I attended a most engaging Screenwriter's Panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, in the historic Lobero Theater, and made a somewhat clumsy if ultimately successful attempt at recording it using my iPhone. Herewith is the transcription of this panel, brought to you in several parts in a somewhat clumsy if ultimately successful attempt to drive up site traffic. (Well, also because it's taking a long while to transcribe this sucker. And because we all prefer reading things in more manageable chunks.) The entirely affable panel brought together several of this year's Oscar-nominated scribes: David Magee (Life of Pi), Rian Johnson (Looper), John Gatins (Flight), Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom), and Stephen Chbosky (Perks of Being a Wallflower), and was moderated by Anne Thompson of IndieWire. I have edited this only marginally, cut it down in a few places but otherwise it's pretty much direct and raw. Enjoy. --Craig P
Anne Thompson: David, you're one of the people here who've done an adapted screenplay. Talk about why it took 10 years to do Life of Pi.
David Magee: I wasn't the initial screenwriter and didn't look at previous drafts. The challenge with this book is it's very episodic, it's written in 100 chapters, fragments, snapshots of the life of Pi. So much of it is a philosophical reflection of what he went through, static images of his suffering on the boat. The challenge was to find an arc to try to carry that story of what character goes though. In addition it's hard to convince the studio to make a movie about an Indian boy [actor] no one's heard of on a boat with a tiger develop CGI tiger or to try to spend 100s of hours to convince a real tiger to do what you need it to do. [laughter] The cost of the film was going to be prohibitive to make so the advantage we got was to have Ang Lee come aboard the film to direct it. At that point there was enough faith that something amazing was going to happen.
Rian Johnson, Looper, an original sci-fi script of great complexity, explain the degree of difficulty in making a time travel film where things are clear and concise enough.
RJ: Yeah trying to make things as simple as possible, which may sound weird looking at the actual film, but especially when you have time travel enter the story there's a lot of work to go into making it work, though it's the same as with any story, it's about trying to tell the most with the least. But it's doing it with concept of time travel,and lashing yourself to the mast of the story, make sure you never stopping at a moment where the audience cares about what is happening to have to explain something.
John Gatins, you've been writing for a long time, what was the degree of difficulty on Flight, something you were resisting, challenges…?
[long pause] RJ: Come on answer.
[ laughter] I'm gonna let Rian Johnson answer that.
RJ: Well I've done a lot of drinking in my own life...[laughter]
Anne: That's sort of where I wanted you to go actually.
JG: Oh okay. Rian will be my interpreter. Yeah I got sober when I was 25, and I started writing this movie when I was 31, and I'm like 45, 4… In Hollywood years I'm 31 still. In writing the story, I had this weird fear and fascination--I had a fear of flying, off and on--and had this fascination with all these elements in my life. It was kind of a marriage of my two greatest fears, which is drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash. And to go back in time too. [looks at Rian Johnson; laughter]
Roman, you and Wes Anderson worked together on Moonrise Kingdom, a rather unusual collaboration. Explain how you got involved in helping realize this movie.
RC: Well Wes had been working on this notion for some time, on what he called, or I knew as, "the Island Movie." And it had to do with a scout running away, and an island, but he had this imagery, this notion. And we'd hang out at times and I'd asked him "how's that island movie coming along?" Ultimately he was working on it but could only get a couple of pages down, he was a bit blocked. He had it in his mind but couldn't get it in shape yet. So we hung out and he played this Benjamin Britton record and read the first few pages and ah, I got it, what he was trying to do, this world. And then I asked the right questions, I suggested a little something, got that dialogue going. And from that point there was kind of that rush like when you're doing a crossword puzzle and you get over that hump and know you're gonna finish it. That was pretty much the process.
Stephen, you were adapting your own book and you had the challenge of taking something that was incredibly successful as a book and turning it into a movie, was that more difficult and challenging than you expected?
Yeah, what was challenging about it was that when I wrote the book I was 26 and when I started writing the script I was 37, and--I'm uh 31 now. [laughter] It was because I was writing about young people and was more of an adult by then it was more of going back and doing the emotional work to actually respect and validate what young people go through on their own level and at same time not treating the grown ups like kids. Plus the fact that my novel is first person, very intimate, very emotional, to tell the same story in a medium that was more literal was tricky.
