Every year I conduct a Santa Barbara Film Festival ritual: the "It Starts with the Script" panel with writers of the year's best screenplays. In the 2013 group, some are up for Writers Guild awards next weekend: David Magee for his adaptation of Yann Martel's "Life of Pi," Stephen Chbosky for adapting his bestseller "Perks of Being a Wallflower," Roman Coppola for co-writing original "Moonrise Kingdom" with Wes Anderson, Rian Johnson for his original "Looper" and John Gatins for his original "Flight," which earned Denzel Washington an Oscar nomination. And Magee, Coppola and Gatins are also up for Oscars.
Anne Thompson: So David Magee, why did this particular adaptation take 10 years? What was so hard about making this into a movie, and how did you lick the script?
David Magee: First off, to be clear, I wasn't involved in all those 10 years. I had some issues that I had to solve, and I didn't ever look at the previous drafts, so I don't want to say what worked and what didn't from those. The challenge with this particular book is that it's very episodic. It's written in a hundred chapters—it's only a 300 page book, so you can imagine most of the chapters are written in fragments, as snapshots of different things in the life of Pi. Because so much of it is a philosophical reflection and static images of what he went through and his suffering on the boat, the challenge was to find an arc for the character to go through that carried you through that story. In addition, it's hard to convince a studio that you want to make a film with an Indian boy no one's ever heard of on a boat with a tiger that's going to have to be created through either CG or hundreds of hours of trying to convince a tiger to do what you really want him to do. The cost of the film was going to be prohibitive if you made it anyway. So really I think one of the biggest advantages we had was that Ang Lee said, 'I want to direct it.' At that point, there was enough faith that something was going to happen that they gave us the freedom to try and figure it out.
AT: Rian Johnson, "Looper" is an original sci-fi screenplay of great complexity. How did you make a lot of difficult things clear and concise enough?
Rian Johnson: Yeah, that's where most of the elbow grease went—trying to make it as simple as possible. That may sound weird, looking at the film, especially when you have the time travel that enters into the story. There was just a lot of work to figure out the answers. It's the same as any other kind of story where you're trying to figure out how to tell the most with the least. But it's doing it with this concept of time travel. That was the main thing. And also lashing yourself to the mast of the story and making sure you were never stopping what you hoped the audience was caring about in the moment to explain something you need but that isn't absolutely driving you forward.
AT: And John Gatins, "Flight" was something you were writing for a long time. Did it take so long because it was something you were resisting, it was a challenge. Why?
John Gatins: I got sober when I was 25 and I started writing this movie when I was 31. Now I'm 45 or 44—I'm 44. In Hollywood years I'm 31 still. In the process of writing the story, I had this whole new personal worldview and this tremendous fear of flying. It comes and goes. It was this weird fear and fascination with all these elements in my life, and I describe it as the merging of my two greatest fears, which would be drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash. If you put those two things together…
AT: So Roman, you and Wes Anderson worked together on "Moonrise Kingdom" in a rather unusual collaboration. How did you get involved in helping him to realize this movie?
Roman Coppola: Well, Wes had been working on this idea for a long time, a couple years. He had this notion that he called the island movie. It had to do with a scout running away and an island and he had this imagery. Of course, I've known Wes for some time and we hang out together and I'd ask him how the island movie was going and he'd say—"well, I have some ideas." Ultimately, he was working on it and he could only really get a couple of pages down. He was a bit locked but he had this very clear sense in his mind that wasn't taking shape quite yet. We hung out, he put on this record of Benjamin Britten and I read the first five pages and said—"oh, I get it." I just understood intuitively what this world was. And then we sat together and slowly I asked the right questions, I suggested a little something, we got that dialogue going, and from that point it was really that rush of doing the crossword puzzle and you get over that hump and you know you're going to finish it. That was very much the process.
AT: Stephen, you had to take your successful book and turn it into a movie. Was that more challenging than you expected?
Stephen Chbosky: Yeah. You know, what was challenging about it was the fact that when I wrote the book I was 26 and when I started writing the screenplay I was 37. And I'm 31 now. [Laughter] It was because I was writing about young people and I was more of an adult. Then it was more going back and doing the emotional work to respect and validate what young people go through on their own level and at the same time not treating the grown-ups like fools. Going back was tricky. Plus the fact that my book is a first-person, epistolary novel—very intimate and very emotional. To tell the same story with the same intent but in a medium that is as literal as you can get, that was tricky. It took me some time.
AT: So David, you and Ang met. How did you agree to proceed to work together?
DM: Ang and I had talked about working on a different project but it never came about. I kind of forgot about it. Then I got a call from my agent one day saying, "have you ever read 'Life of Pi'?" I said, "Yeah, that's a hard one. I don't know if you can do that." And he said, "Well, Ang wants to direct it," and I said, "Alright, let's do it." So we met the next night at a Japanese restaurant, had sushi, and talked about the book. We had a lot of the same opinions about it, we connected on it, and by the end of the meal he said, "yeah, let's do it." Compared to so many projects where you have to jump through a certain number of hoops to get the studio's attention and interest and set it all up, he just said, "let's do it" and we got started. I would write the pages and he has a place in Manhattan, I have a place in New Jersey, so I'd send him the pages in advance and we'd sit around eating Chinese food all day. I'd come back with new notes and I'd write for about a week and that was the process, essentially.
