Screenwriters Talk Shop at the Santa Barbara Film Festival

By Lauren Bray, edhat staff

Screenwriters from nine acclaimed movies this past year joined the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s “Writer’s Panel” Saturday afternoon.

The panel started with clips from each writer’s films before they filed onto the stage. Kazuo Ishiguro (Living), Rian Johnson (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery), Tony Kushner (The Fabelmans), Ruben Östlund (Triangle of Sadness), Lesley Paterson (All Quiet on the Western Front), Sarah Polley (Women Talking), Daniel Scheinert (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin), and Todd Field (Tár) all joining.

SBIFF veteran Anne Thompason, IndieWire Editor-at-Large, moderated the event and began by asking each of the panelists about their path to becoming a screenwriter. All star Ishiguro is a praised contemporary fiction author and was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, Paterson is a world champion triathlete, Polley started acting as a child, McDonagh and Kushner both celebrated playwrights, and Scheinert a sought after music video director with his partner Daniel Kwan.

Johnson spoke to his efforts to take the whodunnit form, something that used to be a mechanism for exploring the challenges of the time, and dust off the cozy period elements that have managed to creep in, making it once again a sort of microcosm of the larger world. He also responded to the idea that his Miles Bron character, played by Ed Norton, was not a one-to-one critique of a certain tech titan, but more on the workings of power structures and a general jab at the world of “tech douche-bags.”

Paterson shared a story about the overlap between her athletic and film pursuits, explaining that she had to win a triathlon with a broken shoulder to make the money needed to keep the film rights. Which she did, although noting it was quite difficult to swim with one arm. She also broke down the idea behind the opening of the film following the soldier uniform, explaining that it represented the main theme of the film, uniforms mattered more than men who wore them.

Screenwriter’s Panel at SBIFF 2023 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

Polley dove a bit deeper into the development process behind Women Talking, sharing that she actually wrote different script passes for each character in the film, helping to track it all out and give the characters space and respect. Sarah also touched on the decision to keep the threat off-screen, noting that to her, showing sexual assault is rarely additive, both in terms of understanding and messaging.

Kushner talked about the process of getting Steven Spielberg’s life story and convincing him to turn it into a picture. It wasn’t until Spielberg’s mother passed and his father was in his hundreds that things changed. Kushner said after a particularly volatile experience working on West Side Story together, the pair did some interviews around Spielberg’s past to sort of deal with the tension between them, eventually convincing Speilberg it was time. Speaking to the film’s somewhat unorthodox structure, Kushner noted that it was very different for Spielberg, but also that the sort of epic, episodic nature, covering 3 states and 12 years, was always non-negotiable.

Scheinert talked about the pull towards something bigger after going through the Sundance circuit. In that way, Everything Everywhere All at Once was almost his and Daniel Kwan’s shot at a Marvel film, with the pair looking at what they would do with that kind of large-scale action piece. He also spoke to the sheer length behind the film’s development, with constant delays giving him and Kwan the space to really refine the script.

Field also spoke to the development process, taking special note of the sort of free reign he was given on Tár by Focus Features. The character had been running around his brain for 10 years, with the focus more on her role in a particular power structure than her specific relationship to classical music. He met Cate Blanchett 7 years prior and was astounded by her ability to think like a filmmaker, really engaging with projects holistically.

McDonagh talked about the tonal balance of his work, thinking about his projects more as dramas than comedies. He also talked about a certain scene in The Banshees of Inisherin as pivotal, helping to open the audience’s eyes to another side of his characters. As for the hard artistic bent towards isolation represented by one of the characters in his work, Martin noted that he doesn’t quite subscribe to it.

Östlund went into the elements from his real life that made it into the film, like the hilarious retalling of a fight with his wife about who should pay the dinner check early on in their relationship. He also spoke about the lengthy process of editing the vomiting scene in Triangle of Sadness, sharing how the months spent in the editing room desensitized him to the grossness, a fact he became aware of upon seeing it with a new audience.

When asked about their writing process, Ishiguro stated he didn’t really have one and wrote freely as he did with his novels. Johnson credited his love of structure to a Robert McKee writing seminar he took at age 17, Polley said her process is different depending on the project but the added responsibility of children forces her to grab every second she can to get the script down, helping her to be less precious about her work. Kushner noted the sheer terror he feels while writing, hoping to avoid it at all costs and almost having to trick himself into it. 

The 38th Santa Barbara International Film Festival runs through February 18. Official events including screenings, filmmaker Q&As, industry panels, and celebrity tributes, will be held throughout the city, including at the historic Arlington Theatre. Passes and tickets are on sale now at


Written by lauren

Lauren is the Publisher of She enjoys short walks on the beach, interesting facts about bees, and any kind of homemade cookie.

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