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SANTA BARBARA FILM FEST PRESENTS
"IT STARTS WITH THE SCRIPT"

by Susan Royal

Among the many excellent panels held at the 2007 Santa Barbara International Film Festival was the screenwriters panel, It Starts With the Script. Moderated by Hollywood Reporter columnist Anne Thompson, the panelists included Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), Guillarmo Arriaga (Babel), Todd Field (Little Children), Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), Peter Morgan (The Queen and Last King of Scotland) and Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking).

The discussion began with Thompson asking the panelists to describe their writing process.

Babel screenwriter Guillarmo Arriaga described an unconventional approach. "I write linearly and then I chop it and move the pieces around. I never make any kind of research. I hate it. I'm lazy. I never have any outline. I've never believed you must know everything about the character before you start. I have a fundamental idea, but then I want the characters to come out and reveal themselves to me and surprise me."

Peter Morgan said, "I can't imagine a process more different from my own. I'm a research fanatic. I only had three weeks for that with The Queen and I had to deal with people at three palaces – the Queen's, Prince Charles' and Diana's. Afterwards I had to detox from all the spin."

Part of his research included staying in a cottage on the grounds of Balmoral Castle, which he said looked like "German Cookieland." Being there gave him insight into the Queen. "Everywhere she goes she's greeted by 200 pipers, so I could connect to her pain."

Morgan said he wanted to show the Queen having a greater emotional connection with animals than humans. "At Balmoral they don't hunt stags, they go grouse shooting. But it's hard to write a metaphor about a grouse." So he chose a 14-point stag -- also known as an 'imperial' stag – because of the impression one had made on him during a trip to Austria.

Morgan said he had "leaned very heavily on outlines" in writing The Queen. "For some reason, all my outlines end up being sixteen to seventeen pages. Outlining by far is the most exciting part of the process for me. The biggest creative decisions you'll ever make are there. Deciding on the countries, the characters -- all of it -- is really exhilarating and really turns me on. Then comes what another writer in England calls 'wording it in.' And after that everybody piles on – and they need to because a hundred and fifty people are needed to make the film. But when it's still just you the writer creating it, well, that's the greatest. I'm blissed out right now because I'm in that stage with a new project."

In order to write Little Miss Sunshine, Michael Arndt had to quit his job as assistant to Matthew Broderick. "I didn't have the energy to write nights and weekends. But all that procrastination was beneficial, because when I finally quit my job and began writing I had it already mapped out in my head. My first impulse draft was about eighty percent of what ended up as the final script. I just kept honing and honing until I ran out of money and had to send it out."

Arndt said he has since changed his writing habits. "My process used to be: Procrastinate for four years, then write the script. Now that I'm working at Pixar I can't procrastinate.

"I used to think you outlined a lot and then wrote drafts. Now I put all the slug lines in first. Then I identify all the scenes with crucial dialogue, there are usually five to ten important conversations, and write those. When that's done, I write the other dialogue. Then I go back and do the scene descriptions.

"There are two parts to screenwriting: thinking and writing. When forced to write and think together you can make yourself crazy. Instead I go back and forth between outlining and drafting and find it very helpful to jump back and forth," said Arndt.

Thank You For Smoking writer/director Jason Reitman joked, "My writing style is similar to Guillermo's, but with less style and skill."

He said he fell in love with the novel. "It was a political satire that allowed me to choose sides for myself and I thought this is the kind of filmmaker I want to be. I wrote it and it sat for five years until one of the creators of PayPal came on board and financed it.

Reitman said the first step in his writing process is to write a one-page outline. "After that's done I start writing and go nowhere. The best day is the day I get to go to the store and buy index cards, Sharpies, a six-foot cork board and many tools I don't need. I come home and say to myself, 'Okay, I did some great writing today.' Then I take a forty-minute shower and wonder if I will be a failure. After that I go out and start writing on my index cards and eventually I write the screenplay."

Aline Brosh McKenna, who adapted The Devil Wears Prada to the big screen, spoke of her writing process. "Now that I have kids I'm forced into a writing schedule, which is very good for me."

She said she prefers to "write from a place of emotion, rather than thought, so a sense of rhythm develops."

The writing process can be different when the director is on board before the writer, as it was in McKenna's case. "I wrote a detailed ten-page outline. I had a month of refining it with the input of the director, the studio and the actors. I was lucky because Fox 2000 really respects writers and the material and [the director] Peter Frankel is an amazing collaborator who is confident without ego. He has enormous respect for writer because he is a writer."

Arriaga said, "I'm really worried with all this talk of outlines. When a producer asks me for an outline I don't know how. Since I'm a novelist I'm obsessed with language. I can spend two years writing a script. I don't have to know where I'm going or how it's going to end. As Carlos Casteneda said, "You must float in life," and that's how I write. You have to find an organic structure for each story you want to tell."

Brosh McKenna said the fun began on The Devil Wears Prada "when it came alive with what the actors brought to the material. We had two readings with the actors and I met with Meryl, who told me to make her character meaner – more dry and efficient. [David Frankel and she had feared making her too mean would be off putting to prospective actors.] But Meryl said being nice, or even human, was an extra the character couldn't afford."

Little Children was adapted by writer/director Todd Field from the book by Tom Perrotta. "I knew Tom had written the novel, Election, and so as I began reading Little Children I read it as a very sharp satire. But the author snuck up on me and took me to a place I never would have imagined from the first part of the book. I put it down and said, 'What is this?' It's a huge advantage that Tom worked on the script with me because he invented these people."

Field said he was "intoxicated" by Tom's voice in the novel. "I said, 'Let's keep your voice in the film.' That's why I decided on having a narrator."

Peter Morgan adapted from a novel when he wrote The Last King of Scotland. "I loved the book but it was six hundred pages and unadaptable. After reading it I felt I had nothing to use, but I did have a powerful idea and the mood and tone to work from."

Jason Reitman said he could relate to what Arndt said about getting a script only 80% of the way there. "My first draft was only eighty to ninety percent there. That last five percent is very difficult. That part is terrifying to me, but it's necessary or the script is never any good."

Todd Field agreed. "It's in that last stretch you figure out what your script wants to be."

Aline Brosh McKenna added, "The first couple of passes on the screenplay feel good, like laying brick. Then you get into the unglamorous part – doing the work. Someone once said, 'The equation for writing is ass plus chair.' That's the hardest thing to learn."

Michael Arndt observed, "Hollywood is awash in scripts that are only eighty percent there. Just have patience. Bring somebody else in or give yourself some time to become another person. Put it aside for awhile and then come back to it. It's just like the Keebler Elves say: "You can't rush richness."


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