2012 SBIFF Screenwriters' Panel: It Starts with the Script
As the presenting sponsor of the 27th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, lynda.com is once again pleased to open the door to four entertainment industry panels that feature some of Hollywood's top talent. Panelists are carefully chosen during the awards season and include many you'll see on the Golden Globes® and Oscars®.
Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists share their stories of script development, writer's block, book adaptation, and, most of all, tenacity, on the way to getting their movies to the screen. Mike Mills (Beginners) tells us about turning his own story about his father into a screenplay. Will Reiser (50/50) also turned a life experience, his personal battle with cancer, into a comedy starring his best friend Seth Rogen. Jim Rash (The Descendants) walks us through his process as he turned the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings into a film nominated for five Academy Awards®. Tate Taylor (The Help) was roommates with author Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the best-selling book; he finished the screenplay (and owned the rights) before the book was even published. Writer J. C. Chandor (Margin Call) wrote about the financial markets, having grown up with his father immersed in that world.
With all of these brilliant writers, "write what you know" became their life's mantra while they worked on their screenplays. They share funny and poignant anecdotes about their experiences and processes on the way to the big screen.
(applause) - Welcome to day number four of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It's been terrific, I need to thank Lynda.com, who is our presenting sponsor of the 27th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and I also have to thank Pacifica Graduate Institute for being the sponsor of the writers' panel. So, let me just get right in and introduce the panelists for this amazing panel.
Mike Mills, director and writer of Beginners. (applause) Will Reiser, 50/50. (applause) Jim Rash, The Descendants. (applause) Tate Taylor, The Help. (applause) J.C. Chandor, Margin Call. (applause) And you moderator, as it's been for the past years, Anne Thompson. (applause) - I love this panel, it's my favorite.
- Ah, yeah. - [Anne] All right. - All right, down we go, Mike Mills, at the beginning. - Hello. - For Beginners. (laughing) You are telling a semi-autobiographical story, explain how you maneuvered between reality and fiction. How did you make that, kind of call, in the writing process? - I'm an amazing liar. (laughing) So I've always been doing that, I think.
Well, I was writing about my father, who, I lived here, my father lived here. How many people knew Jan and Paul Mills, maybe? (applause) So, you can see how much I fictionalized and didn't. It was really important to me that while I was starting from a very autobiographical place, that I was reminding myself constantly that I'm telling a story for an audience, for people who don't care about who my dad was or who I am. And so, I was always trying to think of story first, not how real is was. And then, on top of that, I'm not sure how real, real is. (laughs) I lived with a father who is my straight dad for the first 33 years of my life and then he was my gay dad for the rest of his life.
And so that, those definitions of what is solid and factual and real, and what isn't has always been a little slippery to me anyways. - So you're a home town boy, you grew up here, right? - Yeah, yeah my father is director of the Santa Barbara Art Museum and both parents were very dedicated to that. He was director for, I don't know, 12, 15 years, something. Someone maybe knows here and I should know. But I lived here from when I was four to 18 and then I ran like hell to New York City. (laughing) And I've been in here many times, I think I've seen so many (bleep) surf movies in here.
(laughing) Has anybody else been there? But I was like, you know, freckly and pale, so I was basically like, you know, racially prejudice against growing up here, and trying to be apart of the surf scene that I couldn't be part of. (laughing) Sad. - So, Will Reiser, you too are telling a, an autobiographical story, and you worked with your buddy Seth Rogen.
Explain a little bit of how the script came to be. - Well, first of all I should say semi-autobiography, you know the same, you know as it goes, for Mike, you know, with writing it I try to tell the best story possible, and sort of not worry about what was true to my own life. And this story came about, 'cause six years ago I was diagnosed with cancer six and a half years ago, and Seth Rogen is one of my long time best friends and we were, you know, while I was sick we were at a party one night and we realized that there just, there was no movie that depicted what it was like to be young and to have cancer.
