Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video Personal writing process (cont.), part of 2010 SBIFF Writers' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
(Music playing.) Anne Thompson: So Nancy, with "It's Complicated," as I recall, you were setting out to make a movie that was absolutely as funny as it could possibly be. And what's your writing process in trying to make that happen? You shut yourself up at home? Nancy Meyers: It's funny that you say that. I must have said that to you, but, actually, I always think of my movies as being really tragic when I'm coming up with them.
Well, because sometimes if you - when I describe them to myself, as I'm writing, I see nothing funny in them at all. So the challenge is, yeah, I think in any scene the character could cry or could laugh. So I did want just to challenge myself to try to write a movie that worked comedically in sort of a full throttle kind of way, for me, for what I do. So when I listen to you, Pete, I'm sort of jealous when I think that you could leave your room and go talk to people, or have a book or have some direction.
Because it's a long and lonely process when you're - which is why I tend to see it tragically I think, at times. So you do want a little pat on the back once in a while. So on a rare, rare, rare occasion, I'll send a page off to somebody and I'll say, Does this work? Do you think this could be funny? But basically, for me, I wanted to write a movie about divorce, but none of the getting a divorce stuff, none of the custody stuff, none of that stuff that you've seen, but sort of being a divorced person is never really talked about in movies and a lot of people are divorced and we have really oddball relationships with people as a result, one of them being the ex.
And so my brain went into the what-if possibility of what if 10 years later you had an affair with this person. (Laughter) And it then started to get pretty funny to me, and then I started to see a lot of very comic possibilities. So the process was - I do a really, really long outline. I spent months and months outlining, and I put everything in the outline I can think of.
It's the conversations you have in the hotel room. You just go back and forth with yourself and sometimes I, in an argument scene, I'll take out a legal pad and draw a line down in the middle - he thinks, she thinks. And I always tried to make the scenes really valid when Alec and Meryl work together. I wanted that relationship to work. I rooted for them. I tried to write the best I could in ways they could get back together, but then true character things would come out that would make that impossible and then it turns into a script.
And then, on this movie, I actually thought "I think I'm going to bring in a producer because I write and direct and produce" and I went to Scott Rudin and I said, "Would you produce this movie with me?" because I really wanted somebody just to - and then he would call me everyday and I would never tell him anything. Anne: You were withholding. Nancy: He called me every single day with "How'd it go?" Nancy: Good. Pretty good. I don't know, maybe bad. I just, I never really could have any answer for how it was going. I don't think we know. I don't think we know, really.
Anne: And I know you and Jason, I had a question for both of you. I mean, were you writing with particular people in mind as to play the roles? Nancy: I always do. Otherwise I see myself. So it's really essential. So I glommed on to Meryl Streep, who I didn't know, but when I could picture her I could picture her doing things I would never do, couldn't do. She is much braver, stronger, smarter. She would figure out a way to pull it off and yes, that helped me enormously.
It really helped me enormously and I thought of Alec a lot, too. I find when you have - I don't know about you, or any of you, but when you have an actor in mind, it pushes you a little bit, just pushes you. You get braver or you can get funnier or you know they can make it work. It helps me a lot. Then you have to actually get them, or you have spent year being an idiot. Anne: So we will go to Scott first and then Jason, if you want to address that issue as well.
So you work with a partner, Michael, and you have worked together before? Scott Neustadter: This is the second script we ever wrote, yeah, we - Anne: So Pink Panther 2 being - Scott: No, no, no, no, no, no. Anne: or that was you alone? Scott: No, that was us together. Scott: That was all him. (Laughter) We wrote that after this. This was really the first thing that we - I moved here and we'd given up working in movies.
I used to work in development in New York. I hired him as my intern, like ten years ago, and we just sort of had the same taste, so we always would write scenes together and make jokes and that's how that started. We were friends first. And I quit the business and I went to business school in Europe and was done with this. And I met this girl. If you saw the movie. I had to write about it and so I would email him back in New York and say "Can you believe this?" And he'd be like, "This is good. This is juicy." And so we were, do you think about an actor when you write? We were just thinking about me.
I was writing about myself. He was writing about me. I'm sure he even loved that and we just didn't think it was a movie. We didn't think it was something that anyone was going to ever read. I had to do it and I hated my job in LA so much when I moved here, that I finally said, "You know what? If I don't show people this script and they like it, I will probably end up moving back East." So we kind of got lucky and they liked the script and this is what happened.
Anne: Now you were writing the parts about the guy who was being miserable and he was Anne: writing about the good parts, the romantic parts? Scott: No, Scott: he loved the miserable parts too. Jason Reitman: It's more fun to write that stuff. Scott Neustadter: Yes, it's the anger. The first - I mean it really started when things were fresh and I was really pissed off. And the more we would work on it, the more distance there was and we would be able to separate kind of fresh pain from little bit of a maturation that was going on.
And the tone of the entire movie and the script shifts halfway through when the character starts to think back on things a little differently, which is what we were doing. The whole thing is non-fiction and it's kind of amazing because when we watch it now, we're like, "Oh remember, we were going through that." And it's pretty - Anne: Were you going though musical numbers? Scott: Yes, absolutely. It's a story of someone who is really influenced by pop-culture and when he thinks about stuff, it always is filtered through like the movies that he watches and the music that he listens to and all those things, and that's me.
