Got script? The Hollywood Reporter's Jay A. Fernandez and Matthew Belloni gathered six screenwriters--Mark Boal ("The Hurt Locker"), Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!"), Geoffrey Fletcher ("Precious"), Nick Homby ("An Education"), Scott Neustadter ("(500) Days of Summer") and Anthony Peckham ("Invictus," "Sherlock Holmes")--who not only managed to get their work produced this year, but also had films that are generating awards talk.
How does today's reality of the film business stack up with your expectations when you first flirted with becoming a screenwriter?
Nick Hornby: I'm not sure I'm entirely representative because I have another job. All I can say is that I don't know how you guys stick with it. I was constantly on the verge of packing it in because it seemed utterly pointless. Books are pretty straightforward by comparison. You write a book and your editor wants to help you with it and then he wants to publish it. And that's it! That's the whole process.
Mark Boat: It helps if you're Nick Hornby.
Hornby: It does strengthen your career if you've written three, four books. Whereas it doesn't matter who you are when you're writing a movie. There's still the same very slim percentage chance that the film will get made. I did endless drafts and at the end of each one we seemed no closer to anything. I wrote two books while I was writing "An Education," and they've both been published. It would drive me crazy to do what you guys do.
Scott Z. Burns: Now I feel a little better. (Laughs.)
Boal: One thing that's really changed is the independent landscape. I didn't really know much about it, but I learned about it in the process of writing "The Hurt Locker" and producing it. That was like a four-year thing, all in, and by the end of that period I felt like, "Wow, I've learned a little bit about how independent films work." And in the last year, I've watched that entire business model crash and burn. I don't know that the film I set out to make four years ago could get made again today.
Scott Neustadter: I wrote this script with my friend as therapy. The fact that it did get made is still mind-blowing. But at the same time, I don't feel any closer to getting anything else made than I did when I was a 21-year-old college kid.
Anthony Peckham: I've probably been at it longer than anyone here. I came and did film school in 1981 and have been writing ever since. The landscape has transformed from a multicolored one with all sorts of different niches and places to go to a very monochromatic one. It's either very lucrative and exciting, or nothing.
Has that changed the way you write and the ideas you develop?
Peckham: The truth is I don't have any ideas. I generally work with material, and the material gets filtered through the machine first, often. So really what I'm doing is reacting to stuff that's put in front of me. I do have ideas, but I don't think of commercial viability first. I think of whether it appeals to my passions, because you just can't write without passion.
Burns: You hope that what draws you into a project is going to be true for other people, and that you can get some critical mass of other folks who are like-minded who will help will it into existence. Because we can sit here and say it has to be one of these four things. And yet consistently, those four things fail in spite of huge investment in them.
Homby: The one--off--like "Slumdog Millionaire" last year--is absolutely critical for all of us. It's the same in books. We're doomed unless something that no one saw coming (becomes a hit). It's what encourages people to invest in anything at all.
Burns: Maybe this is hopelessly naive--I came from advertising, waking up in the morning and knowing at 9 o'clock that I was a whore, as opposed to realizing it at some point later in the day--but I can't believe that drama is dead. Maybe the business model that we've used to make them isn't applicable, and we have to find a different way of doing it, but I really don't believe that drama is dead or that interesting art is dead. That would be the end of me getting up in the morning and writing.
Geoffrey Fletcher: With "Precious," if you list all the things a studio wouldn't want to do, or all the things that aren't commercial, we've got most of the checklist taken care of.
Several of you have journalism backgrounds. How does that help and hinder you when you're writing a script?
Boal: The idea for "The Hurt Locker" came out of a reporting assignment. I went to Iraq to cover the bomb squad. So for me journalism was the inspiration. The great virtue of being a reporter is people pay you to go do things that you would not otherwise be able to go and see and experience and research. I'm sure I wouldn't if my rent money literally didn't depend on it. I tried to capture some of the natural inherent tension through the use of realism and detail. You don't really have to invent it. A man trying to disarm a bomb is inherently a fairly dramatic set-up to begin with.
Peckham: That Ralph Fiennes sequence, the long sniper sequence, was that something that happened or something you invented?
Boal: There's the research I did when I was there, but then I talked to a lot of soldiers and contractors. A guy told me a story about two contractors, they were in local dress, driving around some part of southern Iraq completely alone without any support doing a reconnaissance mission for the CIA to tell them what might be a good place to put an embassy. My question to him was, "What was the scariest thing that ever happened to you in Iraq?" And the answer was: "I got a flat tire on the side of the road and we did not have a wrench to fix it. It was so scary because now you have to stop and ask somebody. And then you've given the whole game away." So that was the inspiration for that scene.
How do you write about real people or events when the facts won't work in the dramatic arc of the screenplay?
Peckham: How do you write about Nelson Mandela? He changed not just my life, but my country. I actually took two weeks just sitting at my desk getting over being shit-scared of writing about Nelson Mandela. How dare I? And then I got through that and got that writer's arrogance back. I had more material than I could ever use. I didn't have to invent a thing.
Hornby: Presumably, you couldn't have. I'd love to hear that conversation: "You know, Nelson, there's some pretty good stuff in your life. But I'm not sure it's dramatic enough for a movie, so I'm going to have to make a few changes." (Laughs.)
