'Start With a Script' panel offers advice, quips

Saturday’s writers panel at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, moderated by Variety‘s Anne Thompson, offered no shortage of writerly quips, anecdotes and career advice.

The panel, “It Starts With the Script,” is a longtime festival favorite. This year’s edition featured the scribes of a Western (Robert Knott, “Appaloosa”), an animated fable (Andrew Stanton, “Wall-E”), a political biopic (Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”) and an intimate drama (Tom McCarthy, “The Visitor”).

Though their projects and styles vary greatly, the scripters all agreed that overcoming a mental block is a writer’s toughest challenge. Each had his own coping strategy.

“I drink a lot,” deadpanned Knott, “and I start at about 3 a.m.”

Caffeine, not alcohol, was Black’s drug of choice during the writing and rewriting of “Milk,” which took place at a coffee shop. Stanton, for his part, likened the supportive work environment and the creative freedom of Pixar to “living in fairyland,” though he acknowledged that the periodic peer review sessions can be unsparingly, painfully honest.

For McCarthy, the creative process is a private one, involving long walks with his dog, much rumination and, eventually, an anonymous solicitation to readers at his own agency — a move that yielded some harsh, but eventually helpful, feedback.

The idea for “The Visitor” began with McCarthy’s image of Walter, the aloof professor played by Richard Jenkins. McCarthy said he’d always envisioned either Jenkins or a young Gene Hackman playing Walter. “But since the young Gene Hackman was no longer available,” McCarthy quipped, “Richard was the obvious choice.” He added that Jenkins had “a bit of a tabula rasa” quality that was ideal for the role.

If Jenkins’ casting came without baggage, nothing could be less true of a well-trod genre like the Western. In writing “Appaloosa” with Ed Harris, Knott was well aware of the associations and expectations implicit in the oater’s structure.

Knott said it was as if they were writing two scripts: “One was the words, the other was the subtext. You’re always thinking about what isn’t being said.”

Meanwhile, Stanton disputed one of the popular assumptions about “Wall-E,” noting that what wasn’t being said was not the same thing as an absence of dialogue. He said he’d always conceived the first half-hour of the film (which had been gestating, in various forms, since 1994) as filled with a language that the rest of us couldn’t understand — a plan aptly realized in Ben Burtt’s imaginative sound design.

Often getting that script into production person can take a combination of luck and timing. For Black it was Cleve Jones, a consultant during his research and a character in the film, who got the “Milk” script to Gus Van Sant; shooting began a mere five months later.

All the scribes agreed on the need to go through multiple revisions — about 24 in the case of McCarthy’s “The Visitor.” “Rewriting is writing,” Knott said. “There’s no other way.” And Stanton shared his own work motto: “Be wrong as fast as you can,” he said. “It’s like puberty; you can’t avoid it. You’ve got to go through it to get to the good stuff.”

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