The night that you finally get the girl, the next morning is the greatest day ever. So we said what would that entail? And it would be a big fat musical number and we had Hall and Oates themselves walking down the - singing to them. It's funny, Joe, the actor, he said, "I felt like this and this is just sort of, who doesn't feel like that when something great is going on?" Anne: But you were going to cut out the ninja numbers? Scott: We did have a ninja battle at one point. Yeah, that is true.
I don't remember even what that was to do with anything. (Laughter) "Anything goes," that was our sort of attitude and yeah, thankfully, there is no ninja battle. Jason: Is that when things are good or when things are bad, you fight ninjas? Scott: I think yeah, no, he died in the scene. Things were bad. Things were bad. Wasn't so good. Anne Thompson: How did you figure out the fracturing of time? Scott: The only way in which I thought it was a screenplay versus an extended diary rant was when I came up with the idea of like, "What if we told it this way?" One of the first thoughts that I had was like you could show what ended up being the IKEA scene.
If you've seen the movie, he makes a joke and we show it when things are terrible and you're like, what is up? Then you see hundreds of days earlier when things are fantastic because they are new and exciting. He makes the exact same joke and it goes fantastic. So the fracturing of the narrative and the way you tell the story, you could only do that - because of the way that we were telling it, we can get away with stuff like that. You could see the juxtaposition in it and we have a little bit more meaning, than if you saw it an hour apart. So we love the freedom of being able to do stuff like that.
Anne: Jason, what's your writing method on a day to day? - this one had a strange sort of trajectory because you kept going back to it. Jason: It's like being lost in the desert. I honestly think that's often how writing feels, even when you're adapting. I started writing this seven years ago. I wanted to write a movie about a bunch of things. It was funny to hear you kind of talk about knowing that you wanted to have a guy in an house and you know you wanted to have this bird and like - because I think a lot of writing comes in that way.
You know you want to write about five or six different things and you're wondering if they're going to end up fitting all into the same movie. I wanted to write about the idea of being alone. I wanted to actually defend the idea of being alone, and see if I could accomplish that. I wanted to write about the idea of collecting things, collecting the meaningless things that we seem to do just to fill our life to make us think that our life is complete and airline miles seemed perfect for that. I wanted to write about female midlife crisis in a way that I thought I'd seen a lot of male midlife crisis on screen, but not a lot of female midlife crisis.
I wanted to write about particularly the kind of identity crisis that I saw my wife go through as a woman with a business degree who was career woman who became a wife and mom and is trying to balance these ideas of what was going to be the focus for our life. I wanted to write a movie about a guy who experienced the need for romance through loss, that somehow, this was going to be the movie where instead of feeling like this guy wanted to be in love when you see him dancing at a wedding, the most important moment is actually when he realizes this love is actually not available to him.
It is at that moment that we know he wants something more and perhaps we, as an audience, want something more as well. I found this book that spoke to a lot of these ideas and I find that's how adapting works for me is that I have stuff that's kind going through my head and then I find an author who speaks to it in a very articulate way, who has language that I did not have and we become collaborators, whether the author knows it or not. It becomes this exchange of ideas.
In this movie, it was strange because over seven years, I mean, I was writing a movie about loneliness, but over these seven years, I met my wife and I fell in love and I had a daughter, and I began to learn, for me at least, what was important in life, and it had an enormous influence. I started writing this movie and then I stopped. And I made Thank You for Smoking, then I went back to writing it and I stopped and I made Juno. And then I finally came back, and each time I went back to write, my life had made these kind of enormous jumps. As far as writing for actors, I completely agree.
It just changes the way you think of the characters. It gives them a voice in a way that otherwise cannot be. I wrote "Up in the Air" for eight or nine of the actors that ended up playing characters, and not only George Clooney and Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, but Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons and Amy Morton, who I saw in August: Osage County on Broadway, and just went, "Oh my god, that's Ryan's sister." As soon as you identify that voice, it really brings the character to life and all of sudden, you really know they would respond to anything.
It really defines them. Anne: Have you ever done that and not gotten the part filled with the right person? Jason: Oh, I offered Thank You for Smoking to George Clooney. He had no interest in playing that role. No, certainly. I think when I wrote Thank You for Smoking, originally, I wrote it as the anti-Jerry Maguire. So for me, the perfect guy was Tom Cruise, who is - I thought Nick Naylor and Jerry Maguire are like two sides of the same coin. So, no. Certainly, that's often the case.
I'm not presumptuous enough to think that George Clooney was going to say yes to me. I'm just lucky that he did. Anne: You trucked out to Italy to his house to get him to read the script. Jason: Well, I went to his house under the idea that he had read the script, and then I showed up and he said, "What are you working on these days?" (Laughter) Anne: There was a happy ending. Jason: Yeah, two days later, wondering like- well, I'm in Como with my wife and this is wonderful, but what the hell is going on here? He walked up to me, out of nowhere, and just said, "I've just read it. It's great. I'm in."