Movies & TV, Writing

SBIFF 2015 Writer’s Panel

graham1Graham Moore – Imitation Game
anthony1Anthony McCarten – Theory of Everything
jason1Jason Hall – American Sniper
dan1Dan Gilroy – Nightcrawler
max2Max Frye – Foxcatcher
alex1Alex Dinelaris – Birdman
damien1Damien Chazelle – Whiplash

The Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, CA was full. A variety pack of film buffs, writers, aspiring writers, and people who didn’t get in to see Jennifer Aniston receive her award the night before. 7 writers (plus the always excellent moderator Anne Thompson) took the stage to talk movies, writing, and to drink water from milk cartons. It’s my favorite part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival – The Writer’s Panel.

The 2015 Gang


Anne jumped out of the gate with the first question: Why so few women screenwriters? None of the seven gentlemen want to touch the question with the proverbial ten foot, completely non-phallic pole. Graham Moore points out they’re not qualified to talk about it and the topic is quickly changed. The film festival tried to get Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), but there was a schedule conflict.

Now that we’re all cozy, it was time to get to know the panel. Jason Hall was a bad actor (his words). So he wrote parts for himself. Again and again. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to hire him for those either. But the writing piqued people’s interest. Several of the panelists are also poets, playwrights and one former painter. The career alliteration was completely coincidental.

Tell us about your film

Note: Each of the seven writers are nominated this year for an Academy Award.

Whiplash – Damian did a 15 minute “sizzle reel” version to show that a film about a jazz drummer wouldn’t necessarily be boring. According to the Academy, this qualified it as an official short, making the feature film an adaptation of itself. To have people tell him it must suck to be in the “adapted” category rather than as an “original” is

Actually the greatest problem of all time.

Birdman – Alex was contacted by Alejandro González Iñárritu (the director of Birdman) with a simple request: he wanted to do a film in one take. He gave the writers a super rough idea about an actor who was going through a midlife crisis. Four of the writers skyped in with their ideas. They couldn’t edit anything (one take, remember), so pretty much everything written shows up on the screen.

Foxcatcher – Max’s agent came to him with the idea to do a movie about these real life characters. He spent months (most of his time) trying to figuring out what the story was. There was a lot of interesting material, but he needed to find the essence. The other writer credited on the film came on after the writer’s strike, so they had no interactions.

Nightcrawler – Dan was in an ornery mood. He wanted to write a story with no arc, no redemption. Combine that need with the fact that he’s a local tv news junkie, and Nightcrawler was born.

American Sniper – Jason didn’t feel he was a good fit for this story. He visited Chris Kyle (the real life sniper) before the book came out. Jason wasn’t going to write the script until he saw a special moment at Chris’ house with his children. Vulnerable and broken, this was the story that Jason wanted to tell. Not the bravado “bar talk” from the book.

The book was the voice he heard, but not the man beneath it. It’s about the cost to the man and his family of creating a warrior.

The Theory of Everything – Anthony didn’t want to write only the publicly known facts of Hawking. He wanted to dig deeper. So he did what anyone would do: He visited the ex-wife at her door (shortly after her biography came out). His first words to her:

Don’t be afraid, I just want to make a movie about your life.
Only it wasn’t that simple. It still took 8 years to get the release signed.

The Imitation Game – Graham went to space camp. He wanted everyone to know that up front. Alan Turing’s story is a hard sell when the pitch is –

I wanna make a movie about a British mathematician in the 40s who is gay and kills himself in the end.
 Amazingly, he convinced someone who had recently published a book on Turing to let him write the script on spec based on a cocktail party conversation in a kitchen. This was his first screenplay, so director Morten Tyldum helped him with the structure. Left to his own devices, Graham is sure it’d have been 300 pages of dialogue.

What’s your writing process?

Damien – One day he realized how little actual writing is a part of a writer’s life. 90% is feeling shitty about himself on the couch in his pajamas. Gotta build up enough willpower or shame to get getting.

Alex – Structures it to within an inch of its life. For Birdman, this was a necessity. When the notes are piled so high that they threaten to topple over and destroy his wife’s patience, he flies to Puerto Rico for 8-9 days and forces out a draft.

Max – Uses a yellow legal pad and writes crazy fast by hand. He sticks to 5 pages a day. If he finishes in an hour, he rewards himself for the rest of the day. Then it gets copied to the computer, which is its own form of revision (like a cheat 2nd draft).

Dan – Works in stone, chiseling away. He, like most of the panelists, agrees with Damien’s sentiment about non-writing being a large part of writing. He believes the subconscious is always working on the story. It is often solved in the background while other things go on. 

TV is the id of the country.

Jason – Finds a song for each project and writes in coffee shops. He listens to this tune exclusively to get himself in the right headpsace. It was two songs for American Sniper: Moby’s “Violent Bear it Away” (an instrumental) and something by Burzum (Norwegian metal). Listen to those back to back for a concert of dissonance.

Anthony – Needs background noises (tv, radio, a vacuum cleaner bumping into things in the corner). He had seven siblings growing up, so this is his idea of home. He also wrote a lot on trains in Germany. Which sounds marvelous actually.

Graham – Believes there’s no correlation between inspiration and the quality you get. He will often look back on something he slogs through and finds it brilliant, while something written in a moment of seeming divine inspiration isn’t as good as he recalls.

What are you doing next?

Graham – Finish up a book he’s writing. Also, a pilot for HBO with Michael Mann. He could tell us more about that, but then Michael would kill him.

Anthony – A journalistic phone hacking scandal movie with George Clooney (at Sony).

Jason – Spielberg showed him the book “Thank you for your service” about vets and the VA and suicide. He’s adapting that.

Dan – Writing another spec. Indy. Directing it himself. And it also takes place in LA.

Max – Is also writing a spec. He has a lot going on and says he is “full spectrum racing forward.”

Alex – Producing a TV series for Starz called “The 1 Percent”. In addition, he is working with Benicio Del Toro on a new film.

Damien – Getting a musical project off the ground that he had written before Whiplash. Called “La La Land” and is based in LA, of course.

And that was it. As always, the panel flew by. Especially since this year they showed clips from all 7 films before the show started. Which, I’ll admit, was helpful, not having seen all the films (yet).