SANTA BARBARA — Striking a high point of the Santa Barbara Film Festivals opening weekend, six scribes discussed their craft Sunday at a panel that was by turns ribald, revealing and poignant. This SRO fourth edition of “It Starts With the Script” brought together Oscar nominees Alan Ball, Charlie Kaufman and Eric Roth along with Sherman Alexie, Kimberly Peirce and David O. Russell.
Former Fox 2000 prexy Laura Ziskin moderated, querying the panelists on the provenance of their ideas, the challenges of adapting nonfiction material for the screen and concerns over studio involvement and unsatisfactory marketing campaigns. As writers whose projects were taken from true stories, Roth (“The Insider”) and Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) discussed the prickly issues surrounding those adaptations and the compromises they had to make. Roth, whose previous work includes “Forrest Gump,” said he had initially been disinclined to do historical adaptations, but Michael Mann, an old acquaintance of ex-“60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman, convinced him otherwise. He eventually came to see the piece as the story of a most unlikely friendship between Bergman and whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand.
Peirce said she began to research the Brandon Teena story in 1994 after reading about it in the Village Voice, initiating a four-year journey to get the film made. Peirce visited Brandon’s hometown and interviewed everyone she could, including former lover Lana Tisdel. “Just to quiet anything to the contrary,” said Peirce, preempting queries about Tisdel’s recent lawsuit alleging that the film portrays her in a slanderous manner, “I did have a written release from Lana and the interview was videotaped.” Alluding to the current controversy surrounding fact-based films like “The Hurricane,” Peirce added, “what I found was that everyone had a different version of the story to tell, and there’s no story until you tell a story.”
Still, both Peirce and Roth acknowledged that they had to take license to make the films stronger and more dramatic. Roth admitted to altering the sequence of events surrounding Wigand’s testimony, and Peirce explained that after the film’s devastating third-act rape scene she and her co-writer opted to “externalize the emotion so Brandon would stay alive as a character, when in fact he had committed emotional suicide after the rape.”
Other scribes described the ways in which their personal or professional experience helped shape their projects. Alexie said that “Smoke Signals” was suggested by a trip he took with a friend to retrieve the remains of his friend’s father. Russell said he was moved to write “Three Kings” because he felt there was no film that accurately represented the Gulf War experience. Ball explained that he wrote “American Beauty” at a time when he was embittered about his job as an executive producer on a network sitcom and felt a need to reconnect to his work.
Emphasizing her point that the development process is a never-ending one, Ziskin prodded the scribes to talk about their involvement in the production and editing process and the extent to which they had to contend with studio pressure to make changes. Russell acknowledged that “having your film under the radar can protect you.” At Warner Bros., he said, the studio was more concerned with monitoring progress on “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Green Mile” than on “Three Kings”; likewise, DreamWorks’ focusing attention on “The Haunting” and “Gladiator” afforded some freedom to the creators of “American Beauty.”
Still, Russell said, and others agreed, that while the studios could allow the filmmakers creative freedom, they often hadn’t a clue about how to sell the films. Kaufman and Roth were disappointed in their respective USA and Buena Vista marketing campaigns, but the group praised DreamWorks’ and Miramax’s more aggressive campaigns.
To that end, Peirce announced that she, Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson were planning a radical departure that would leverage their position in the industry: they would sign with whatever studio gave them final cut, but they would withhold delivery of their product until the studio hired a marketing producer. The perennial challenge, Ziskin added, was how to make viable the “unholy marriage” of bankers and artists. “Bankers are by definition risk-averse. And artists are by definition risk-takers.”
Apart from the panel, two fest highlights were a tribute to Richard Pryor and an homage to Anthony Hopkins. While no deals have yet been struck, pics currently generating buzz include “On the Road Home,” “The Operator,” “Steal This Movie” and “Noriega: God’s Favorite.”