Screenwriters Take the Stage at Santa Barbara Film Festival

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Screenwriters Take the Stage at Santa Barbara Film Festival
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Paul Schrader, Kevin Willmott, Will Fetters (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF)

By Lauren Bray

This past year's most decorated screenwriters converged for the Screenwriting Panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Saturday afternoon.

Heavy rain doused the Santa Barbara area which made for an anxious crowd huddled outside the sold-out Lobero Theater. With Highway 101 being shut down earlier that morning, many were unsure if all or any of the seven panelists would make it. 

While people muscled their way inside and jockeyed for position to get a view that was virtually the same for everyone. I even heard a tall man ask a shorter woman in the front rows to remove her beanie because it "obstructed his view" of three people on a highly elevated stage. 

Although the rain can make people a bit grumpy, there were two of the seven screenwriters who made it to the event ready to entertain. Roger Durling was first to take the stage and joked, "Welcome to the film festival's version of 'Survivor,'" which lightened the mood. Paul Schrader (“First Reformed”) and Kevin Willmott (“BlacKkKlansman”) then took the stage with moderator Anne Thompson from Indiewire.

Both writers spoke of their early career and previous projects. Willmott is a longtime collaborator with Spike Lee and professor at the University of Kansas known for writing "Chi-raq" and "CSA: The Confederate States of America." Paul Schrader collaborated with Martin Scorsese on four films, most notably "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." 

Oscar-nominated "BlacKkKlansman" is an adapted screenplay from Ron Stallworth's memoir about infiltrating the KKK in Colorado Springs as an undercover Black police officer in the late 1970's. Willmott spoke of how the film bridged the gap from the past to today using racist language and phrases stating how the phrase "America First" was first used in 1939 during a Nazi rally at Madison Square Gardens and KKK leader David Duke used "Make America Great Again," in the 1970's. 

Willmott went on to say that the violent white nationalist protest where they murdered one woman happened during the production of "BlacKkKlansman" which immediately made Spike Lee want to include real footage in the film. After the film premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Willmott said, "You could tell the world is worried about us. What we have become and what we're becoming."

Expanding on the topic of racism in film, Willmott went on to say, "the more you're uncomfortable, the better American you are... It's in the discomfort that we will save ourselves." 

Halfway through the discussion, Will Fetters ("A Star is Born") joined the panelists on stage stating that he was finally able to get through all the traffic.

Fetters discussed the challenge of writing a script for a film that's had numerous remakes. He decided to look at the shift in the cultural landscape and what has changed since the previous editions. He noticed that fame could no longer be the destination because in today's world, nearly everyone can achieve it, so he wanted to explore what happens after the fame. The idea of a main succeeding and man failing, but him not being jealous of her just concerned about the purity of her expression was the main focal point.

Thompson asked the three men what their writing process is like and all agreed they have "binge-writing" styles and aren't very disciplined. 


Learn more about the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and its events at sbiff.org.

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