Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video Personal writing process, part of 2010 SBIFF Writers' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
(Music playing.) Anne Thompson: I am going to get in to the whole question of how you wrote, you know, what your process is, which is, to me, the most fascinating part of all of this. And Mark, I am going to start with you. You were embedded in Iraq and you communicated with Katherine Bigelow during that period and then how did that become a screenplay? And what was your process? And how did you work with her on that? Mark Boal: Yeah, I was in Baghdad in 2004, as a reporter and somewhere - I didn't quite really know what I was getting into, although I should have, in retrospect but, you know, it was very dangerous and there were sort of like bodies all over the place and people blowing up and, at some point, it occurred to me that I should find a safer line of work.
And I had had some experience working with Paul Haggis on a different project and - Anne: "In the Valley of Elah." Mark: Yeah. So sort of had this crazy idea maybe I could turn some of my experiences into a screenplay. And I knew Katherine from a couple of years before. We had done something for Fox, a TV show that sort of didn't go anywhere, but yeah. So then when I came back, I called her up and I proposed this idea of me as a screenwriter and she said - she was very encouraging and I kind of gave her a sense of what I wanted to do, even though I didn't really know, and that's how it all started.
And a year later we had, or 8 months later, we had a script and nobody wanted it except for her. And so there was then sort of a process of realizing that getting a movie made was a bit of an art in itself, and but that's kind of how it started. Anne: How did you figure out what your story was and what you narrative was and how did you, literally, sit down? I mean, were you were at a computer? Were at home? Were you sharing drafts? Mark: I was at a computer, yeah.
Well it was really the idea was to try to - I was terrified when I was over there and it was, by far, the scariest experience of my life and I wanted to share that feeling with the world. And so it's really a way - the idea was to try to capture the tension of being in Baghdad and tell the story through the eyes of these guys that have this very unusual job, gutsy job, very dangerous job. And that was kind of the frame. And then, I don't know, through the process of writing, I kind of found the story and found a main character and two other characters to be foils for him.
I am not really sure I could unpack how it all happened, but it was definitely a process. Anne: Pete, the Pixar process is a very different one, very collegial, very collaborative. We had Tom McCarthy up here. We've had Andrew Stanton up here, but it isn't the same for all of you. So how would you, how would you describe your version of the Pixar process? Pete Docter: Yeah, we all have slightly different working methods. I guess, for me, writing a film is a little bit like dream analysis.
You'll have those dreams where you're being chased by lions holding a bunch of bananas and you wake up going "Whoa!" You are in sweats and what was that all about and you don't really know until you start writing and diving more in. And so the film is the same way where you just kind of start with something that intrigues you, and you don't really know why and it's somewhere along the way you find out what it is you are actually doing. And for us, we also had this extra step that I don't think many of you guys go through, I don't know, which we call story reels.
And we will, basically, with a small team of artists, 3 or 4, up to 6 or 7 I guess, artists will storyboard the whole thing, almost like a comic book. And then we'll do our own dialogue and music and sound effects and that's kind of our version of a table read. But in that way, we can sit in the theater and project the movie that we haven't shot yet and get a sense for whether it's working or not. Most of the time it's not. So we go back and we rewrite things, and rip stuff out, and change things. And there is some parts that come together very quickly and other parts that you just struggle through.
We had one part on "Up" that we rewrote no fewer than 50 times, so... Anne: Talk about that. You talked about that in Cannes a little bit. There was this one thing you could not solve, a problem that you could not fix. Pete: Well this film was particularly odd because we had all these strange elements of you know, a man, a floating house, a talking dogs, a thirteen-foot tall flightless bird, just all stuff that, initially, to be frank, I just thought was cool. So we started putting it in, and then we had the tough job of connecting them all together.
And that's really why the rewriting took so long was we had to figure out how does an old man who floats his house come into direct opposition with this aging adventurer who is off after - what is he after? And so there was a lot of rewriting in that to try to get those two elements to kind of vibrate in the same frequency, if that make sense. Anne: Absolutely. And Bob Peterson and you worked together. How did that work? Pete Docter: We would usually just start out in his office talking and we'd outline and then, at some point, we'd split up and he'd would write a part and I'd write a part.
And we swap pages. And yeah, it's kind of messy, but we don't know any better way. Anne: And then when you figure out that something isn't working, you can go back and do the sound over again. Is that right? Anne: And do it over? Pete: Yes, because at that point, when we are doing story reels, it's all just us. We're doing our own temporary, you know, doing my best Ed Asner impersonation or whatever. And that way we are not bothering the actors as we rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. So by the time they come in, its, well, it's closer to what we want.
Anne: And you show this stuff to a group of people who are critiquing it, so you are actually taking some pretty hard knocks, like "this really sucks" and, you know, "it's bad" Pete: Yeah, I mean, Anne: and you have to fix it. Pete Docter: We have a pretty unique situation because we've got these other amazing filmmakers, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter, and they are all on-staff. And so while I am working on my movie, we have this sort of cycle where we close off and we work just by ourselves, a very small group. And then when we feel fairly strong about it, we'll put it up on the screen, invite all these other guys in, and then we go up and have very frank discussions about the parts that work and the parts that don't.
And the cool thing is they will all throw out ideas. They poke at stuff and even with John, who is our Creative Executive, there is no mandate like "You have to do this." It's always "Just make it better." We can take their suggestion or not. All we have to do is make it better, which is hard enough as it is, but it's pretty unique. Anne: Geoffrey, what's your - you have written many, many screen- people keep saying "This is his first screenplay" and I go "I think he has written a few before." Explain that.
