The scribes behind seven of the year’s top awards contenders came together at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Saturday to discuss the most challenging scenes they had to write, their unique writing processes and crafting stories that fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”) said he learned how to write by taking note of what didn’t work. And he confessed, as a former actor, that he had plenty of practice working through bad material.
“I spent most of my time on TV shows kind of spewing exposition,” he said. “When I write I almost never use dialogue to move the plot forward because I understand painfully the traps. I try to have the lines tell you something about the character.”
He said he wasn’t sure what genre you could call his film, but that part of the fun for him is bending genres and playing with their ideas. “Hell or High Water” is full of western, buddy comedy and heist movie tropes, but underneath it all, he had one simple story to tell: “The death of a way of life.”
For Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”), it was the emotional, visceral reaction he had to reading Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” that forced him to work through the material as a screenplay. “I was in tears,” he said. “I hugged everyone within walking distance, took a long breath and thought, ‘How can I get this to more people and broadcast it to a larger audience?'”
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He went to the major studios with a passionate pitch, but everyone turned him down. Still, he couldn’t let it go. “I ended up just writing this on spec and everyone said, ‘This is the definition of a waste of time,'” he said.
Heisserer also mentioned that there was one studio in particular that said they would make the film if he changed the lead to a male, which totally flies in the face of the maternal particulars of Chiang’s story. “Mentally I thought, ‘I am never coming back to this studio again,'” Heisserer said. “And I won’t.”
“Deadpool” landed a Writers Guild nomination for Rhett Reese, who co-wrote with Paul Wernick. He said that star and producer Ryan Reynolds encouraged the duo to “write it as dark as our minds would go, as silly and sexual and violent as we wanted,” Reese said. “So we did that, and it sat on a shelf for six years.”
What it took to get the movie off the ground was producer Simon Kinberg going to Fox suits and saying, “Let’s do something Marvel and Disney can’t do.” That meant owning the irreverent nature of the source material. And with $750 million in global box office receipts to show for it, it proved to be a smart risk.
“It really feels like an apple among oranges with big studio movies,” Reese said. “I think that contributed to its success.
Theodore Melfi, who also participated in the festival’s producers panel earlier in the morning, was working from a book proposal and a draft that writer Allison Schroeder had previously written. Like the irreverence of “Deadpool,” or the unconventional science-fiction of “Arrival,” it was a project that strayed away from the safe Hollywood path.
“It has everything in a movie you’re not supposed to do in Hollywood — female leads, math, the female leads are black,” he said. “It’s all these things where they say, ‘You’ll never make money.'”
He noted that the most difficult scene to nail down was a scene that ended up being a favorite for many viewers. As Kirsten Dunst and Octavia Spencer’s characters share a bathroom for the first time, Dunst says, “Despite what you think, I don’t have anything against y’all,” to which Spencer replies, “I know you probably believe that.” Finding the right tone was tricky, on the page and on the set. Melfi said after a number of takes with Spencer understandably delivering her line in an aggressive manner, he asked her to try one with a tone of forgiveness. It makes it so much more of a dagger. “We wanted the scene to define how we feel about current racism,” Melfi said.
Santa Barbara’s own Mike Mills, who picked up something of a surprise Oscar nomination for “20th Century Women” after it seemed the film had lost steam on the circuit, spoke again about how this film was inspired by his mother, much like “Beginners” was inspired by his father.
“My goal was to try to communicate my mom to the audience, but people are so much more layered and complicated than to just describe them on the page,” he said. “My mom was this Humphrey Bogart/Amelia Earhart character who grew up in the ’30s and was raising this kid here [in Santa Barbara]. What a fish out of historical water she was.”
Meanwhile Luke Davies spoke to the challenge of how to best structure his film, “Lion.” Conventional wisdom, he said, would be to establish the adult characters so that the film could lead with actors like Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, and then flashback to the young character’s childhood to fill in the gaps. But that felt wrong.
“We just believed this catastrophic journey could hold the film up,” he said. “We knew we would come to the place of wanting him to find home.”
Davies also has a unique process of paying someone to transcribe his dictation when he’s working on a project, because it allows him to get outside of his own head a bit.
Finally, Phil Johnston (“Zootopia”) was the odd one out, without a WGA or Oscar nomination. But of course, with the WGA, that has to do with signatory issues where animated productions are concerned. But with $1 billion in global box office receipts, “Who needs an Oscar,” Johnston quipped.
Making an animated film about heady themes like racism might have been seen as dicey waters for a big company like Disney, but Johnston said the studio’s only concern was that it not be treacly or simplistic. “They pushed us to take it as far as we could,” he said. “On paper, this sounds like it could be an after school special disaster. But if you don’t go far enough, that’s when you run into trouble.”