Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video Overcoming challenges, part of 2010 SBIFF Writers' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
(Music playing.) Anne Thompson: Often, there comes a point when you are writing a screenplay where something really isn't working and it's messing you up and you go into some kind of tailspin. I am assuming this has happened to all of you. Mark, on "The Hurt Locker," did you find there is this sort of strategic disaster in the writing of it that you had to solve? Mark Boal: Well, I don't know about a disaster, but I had somebody that we were trying to get in the movie, in Hurt Locker, and that was Ralph Fiennes.
And he and Kathryn had worked together and it was important that he be in the movie to trigger the financing. And so, you know, being somewhat familiar with his work, I wrote this part for him as an ambassador, the British ambassador, this long complicated scene where he would get this really talky part and really rip apart these American soldiers and show their naivety about foreign policy and all of this stuff. Now I thought, "This is right up his alley." So he read it and we had lunch. And he said, "This is just awful and terrible. "And you know, I love the screenplay, but this terrible.
"I would never do this and, you know, I have family that has personal experience "with this kind of job and nothing could be further from the truth and no "representative of the UK would ever speak like this," and so. That was kind of a disastrous moment in the development process and somehow it came out, over the course of the lunch, that what he would be interested in would be something where he didn't have to wear a suit and he had this idea that maybe he could be a mercenary. And so really in desperation to get that actor on board, I created this scene which people often, this sort of desert sequence in the movie, and people will sometimes say like "Why is there this mercenary sequence in the middle of a bomb movie?" And I have never really told the truth about this before, but...
(Laughter) that's the reason. Anne: It's so interesting that in this movie that the stars are killed off very quickly and you cast the rest of the movie with relative unknowns. Mark: Well yeah, that was, you know, Kathryn really wanted to cast it that way in order to emphasize the realism of the script and the shooting style and the whole idea was to make it sort of feel as naturalistic as possible and if you don't have-- if you don't, you know, have Tom Cruise.
If you have Tom Cruise, you are going to assume that he is going to live through most of the film, given that you have probably spent some money on getting him there. And so with unknown actors that would be more tense and then we had Ralph, and we had him for a couple of days, so the easiest way to get rid of him was to kill him. (Laughter) And that was true with a lot of them, (Laughter) Mark: but it also, I don't know, but it also, I think, just the inverting the normal values that you place, as an audience member, on cast.
And when she cast Jeremy, that was another sort of nearly - well, it was just a difficult moment for me because I had seen Jeremy in Dahmer and I was kind of shocked that he had become William James, who I always thought of this like classic sort of, you know, charismatic American loner type and Dahmer is, Geoffrey, he plays Geoffrey Dahmer, and he is extremely convincing as like the most evil repressed man, you know, on the universe, on the planet.
But so I did rewrite the character a little bit when after I met Jeremy and realized that he was actually a nice guy and a very funny guy. I rewrote that James character a little bit to have - to sort of, in some ways, accommodate his range and so he became a somewhat more jocular character than he was in first conception. Anne: Geoffrey, did you have a real sticking point in the writing process that sort of stymied you? Geoffrey Fletcher: Well, I am going to just start off by saying there's something Jason touched upon earlier about the book in that it has such a huge following, religious, but I wasn't fully aware of the following, which helped a great deal, a great deal.
So I thought, "Well, I can do whatever I want." This is just a cool book and it inspired so many things. I am not afraid to jump here and jump there and only towards the end of the process did I realize how much it meant to so many people. But I think one of the big things was this book has a sort of a force behind it. So it's brutal, graphic at times. So how do we keep its impact, but really make it accessible? So I thought, "Well, this is cinema." So if we show a glimpse here, a glimpse there, a glimpse there, the audience will connect the dots and they will do so in a way that we could never do.
I guess like a lot of the old horror films, where you would scare yourself. Here is just that little drips and drabs. Also to add dimension to the villain, the main villain, really both the mother and the father, but there is scene for the father that was ultimately, it doesn't appear in the final film, but can we give a little bit of understanding or dimension to this mother. Yes, she is a monster, but, here and there, she touches upon an interesting point.
