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Helmers, scribe panels ponder pix at fest

SANTA BARBARA — Some of the industry’s most successful scribes and helmers discussed their work over the weekend at two of the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s eagerly anticipated annual events. Though funding problems this year forced the fest to cut back, no sheen was missing from the panel lineups.

Saturday’s symposium, “It Starts With the Script,” moderated by Warner Bros. exec VP of production Kevin McCormick, included Ted Griffin, Gina Wendkos, Michael Sloane and Oscar nominees Milo Addica, Christopher Nolan, Akiva Goldsman and Julian Fellowes. (The latter two scribes collected WGA awards that night.). Sunday’s “Directors on Directing” panel, moderated by Premiere magazine’s Anne Thompson, featured Todd Field, Marc Forster, Terry Zwigoff and Jessie Nelson.

The writers weighed in on their early days, the production histories of their most recent projects and creative issues such as the importance of character vs. story. The directors touched on creative freedom, casting decisions and test screenings.

Everything from the writers’ own backgrounds to their personal contacts has informed their work or facilitated its production. In Goldsman’s case, his psychiatrist parents had worked with schizophrenic children, providing the foundation for his involvement in “A Beautiful Mind.” Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) was familiar with English aristocracy, having scripted the telepic “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” And Michael Sloane had nurtured a friendship with Frank Darabont that resulted in their collaboration on “The Majestic.”

Wendkos (“The Princess Diaries”) and Griffin (“Ocean’s Eleven”) weighed in on the challenges of adapting a book and a film, respectively, while Nolan discussed the process of refining and adapting his brother’s unfinished short story into “Memento.” Nolan remarked that his first draft of “Memento” was so rambling and confusing that “when people read it, they were either going to have to trust me or not.” Like Goldsman, Nolan had the difficult task of writing from inside a character’s head, thereby revealing to the audience only what the protagonist knows. Nolan spent a year winnowing his script into filmable form.

Going to the ‘Ball’

Addica, by contrast, had to wait five years for “Monster’s Ball” to go into production. Only when risk-taking director Marc Forster became attached and championed the writers’ vision did the project go forward. Addica confessed how fortunate he had been that Lions Gate never demanded any cuts or changes, a sentiment Forster echoed. The price for that freedom: a shoestring budget and a tight 24-day shoot.

Helmers Nelson (“I Am Sam”) and Zwigoff (“Ghost World”) each had to lobby for six years to get their projects made. Though Sean Penn had long been committed to “I Am Sam,” various studios felt Penn was too dark for the film. When Fox 2000 suggested casting Brendan Fraser and Jennifer Aniston, Nelson knew she had to pick up and go elsewhere. Likewise, Zwigoff was disheartened when the suits at United Artists wanted a marquee name instead of original choice Steve Buscemi and suggested casting Jennifer Love Hewitt over Thora Birch.

Most of the helmers were happy with their end products, though only Forster admitted — to the others’ palpable envy — having had a truly studio hands-off experience. Nelson said her film had been aided by “Lord of the Rings”; since New Line was betting the farm on its epic trilogy, the studio had little time to fret over her small, character-driven drama. Zwigoff and Field, by contrast, recalled getting physically ill and locking horns with execs, whether battling to secure music clearance rights or maintaining final cut.

Asked whether any forced compromises had been blessings in disguise, the helmers had very different answers. Nelson recalled that working with disabled actors had provided its own set of surprises: Whereas they didn’t always follow the script, sometimes their own improvisations were unexpected bonuses. Zwigoff, for his part, demurred. “I can honestly say,” he noted dryly, “that none of the compromises improved my film at all.”

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