the reader and may need a tweak. However, some notes just make no sense, like the note he and Heslov received that wondered how the audience would know that German kids wearing Nazi uniforms were part of the Hitler Youth, and went so far as to ask them if they would consider putting a badge on the kids' uniform spelling out Hitler Youth. Clooney jokingly considered it, but reminded the studio that the fake badge would have to be written in German.

Even when based on facts, these are movies, not documentaries

Films based on real people's lives or historical events will naturally take creative license because there is no exact record of all of the conversations between the real individuals. Also, people are going to the movies to be entertained. Ridley points out that even though 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup's memoir, critics now question how factual the memoir is, particularly because it was told to another person to write. Ridley admits that certain elements of the narrative require some creative license and critics may pick that apart, but if audiences become familiar with Solomon Northup's story after seeing the film and decide to read the memoir and learn more about the actual history, he as the screenwriter has achieved his goal of spreading the word about this important part of American history.

Danny Strong explained that he has always been quite candid that he fictionalized the main character and his family in his screenplay about a butler working in the White House. Even though his script was inspired by an article about a real life butler in the White House, Strong needed a fictional character to tell the story of the civil rights movement through a father-son relationship. The major historical events are still true, but the fictional characters and their relationships work for the narrative structure, which is why Strong refers to the film as historical fiction.

You can hear much more from each of the screenwriters in the roundtable discussion below:

What are your takeaways from the screenwriter roundtable? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Link: The Hollywood Reporter Screenwriter Roundtable 2013

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