The agonies of screenwriting were on full view Thursday night at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, where 11 scribes nominated for WGA Awards took part in the guild’s Beyond Words program.
One of the biggest laughs from the full house came when “Spotlight” writer Josh Singer admitted that he and writer-director Tom McCarthy spent several years going through the Boston Globe’s investigation of pedophile priests.
“We did research for a long time,” Singer said. “Anything to put off writing.”
McCarthy admitted that interviews with the victims of the scandal was a turning point. “The story really came together once we talked with survivors,” he added.
Both “Spotlight” writers were effusive in their praise of the Boston Globe journalists portrayed in the film, noting that editor Martin “Marty” Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber) even supplied them with extensive emails to keep the timeline straight. They also credited the initial producers, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, who began working on the project soon after the Globe stories broke in 2002.
McCarthy noted that the film appears to be having an impact on the Catholic Church, pointing out that the Vatican commission on clerical sex abuse had attended a private screening of “Spotlight” on Thursday.
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Moderator John August began the 90-minute program by asking each panelist how long they had worked on the project. “Trumbo” screenwriter John McNamara said he had met Ian McLellan Hunter, who had fronted for Dalton Trumbo on “Roman Holiday,” more than three decades ago.
August declared Phyllis Nagy, who adapted “Carol” from Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” as the winner after she responded “18 effing years.”
The discussions also included plenty of references to other movies as inspiration. “The Big Short” writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph said their film broke the fourth wall as a way to engage the audience. McKay cited Woody Allen and Michael Winterbottom films as inspirations for the technique.
“I had seen ’24-Hour Party People,’ which broke the fourth wall masterfully,” he added.
McNamara evoked major laughs a short time later when he praised McKay’s 2008 comedy “Step Brothers,” which stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.
“‘Step Brothers’ is a masterpiece,” he said sincerely. “I’ve seen it 37 times.”
August also evoked provocative responses when he asked the writers to describe a scene they’d written that did not make the final cut. “The Martian” writer Drew Goddard recalled that there was a four-minute scene of how NASA makes canvas that director Ridley Scott cut immediately when he came onto the film.
McNamara said a scene with Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper character — in which she reacted silently to trying to shake hands with a Korean War veteran and discovering he had lost his hand — was excised from “Trumbo.”
And “Straight Outta Compton” writer Jonathan Herman admitted that there was a scene of Dr. Dre’s character — played by Corey Hawkins — smoking “chronic” marijuana that wound up on the editing room floor.
Herman also said that the city itself and the characters’ relationship with it was a major inspiration for the script, adding, “Compton was always supposed to be a major character in the movie.”
Beyond Words was sponsored by the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety.