Panels highlight closing weekend

Industry heavy hitters held forth on the challenges of writing and producing at two popular panels during the Santa Barbara Film Fest’s closing weekend.

“It Starts With the Script,” moderated by veteran industry watcher Anne Thompson, featured scribes from eight diverse films. Heavy on critically lauded fare (WGA winners “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain” among others) the panel also included the wildly successful comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

“Virgin”‘s Judd Apatow joked about his suitability for a panel featuring a quartet of Oscar nominees (Bobby Moresco of “Crash,” Diana Ossana of “Brokeback,” Grant Heslov of “Good Night, and Good Luck” and Claudia Comencini of the Italian entry “Don’t Tell”).

Ossana described how her passion to adapt “Brokeback” had not waned since she read the 11-page E. Annie Proulx short story in the New Yorker in 1997. Heslov recalled conversations with co-writer George Clooney at the outbreak of the Iraq War that led to their penning “Good Night.” Inspired by Arthur Miller’s “Crucible,” Clooney and Heslov felt that a film set in the past was an effective way to deal with issues of journalistic responsibility in the present. And Moresco, for his part, insisted “Crash” wasn’t simply about racially charged relations in Los Angeles: “It’s a film about the human condition.”

“My film is about the boner condition,” Apatow quipped. Robin Swicord of “Memoirs of a Geisha” reminded Apatow that despite their apparent differences, both of their films dealt with characters who lose their virginity.

Swicord, Ossana and Josh Olson (“A History of Violence”) discussed the various hurdles in adapting previously published material, Olson noting that he had inserted the much-talked about sex scenes to tailor the project to helmer David Cronenberg’s style. Gill Dennis (“Walk the Line,”) recalled how extensive interviews with Johnny and June Carter Cash provided the honesty, sometimes less than flattering, with which he and James Mangold infused their script.

“Walk the Line” producer James Keach confirmed Dennis’ point at the “Movers and Shakers” panel, noting that Cash “was determined to be both the protagonist and the antagonist” of the film.

Heslov and Ossana wore their producers’ hats at the second panel, moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein. Joining them were Caroline Baron (“Capote”), JC Spink (“A History of Violence”) and Mark Johnson (“The Chronicles of Narnia”). Topics covered included budgets and financing, non-commercial source material and the proliferation of producing credits. (Spink suggested perhaps a packaging or financing credit could replace some of the overused producing credits).

Heslov recalled early “Good Night” development meetings with Warner Bros., where he and Clooney have a deal. When studio execs learned they were planning to make a black-and-white period piece with political overtones, they decided the studio couldn’t possibly recoup its investment and passed. So Clooney and Heslov found private investors to raise their $7.5 million budget.

Baron, too, faced an uphill battle with “Capote.” Not only was there a rival project in development, but she also had to fight the “biopic” stigma. And with a first-time feature director, Bennett Miller, attached, “we were the underdog,” she recalled. Eventually United Artists signed up, and in a fortunate turn of events, Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard came to champion the film when Sony bought out MGM/UA.

On a vastly different scale, Johnson recalled his own struggles when he came on to “Narnia,” already in pre-production. With a budget nearing $180 million and a first-time live action director (Andrew Adamson), Johnson made the unpopular choice to shutter the project for six months until the script was ready. “You face the same problems no matter the budget,” said Johnson. “You’ve got to have a script you completely believe in.”

Ossana, for her part, said that she never perceived her biggest hurdle to be a lack of studio interest (“Brokeback” was variously in development at Columbia and Paramount before landing at Focus Features) but rather she suspected that actors’ reps had talked them out of the gay-themed project. Still, the film’s current success was a sweet reward. A year ago when she and producer James Schamus imagined its theatrical release, they anticipated no more than 400 theaters. Today it’s playing in more than 2,000.

All the writers and producers echoed the mantra that the number of serious and socially minded films released in 2005 suggest that audiences are saying they want movies that connect with them.

“Audiences respond to good stories with strong characters,” Ossana noted. “Hopefully this will be a wake-up call to anyone who finances films.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more