David, you and Ang Lee met at a certain point--how did he decide to use you to write the screenplay and how did you proceed to work together?
DM: I didn't actually ask him why he chose me because I didn't want him to rethink it. [laughter] But Ang and I had talked about working on a different project at one point that never came about, that I forgot about. Then I got a call from my agent one day who asked me if I'd ever read Life of Pi, and I said, yeah, that's a hard one. I don't know how you can do that one. And he said, Well, Ang wants to direct it. And I said "All right, let's do it!" [laughter] So we met the next night at a Japanese restaurant, had sushi and talked about the book. We had a lot of the same opinions a lot of the same things we connected with, and by end of meal we said, all right, let's do it. Compared to so many projects where you have to jump through many hoops and do a lot to get studio's attention, on this we just said all right and started. I would write pages and then he has a place in Manhattan, I'd come in from New Jersey and bring in some pages, and we'd sit around and have Chinese food and talk all day.
There's a scene in the movie where Richard Parker vanishes into the jungle that I find incredibly emotional. It's the center of the movie for me. What is the reason there's so much emotion attached to that?
DM: Whether you see the film as a literal story or as a kind of allegory, Pi's connection to Richard Parker brings out something in Pi that he didn't know he had in himself. He's this skinny vegetarian boy who doesn't know how to survive outside the zoo when the story begins, as he has to confront this tiger he finds this other side of himself, within himself, and so when the tiger leaves and doesn't come back he's letting go of something that he found within himself. I think that's why it's so poignant. And I thnk also if you have a cat that you love, and it leaves, it's also emotional. [laughter]
Rian, there's a scene in Looper, it's written in the screenplay as "JOE" and "OLD JOE," and was wondering about that scene where they meet and confront each other in the diner, did Bruce Willis like being called "Old Joe"? And was that the most difficult scene to write?
RJ: I think I started saying "older Joe"… But yeah, It's probably the thing that I worked on the longest. We spent weekends together, Joe and Bruce and I, going over and over it, it's the one the changed the most in the course of writing it and shooting it, probably changed the most right up to post-production, too. It had to do a lot of things, while also being a scene where it was two characters just sitting across from each other in a sci-fi action movie feel and that doesn't ground the whole movie to a halt. Yeah a lot of going over it and over it.
John, talk about your process on Flight, how long did it take you, and what do you do--do you sit down with a notepad, how do you work?
Wasn't long, just 12 years [laughter] Yeah it was 12 years, I did other things in between to feed the family, while this was this strange sort of Rubik's cube to try to fix and then put away. It was kind of this strange R rated drama--I'm an animal that grew up in the studio system so I was savvy enough to know this was going to be a challenge for a studio to embrace an R-rated drama that didn't have guns in it and those sorts of things, so it was gonna take the passion of one actor to make the movie go. So --
And you wanted to direct it yourself.
I did, for ten years I tried, not that successfully ultimately. But in that it had many lives.
You directed another movie and something changed after you directed that film?
Yeah, what was funny about that movie, it was "Dreamer," it was a family film, Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell. Studio said, we really had a nice time making this movie with you, what else would you like to do? And I showed them the first 40 pages of Flight [chuckles] and they were like, "Um…. so uh, what else would you like to do?"
You'd been doing pretty much studio fare, sports movies, cheerleading, and so forth, you ended up deciding to change--
So yeah what changed is I wrote the greatest robot boxing movie ever made, Real Steel…[laughter] No, I think again the personal nature of the movie also kind of scary, and between the content of the movie, unclimbable mountain of trying to get this movie made in studio system, because a lot of great movies get made outside studios but I do not think about that so that was another thing that kind of terrified me. Directing movie it seemed like it would have to be outside the system so that was a big unknowable thing.
So eventually you did get a director aboard...
Yeah, a Santa Barbara resident in fact (Robert Zemeckis). And Denzel, it was the passion of those two guys that made it happen.
