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Santa Barbara Film Fest Screenwriters Panel: Personal Experience Informs Both Adaptations and Originals, from 'The Help' to 'Margin Call'

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 16, 2012 at 7:08AM

Per usual, this year's screenwriters delivered at my "It Starts with the Script" panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Both Writers Guild nominee Will Reiser ("50/50") and Indie Spirit nominee Mike Mills ("Beginners") were digging into their own lives for their often painful and self-revelatory fictionalized stories.
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J.C.Chandor, Will Reiser, Mike Mills, Jim Rash and Tate Taylor
J.C.Chandor, Will Reiser, Mike Mills, Jim Rash and Tate Taylor

Per usual, this year's batch of screenwriters delivered at the annual "It Starts with the Script" panel that I moderate at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. (See video below.)

Both Writers Guild nominee Will Reiser ("50/50") and Indie Spirit nominee Mike Mills ("Beginners") were digging into their own lives for their often painful and self-revelatory fictionalized stories.

"When someone's gone, like a parent, you're not in the present in a clean way," said Mills, who also directed his film, which stars Oscar front runner Christopher Plummer in a role based on his own father. "You're constantly getting hijacked back to your memory and unfinished conversations, a really unfinished emotional place.  Time is more emotional than chronological." Beat. "That sounded good!"

"The original title for "50/50" was "How I Learned Nothing from Cancer,'" Reiser revealed. "People have this great notion that when you survive cancer, you reach nirvana and there's clarity.  I came out of it feeling like my life had been wrecked, and I didn't really feel like anything changed." It was the second draft that "really forced me to say all the things I didn't know how to say when I was sick," he went on. "Whereas the first draft was really just me vomiting up all this raw emotion, the second draft was me understanding what the experience was like." Producer Seth Rogen played himself in the movie; when James McAvoy dropped out at the last minute, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stepped in with no time whatsoever to prepare. (TOH's interview is here.)

Similarly, Oscar-nominated "Margin Call" writer and rookie director J.C. Chandor dug into his upbringing and his banker father's experiences at Merrill Lynch for this story about one investment bank's behavior on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. It's tricky to hold an ensemble cast together as you promise investors that you have financing for a go movie--which was shot on an empty floor of a Wall Street office tower for just $3.5 million. Zachary Quinto produced and starred along with Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci; Jeremy Irons stepped in at zero hour, and almost didn't make it in time, as his passport had expired. The anxiety in his performance is real. The movie also proved a successful model for day-and-date VOD and theatrical distribution.

For his part, actor-writer-director Tate Taylor grabbed the film rights to his Mississippi buddy Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" before publication, and hung on until DreamWorks was willing to let him direct this story set in the world he grew up in, African-American nanny and all. "When the book became successful, people starting calling me saying, 'You have the rights to 'The Help?'' And I'd say, 'Yes.'  'Well, what are your intentions?' 'I've adapted it, and I'm going to direct it.' 'OK.  What are your real intentions?' For about six months, I had to say,' that's my intention, and if you're not interested in that, don't call.'" That's because, explained Taylor, "nobody wanted to finance this with me directing.  Nobody.  But Spielberg read my adaptation, and he was a big fan of the book, and he said, 'If he adapted this this way, we gotta believe he can direct it.'  And he green lit it." That adaptation earned a Writers Guild nomination.

Another actor-writer, Oscar-nominated Jim Rash ("Community"), co-wrote "The Descendants" with partner Nat Faxon before producer Alexander Payne decided to rewrite it for him to direct himself. While the writing partners first came up with that devastating first shot of the wife water skiing that reveals why her family loved her so much, he said, it was Payne who knew how to make that work.

This article is related to: Festivals, Screenwriters, Interviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.