Posted by amybou on:
In an ideal world, yesterday’s “It Starts with the Script” panel would’ve included "Young Adult"'s Diablo Cody and "Bridesmaids" co-writer Annie Mumolo, and Miranda July would’ve been on the panel to talk about her film “The Future,” rather than in the audience (presumably to support her husband, panelist Mike Mills of “Beginners”). And yes, the panel did consist exclusively of "a bunch of dudes," in the words of one writer friend who decided not to attend for this reason. But putting gender parity aside for a few paragraphs, "It Starts with the Script" was a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of these five funny and talented male writers: JC Chandler (“Margin Call”), Mike Mills ("Beginners”), Jim Rash (“The Descendants”), Will Reiser (“50/50”), and Tate Taylor (screenwriter as well as director of “The Help”).
We heard from Tate Taylor and Jim Rash about their development as writers at The Groundlings, the legendary improv group in Los Angeles. Taylor said that “slowly my sketches kept getting longer and longer,” while Rash talked about the experience of creating characters first as an actor and then later as a writer.
Santa Barbara-reared Mike Mills shared his art school aesthetics and said that “using all kinds of imagery [in film] feels very legitimate and intuitive to me." He spoke in detail about the “slippery” line between autobiography and fiction--"I'm not sure how real 'real' is"--as well as the experience of being “constantly hijacked by memory” as he worked on the film based on his father's coming out of the closet at the age of seventy-five. In making the film, Mills said that he sought to explore "the emotional space that led these two people"--his parents--"to sacrifice so much." (His mother knew that his father was gay when they married in 1955.) As for the nonlinear structure of "Beginners," Mills told the audience that in the film “time is more emotional than chronological—wow, that sounded good—by that I mean, I’m not that smart….I just made myself sound like I had a plan.”
Taylor shared his process of distilling the 222-page first draft of his script, which he had the luxury of adapting before The Help hit The New York Times bestseller list, and even before the novel was published. He and author Kathryn Stockett both grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and have been close friends since the age of five. They even share a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village where Stockett wrote the novel and where Taylor adapted it into a script. "We were going to make an independent film to try to get her book published," he said. Stockett finally let him read the novel after her manuscript was rejected by sixty literary agents. "They're idiots, trust me," Taylor recalled telling Stockett. "Now can I make it into a movie?"
“I gave myself the gift of writing it really long," Taylor said. "When you have over-written, you can cheat a little and grab moments from scenes” and combine these moments with other scenes.
Speaking about the process of watching his adaptation of "The Descendants" make its way on to the screen, Jim Rash (also an actor on "Community") summarized the experience as follows: “The first time, you’re judging; the second time, you’re loving." (“You used bigger words,” he quipped to Mills—“but mine rhymed!”, prompting moderator Anne Thompson to joke, “We have some alpha males up here.”)
Rash also reflected on the challenges of adapting the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings—namely, “to look into the book and find the central story” and to decide "how to take this first person character and get his voice out.”
Perhaps my favorite part of the panel was the glimpse each screenwriter offered into his unique writing process. Mills starts with 5x7 index cards so he can be "as formless as possible...as wild as I could be,” then creates an outline, and finally writes in Final Draft. As for Reiser's process, “I’ll have a basic idea and I'll start thinking about characters,” then he will write down ideas on scraps of paper and email himself material as it occurs to him. “Eventually the characters start talking to me…guiding me to the arc of the story.” When he first puts all the material into one document, it “ends up being a mess of ideas,” which he then goes through with a highlighter.
“For me, it’s all about the first scene,” Rash said. Once he knows what the audience will see first, he can move on to the second scene, and then the third--"and then everything else is insanity.”
As for Chandler, “I have a tiny little notebook that I carry with me." He explained how he'll collect ideas for a project in the notebook--a period of incubation that can take several years. “I write very quickly once I finally sit down...then I usually go into a very intense lockdown.” In the case of "Margin Call," the 82-page script was written in three and a half days and went through very little revision.
In the words of Reiser, “Writing is just a series of choices you make, and everyone makes different choices.”
Putting together a panel of all male writers is also a choice. Next year I hope that a different choice will be made and that at least one of the panelists will be a female writer. Otherwise, next time I should spy a famous female screenwriter/director/performance artist/actress/fiction writer in the audience—all wrapped into one, no less, yet another reason why Miranda July should’ve been on the panel, or perhaps she needs her own panel—I will simply go up to the microphone and urge her to come up to the stage where she belongs.
I suppose there's always a chance that Miranda July will be on the Directors panel on Saturday, February 4 at 11:00am at the Lobero. For more information on the Directors Panel or the Producers Panel, see www.sbiff.org.
Photos of Mike Mills and Tate Taylor courtesy of Robert Redfield. Photo of Miranda July courtesy of my detective work.