Eye on the Oscars: The Writer

Compared with directors for hire who must search for their next script, writer-directors seem to have enviable freedom and control.

Yet creativity is not always so easily summoned. Scripts from writer-directors often stem from intimate undertakings, and are expressions of deep and personal moments in their lives.

So even when auteurs have a clear idea of what they want to do, it sometimes seems as if the ideas themselves say when the time is ripe, and then demand to be written.

“It’s a very mysterious experience knowing what you’re going to do next,” says Peter Jackson, “because to me it really is like an organic thing. It’s things that sneak up on you, sometimes you’re not even aware of it.

“You literally don’t know. It’s a mystery. I certainly don’t have a plan.” But he does know what makes an idea bubble up to the top of his to-do list: “Only emotion, only the way that you feel, which is again a mysterious thing.”

It’s a common refrain among such auteurs. Each project comes in its own time.

“This Is 40,” for example, is not a movie Judd Apatow could have written or directed years ago. He had to live it, first.

“Usually I write about what I’m trying to figure out,” says the 44-year-old. “You write a movie to figure out why you’re writing the movie. The movie’s a mix between real stuff, observed stuff, and stuff I make up to keep things interesting.

“Nothing in the movie happened exactly like that — but those were the areas we were working in a fair amount of the time. My wife would never open the bathroom door to see what was taking so long (as Paul Rudd’s wife, played by Apatow’s real-life spouse, Leslie Mann, does in the film), but I fear she will.”

Likewise, “Amour,” which focuses on an elderly couple living through the wife’s slow decline, was very personal for writer-director Michael Haneke. “I had a case that was similar to the one in the film, where someone was suffering and I had to look on and cope with his suffering without being able to do anything about it,” he says through an interpreter.

Haneke insists on handling both writing and directing duties. “I don’t see myself as a director, but as an auteur,” he says. “It was never a question of using other people’s material; it’s just how I saw my position. It is only through the union of the writer and director that you can create … the kind of works I’m interested in making.”

On the other hand, Apatow says he’ll wait until after he’s written a script to decide if he’ll direct it. “If someone else can direct it as well or better than me, there’s no need for me to do it,” he says. “I’m lazy enough that I would let someone else take it on if I thought they could do it.”

For Joe Carnahan, the driving force behind “The Grey” was even more visceral: He needed a break. A break, that is, from wrestling with a studio tentpole, “Mission: Impossible III,” that he eventually quit before it went into production. So he tackled a short story called “Ghost Walker” by Ian McKenzie Jeffers that eventually became his script “The Grey.”

“This was a wonderful, spare, visceral story that was as far from the experience I’d been having as you can get,” Carnahan says. “This was the film that cured me of whatever residual resentment I had left.”

Carnahan had to delay “The Grey” for years so he could get the bills paid with films like “The A-Team,” but once that was complete he realized ruminating on the story for so long had helped him get a grip on it. “That gestation was really good for the process,” he says. “It took about seven years from when I read the story to when it was done.”

Like Carnahan, Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell took years to get around to writing the scripts that became “The Master” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” respectively. A certain amount of distance from the initial flush of delight with an idea sometimes appears to help. P.T. Anderson notes that the original inspiration for what became “The Master” came to him years ago and was “a 90-minute more noir story about a drifter after the war. … I let it incubate for a while,” he adds, until “the material was ready.”

“Silver Linings Playbook” was sitting in Russell’s lap for so long (his adaptation was based on a book by Matthew Quick) that when it was first recommended to him, producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella were still alive. But when he returned to the story post-”Fighter,” he fell in love with its place and characters. “I realized this is a whole area I love, and I could make several films in this area, with particular places and families and neighborhoods and times,” Russell says. “That was a big discovery for me, and I love that.”

Then there are those filmmakers who have a more esoteric interest in their subject matter, and who let their imaginations guide them to the next story they want to make.

“For me, all of the movies I’ve directed are movies that I conceived of not as things to write but as movies to make,” says Wes Anderson (who co-wrote “Moonrise Kingdom” with Roman Coppola). “Writing and directing, for me, are two steps of the same process. My whole motivation to make movies in the first place was because I had stories I wanted to create and imagine.”

For many years, due to rights issues, Peter Jackson didn’t think “The Hobbit” would ever be made, and after seven years making “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he wasn’t interested in making it. But the rights came together, and he invited Guillermo Del Toro on to direct, only to have that incarnation of the project fall apart.

“When Guillermo left that was when emotion kicked in to some degree. The project was without a director, and it was ‘Was this fate sending us a sign?’

“We believe in fate — fate in a strange, superstitious way, where you feel you’re not in control of events and accidents happen. It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about anything else, it felt like the projects come back to us now. The circle is complete.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Writer
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