Plenty to say at film festival

Repping the best of Hollywood talent, three hot-ticket panels at the Santa Barbara Film Fest’s opening weekend offered helmers, producers and scribes a chance to reflect on their achievements.

Given the opportunity to compare notes in a non-competitive environment, the panelists let loose on issues of art and commerce.

At “Directors on Directing,” moderated by Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, the helmers of five Oscar-nominated films, ranging from veterans (John Lasseter, “Cars”) to novices (Gil Kenan, “Monster House”), discussed artistic collaboration, the merits and demerits of awards shows and the importance of casting.

Lasseter demonstrated good humor about the plethora of awards shows, a topic about which the others were ambivalent. Having driven to the Academy Awards in an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile (a move he planned to repeat this year), Lasseter was determined to enjoy the circus. But the “Sunshine” team noted their film disparages competitive pageants, leading them to feel, in Dayton’s words, “a little conflicted.”

All of the participants fondly recalled watching the Oscars as kids (which, for Kenan, looked as if it could have been last week) and dreaming of success.

As different as animation may seem from live-action, Lasseter avowed, “We’re filmmakers in the same way (that the rest of you are), concerned with character emotion and story structure,” hence Pixar’s detailed storyboarding process.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu recalled the casting process for the multinational “Babel,” during which he enlisted local nonprofessionals in Morocco to fill key roles. In making “Little Miss Sunshine,” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, having had four years to pull their ensemble together, acknowledged how the development process had paid off in the film’s serendipitous casting. Todd Field, meanwhile, recalled how integral Kate Winslet was to the tone of “Little Children,” noting she had pushed to darken her character over New Line execs’ objections.

The producer was the focus of “Movers and Shakers,” led by Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times. Goldstein jumped right into the prickly issue of producing credit, asking Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger if they felt the Academy’s decision to deny them credit on “Little Miss Sunshine,” a best picture nominee, was unfair.

“I don’t know about unfair,” said Yerxa diplomatically. “I’d say unfortunate.” Whatever the ruling, Berger insisted, “We produced this movie.” The topic clearly resonated with Robert Lorenz (“Letters From Iwo Jima”), who painfully recalled how he’d given up a producing credit on “Million Dollar Baby” only to see the film walk away with an Oscar. But none of the producers wanted to turn the panel into a gripe-fest.

Judd Apatow defended the producing credit accorded Will Ferrell’s manager Jimmy Miller for “Talladega Nights,” while Jay Roach freely acknowledged Sacha Baron Cohen as a producer of “Borat.”

Each producer had war stories from the various films. Some, like Jon Kilik (“Babel”), recalled the physical and logistical challenges of shooting in a remote Morocco location. Graham King recalled having to placate nervous studio executives (Warner execs panicked over Jack Nicholson’s “Departed” antics), whereas in another case (“Borat”), the producer’s biggest challenge was how to avoid getting arrested.

Producers also had varying recollections of teaming with directors. Working with Martin Scorsese on “The Aviator,” King recalled an instance where it took the legendary perfectionist 28 takes to get a scene right.

“I have the opposite problem,” quipped Lorenz of working with Clint Eastwood, famous for his economy. “Sometimes I have to plead with Clint for another take.”

Success — and the long, hard road that leads there — also was on the minds of the screenwriters. “It Starts With the Script,” chaired by the Hollywood Reporter’s Anne Thompson, assembled another crop of acclaimed artists. “Little Children,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Babel” and “The Queen” were repped, respectively, by the Oscar-nominated Field, Michael Arndt, Guillermo Arriaga and Peter Morgan. On the comedic side, Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking”) added some levity to the proceedings.

Although their subjects and writing styles couldn’t be more disparate (Arriaga, for instance, said he never does research, while Morgan labeled himself “a research fanatic”), the scribes agreed an initial creative burst accounting for 80% of their respective scripts occurred quickly and rather easily — over a period of days in Arndt’s case, a few weeks in Morgan’s, or two months in Field’s. But the final 20% of the script for all was utterly excruciating, requiring months or even years to pen. That process of revision and refinement, in Arndt’s case, played out over 100 drafts.

Each of the scribes insisted they write because they have to: Morgan called it a “profound compulsion” that requires an obsessive dedication. And Brosh McKenna quoted a writing mentor who told her the equation for success was “ass plus chair.” In each case, the scribes were grateful for a creative team that included them in the filmmaking process.

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