From the singular blinking cursor to pages filled with stories and ideas, we have to find the way there. It’s different for everyone. For instance Charlie Chaplin starting shooting The Circus without a script, he only knew that he wanted to make a film about a circus. Me? I need that first line before I can put finger to keyboard. Cant’ stand that blank page screaming at me. This process of idea to realization was discussed with today’s top screenwriters at the Landmark as part of the Film Independent Directors Close-Up Series.
Moderated by screenwriter/producer/director Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and featuring a crazy talented panel of new writers, the two-hour discussion moved seamlessly like a well-written story from their experiences trying to get into the business to finally breaking ground. The panelists included Ava Duvernay (writer/director of 2012 Sundance Best Director Winner Middle of Nowhere), who cut her teeth in publicity until starting her own agency representing the films Hollywood didn’t know what to do with. She started writing and directing so that she could see the stories that interest her, again, the stuff that Hollywood wouldn’t really know what to do with. Her process is more visual, her idea starts with an image, and she figures out the story from that image. Ava doesn’t start writing until she knows the whole story. Then she writes it out of order.
Phil Johnston (writer Cedar Rapids) was the funniest person in person on this panel. Having recently seen Cedar Rapids I was curious to hear about writing a comedy with actors like Ed Helms and John C. Reilly, who are know for doing a lot of improv. His advice was to file away your writer’s ego and let them do their thing. Phil has always written, starting professionally in broadcast journalism then moving into film. When writing, Phil must fervently jot down every idea and compose many pages until he can begin the actual story. Phil is now working with Alexander Payne on Nebraska.
Also falling under the always-temperate Payne umbrella is Jim Rash (co-writer The Descendants) who came through the front door of the writing game by way of acting. He credits his time with The Groundlings learning improv to hone what he called the exercise of new choice and telling stories to the people you know best. Jim was the only panelist with an adapted screenplay; he talked about seeing the work through your own originality and writing your own version from that. I particularly enjoyed Jim and Phil discussing working for a heady auteur like Alexander Payne, especially the part about his cryptic notes.
Then there are those rare and wonderful projects where the writer delves into deep personal experience as a form of reconciliation and therapy. Such was the case for Will Reiser (writer 50/50) whose own bout with cancer became fodder for our entertainment. Will started writing for Da Ali G Show, where he met and became friends with Seth Rogen. After learning of the futility of being a spec writer, Will decided that producing was going to be an easier in. He assured us that he never used his cancer to get girls despite what was in the film.
The Film Independent Series is held on Wednesdays at 7:30pm at the Landmark Theater in West L. A. through March 7th.