2011 SBIFF Writers' Panel: It Starts with the Script

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2011 SBIFF Writers' Panel: It Starts with the Script
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As a sponsor of the 26th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, lynda.com is delighted to put you in the front row of four fascinating panel discussions with some of Hollywood's top filmmakers, including a number of Golden Globe, Emmy, Grammy, and Academy Award winners and nominees.

Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists talk about the development of their films, their research before sitting down at the keyboard, the evolution of the script, and finally, getting it to the screen. What's clear is that there's no formula, no easy path, and no shortcuts. The writers candidly reveal the obstacles each overcame on the way to seeing their vision realized. The anecdotes range from stories of triumph over adversity to remarkable collaborative efforts to just plain luck. Panelists are Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Scott Silver (The Fighter), David Seidler (The King's Speech), Charlie Mitchell (Get Low), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3).


The writer's journey

(indistinct chatter) - Good morning. (audience applauding) Wow, this is a nice turnout. First of all, I wanna thank our first ever presenting sponsor, lynda.com. (audience applauding) And I think Lynda is here. Lynda, please stand up. (audience applauding) Thank you so much for helping the festival.

Also I wanna thank the sponsor of today's panel, Pacifica Graduate Institute. (audience applauding) This is pretty exciting morning, starts with a script with my favorite things we do at the festival. Let's start right away. Let me introduce Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network. (audience applauding) Scott Silver, The Fighter.

David Seidler, The King's Speech. (audience applauding) Charlie Mitchell, Get Low. (audience applauding) Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right. And Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3. (audience applauding) And your moderator Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood and Indiewire.

(audience applauding) (indistinct chatter) - Well this is an incredible line up as always. I look forward to this panel every year because what we do is dig into the process a little bit. It's not just the soundbites that you've already become familiar with but more about how these extraordinary screenplays, which are up for more awards and nominations and have won all sorts of things. I was just listening to David Seidler and Aaron Sorkin talk about what hotels to stay at in London for the BAFTAs coming up.

This is what's really important. But we're going to down to the very end there and start with Aaron Sorkin who of course you know from all the television shows, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and you have a new series, I understand? HBO coming up? Congratulations. - Thank you. - Tell us about that just for the news of the moment. - I will. I have to say that it was, I accidentally announced it when I wasn't supposed to. I was in London last week doing a program called, is it Breakfast with the BBC? BBC Breakfast? You don't? - I think it's Tea and Crumpets.

- Okay. And had just stepped off the plane and gone there and we weren't supposed to announce it for a couple of weeks but I went ahead and talked about it on the show anyway. So I'll just say very little about it now so we don't get in too much trouble. It'll be a new series for HBO that takes place behind the scenes for a change at a nightly cable news show where they have made a decision to try to do the news well.

(laughter) - A comedy series? - They'll win sometimes and they'll lose sometimes. - So, Aaron, back to the beginning. You apparently were shown a script, a treatment, a proposal, a pitch, let's go all the way back, that you were so thrilled by that you called up your agent and said, "I want to do this right away." What was it that grabbed you initially? - The pitch that you're talking about is Ben Mezrich wrote, a 14-paged book proposal for his publisher Random House about the origins of Facebook and the friction that took place at the beginning.

Random House tried to get a simultaneous film deal set up so they sent it out to Hollywood and that's how it got in my hands, and you're right. I did say right away. It was the fastest I'd ever said yes to anything I'm in. And what grabbed me wasn't that it was about Facebook. I really didn't then nor do I now know very much about Facebook at all. What grabbed me was that set against this very modern backdrop of this very modern invention. It was a story that was as old as story telling itself, of friendship and loyalty and betrayal and power and class and jealousy, these things that Escalus would have wanted to write about and Shakespeare would've wanted to write about.

A few decades ago, Pattie Trinosky would've wanted to write about. And it was just lucky for me that none of those guys were available, so I got to write. (laughter) - Scott Silver, you have quite a few screenwriting credits behind you, and The Fighter was one of these situations where various different people were involved. So give us a little bit of where you came in and what had already developed at that stage. - I was the fourth writer I think on this, and a friend of mine, Darren Aronofsky, who went on obviously did the Black Swan, and I went to film school with came to me and asked if I would be interested in rewriting this.

I'm from Worcester which is two towns over from Lowell where the movie takes place. And, wow, thank you. Someone here from Worcester. What are the chances of that? And I boxed a little bit, worthy enough. Not very well but, so it was natural for me to sort of have some interest in it. And so that's sort of how I came aboard. There'd already been a number of drafts. And so it's sort of different from sort of how a lot of these things work out especially to get to here but there's a lot of people before me that sort of obviously did work.

- But what would be the main, if you were to define the main difference between what you did and what had previously been done? How would you describe that? (laughter) - It's a compliment. (laughter) - I need to parse my words. I went back and sort of having been from there decided to go back and sort of interview, I sort of know those characters and know those people. So I went back to Lowell myself and sort of went and did my own interviews and talked to those guys and Mickey and Dicky and Alice and the sisters and stuff and sort of went there and spent a few weeks in Lowell and sort of I think took a lot of the ideas that were there in the first screenplay and then sort of had to make it my own, but also sort of make it into a down one to do as a movie.