At one point in the script, which may or may not be in the film - I don't think it is, Precious points out her mother is crazy but not stupid. And then at the very end, people tell me "You know, I almost felt sorry for her," and that's okay to have - I think Harrison Ford once said he picks his scripts based on the quality of the villain and so beyond that, the other difficulties I think everyone up here maybe can relate to the Death Valley that the second act is or can be. So...
Anne: And Alex, what was your biggest issue? Alex Kurtzman: Well, actually jumping in off second act, I think there was - the choice to destroy Vulcan was a major choice for us and it was something that we had to really keep quiet because we knew that if fans heard we were destroying Vulcan, it was over. And the other thing was that we had to get Leonard Nimoy on board and we knew that the movie could not exist.
So we had to endeavor to write the screenplay as a giant act of faith that he would do it. We sat down with him early in the process, after we kind of had this story in general. We didn't have where it was all going to lay out, but we kind of knew what it was going to be. And the title, I don't know if anyone of you has ever read this, but the title of his autobiography is "I am not Spock." So he had said, "I am not going to do this anymore. This is done." And we were like, "Okay, well the only way we can do this is with -" so we brought him in and we sat down and there were few pleasantries.
It was like, "Okay, so what you have got?" Okay, so we pitched him and like "and then you blow up your planet and then all the Vulcans are basically wiped out." And then he was sort of listening and when we talked him through it and everyone was chiming in and jumping in and going through the pitch. And dead silence after we were done, and we were like, "Oh man, it's over. We can't do this movie." And he started to cry and we were like, "Oh my God, what's happening?" He said, "You have to understand how emotional this is for me," because we realized we f**king had him.
And he was in, but we had to write the script now and we realized in that moment that we were asking the gunslinger to slap on his pistols one last time. So the destruction of Vulcan and where it landed in our minds was the sort of the end of act two. The end of act two low point was Vulcan is destroyed and then they have to go after Nero and take him back. And we were really stuck, for some reason. We didn't understand why we are so stuck, but the story was not laying out in the way we needed it to.
We couldn't get the emotional beats. We couldn't hit the emotional beats. Everything was wrong. And we realized that the problem was that that needed to be the midpoint of the movie. Because it was such a huge event to recover from, there was not enough time to get to where everybody need to get too emotionally. You needed an hour for the audience to accept it, for the characters to accept it and for the upswing to be possible, because it was such a down point. So that was a weird one because, you know, usually, if you are looking at a typical three-act structure for these kinds of movies, which have very little room for deviation, your low point has to be there.
And our high point actually begins at the end of act two because the story low point is there, but it actually lead us to the scene where Kirk has to jump Spoke off the bridge and take over as Captain. So while that was the low point, it was also a high point because the audience was hoping and waiting for that moment to come. So that was our biggest hurdle to get past. Anne: But you were also were fooling around with time in a very ladder and theme way. So that's sort of how you dealt with it in a way, right? Alex: Yeah, I mean the time travel element was obviously an old staple of Star Trek, so we knew that we had to pay - but it's also a cheat, you know.
Like we had to be very careful that we did not use it as a cheat and trying to stay true to canon and honoring canon, we realized that creating an alternate time-line would allow us to be able to say that everything that you have seen on Star Trek existed. We didn't want to do a reinvention. We didn't really want - it's a prequel and it's a sequel in that it - half of the movie takes... So it's a "sprequel." That's what we used to call it. And it ended up we had to find the balance there and the way to use time travel in a way that people wouldn't be offended by and that ended up giving us amazing story possibilities we just didn't know we were going to have.
Anne: And Nancy, did you have a real sticking point in the process of writing this? Nancy Meyers: Well, you know, I wrote about an affair, which, if you read the newspaper, people don't like. People don't like people that have - people don't like people who have affairs. My lead character was going to have an affair with the married man who she had been married to, but still he is married to somebody else, and he is a new father to her child.
So, it was risky, you know. I think the whole time I was writing, I was aware that they are having an affair and I had to keep balancing that and keep - the way I dealt with it was I had the character talk about it - how wrong it was and she talked to her friends about it. She talked to her psychiatrist about it. She talked to him about it. And I felt by balancing that and keep talking about it kept it - because you know, as soon as the audience is thinking something and you are up on the screen, you know, you have to sort of get that they are thinking that.
