“I’m in the torture chamber.”
That’s how Robert Nelson Jacobs, up for an Academy Award for his adapted screenplay for “Chocolat,” described — during a panel discussion Tuesday night at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills — the process of hammering out a screenplay.
Half a dozen screenwriters up for Oscars and WGA Awards did not sugarcoat their advice on surviving the rigors of scripting as they addressed an audience of about 500.
“I can be stuck for months on what kind of mood a person has when they’re walking into a room,” said Kenneth Lonergan, writer-director of “You Can Count on Me.”
“I like to think about the story for half a year,” said Susannah Grant, who wrote “Erin Brockovich.” “I try not to talk about it too much, to build up enough juice to tell the story.”
“I do tell the story all the time,” responded David Franzoni, one of the writers of “Gladiator” with John Logan and William Nicholson. “And I spent as much time as possible with the historical sources.”
“Don’t ever make it (the script) worse,” said Steve Pink, who wrote “High Fidelity” with D.V. DeVicentis, John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg, speaking on how to react to script notes from studio execs.
Lonergan drew the biggest applause of the event with his response to the same question: “They are always trying to move an original idea to the nearest available cliche and your job is to take the cliche to the nearest original idea.”
The scribes tabbed research screenings as among the worst parts of the process. Lonergan called it “confusing and miserable,” while DeVicentis said, “It devolves to the point where guys are drawing cartoons on the response forms.”
The writers also cautioned that there’s no set formula for coming up with script concepts. “If I’m trying to force an idea, it will either not come or be abysmal,” Grant said.
Franzoni said the basic idea for “Gladiator” originated several decades ago while he was motorcycling around Europe. “I kept seeing coliseums while I was bumming around.”
The event, sponsored by WGA and Daily Variety, was moderated by Ron Bass (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”).