So it was really sort of, I'm trying to think of the best way to answer that. I did a lot, you know? - And after you and when David Russel came in, what was your relationship to the project? - That's also a complicated story. We had it sort of changed what was very specifically made for Darren and sort of what his vision was for the movie and making it a Darren Aronofsky movie. In a very short time I think we had about two months or even less, I think. We had to make it into a David O. Russell movie.

We also had a cut about 50 or $60 million out of the budget. So it was sort of like this, you know, having to sort of get it done really fast. And I think the challenge, it's really, I mean I think you can, from the movie, you can see how much it is sort of David's sensibility. - [Anne] Sure. - And sort of David's rhythms and his perspective and his sense of humor on things. I think the heart of the story, I guess, had always been there from the very first draft. I mean, I think, the strength of the story is the strength of Mickey and Dickey and their relationship. What they did in reality, I mean, that's sort of true and I think that transcended every script that was there.

That story was so powerful. No matter who did it and how it was interpreted by whoever-- - [Anne] That's right, survived. - That would've stayed, you know? That heart was there. I think obviously they're very different filmmakers so the challenge was to sort of make it David's movie which he certainly did but still keeping those elements that I think were important to me sort of when I came aboard the project. - Good. David Seidler, you have had a long career. You were born in England, you came to America, you've lived and worked in Hollywood and television for a long time.

You wrote Tucker for Francis Coppola. And this story was something that you were drawn to from the very start of your life because you were a stutterer. What is the reason that it took so long for it to actually come to fruition? And what drove you to finally write it? - I'm a very slow writer. (laughter) When I first seriously thought about writing it which was in 1980, I had just written Tucker: The Man and His Dream, for Francis.

I was a very naive 40 years old. I came to Hollywood at 40, an age when any writer with any sense is thinking of leaving town. And when I wrote that script I was naive enough to think that it would be made instantly, changed my life forever, and I could write anything I wanted to in Hollywood. I certainly learned better than that. It took ten years to get made and didn't change my life and you can't write everything you want in Hollywood. I started looking at Bertie because he had been my childhood hero.

I had stuttered from age three to 16. My parents had told me to listen to his speeches, that he was far worse than I but look what he can do now. And I knew that as King he was listened to syllable by syllable often critically and yet he had enough guts to do it. So, I thought there was hope for me. So I always wanted to write something about George. I had no idea what the story was. That's all I knew with George. So I started reading and there were these blips on the radar screen called Lionel Logue, his speech therapist.

Not much is written about him even in the biographies. The Royal Stutter is an embarrassment. You must understand that stuttering was called until very recently a speech defect. So if you had a speech defect you were a, ipso facto, a defective person. You couldn't have the king of England being called a defective person so you don't talk about the stutter. But I could smell a story with Lionel Logue. I don't know if there are any reporters here.

But you just sort of get a whiff of something. So I asked a friend in London to do a bit of research. I think he was looking in the telephone directory, and she found a surviving son, Valentine Logue. In the film, he's the young chap with his nose always buried in the textbooks. And he had become an eminent brain surgeon of Holly Street. I'm sure much to his father's delight because Lionel always felt so degraded by thee rather snobby British medical community.

I wrote to him and he wrote back and said yes, come to London if you wish. I'll speak with you. And I have all the notebooks my father kept while treating the king. I thought it's the mother load. Eureka. But he had a small caveat to his letter. He said I'll do this but first you must get written permission from the Queen Mother. And that's when my American friends realize, yes, I really am still a Brit at heart. I'm an American and proud of it but I'm a Brit by birth.

So I wrote to the Queen Mum and I got a lovely crisp cream colored stationary envelope with a big red stamp of Clarence House. And she said, Dear Mr. Seidler, please not during my lifetime. The memory of these events is still too painful. Well, I thought, all right. If a Brit asks the Queen Mum's permission and she says, wait, you wait, or you go to the Tower of London. (laughter) But I didn't think I'd have to wait very long. She was an elderly lady.

I thought a year. (laughter) 25 years later at age 100, almost 102, she finally left this mortal realm. So, that's why it took a little while to get started. (audience applauding) - So, Charlie, you were working with a partner on Get Low.

This is based on a true figure but how true? How real is this man that Robert Duvall was playing in Get Low? Is he a phantom? - Well there really was a Felix Bush but all we really knew about him is that he had this channel, he invited everybody to come. And that's really all we had. There was some mystery about him but he never revealed what it was. He was supposedly somewhere back in his youth. He had done something really bad which had caused him to, you know, withdraw completely from the world.

But what that was, we never knew. So we had to invent that. - So you were working away in the indie world on what was a modest script. I mean, did you have any idea that you would end up landing the cast that you did and that it would get the kind of attention that it got? - Interesting question. I went to Mr. Duvall's house in Virginia. Went out on the back porch and we were sitting out there and talking about the character and talking about the story.

And sometime during those two days we spent on the back porch, something happened. And we both decided that this was a story we had to tell. And I think we would have done anything to make it happen. And I know I would have, and he certainly stepped up and proved that true. - He sure did.

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