SBIFF Writers Panel’s Annual Awesomeness

Santa Barbara International Film Festival Screenwriter Panel at the Arlington Theatre on February 13, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

I hate the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s (SBIFF) Writers Panel.  Rather, I hate writing about the Writers Panel.  Every year, SBIFF gets the best writers from the most interesting films of the year.  They are uniformly witty and insightful and erudite and speak too fast.  It’s a fool’s errand trying to come up with adjectives and any sort of prose and I ran out of paper.  I am, at best, ChatGPT compared to their words born of human flesh.  And, then the last question is about their writing process which covers their inventive procrastination techniques.  I can’t procrastinate. 

In any case, here’s my woefully inadequate attempt to capture the evening.  Once again, the panel was moderated by Anne Thompson of Indiewire.  Her winning formula is to ask the following:  1) resume/how did you become a screenwriter  2) specific, thoughtful questions about each film, with follow ups  3) writing process and  4) next project.

The writers were: 

  • Cord Jefferson, American Fiction
  • Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall
  • Josh Singer, Maestro
  • Samy Burch, May December
  • Celine Song, Past Lives
  • Tony McNamara, Poor Things
  • David Hemingson, The Holdovers
Santa Barbara International Film Festival Screenwriter Panel at the Arlington Theatre on February 13, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

There was an innocent but awkward moment at the beginning when Ann Thompson introduced Harari as the husband of Justine Triet, the co-writer and director of Anatomy of a Fall.  He quickly corrected her, saying they were not married.  She then said “but you have two children together” which I don’t think she meant as disapproval of out-of-wedlock procreation. Shortly thereafter, Burch said of her co-writer and also partner, “if we are tracking marriage, we are unmarried but living together.” It was an endearing bit of imperfection that garnered audience chuckles.

I will also add that a neighboring seat mate, upon seeing the scene from Maestro in which Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan have an epic argument, said out loud “wow, fuck” with the same level of awe as audiences watching the nuclear test scene from Oppenheimer.  Writers rarely evoke that kind of response.

Each writer had an interesting journey on how they got their start with screenwriting. A few attended law school, one questioned whether to become a therapist, and a lot of them had their start in television writing.

L-R Arthur Harari, David Hemingson, and Cord Jefferson at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Screenwriter Panel at the Arlington Theatre on February 13, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

Hemingson spoke of how The Holdovers was his first produced script after almost 30 years of trying. Director Alexander Payne contacted him after watching his pilot for a series set at a New England boarding school based on his own experiences. At first he thought it was a prank but noticed the Omaha area code and realized it was actually Payne.

Hemingson then adapted the pilot script into the screenplay and used a series of personal stories. He said poignantly that his mom was a nurse and that the Da’Vine Joy Randolph character was a homage to her compassion. The quote “life is like a henhouse ladder, shitty and short” came from a father-figure in his life.

Burch collaborated with her partner on the story for May-December, but she wrote the script. The project fit into the true crime renaissance where she tried to balance the humor with the darkenss of the story. When asked if it was loosely about Mary Kay Letourneau, Burch stated no, it’s not a biopic, but it served as a jumping off point. She said growing up in the 90s it’s almost impossible to avoid the Letourneau story, as well as other high-profile crime cases.

Harari spoke of being holed up with Triet during the pandemic when they began writing Anatomy of a Fall, which he said allowed them to work day and night without boundaries.  Thompson joked that the film is not autobiographical since he is still alive.  She asked, “did you fight?” He was, once again, a little taken aback and said, “are you really asking that question? I’m offended.” But, then said, of course like any couple, but that there was more time non-fighting than fighting, otherwise there wouldn’t be a script. 

Of the ambiguous ending, he said that the film is about not knowing but having to decide whether to believe or not.

Celine Song speaking at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Screenwriter Panel at the Arlington Theatre on February 13, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

American Fiction was adapted from a popular book, Erasure by Percival Everett, into a screenplay by Cord Jefferson. He noted that “novels are the art form that most resembles being in someone’s brain.”

The screenplay was his passion project, not done for money or professional growth.  He said he “felt like the book was specifically written for him” and after completing the script it gave him the confidence to direct for the first time noting that, while he may not know what cameral lens to use, he knows the characters inside and out and could ask “how do we light him to show his loneliness in this scene?”

Poor Things was Tony McNamara’s first adaptation and starting with the book whose central character has a “women’s body with the baby’s brain” was kind of crazy, he said.  He noted that the pleasure was stirring a fantasy coming-of-age script with a “character living in a way none of us live.”

Despite the weirdness, he said working with the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, was weirdly low key with a “just try it” attitude about the weird ideas.  Regarding the source of the Weddeburn character, his wife told him stories about the idiots she went on dates with…and she was sort of into it.

Josh Singer spoke about how long it took Maestro to get made with earlier versions having Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg attached before Bradley Cooper took it over. He described Cooper as a little obsessive, but in a good way, often doing more research on character’s and history than Singer had done.

He referenced the current “tryhard” terminology which has a negative connotation.  Here’s a definition: The term tryhard is commonly used in gaming communities to describe a person who is overly focused on winning and puts in excessive effort to achieve victory.  But, he defended trying hard as a good work ethic.

Anne Thompson, Samy Burch, and Arthur Harari at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Screenwriter Panel at the Arlington Theatre on February 13, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

The inspiration for Past Lives came to Celine Song when she was at a bar with her American boyfriend and her Korean childhood friend, translating between the two. Being in the middle she felt like she was “translating between two parts of her history” and it crafted the idea of our past, present, and future converging into one.

Ann Thompson said the film was about the “road not taken” and that we all ruminate about what might have been. Song said if her mother were to describe what Song was like now compared to as a child she would have said, “she was exactly the same but totally different.”

When discussing process the majority of the writers had varying versions and styles of procrastination, except Cord Jefferson. He described working on about six projects at once, getting up at 6:00 a.m. to begin writing and re-writing, and re-writing, until it’s good. While the other screenwriters were wide-eyed at his description he laughed and said it’s likely due to his overbearing father’s words in his head about working harder.

Thompson ended the panel asking what projects writers are working on now and, surprisingly, there were about three different western films. A remake of Bullitt could be on the way, a limited series with Scarlett Johansson, and another Nebraska-themed project with Alexander Payne, just to name a few.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival is a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts and educational organization dedicated to discovering and showcasing the best in independent and international cinema. Learn more at

Mahil Senathirajah

Written by Mahil Senathirajah

Mahil Senathirajah is an independent film consultant and contributing writer to

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