It was an incredible thing, they've been respectful the whole way along. I got a call one day, the voice said "John, it's Denzel." I was like, yeah….? This is either Denzel Washington or Jay Pharaoh from SNL impersonating him. Either way I'll go with it. But I ended up having dinner with him and he said when I get back from making "Safe House" I want to make this movie. And then I get a phone call saying Robert Zemeckis wants to have lunch with you, so I headed up to Carpinteria and had lunch that turned into 6 hours in a room together and at about hour 3 he asked me a serious question: "Are you ok with me making this movie, because I know you tried to make it for many years…? " I said, I can't make it without you. So he said, good, come with me, so--for everything that went wrong for 12 years it was this one moment in time where everything went right.
There was a moment where you were on an airplane sitting next to a pilot…tell us about that.
Yeah, I was working on a movie and flying back from Europe, and there was this pilot sitting next to me, he was wearing his pilot blues but was "deadheading" as they call it, off duty, he was chatting with me and chatting with me, and I'm a very friendly guy but I just wanted this guy to shut up, just be quiet, and I was like, why do I want this guy to shut up? And I realize, he's a pilot, I don't want to know anything about him personally, I want to think the guy or gal flying my plane has their life perfectly in order. [laughter] I don't want to hear about how he's getting a shitty divorce or is an alcoholic and then I was like, wait a second… Ah hah, a writers moment. What if there WAS a guy who was circling the drain in his personal life… and was like "Say more." That was the genesis of the character but I wanted to put him a really extreme situation , and as a nervous flyer I started researching every plane crash--which I don't recommend. [laughter] But those reports are public record.
Roman, you worked with Wes on Darjeeling Limited, explain the differences in the collaborative process on that film and on this film.
RC: Darjeeling, which we wrote with my cousin Jason Schwartzman, Wes came and said he wanted to do a story about three brothers who go away together and fall apart and have this crazy adventure, and he assembled our team and we started to cook up the story, in the process improvising and having late dinners and walking in strange neighborhoods. And ultimately we went to India, took a train, went to a bunch of temples and many of the people that are in the movie are people we met on the road and in these temples. So we kind of grew the movie through improve and shared experiences. And we each wrote more for one guy--I was Peter, the Adrien Brody character. So that was a very distinctive experience. For Moonrise Kingdom, we were in a rented house together. It had much more to do with imagination, fantasy--people will ask oh what about the movie is real, what happened to you, and the answer is really that nothing about it is real, it's more what we wish would've happened. You meet a girl in 4th grade and you would've loved to have run off with her. So it's not based on any real experience it's based on these fantasy notions recalling a time, being a child, So it was more that kind of experience, daydreaming, and in this house was my girlfriend, Wes's girlfriend and sister, and they'd be our audience. We'd go away for the day and then get back together for the evening and tell the next installment. It was kind of like a radio drama. We knew they'd be there for the next installment. So that was a pleasure.
So who's in charge of the computer during this process, the device in actually writing it…?
RC: Wes is in charge of that--he's the director of the film, and so he and I would write in service of the director. So we'd banter and come up with all this stuff and dialogue, and when it sort of felt right, Wes would ultimately be in charge of inputting the actual words.
Stephen, In the course of figuring out your work what's your process, how do you write?
I get up, my mind's clear in the morning, I just go--it's not terribly sexy, I just go to the computer around 10 am and write till about 2 or 3. I mean, there's lunch in there, too. [laughter] I'm human, I'n not one of the boxers from Real Steel. But yeah I'll do that. I've done a lot of things in my career, I've done TV, movies, musicals, and each one makes for a different process but generally the morning is the best time, by the afternoon my head's crowded.
How did doing the "Four Corners of Nowhere" (which played at Sundance) help you on this one?
I was so young when I did that movie, I wrote it when I was 21, directed when I was 23. I don't know what I got out of it--half the movie is really good and half is realy bad. When you start a movie you have grand thoughts about shots and this and that, but by the end of the shooting, you're thinking that stuff will take care of itself, you're thinking about minutes and hours and how do I get it done. How do I get enough takes, I know Emma is nervous this scene, or Ezra wants to try some improv, how can I carve up some more time, By the end of the day how do you get your job done.
