Hear what he had to say during a panel of Oscar nominated screenwriters several weeks ago at the Los Angeles Film School (hosted by Creative Screenwriting magazine), which included Debra Granik who co-wrote (with Anne Rosellini) and directed Winter’s Bone, based on the textured and rich novel by Daniel Woodrell (which I highly recommend).
‘We never saw the story as dark and depressing but we got many comments that began with the D word,” she said. “And we also heard a lot about all the people in the story being poor.”
Somewhat ironic given that a lot of the characters were also meth cookers.
“Nobody wants to make a film about 50-year-old lesbians, either,” said Stuart Blumberg, who along with Lisa Cholodenko, wrote The Kids Are All Right. He and Cholodenko kept a mantra that was printed onto a cheesy plague that read — Every Wall is a Door. The screenwriting duo would even rub it from time to time to keep going as they toiled for four years trying to make the film.
But that’s how some Hollywood executives think, or rather they often don’t and sometimes wouldn’t know a good story if it bit them on the ass…although thankfully a few did and we have this amazing output from screenwriters represented in the Oscar race.
Still, it wasn’t easy for most of the screenwriters. The producer of Winter’s Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, remembers the day when the company investing $2 million to make their movie backed out…it was Halloween of 2007, ‘it was one of the first times that I cried in a professional situation,” she said.
And The Fighter screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (story by Keith Dorrington, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson) shared how they couldn’t even get financing when Brad Pitt initially expressed interest and eventually had to totally regroup when their budget went from $85 to $30 million.
Even though Toy Story 3 scribe, Michael Arndt (story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Uukrich) knew that his film was going to be made, there was major pressure. “A whole generation of people had grown up with the first two movies so we knew that we couldn’t fuck up the franchise and we had to go for more than bland cuteness.”
One of my favorite films of last year, not only did they do justice to the first two films, the third was my favorite and definitely a work of art. I cried and was genuinely moved by the ending and Arndt said how important it was to hold back until the very end to let go, “you need a moment of surprise even at the end,” he said.
Toy Story 3 won the Oscar for Best Animated Film, frankly how could it not but it deserved real contention for Best Film, too.
The now Oscar winning screenwriter for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin, who won the Golden Globe and the WGA Award) found a tepid reception initially in the industry as he was writing his script about the creation of Facebook. But of course that all changed when the film came out and the crux of the story was structured around whether Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) stole the idea from others and betrayed his closest friend…he did.
”This was never going to be about poking someone on Facebook,” Sorkin added.
David Seidler, the most senior writer on the panel, who penned The Kings Speech, for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, commented that Sorkin uncharacteristically, he said, was being modest. “Try writing a movie with an anti-hero in the lead, it’s not easy.”
Sorkin commended the studio for allowing him to stay true to the tone of his script. “No one ever asked me to have Zuckerberg stuck in a locker at school” to make him more sympathetic,” he said.
As a writer who’s a romantic, Sorkin admitted that he would normally have Zuckerberg connect with the girl who dumped him in the amazing opening scene, but that wouldn’t have been true to the story. But he did add the ficitional scene with Eisenberg friending the girl at the very end of the movie.
Blumberg, who donated sperm while a student at Yale, remembered how executives would say, “couldn’t Annette Bening’s character save the cat or pet the dog, and we said, ‘fuck no.'”
Each of the writers talked about their aspects of their story telling process and the lean years. Sorkin, who started out wanting to act, worked for a singing telegram company and Blumberg dumped law school for living on Ramen noodles for many years. Arndt, too, talked about taking a day job and saving money and then writing and then doing it again until he finally sold Little Miss Sunshine. But perhaps most inspiring for all those wannabe screenwriters in the room was when Johnson shared the ups and downs of his career. After optioning one of his first screenplays he wrote for a film class to Disney, he then had many lean years. He even became credentialed to be a teacher and before he got a job, he received a call about nother script and it changed his life.
Clearly, the panelists have reached a wonderful place in their careers but most didn’t seem to take it for granted. Silver called the process a “fucking horror.”
Yet they all agreed that writers do get better with age. Seidler attested to that. He was living in New Zealand and decided to “pack it all up” and return to America. He began writing a screenplay based on Tucker..and found out that Francis Ford Coppola had bought the rights. “It just so happens that we went to high school together,” he said. In the lore of Hollywood, he and Coppola met and he was hired on to write the screenplay for Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
It was Sorkin though who added the most sobering bit of advice. “I don’t know many good writers who are dumb but I know many very smart people who can’t write,” he said.