AT: Rian Johnson, there is a scene in "Looper" where the screenplay is written as Joe and Old Joe. Did Bruce Willis like being called Old Joe?
RJ: No—we started saying Older Joe very quickly.
AT: So in that diner scene where the two of them are confronting each other—was that the most difficult scene you had to write?
RJ: Yeah. It was definitely one that I worked on the longest. That was the thing more than anything else in the script where we were working on it—I got Joe [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] and Bruce together and we would spend weekends going over it and over it. It's the one that changed the most, even leading up to shooting it, and probably the one that changed the most in post-production. It had to do a lot of things and it had to be a scene where it was just two characters sitting across from each other in a sci-fi/action-y movie that could grind the whole thing to a halt. There was a lot of going over it and going over it.
AT: How did the sci-fi genre feed and inspire your movie? It's in two halves, how did you move from hard-boiled action in part one to mother-son drama in part two?
RJ: Most of the sci-fi that I grew up really loving—Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick—always uses otherworldly concepts in order to get to something incredibly immediate and recognizable and human at the heart of it. When I think of sci-fi, that's what it means to me. It doesn't mean big and crazy, it means something that uses myth to get at something very personal. That was always what I tried to do with this. Basically, the whole movie is set up as a conflict between these two guys, between the older and younger version of himself. I actually wrote the film originally as a four-page script, back before I made my first film "Brick" 10 years ago. I wrote it as something that I was going to make with my friends on the weekend, and I never ended up making it so it just sat in a drawer.
So after I made "The Brothers Bloom," I expanded it. But the short which I wrote, if anyone’s curious, you can Google it. I put it up on the film's website and you can download it and take a look at the film's origin. It was just the two guys—it didn't have the second half of the movie with the mother and the son. For me, when I was expanding it out, I thought, "I need to show what's different about these two, show the basic conflict, and show how they work to their different ends and the conflict between them." And I thought, "you can either show that by having them chase at each other more or shoot at each other more or team up and buddy up, or you can give them both the same problem, the same thing to deal with in the second half and see how they each deal with it and explore how they're different in that way." That's the way I went after it, introducing the element of the kid and the mother, given them both the same dilemma and seeing where they came down at the end of it. It was all a way of getting much deeper into the heart of exploring the conflict between the two main guys.
AT: John, what was your writing process on "Flight?" Do you sit down with a notepad?
JG: It was a process of picking it up and putting it down for 12 years. I did other movies in between to feed the family, and this was this strange, personal Rubik's Cube that I would pull out and try to fix and put away. It was kind of scary—it was R-rated, and I'm an animal that grew up in the studio system, so I was savvy enough to know that this was going to be a challenge for a studio to embrace, this R-rated drama that didn't have guns in it. It was going to take the passion of one actor to make the movie really go.
AT: So you met a pilot on an airplane?
JG: Yeah. I was working on a movie called "Behind Enemy Lines" and it had a bunch of naval pilots in it. I was flying back from Slovakia via Germany and there was this pilot sitting next to me who was in his pilot blues but he was deadman as they call it—off duty. He was chatting with me, and I'm a very friendly guy but I just wanted this guy to shut up! I thought, "why do I want him to shut up?" And I realized: "he's a pilot, and I don't want to know anything about you personally. I want to think the guy or gal flying my plane has their life perfectly in order. I don't want to know you're going through a divorce and your kids hate you or you're an alcoholic." And I thought, "wait a second." I had an ah-ha writer's moment. And I thought, "what if there was a guy that's circling the drain in his personal life," and I was like—"tell me more!" But that was obviously the inception of the character, and I wanted to put him in a severe flying situation. As a really nervous flyer, I started researching every plane crash possible to put him in, which I don't recommend. But those industry reports are public record, so you can read them.
AT: And you wanted to direct the movie yourself?
JG: I did. I tried for 10 years, not that successfully, to direct the movie. But it had many lives.
AT: You had been doing mostly studio fare—sports movies and cheerleading and so forth. After you directed another movie, did something change in the way you were approaching your work?
JG: Yeah. What was funny about that is it's a movie called "Dreamer" that was PG and had Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell. The studio said, "we had a really nice time making a movie with you and we'd like to make another one, what would you like to do?" And I sent them the first 40 pages of "Flight" and they were like…"um, what else would you like to do?" I wrote the greatest robot boxing movie ever made, called "Real Steel."
Again, the personal nature of this movie kind of scared me. Between the content and the idea of the unclimbable mountain of getting this made in the studio system—because a lot of great movies get made outside the studio system and I knew nothing about that, so it terrified me. I was going to direct the movie, and it seemed like it wasn't going to be in that system and it seemed like a very unknowable kind of thing.
AT: So eventually you did get somebody who wanted to make it.
JG: Yeah, thank god. And he's a Santa Barbara resident. Robert Zemeckis [applause] and Denzel [Washington]—it was really the passion of those two guys that made it happen.
AT: And Zemeckis welcomed you as a screenwriter?
JG: He did. It was an incredible thing. He's been so respectful all along. I got a phone call one day and heard, "John, it's Denzel." And I was like, "yeah…" I had a moment where I was like, "this is either Denzel or Jay Pharaoh from SNL doing Denzel Washington, but either way I'll go with it." So I had dinner with him and he said, "I'm going to go make this movie 'Safe House' and after that, I want to make this movie."