Did you write the music into the screenplay? There's a lot of music in Wallflower.
I wrote a lot of the music into the screenplay. Rocky Horror was a big part of this story, I knew Dexy's Midnight Runners Come on Eileen would be at the homecoming dance, choreographed to that song. and of course you have to have Air Supply. [laughter] And other than that it was just me and my music supervisor working on which songs fit best.
What would say is the major difference between the movie and the book?
The biggest change I think was that the book--because screenplays are so unforgiving structurally you have to find the center. If you veer off too much or don't make things clear you're going to lose the audience quickly. So a big difference was in the book I could talk about Charlie's etended family, talk about his grandfather, the history of the family, and his thoughts about the world, and there was room to do it--but in a movie you can't. So in the film I just focused on Charlie, his past, his friends and his immediate family.
Back to David, one of the more controversial--if you will--things about Life of Pi is the use of the bookended narrator. Some people like it and some people don't. Explain why that was the only way to tell the story of the movie.
DM: I don't know if it was the only way, it was something that Ang felt strongly about at that first dinner we had. At the very beginning Ang and I both agreed that the story was not just about religion, it was about the power of storytelling to get us through the chaos of our lives. And so we were very attached to the idea that the older Pi was a storyteller, not just someone recounting what had happened in his life, he was someone who was able to bring something to life in a more imaginative way, which we wouldn't have had if we were telling the story from the boy's point of view. If he were just recounting this to the Japanese investigators and that was the bookend device, it would be him just recounting what happened to him in the aftermath of great turmoil. And it's a very different story when something is told right after the fact than it is if something that's evolved over time, for us that was very important--and also the idea that there was one storyteller passing the story on to another storyteller. Ultimately that was what determined that. And we tried different variations along the way.
Assuming everyone here has read Life of Pi… it is revealed that there are two versions of this one story. Was there ever consideration given in abandoning story number 2, as it were?
DM: We never would've abandoned story number 2. The point of the film was--however we were going to tell it--the very point is no one knows what happened on that boat except for Pi, and what story you believe says a lot about you…. If you are someone who believes there is a God watching over us, helping us as we go through our lives, as Pi does, that's how you're gonna read that story, that's how you'll interpret what happened on that journey, and if you favor more in the scientific "this happened and then that happened" this was a result of meteorological conditions and an accident of nature, failure of a ship's hull in a storm and that drives the rest, that's how you'll read that story. We were not trying to tell you this is the right version. I was surprised at some of the reviews that said, well obviously it comes down on one side or the other. What we were trying to say was, everyone has a way they've come to lead their lives, whether you're Hindu, a Christian, an atheist, a scientist or whatever, you've built a safety net in the things you've concluded about why the world works the way it does, those are what get you through your ordeals.
How did the guy, the sailor that you found, help you tell this story that is mostly set at sea?
Right after we started working on it my nephew told me he'd read a book by this guy [Steven Callahan] who'd been lost at sea for 76 days in a five foot rubber raft. So we tracked him down-- he was a professional sailor, he'd been in a sailing race in France and on his way back, he thinks a whale hit the side of his boat and it sank. And he threw his supplies in his raft, and all he had on was his t-shirt, and he spent the next couple of months at sea. We talked to him, I can't tell you how much insight he gave us into the mechanics of what something like that is like, but also he gave us some of the imagery he encountered. I said it must have been was horrible what he went through but he said there were also times when there were no clouds, middle of the night, clear skies, and the water so calm that he felt like he was in a giant globe at the center of the universe. And I was like… I was like, whoa, that's great, that's going in the movie. [laughter] I mean that kind of stuff you cannot find or come up with on your own. Those kinds of moments and images… we knew some of the "facts," like the flying fish, and the way the stars look, but he was our main consultant on the film, figuring out where he was on this journey.
Steve because he was a sailor, he was writing in tiny lettering in a little notebook about wind speed and direction of the waves, and where he must be according to the stars, he was trying to calculate these things--Pi didn't have any of that knowledge but when we were looking for ways to show Pi reflecting on what he was going through we thought the the survival manual could be used as a journal, so that was a device we borrowed from Steve the sailor.