If this year’s Oscar-nominated screenwriters had a do-over, or some extra time in the editing bay, a few things would have been different in some of the top films of 2015, the scribes told a Hollywood audience this week.
“Straight Outta Compton” could have gone to a “darker and grittier and a little more honest” place regarding the past of some of its lead characters, suggested co-writer Jonathan Herman. Animated Pixar blockbuster “Inside Out” might have preserved a character from early story talks: lederhosen-wearing, irony-spewing Schadenfreude, said Josh Cooley, co-writer of the animated hit. Other panelists suggested characters who deserved more screen time — Amy Ryan and Sarah Paulson, for example, in their supporting turns in “Bridge of Spies” and “Carol,” respectively.
The spate of remake suggestions were a telling part of the discussion, as 10 of the men and women nominated for the Academy Award for best screenwriting (both originals and adaptations) appeared on a panel Monday night, before a standing-room-only crowd at the Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood.
The musing about scenes and characters that could-have-been seemed to delight the roughly 300 in attendance at the film school, across Sunset Boulevard from the Cinerama Dome. But the film students and cinephiles were also treated to tips about craft (improv is good!), procrastination (Facebook time can lead to reading and then a long nap!), the value of research (it added a key plot twist to “Spotlight”), and persistence (your script finally gets accepted when all hope is lost and/or when dealing poker for a living seems like a real option.) Those views from Hollywood’s front lines came, respectively, from “The Big Short” co-writer Charles Randolph, “Straight Outta Compton” scribe Herman, “Spotlight” co-writer Josh Singer and “Carol” scripter Phyllis Nagy. The latter had become so hopeless about her effort to bring Carol to the screen that she traveled to Las Vegas for croupier school. Then the big call came in.
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The ninth annual event featured a brisk review of the travails of writing for the screen, along with some insights into what the writers thought they got right and what they wished they could improve on, if they had the time or opportunity. Moderating the panel was Jeff Goldsmith, a digital publisher and podcaster on all things cinematic.
Several of the Oscar hopefuls told Goldsmith that it often took their fellow writers, or directors, to remind them that a simple image can often reveal more than pages of dialogue. In “The Big Short,” a wood-block Jenga game described teetering bond markets in a way words could not. And a single tiny plant sprouting from the ground stood in for the rebirth of Matt Damon’s character in “The Martian.” And in “Straight Outta Compton,” the image of blue and red bandanas tied together signaled the union of the usually implacable foes and resolve in the black community against police violence.
An important breakthrough for young screenwriter Singer, working with director and co-writer Tom McCarthy, was that there can never be too much research. McCarthy suggested they needed a sit down with lawyer Eric MacLeish, who had defended pedophile priests. Singer thought there was nothing left to gain. But MacLeish shocked them when he told them that — far from being a stolid defender of the guilty priests –he had gone to the Boston Globe years earlier to reveal that the archdiocese had found 20 priests guilty of molesting young children.
The revelation of the newspaper’s own inattention, and partial complicity, in the priest abuse scandal became a central subplot of the story. It implicated Spotlight team leader Walter “Robby” Robinson (played by Michael Keaton) and changed the dynamic of the film to suggest that complicity for such failures falls in many camps. “We felt bad for Robby, who we love,” said Singer, “but he was good enough to recognize this was an important part of the story.”
Several of the writers spoke about how their films didn’t fully resonate with them until after they saw them on the screen, in front of an audience.
“Straight Outta Compton’s” Herman had the revelation that as a gay white man, he actually felt some commonality with the young black rappers featured in the film. Herman explained that he had spent more than half his life as a closeted gay man, struggling with issues of identity and discrimination.
“I am not going to say I knew what it was like to grow up in Compton in the 1980s,” Herman said. “But I know what it’s like to be disrespected or to have your peers disrespected or to have your rights taken away from you and to be dehumanized. … I could identify with that part of it, of not being seen or not being respected by other people.”
For Drew Goddard, writer of “The Martian,” there was an epiphany that came only when he brought the film to his parents’ home town of Los Alamos, N.M. His mother, a teacher, had brought her class to the screening. Damon’s character ends the film as a teacher. Goddard’s father, a doctor, won ringing praise from an audience member, who described how the elder Goddard had saved his wife’s life. Like the astronauts in the film, the Goddards “do not give up on people,” the fan concluded. Following the touching tribute, the screenwriting Goddard said: “I thought, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, this is a movie about my parents!’”
Moderator Goldsmith saved the toughest question for the end of the 90-minute session. He asked each of the writers to say what they would change about the other Oscar-nominated films. The query drew groans and laughter from the audience and demurrals from most of the panelists. “Bridge of Spies” co-writer Matt Charman, quipped, “I actually feel physically sick at hearing that question.” “Spotlight” director and co-writer Tom McCarthy agreed, saying “It would hurt my brain” to try to pick apart films he loved.
But the “Straight Outta Compton” co-writer Andrea Berloff mused about re-doing a couple of the scenes in Elizabethan English. Leading off, “The Big Short” writer Randolph did not shy away from the challenge, but he chose to comment on a film not up for the screenwriting award, “Steve Jobs.”
Randolph said he was not interested in rewriting “Jobs,” which was penned by Aaron Sorkin, from the Walter Isaacson biography. “I think ‘Steve Jobs’ is a really underrated film this year, frankly,” Randolph continued. Moderator Goldsmith interjected, “It’s a great film” and Randolph concluded: “Yeah, it’s really good. For me, it’s the casting that is problematic. So I would just like to be in the casting, when they are talking about [Michael] Fassbender and say [lowering his voice to a whisper]: ‘No don’t.’ He’s a great actor. I just don’t think he’s that character.”
Goldsmith responded, “He won an Oscar [nomination] for his portrayal of Steve Jobs” then added with mock menace: “And he happens to be here today!” That drew a burst of laughter from the audience, joined by Randolph.
In an evening focusing on lessons learned, the writers talked about trusting their instincts, improvisation sometimes producing better results than the scripted word and audiences’ responses to challenging material.
Tom McCarthy, co-writer and director of “Spotlight,” said he has been repeatedly amazed, and heartened, by what fans gleaned from his film — granular details he thought might have gone unnoticed.
“So maybe the take away is don’t underestimate, ever, your audience, but continue to challenge them, challenge them, challenge them,” said McCarthy. “And the audience — if the film is well made — will respond. They will lean into the picture and come to you. And ultimately that’s what you want from an audience. You want that kind of engagement.”