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WGA NOMINEES SPEAK AT "BEYOND WORDS 2005"
by Susan Royal


Paul Haggis,
Million Dollar Baby screenwriter.
Each year the Writers Guild honors the WGA Award nominees at a reception followed by "Beyond Words" – a panel discussion held at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. The nominees attending this year's event included Zach Braff (Garden State), Julie Delpy (Before Sunset), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), John Logan (The Aviator), Alexander Payne (Sideways), Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda) and Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries). The panel was moderated by actress-writer Nia Vardalos, a former WGA and Academy Award nominee for writing My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).

Vardalos began the discussion by introducing each panelist. She set the humorous tone for the evening with her intro of Keir Pearson: "He is a Harvard graduate and Olympic athlete... showoff....and Hotel Rwanda is his first script....now I hate him." Pearson said he had just graduated from film school when a friend of his (who had lived in Tanzania and had a friend in the hotel in Rwanda) said, "I know a great true story you may want to make as a film someday." When Vardalos asked if he was concerned about making a film that was critical of U.S. policy, he said, "America may have turned its back, but France financed the massacre and Belgium had troops on the ground that could have stopped it."

John Logan (The Aviator) was a noted Chicago playwright before becoming a screenwriter. Any Given Sunday, his first spec screenplay, was directed by Oliver Stone, and his screenplay for Gladiator (co-written with David Franzoni and William Nicholson) was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. When asked about the responsibility of writing about a real life character, he replied, "I'm not a biographer or an historian. I'm a dramatist. My job is to take the historical reality and put it through the lens of a writer."

Logan said he was lucky to have no studio interference while writing the script for The Aviator. "I was protected because I walked into the studio side by side with Michael Mann [the producer] and Martin Scorsese [the director]. That shut the door to any influence of other people."

When Zach Braff was asked about studio interference with his scripts, he joked, "I always walk in the door with Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese."

Several of the writers said they ignore part of or all studio notes on their scripts. Julie Delpy said it's important to acknowledge the notes, but not necessarily to implement them. Her co-writers (Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke) and she "only used about a third of the studio's notes and the rest we said we would address, but we never did."

Charlie Kaufman (Spotless Mind) said that after having his wife read his script, he only shows it to his director and producer "to make sure we are on the same page before going to the studio, because these guys I consider my collaborators and those guys I consider the enemy." When Alexander Payne pointed out to him the presence of a reporter in the room, Kaufman was quick to add, "I said that for comic effect. I have very good relationships with the studios I work with."

Paul Haggis sent his first draft of Million Dollar Baby to Clint Eastwood and waited for his notes, which never came because Eastwood had decided to shoot the first draft. Said Haggis, "Clint had shot first drafts twice before -- on Bird and Unforgiven. He said every revised draft of Unforgiven was worse than the previous one, so he had gone back to the original." With Million Dollar Baby he stopped the process right after the first draft was written, even though Haggis thought it was "a little ragged" and would have liked to work on it some more. "But that's the way Clint likes it. That's why he only does two takes. Not because he's cheap, but because he likes it to feel ragged." Regarding studio interference, Haggis said, "Actually, right before Clint agreed to do the film the studio told me to cut the part about the tongue. When Clint came on board he said "the tongue part stays in" and that was that." Zach Braff couldn't resist commenting, "It's good to be Clint."

Each writer was asked to describe their "process." Kaufman said he sits at the computer thinking about the story and spinning his wheels for much of the time, but that's part of the process. Payne agreed, saying he writes from about 10 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. because, "I need eight hours at the computer to accomplish about two hours of actual writing."

Jose Rivera (Motorcycle Diaries) said he may think about a script for a whole year before writing a single word. He doesn't use a computer, instead writing in long hand on the back of a copy of his previous script. "It's not just to save paper. It's a ritual of sorts to create a new script "on the back of" my last script." Rivera added that he's "a big believer in writer"s block. It's nature's way of keeping you from writing something bad. So if I sit down to write and it just doesn't happen, I go do something else."

Delpy said her process is "part torture and part pleasure"...to which Haggis interjected, "Of course it is... you're French." She continued, "I ramble around muttering to myself and smoking then sit down and type really fast -- with only two fingers. I can't exercise on days when I'm writing -- it takes too much energy out of me. As an actress I have to look good, so it's a constant choice between writing or addressing the size of my thighs."

Regarding his writing schedule, Haggis said, "I schedule my avoidances. I sit down at nine a.m. and begin by answering all my e-mail. By about one p.m. I have no more e-mails left and so I have to start writing. I'll write from one to eight p.m. if it's a first draft." [When asked about his writing process during a panel discussion at the recent Santa Barbara Film Festival, Haggis quipped, "I write in the nude...mostly at coffee shops."]

Alexander Payne said working with a writing partner (in his case, Jim Taylor) doesn't mean constant back-and-forth discussion. "It's not like The Dick Van Dyke Show all the time. Sometimes you have an idea but don't want to verbalize it. You just want to write it and show it to them."

When John Logan said he gets up every morning at 5:30 to write, the rest of the panel was at first shocked and then began bombarding him with questions. "You mean you're actually writing by, like, 5:40 a.m.?" Yes. ?Every day?" Yes. "For how long?" All day long, if it's a first draft, otherwise until 3 or 4 p.m. (More gasps.) "In your pajamas?" Actually a yellow bathrobe. "How many pages a day?" About 15 pages. (More jaw dropping and loud gasps.) The questions stopped and the writers appeared to reflect on Logan's responses for a moment until Charlie Kaufman piped up with, "You say it's a yellow bathrobe?"


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