So if you put it up there and you deal with it, then I think they can enjoy the movie and get on with it. And then after going through all that, she doesn't end up with him. And in classic romantic comedies, when they were wonderful, and there were exes involved, like "The Philadelphia Story" or "The Awful Truth" or any of the great ones, you always end up with the ex because he makes his case, you realize you've made a mistake and you get back together. And she also doesn't end up with him after putting the audience through it and at a certain point, they are rooting for them.
Kids are involved, you know, and so I found that challenging too, you know, to make that okay that she doesn't end up with him and not to make him a villain. Anne: And did you think when you were writing about pot smoking that this would earn you an R-rating? Nancy: No! I had no idea. I had no - I mean I was actually stunned. Jason Reitman: Did you get an R for pot smoking - Anne: Yes Jason: and pot smoking alone? Nancy: No, no. I got an R because there were no bad repercussions from smoking pot, In other words, there was not a moment where they said "Let's never do that again!" (Laughter) But you know, the point I made to the up to the MPA was, on the other hand, no one brings it up.
Nobody says "Hey where did you get it? Can I have some more?" I mean, it was so clearly a one-time thing. It was like getting drunk once. You are not going to get drunk every day. You know, it was - and they both said they hadn't done it in 27 years. These are not potheads. Mark: Did they propose, by the way, a consequence that would have been - Nancy: Well it was too late. Nancy: The movie was made, done. Mark: The movie was cut. You know, I couldn't write in a consequence, even though Steve Martin said to me, "Should I come in and loop? 'Ooh, That was something.'" I said, "Where am I going to put that?" Mark: Right after the baking of the croissant. Oh God! Nancy: Right as I'm about to kiss you. Anne: This is so wrong.
Nancy: This is so wrong. Yes! (Laughter) That is what I think he is going to say 'because that was not a good thing to do.' Nancy: But that's - yeah. No, I thought that was wild. Anne: Yeah. Jason: Would you have gone further if you knew you were getting an R? Jason: Would you have started to like, uh Nancy Meyers: No. Anne Thompson: You could have shown us all of Alec Baldwin. Jason: There is a scene where they are doing meth. Jason: I mean, it just gets out of control. (Laughter) Nancy Meyers: No! Scott Neustadter: That'd be a consequence. Nancy: Well there is a little thing where, you know Scott: It's a gateway drug. Alec and John Krasinski, he's shot gun - it's a little, you know, there is a little moment that the boys improvise, which I thought was hilarious and I thought, "I will take it out." I know I can never keep it.
So I said - I offered that up, but they said, "It's the whole 11 minutes, that's the problem." I said, "Oh good, then that stays!" because I thought that was really funny, but no. Anne Thompson: So Scott, how about you? Scott Neustadter: Ay, I don't even like to think about it. We had nothing but roadblocks. I mean we had all these ideas, but we really didn't have a story. We were just - it was one person's whiny rant for awhile.
And we had like a 110 page first act and that's where we realized, (Laughter) "Wow. This is going nowhere." Some of it is funny, some of it is horrible. Where are we going? And we didn't know! And one day, I am going to ruin the movie for everybody, but one day this thing happened in real life, which is this girl got married and that was impossible. That could not be. And so for me, who is still kind of reeling from the breakup and had been convinced that you know, love, there is no such thing, it's all whatever.
This person who helped me get to that place found love and got married and lived happily ever after, and there was no way. And we realized when that happened, that's the story we are telling. We are telling the story of really the minute when you say there is no such thing, then there is no such thing as there is not such thing and that was the theme and we worked towards that and we went back and looked at, you know is that what was story we were telling and it was always the story we were telling, we just didn't know it and that was the revelation. Anne Thompson: Jason? Jason: The most important thing for me was authenticity and that was the - it's not really a roadblock, but that's what I faced on a daily basis and that's what I wanted to accomplish.