Geoffrey Fletcher: Yeah, well I wrote a lot - "Out In The Wilderness" of original material without - between film school and Precious and I didn't have an agent and I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote. To this day, I am still not sure why. Almost looking back "you're a crazy man." Anne: You were holding down temp jobs, Anne: in New York. Geoffrey: Yep. That's right. Geoffrey: Working all sorts of jobs and it was tough, but I wouldn't trade it because the things I learned on thing those jobs, those were real jobs with the real people, and it really helped a lot with writing this, but also the persistence to keep writing with very little positive reinforcement really helped me understand who Precious was on a deeper level.
I mean, every day she had to muster the strength to get through. So this, as my first adaptation - the original material helped a lot, when sort of straying away from what was there and reinventing. And people would come up to me, even in production team, they'll confuse things that were in the book and things that were added, and that, to me, was one of the great compliments they would give, to sort of slip organically into her, Sapphire's universe.
But during the writing, I had filters on. Well, actually, during the reading of the book, I had filters on. I am trained as a director, and so I would look for everything in that book that could be dramatized cinematically, or visually, and things that didn't belong. So a lot of it was what didn't belong there and then there are other departures that I took based on studying psychology as an undergrad.
Some of these flights of fantasy from trauma, creating some new characters and - Anne: So the fantasy sequences, for example, were not on the book? Geoffrey: At one moment, early on, Precious mentions the idea of being in a music video. And I thought "Okay, well when she is struggling, I mean when she is undergoing these terribly - these terrible moments, great. That's the escape she has created for her." And then I thought, secondly, "It'll be a great escape for the audience," and then on a third level, I thought, "Well here is a way to organically incorporate a visual cinematic element to this film." So, you know, throughout, also I had a mindset, like yes this is a very specific person in a specific place, but like a lot of art that's effective, it can be both really specific and ultra universal.
I thought of her as Odysseus, or Huck Finn, or Celie from The Color Purple and in part, this is a story about a young women who is going through a tough, tough time, but it only happens to be set in Harlem, so I felt resurrected, just to be working on something I cared about and something that might get made. I didn't know if anyone - if it would be made, or seen, or even widely seen, but I did know that I was never more fulfilled to work on anything in my life.
Anne: Alex, your task with your partner, Roberto Orci, who you have been working with, I mean you've known him since you are in high school, and you have done all of your movies together, the Transformers and "Mission Impossible 3." This one was a challenge, in terms of resurrecting, the genre term in our industry is "rebooting" a very, very, very familiar universe. And it seemed like what you were able to do was go back and find those characters and figure out how to make them work again.
Would you talk about that? Alex Kurtzman: Sure. I think that there were five of us in the process of determining where we were going to find the rhythm and the emotion and the balance of Star Trek. and that Bob and I have been partners since we were in high school and when I first met him, he had an Enterprise phone that would ring in his room. So that was his level of fandom. He knew every show, every quote, every character from the original series on through with the films.
I was very struck by "The Wrath of Khan" when I saw it, just at the exact right time, and up to that point in my life, I did not think that anybody could beat Darth Vader as a villain. And then Khan came along and put that thing in Chekov's ear and it was like, okay. (Laughter) And then JJ was very kind of not - he was like, "I am Star Wars guy." I was like, "I am Star Wars guy, too! Great, let's put some of that in there." And I don't know that's sacrilege, but it's true.
Alex: And then Damon was equally loud, vocal Anne: Lindelof Alex: Damon Lindelof was equally loud, vocal and passionate about protecting canon and then Berkey really was a wonderful objective outsider who had no connection to Trek really. So between the 5 of us, we all, I think, represented a pretty of good cross section of the audience. And then talking about story, Bob and I would go off and we would break story together. We'd come back and we'd present our ideas. And we'd actually write an act and then we'd find some new turn and then present a new idea.
And we got to have that checks and balances, which was wonderful because, as a writer who was, I think, very fortunate to have been trained and mentored by writing producers, it was an incredible safety net, especially when it came to a franchise that was very divisive. I mean, hardcore Trekkers or Trekkies, or however you would want to classify yourself, were angry that we would even take - the Transformers guys.
They are going to turn it into a Michael Bay film and I think that we, initially, said "There is no way we are going to do this. We can't take this job." And we passed for about 8 months. Collectively, we passed. And then we thought about it and we thought, "The reason that we are passing is because we so desperately want to protect this thing that we love that - it was too scary. But then we realized that's exactly why we have to do it, because if we don't protect it and someone else does this and we go to that theater and hate it, then the person most culpable will be us.
So we said, "Okay. Let's do this." Jason: If not us, then who? If not now, then when? (Laughter) Alex: True, true. By the way, I am jealous of your hair. I just want to go on record and say that. Anne: Between you and Bob, you are the character man, as I understand it, and he is the science geek. Alex: Well, the funny thing is, Bob has always been very sort of logical Anne: He's Spock and you're...
Alex: The great irony of this was we were about halfway though the script and we got to the point where Kirk and Spock argue about what to do after Vulcan has been destroyed and we knew that this was going to be the axis, in some ways, around which the whole movie spun, because it was going to all come down due to this argument. And they we are going to have to separate and come back together and we were debating. Sometimes what we will do is we will go to a hotel room and we will order room service. We will lock in and we will spend our days writing - take the phone out of the wall.
And so we were in the middle of that process and we were having this huge argument about what the scene should be and then we were like, "Jesus, This is the scene!" Type! (Laughter) So we started typing as fast as possible and that became the scene and really, it never changed. So we were very lucky that way and I think that we didn't really know it, but now 20 years that Bob and I've been writing together, in many ways, were building up to the moment of getting to inherit something that we loved so much as kids so that we could give to our kids and that's kind of why it ended up being, I think, something that we love doing.