Lively weekend at Santa Barbara Fest

Crowds, nominees turn out for packed panels

A roster of top writers and producers, including several Oscar nominees, toplined a pair of packed panels during the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s opening weekend. Event runs until Feb. 6.

Among the fest’s most eagerly awaited annual events, It Starts With the Script assembled six scribes, while the Movers and Shakers panel brought together a half-dozen top producers.

The scribes’ topics included work habits, inspiration, and the necessity of knowing a narrative’s outcome. The producers, for their part, compared notes on budgetary constraints, development roadblocks, and the unpredictability of the ratings process.

Four films each had writer-producer representation: “Toy Story 3” (scribe Michael Arndt, producer Darla K. Anderson); “The King’s Speech” (David Seidler, Iain Canning); “The Fighter” (Scott Silver, Todd Lieberman); and “The Social Network” (Aaron Sorkin, Michael De Luca).

Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”) and Charlie Mitchell (“Get Low”) rounded out the writers’ panel. Alix Madigan (“Winter’s Bone”) and Jamie Patricof (“Blue Valentine”) completed the producers group.

Most of the writers acknowledged a propensity to procrastinate. “To the untrained eye,” said Sorkin of his writing process, “it looks a lot like I’m lying on the couch watching ESPN.” Added Mitchell, “I get a lot of other things done when I’m writing.”

It wasn’t laziness, however, that took Seidler over two decades to get “The King’s Speech” made; it was the express wish of the Queen Mother that he wait. “Not while I’m alive,” she replied when Seidler sought her permission back in the 1980s. He never counted on her living to 102.

For most of the scribes, a personal connection deepened their own investment in their story. Seidler, for example, was once a stutterer like King George; Silver, a native of Lowell, Mass., knew his film’s territory well; and Cholodenko and her wife, like their subjects, became parents through a sperm donor.

The potential for a great story arc is what lured Sorkin. When he first learned of the project that became “The Social Network,” he immediately responded to its elements of friendship, power, loyalty and class. “It’s a story as old as storytelling, the kind of story that Aeschylus, Shakespeare … (or) Paddy Chayefsky would have told,” Sorkin said. “Luckily for me, none of those guys was available.”

As authors of truth-based tales, Sorkin, Silver and Seidler all had to address questions of accuracy in their writing process. For research, Sorkin availed himself of legal documents and eyewitness accounts; Silver consulted extensively with subjects Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund; and Seidler discovered that one of his uncles, also a childhood stutterer, had studied with the king’s speech therapist Lionel Logue.But occasional dramatic license was inevitable, insisted producer De Luca.

Even though “The Social Network” was vetted and sourced to “within an inch of its life,” a writer might create a composite character, as Sorkin did, or condense a timeline, as Silver did, for the sake of narrative simplicity and dramatic efficacy.

With production costs ranging from the miniscule (“Blue Valentine”) to the enormous (“Toy Story 3”), the producers generally agreed that their projects were better because, not in spite of, their constraints.

When an NC-17 rating threatened to torpedo “Blue Valentine’s” chance of a commercial release, Patricof said, an appeal to the MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration resulted in a unanimous overturn. “It seems there’s a disconnect [within the organization], Patricof said. “They should figure out a better set of guidelines.”Part therapist, part bodyguard to the material, while also playing mediator, the producers agreed there’s a fair amount of improvisation in their job. “You’re always trying to figure out how to whittle the film down to its core, how to condense locations, decrease the number of shooting days, or shoot more scenes in a day,” said Lieberman. Said “Toy Story’s” Anderson, “No matter how many times you’ve done it, the creative process will bring you to your knees.”