Peckham: I made up secondary characters. I compressed some real characters in the interest of dramatic efficiency. But in the script, on occasion I had to put in brackets "this really happened" because I'd get challenged all the time. People saying, "This is bullshit. This can't possibly be happening" At the World Cup, at the final, South African Airways flew a 747 200 feet over the stadium. Twice. With "GO SPRINGBOKS" painted on their wings. It was all cleared. Anything they wanted could be done, but totally outside of FAA regulations. Morgan Freeman is a pilot, and even he said, "Sorry, Tony, it's great, but you can't have it, it didn't happen." I had to show him the pictures.
Burns: Mark Whitacre (of "The Informant!") was not my hero. And because Whitacre's pathology is such that he wasn't someone who was going to tell me the truth, going and interviewing him was not really going to ... it's like trying to touch your nose with your nose. So instead I went to Decatur, Ill., and drove around and went to the places he went to. Then I went to the DSM-IV and looked up people with his diagnosis, and there were things that were interesting to me, like distractibility, and people who go off on tangents. That sort of became both the fun of it and the work of it, building a character.
Hornby: I'd seen photos of this woman, Lynn Barber (author of the memoir Hornby adapted), who is a famously quite scary journalist in England, and I thought that was a pressure of its own kind because I knew if I did a bad job she would write about it relentlessly. She has her own column in the Sunday Times. Part of me wished it hadn't been her, because I had to go and speak to her about it. It was fine. She thought it was weird, I think, because she wrote this autobiographical essay for Granta, which I don't think too many movies have been made out of.
Boal: Nor should they, by the way.
Hornby: It made it a lot easier just to change her name; it gave myself permission to think about her much more as a fictional character. But I was still scared. I still am scared. It's really not over.
Nick, did anyone push back on the sexuality?
Hornby: No. That stuff was in the (memoir). There was the scene with the banana that's in the movie. If you haven't seen it, it's not what you think.
Burns: I have seen it, and it was exactly what I was thinking. (Laughs.)
Hornby: It was one of my favorite moments in development. We were meeting with the guy from BBC Films, and he said, "This banana ... Would it work?" And then he looked at the two producers, who were both women. They're kind of shifting in their seats, and there was this long, awkward silence. And then one of his assistants said, suddenly and brilliantly, "I don't think it would be peeled." And the guy from the BBC said, "Oh! Ah! Unpeeled! OK. We're fine. Then we're good."
Tony, what was it like working with Clint Eastwood, who is known for sticking to the script?
Peckham: The truth is, I didn't work with him. We tried to bring in some notes. We wanted to add a little more, and he listened politely and said, "I kind of like the script the way it is." So, I didn't work with him. I did two drafts and that was that.
Were any of you on the set much?
Neustadter: I was there every day.
Burns: I was there every day.
Boal: I was. It was an enormously exciting thing. To see these actors say the things that I had written counts as one of the great moments of my life. The first day of shooting--and it was the most casual (line): "Hey man, get out of the humvee." And I was like, "Oh my God! He said my line!" What really came home to me was this being a performing art. Nick, you talk about writing novels, and I write longform narrative nonfiction, which has its own kind of pleasures, but is never really performed. And to see what the actor brings to it and how they inhabit the role in ways that you imagine and didn't imagine, it's pretty striking.
Peckham: Doesn't it blow your mind how meaning changes? You think you know what a line means. You've read it 5,000 times, right? And then the actor says the line and it means something else.
Hornby: When I'm writing, I think that the best possible version of this movie is the one I have in my head. And then when the actors start, you think, "Oh, I see." There's a kid who plays Carey (Mulligan)'s young boyfriend, who at the read--through came into the scene and said "Allo!" And everybody laughed at the way he said Hello. I'm looking at the script going, "There's no laugh there!" (Laughs.)
What happens if the table read is not what you hoped?
Boal: I had a table read and I was so depressed after. I thought, "Oh my God, this has literally been a waste of my entire year and I'm doomed." And Kathryn (Bigelow) said, "Wait and see what it's like when we have the cast." And then we did another table read four months later and I was like, "Oh my God, this was great." And it was the exact same script. So it depends on what the actors are bringing to it and how invested they are.
Hornby: In your movie, I would say, more than any of ours, there are bits missing in a table reading.
Boal: We had them actually running around in the room and diving behind things. (Laughs.)
Hornby: At the end of it, when you're watching your movie and it's turned out OK, it stops feeling like a piece of writing and you think, "Well, it's not my work anymore, it's the actors' work and the director's work." But if you can somehow feel that you are in part responsible for them doing that quality of work, that's something really to be proud of.
Fletcher: It morphs, in a way. You leave certain things that you might have been attached to, you embrace things that you didn't expect, and the movie becomes its own separate piece of work.
Hornby: I have a hunch we're sitting here partly because our movies turned out better than we possibly could have imagined. Was anybody's worse than they thought it was going to be?
Nick Homby reveals how he overcomes serious writers' block. THR.com/awardswatch
Fernandez, Jay A., and Matthew Belloni. "It's all on the page: six buzzworthy screenwriters on good characters, bad table reads and what keeps them from throwing in the towel." Hollywood Reporter 412.16 (2009): 8+. InfoTrac Pop Culture eCollection. Web. 2 Dec. 2009.
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