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By Susan Royal

Several of the Oscar nominees for Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay discussed their work at “Beyond Words: The Writers Talk” on Feb. 20 at the Writers Guild Theatre. Participating were Brian Helgeland (Mystic River), Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) and co-writers Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan (In America). The panel was moderated by Robert Dowling, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. He began by asking each panelist to talk about how they came to write their screenplays.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland is an Oscar and Writers Guild Award winner for co-writing L.A. Confidential. He was chosen to adapt Dennis Lehane’s critically acclaimed novel Mystic River. Said Helgeland, “I had worked for Clint Eastwood before [the script of Blood Work] and I didn’t annoy him too much, so he had me do this. I think what enabled me to write it was that I was the same age, same background and had the same cultural references as the author, Dennis Lehane. I’m from a similar town south of Boston.”

The catalyst for director/writer Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent was a car trip. He spotted the old train depot and introduced himself to its occupant who turned out to be a “rail fan.” Said McCarthy, “It was the first time I’d heard the term ‘rail fan.’ He invited me to a meeting of rail fans and the story took off from there.”

Writer-director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Name of the Father) co-wrote In America with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten. Because the film was based on their family’s experiences immigrating to New York, Jim Sheridan said they had the advantage that “no one knew the truth but us.” He wrote the first draft and asked Naomi and Kirsten “to fix it.” Instead they both separately wrote their own drafts, which he said nearly eliminated him as a character. Naomi and Kirsten said they didn’t talk to each other about their scripts while writing and each ended up remembering things the other had forgotten.

The Sheridans wrote an original screenplay, but those who had written adaptations were asked if they conferred with the authors while writing their screenplays. Brian Helgeland chose not to. “Dennis Lehane had said his book couldn’t have been a page longer or shorter. Because I have to cut so many things out, he’s the last person I’d want to talk to.”

Writer-director Gary Ross (Dave, Pleasantville) did want to involve author Laura Hillenbrand. He had bought the film rights to her magazine article about Seabiscuit. By the time he began the script, her book had come out and was a number one bestseller. Ross felt pressure to live up to the expectations of the book’s many fans. The other challenge was to be true to a piece of history while making a personal story that would resonate with an audience as a film. “The only way I knew how to do that was to find the spine of the story and that was the relationship between Red Pollard and Charles Howard – one had lost a son and the other a father. Fortunately Laura agreed with me. I would run anything by her and it was a wonderful collaboration.”

The writers were asked to describe their writing styles. Steven Knight writes television shows and novels, as well as screenplays. He said his Dirty Pretty Things originated as a novel. He likes to sit down and start writing with no idea where it will take him. In this case, he began by describing the outside of a hotel he was looking at while writing. Then he imagined a night porter inside and the phone ringing at his desk and wondered what would happen next. He thought of the door marked “Staff Only” that leads you from the first world to the third world in most big hotels and from there his story unfolded. “I never use an outline. That’s just how I write, but I wouldn’t recommend this method to any writer.” Knight, who was one of the creators of the original British version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, added, “I would advise anyone, if you have a spare morning, think up a game show.”

Unlike Knight, Gary Ross prefers to use an outline. “I do outline. I look at it as almost a first draft or a freeform sketch. It’s very fluid.”

Tom McCarthy feels more confidence as a director than as a writer. “While I was writing Station Agent I never doubted the directing part.” He said he doesn’t put a lot of detail in his scripts because he has the picture in his head of what he wants.

Dowling asked if they had difficulty convincing studios or financiers to fund their project. Brian Helgeland explained what Clint Eastwood did in order to get a studio commitment. Eastwood had clout at Warner Bros from his years of making films there. But Mystic River didn’t get greenlighted until he said he would take scale as director and producer of this, his 24th film – something he hadn’t done since Play Misty For Me, the first film he directed. Said Helgeland, “Clint was like, ‘I’m making this movie....who’s with me?’ He was so brave about it that I didn’t want to screw up the screenplay.”

Gary Ross said Seabiscuit wasn’t an easy sell, even with the popularity of the book. “Horse racing is not a huge genre. And there’s a certain gut-check a studio does when the budget comes in at $80-85 million. Of course it could have been a lot more – I cut out the San Francisco earthquake and the mountain of manure that took out a grandstand in Tijuana.”

Tom McCarthy said he tried traditional channels before finding a new production company which loved his script and immediately went forward. Of course The Station Agent cost a lot less to make than the studio pictures of some of the other panelists. Said McCarthy, “We couldn’t afford to buy rail cars, so we just used the trains that came by. This is how our high tech system worked – we hired two NYU students as interns and placed them way down the track. When they heard or saw a train coming they just started blowing their whistles. I’m sure there were times we must have gone home at night and forgotten that they were still out there.”

And how do they see the writer’s place in today’s film industry? According to Gary Ross, the writer still gets little respect. As a director he gets little interference, he says. “For one thing it’s the time factor. Once I’m shooting no one is going to come to the set and tell me to set up a shot differently. But there’s lots of room and time for them to play with the screenplay. Everyone says ‘It starts with the script,’ but then they want to hire everyone else to change that script. I’m guilty of being one of those 30 writers. But can you name one movie you loved that was written by 30 writers? They respect writing, but not writers. Everyone reads, so they think they can write. They can’t.”

Steven Knight’s experience working with director Steven Frears on Dirty Pretty Things was unique. “He wanted me on the set every day and he insisted I stand next to him at the monitor. He might yell at everyone else and then turn to me for my opinion. I was a real teacher’s pet.”

The writers offered these last words of advice to fellow writers in the audience: Tom McCarthy: “I’m a good example of just go for it and maybe you’ll get lucky.” Brian Helgeland: “Be able to observe and recognize the truth. Be honest about the little things.” Jim Sheridan: “Take an acting class, because 90% of cinema is about capturing emotion.” Steven Knight: “See where the story takes you. Reality doesn’t obey the laws of probability .” Naomi Sheridan: “Be truthful. Be as honest and open on the page as you can.” Gary Ross “I agree with Naomi. Be emotionally connected to the material. Leave everything you have on the page. And don’t be critical of yourself while you write. Get lost in the moment and enjoy. Love what you do. Don’t come from a calculated place. You’ll never have more integrity than you do at the outset of your career. Don’t let cynicism creep in.”

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