And now most movie are about a really sad and melodramatic and maudlin and they're about middle aged people and that character usually dies at the end. And there's sort of no hope and there's no funny, and there's no humor. And I mean, the way we coped with my illness was by making, was through humor, and through jokes. And so, we thought we should do a buddy comedy that's about a character who has cancer and his best friend who doesn't know how to deal with it. And sort of base it loosely on our own relationship, and that was sort of the launching point of the script.
- So he became the producer. - [Will] He did. - And helped to kind of push it forward and. - Yeah, yeah, I would say, you know, we talked about it that night while I was sick, and then it was an idea that really stuck in my head and Seth's head, and also our friend Evan Goldberg, who's Seth's writing partner. And it was an idea that we all really gravitated towards but it was really difficult for me to actually sit down and start writing it. And so, Seth and Even really, were just, I mean, they just bugged the (bleep) out of me for a year and a half, until I actually just sat down and started writing it.
And without them, I mean, without having, I think had i not had two of my best friends acting as my producers, I don't know if I would have actually been able to write it. - So, Jim, you're an actor and a writer. - Yeah. - And you've been an actor, you're on Community. - Yes. - So how did you and Alexander Payne reach, you know, come to know each other? What was the connection? - Well, my writing partner, Nat Faxon and I had written this original screenplay that was based on something that happened to me in my childhood, and that sort of got the attention of some people who were looking for writers for other projects, and Alexander Payne's production company had optioned The Descendants.
And it sort of mirrored some of the tones that we were going with in our original, the mixture of comedy and drama. And so, they brought us in, we read the book, we loved it, and we gave our sort of take, and that's how sort of it began. At the time, Alexander wasn't, was just gonna be a producer, 'cause he was working on another project. And then, as luck would have it, he decided to direct it, so. - All right. And Tate Taylor, you and Kathryn Stockett, the writer of The Help, are old, old, dear friends and even roommates, right? You actually lived together.
- Oh yeah, we lived in, we still keep an apartment in the East Village that we've, it's rent controlled so we, shh. (laughing) The East Village, yeah, we've been friends since we were five years of age and always supported each other and found ourselves living in New York in the early 90s together and we've kept that apartment, she wrote the novel there and I wrote the screenplay there. - And that novel was really turned down by 60 publishers? - Agents. - A-ha, illiterary agents. - Yeah, yeah, you can't darken the doors of a publishing house with that, yeah 60.
And she would not let me read the book, because she didn't know if it was any good. And, for five years, and she got her 60th reject letter, when we were having lunch, she said, "Okay, you can read it, tell me what's wrong with it." And I got on a plane and I could not believe what she had done. And I landed and I said, they're idiots, trust me. Can I make it into a movie? (laughing) And so, she gave me the rights before there was, she just got an agent before there was a publisher or anything.
And so, I and my producing partner set off to, I'm just gonna adapt my friend's unpublishable book, and we were going to make a independent film and maybe help her get her book published. (laughing) A business model kinda flip. (applause) - Now, J.C., you are really not someone who'd had a lot of writing done in the movies, this was a real early attempt for you. - I'd written a lot but it'd never been made.
- Been produced. (laughing) Explain, explain what that, you know, where you were when this came along. - I'd been, sort of a not very successful commercial and documentary director, that was trying to do this, you know, I was trying to write and direct my own material. So, had written one or two things, I mean, written a bunch of things, but really written one or two projects that I worked on for, you know, seven or eight years.
One finally sort of came together and then blew up about six days prior to principal photography. And, you know, we had a deposit, a full crew, I mean, we were ready, ready to go. - That's horrible. - So I had taken, I don't know, eight or nine months off working on anything else, and had a young baby at the time and, you know, had put myself in a terrible financial position.
So I sort of walked away for, you know, almost three years. And this story just sort of started to grow in my head and then finally, you know, I sat down and wrote it. And very quickly the first draft. And, you know, gave it to two people and kind of very superstitiously felt like if something was meant to come from it, it would.
And it was, you know, not to be melodramatic about it but it was, you know, sort of my last shot at it. And I think I knew it was the best thing I'd ever written up until that point, so I kind of felt like, if something was gonna come from it, it would. And it did, thankfully. (laughs) - Including an Oscar nomination, by the way, so. (applause)
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