Five scribes opened up about their craft yesterday at a screenwriting panel that topped the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s opening weekend. For the fifth year running, “It Starts With the Script” assembled industry heavy hitters, including Gregory Allen Howard and Oscar nominees Stephen Gaghan, Susannah Grant, Robert Nelson Jacobs and Doug Wright.
Producer Laura Ziskin was back to preside over the hugely popular event at Lobero Hall.
With the WGA strike looming after the collapse of last week’s talks, the writers’ words took on added urgency.
The scribes weighed in on issues of possessory credit, the collaborative process and their desire for greater involvement in production.
On the one hand, the panelists agreed that writers need to be accorded more respect; on the other, all felt lucky to have worked recently with directors who are writers themselves. Gaghan (“Traffic”) and Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) praised Stephen Soderbergh, while Howard (“Remember the Titans”), Jacobs (“Chocolat”) and Wright (“Quills”) acknowledged the receptiveness of Boaz Yakin, Lasse Hallstrom and Philip Kaufman, respectively.
Gaghan deplored the “consistent denigration and erosion of the status of the writer” and called for “a demystification of the filmmaking process”; Howard pointed out that, with few exceptions, writers are generally anonymous in Hollywood.
He added that the threatened strike is largely a battle for acceptance and respect. “It’s all about the script,” Howard added. “That’s where the movie is created.”Jacobs underscored the difference between conceiving an idea and varying it. Once the writer has done his part, “everything else is an interpretive act.”
Still, the question of conceptual provenance rages on. Gaghan recalled one protracted debate in which a writer-director fired off an email to a meddlesome producer, noting, “I think you’ve confused the act of creation with having an opinion.”
None of those scribes participating supported the use of the “film by” possessory credit. Each panelist acknowledged the collaborative involvement of others in shaping their scripts, be it directors, true-life subjects (like Erin Brockovich herself), actors (like Benicio Del Toro in “Traffic”) or, in Wright’s case, even the costume designer.
Wright recalled that the costume designer of “Quills” asked which of his favorite pieces of dialogue had been omitted from the shooting script, then inscribed those lines all over a costume worn by the Marquis de Sade.
Wright, who adapted “Quills” from his own play, stressed the differences between legit and screen productions: “Plays are about what people say, but movies are about what people can say and elect not to.”
Both Gaghan and Howard acknowledged making changes in their scripts that had positive commercial ramifications.All the writers described the frustrations and agonizing perils of the writing process, commonly referring to their writing space as “the torture chamber.”
“I’ve come to learn,” quipped Gaghan, “that ‘Sleep on it’ is a euphemism for ‘Suffer alone.’ ”
Still, they had some positive words for their profession, as well. Grant pointed out that “we’re the only people (in this industry) who can work without permission, and that can be very empowering.”