I mean, I look down at everyone on this panel and that's one of the great elements of every screenplay here is how authentic and relatable they are, no matter what they are about. I mean, even in the case of "Up," which is about a man in a house with balloons, flying to a fictional place in South America, it's not about the authenticity of would, you know, the house actually fly? It's about the authenticity of, do we believe in the idea of wondering if we have had enough adventure in our life and looking back and having those kind of regrets? And that's a thing that everybody understands and for that reason, it has to be authentic or we're going to call it BS.
And every movie here has that, and I certainly wanted that for my own film and I knew I was dealing with elements that were outside of my personal experience. Two strong examples. One was these feelings I knew my wife was having, again, as a career woman who was still trying to kind of figure herself out. And I remember one night we sat down and I said, "Honey I have to write this "scene and I need your help with it. And I want you to have a conversation with "yourself, of you now and your 16 year old self, and I want you to talk about what you look for in a man." And first she described what she looks for in a man now.
Thankfully, there was some resemblance to me and then she described this man that she was in love with at 16, who had no resemblance to me. He was just, you know, he was as tall as Pete, and golden hair and had a golden retriever and loved to go outdoors on the weekend and had a Land Rover and worked in finance, had a college degree, unlike me! I mean, you know and -- Mark: But wait. This is seriously your dinner table conversation with your wife? (Laughter) Jason Reitman: Now, the scarier version of this was on Juno.
On Juno, there was an argument that had to happen between a husband and wife and I talked to Diablo about it. I said, "I think we need to have a scene here at the end where they get into an argument and I have some suggestions for it." So I went to my wife and I said, "I would like to have an argument with you. "And this is for the script and we know going in this is for the script, but if I were to say this, what would you say?" She said "I would say this," and I said, "Okay. Now if I responded by saying this," and it was actually a very scary scene.
We kind of went through it and then we hugged and made up at the end and so that was one part of it. That was very important to me. It's honestly my favorite scene I have ever written and favorite scene I have ever directed and it is in large part to my wife. It's from me, just writing down everything she said. The other part was the experience of being laid off in this economy and as I was scouting this film, and I was in St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that just got pummeled this year, I would go to locations, office locations, that were available for shooting primarily because their departments had been laid off.
And I would walk into an empty floor and there would just be telephones sitting on the ground, 15 feet apart where desks used to be, and there would be a room filled with abandoned chairs. You know, each one of these used to belong to a person that was no longer there. And I would talk to my father every night on the phone and he would say, "Look. You know, you are making one of the few documents of 2009 that says what "happened, that if you watch this movie 10-20 years from now, this will speak to "the economy of this year.
"You have to get this right. "You have to capture this. This has to be in the details." And every night he would talk to me about what I needed to be keeping track of. He said, you know, take photos, take note of these things. These need to find a way into the film. And one night, during this conversation, I said, "What if we used people as well?" I kind of recognized that the weakest scenes in my screenplay were the firing scenes, that I don't know what it's like to be in the middle of my life and to be searching for opportunity when there really is none available.
And I went to my casting director and said, "How can we find real people here who have lost their jobs, who'd be wiling to come and be in the film?" And she said, "Well why don't we put an ad out in the Help Wanted section." I thought, God that's frighteningly smart, and we did that. (Laughter) We got an enormous amount of responses. We said we were make a documentary so there wouldn't be any actors who were trying to kind of slip through. I wanted all non-actors and we narrowed it down to 25 people who are all in the film and they would start to say the kinds of things I would never think to write as a writer and they would say it in a way I would never think to direct them as a director and they - it's funny because you know, we sit here alone here, but we have co-writers throughout our life, whether they are our spouses or our bosses or, you know, the bully that beat us up as a kid or, in this case, these 25 people who wrote some of the best dialog in the film.
And there was one guy in particular. He said, he is in the movie, he goes, "What are you going to do this weekend? "You got gas in your tank. You got money in your wallet. You are going to take your kid to Chuck E. Cheese?" I just remember him saying that and I thought, wow! Well first of all, I have never thought of Chuck E. Cheese as a luxury, but more importantly, if I tried to write this, if I wrote this down, I would think I was being cute. And what he said it, it was 100% real.
And it was really in capturing them that I really kind of found the soul of this movie. It happened on day four of our shoot and it just kind of carried with us throughout the rest. Anne: Well, I want to thank this extraordinary panel. You were great!