2012 SBIFF Screenwriters' Panel: It Starts with the Script

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2012 SBIFF Screenwriters' Panel: It Starts with the Script
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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) [00:00:5.21] Roger> Welcome to day number 4 of this 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. (Applause) 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 Descendents." (Applause) Tate Taylor, "The Help." (Applause) JC Chandor, "Margin Call." (Applause) And your moderator, as it's been for the past of years, Anne Thompson. (Applause) Anne Thompson> I love this panel.

It's my favorite. Jim Rash> Oh, yeah! Anne Thompson> All right, all right! Down we go. Mike Mills at the beginning, for "Beginners." 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? Mike Mills> I'm an amazing liar. 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 Jen and Paul Mills maybe? 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 who my dad was or who I am, and so I was always trying to think of story first, not how real it was, and then on top of that I'm not sure how real "real" is.

I lived with a father who was 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 those definitions of what is solid and factual and real and what isn't has always been a little slippery to me anyways. Anne Thompson> So, you're a hometown boy. You grew up here, right? Mike Mills> Yeah. Yeah, my father was director of the Santa Barbara Art Museum and both my parents were very dedicated to that. He was director for, I don't know, 12-15 years or something, someone maybe knows here, and I should know. But I've lived here for when I was 4 to 18 and then I ran like hell to New York City.

And I've been in here many times and I think I've seen so many f**ked surf movies in here. (Laugher and applause) Has anybody else been there? But I was like freckly and pale. So, I was basically like racially prejudiced against, growing up here and trying to be a part of the surf scene that I couldn't be part of. Sad! Anne Thompson> So, Will Reiser, you too are telling an autobiographical story and you worked with your buddy Seth Rogen.

Explain a little bit of how the script came to be. Will Reiser> Well, first I should say semi- autobiographical. It's the same as it goes for Mike with writing it. I tried to tell the best story possible and sort of not worry about what was true to my own life. And this story came about because 6 years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, 6 1/2 years ago, and Seth Rogen is one of my long time best friends and we were..

While I was sick we were to a party one night and we realized that it was no movie that depicted what it was like to be young and to have cancer. And that most movies 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 they're not-- There's no funny and there's no humor, and, I mean the way we coped with my illness 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 based it mostly on our own relationship and that that was sort of the launching point of the of the script.

Anne Thompson> So, he became your producer and helped to kind of kind of push it forward and-- Will Reiser> Yeah, yeah, I would say we talked about 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, whose is 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 Evan really would just-- I mean they just bugged the s@*t 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. Anne Thompson> So, Jim, you're an actor and a writer. Jim Rash> Yeah. Anne Thompson> And you've been an actor. You're in "Community." Jim Rash> Yes. Anne Thompson> So, how did you and Alexander Payne come to know each other? What was the connection? Jim Rash> 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 "Descendents," and it sort of mirrored some of the tones that we were going with in our original, sort of 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 it sort of began. At that time, Alexander was just going to be producer, because he was working on another project and then, as luck would have it, two years later he decided to direct it. Anne Thompson> 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? Tate Taylor> Oh, we lived in the-- We still keep an apartment in East Village that we-- it's rent controlled, so shhhh! In the East Village.

Yeah, we've been friends since we were 5 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. Anne Thompson> And that novel was really turned down by 60 publishers? Tate Taylor> Agents. Anne Thompson> A-ha, literary agents. Tate Taylor> Yeah, yeah you can't knock on the doors of a publishing house without-- yeah, 60. And she would not let me read the book, because she didn't know if it was any good. And for 5 years. And she got her 60th rejection 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?" And so she gave me the rights before there was-- she just got an agent before there was a publisher or anything. So I and my producing partner set off to-- I was going to adapt my friend's unpublishable book and we were going to make an independent film and maybe help her get her book published.

(Laughter) The business model kind of flipped. Anne Thompson> Yeah, JC, you are really not someone who had a lot of writing done in the movies. This was a real early attempt for you. JC Chandor> I had written a lot, but it had never been made into a movie. (Laughter) Anne Thompson> Explain, explain what that, where you were when this came along? JC Chandor> I had been sort of a not very successful commercial and documentary director that was trying to do this.

I was trying to write and direct my own material. So, I 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 7 or 8 years. One finally sort of came together and then blew up about 6 days prior to principal photography. And we had a deposit, a full crew. I mean we were ready to go. Anne Thompson> That's horrible.

JC Chandor> So, I had taken, I don't know, 8 or 9 months off working on anything else and had a young baby at the time and had put myself in a terrible financial position. So, I sort of walked away for almost three years and this story just sort of started to grow in my head. And then finally I sat down and wrote it, very quickly the first draft and 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-- not to be melodramatic about it but it was sort of my last shot at it. And I think I knew it was the best thing I had ever written up until that point, so I kind of felt like if something was going to come from it, it would. And it did thankfully. Anne Thompson> Including an Oscar nomination, by the way. (Applause)

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