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Film Festival Screenwriter Panel
updated: Feb 10, 2014, 8:30 AM

By the Dedicated Staff of edhat.com

The Lobero Theatre was filled with film buffs, writing enthusiasts, and festival go-ers waiting to hear the "It Starts With the Script" panel of screenwriters at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The members of the panel, which is comprised of several extremely talented screenwriters of current Academy Award nominated films, discuss the creative process of screenwriting. The panel is moderated by IndieWIRE’s Anne Thompson. This year’s panelists included: Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), Bob Nelson (Nebraska), Jeff Pope (Philomena), John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle).

After introductions, the moderator jumped right in, posing a question and asking each panelist in turn to answer that question. But like a good game of telephone, the answers evolved as they moved down the line; one writer answering the question of writing process by specifying his style in dealing with a particular director, and the next discussing the process by way of research, and still another by listening to music and reading Playboy (for the historical significance).

The moderator asked each writer which scene they felt was pivotal in their screenplay and/or movie. Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) felt that the microwave scene was a funny way to show affection. John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) felt that in the film, the penultimate scene was the soap scene. However as a writer, his favorite was the mistress (portrayed by Alphre Woodard) scene that felt sort of surreal. Jeff Pope (Philomena) also felt that two scenes were pivotal. First was when Martin confronts the nun who kept Philomena and her son apart. The audience needs an outlet for their frustration, but at the same time, Martin can’t be shown to bully the nun, who is at this point an old and sickly woman. Pope’s personal favorite was the scene in the airport when Philomena is telling Martin about a book, where as a writer he realized he had a skill for writing romantic fiction. For Bob Nelson (Nebraska) it was when Woody visited his decrepit childhood home. Nelson stated that it was hard to write because there was so much to be conveyed by the actor and the scene was trimmed down many times. Craig Borton (Dallas Buyers Club) said that when Ron was told he has AIDs and when Ron said, “I’ve got one life and I want it to mean something,” were pivotal. Each writer had fascinating stories the process of their script becoming a film and how their own creative process worked.

Eric Warren Singer, who wrote American Hustle, appeared to be one of the more veteran screenwriters on the panel. “I don’t think of actors when I write a movie, it messes up their voices in my head,” said Singer. When talking about making it in the business, he stated that stamina is what is important because a screenplay would live or die on its own merits. Before David O. Russell signed on to direct American Hustle, Singer said that Ben Affleck was working on the script to direct it. After Affleck dropped out to do Argo, Russell was brought in and Singer explained how Russell kept the film focused on the characters whereas Affleck was more interested in the actual events.

The screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave, John Ridley, also wrote RedTails which is about the true life events of the Tuskegee Airmen. Ridley became slightly emotional thinking about the powerful stories and said that RedTails prepared him for writing 12 Years A Slave because it was so special. Basing 12 Years A Slave on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, Ridley said “it would be hard for anyone to read this memoir and not want to do something.”

Jeff Pope, who wrote the true life story of Philomena with actor/writer Steve Coogan, said “it’s taken me about 30 years to become an overnight success, so I’m enjoying it.” In between comedic lines he also described the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. He explained that when writing fiction, it’s easier to have everything connect because the writer is creating it. However with non-fiction, he said that there is something unique in the DNA and the story is there, but you have to dig for it and find the pieces that connect.

Particularly entertaining answers were given by Bob Nelson, the writer of Nebraska. When asked his process in writing, he replied that while it might not be for everyone, his plan all along had been to wait until he was 45 years old to write his first screenplay, and then to find a director who would wait another 10 years to make the film. He went on to explain how the story had developed. He had heard of elderly people showing up to cash the fake checks sent out in advertising schemes and the story grew form there. Nelson, who has a background in writing comedy, had the audience cracking up by explaining that he used his own family’s mid-western roots, and actual family stories for inspiration. He mentioned certain scenes from the film that were true; the story of the compressor, as well as the lost dentures on the railroad tracks. Reportedly his brother told him, “It’s not writing, it’s just dictation”. Previous to writing Nebraska, he had only written three minute comedy sketches, “and even those had second act problems,” he said.

Craig Borten, who wrote Dallas Buyers Club, had the longest journey on the writer’s panel. It took 20 years for Dallas Buyers Club to be made. It started when Borten read an article in 1992 about Ron Woodroof smuggling drugs into the US for AIDs patients. Borten tracked Woodroof down and spent 3 days with him compiling 20 hours of interviews. Woodroof told Borten that he wanted his story made into a movie because “people should ask questions.” One month after Borten interviewed Woodroof, he passed away, and 20 years later in 2012, Dallas Buyers Club went into production.

The screenwriters came from all different backgrounds and writing styles, but one common theme ran through them: persistence pays off.


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