The horrors of racial discrimination, both historical and fictional. A young woman’s coming of age. A love story involving an aquatic alien. The cultural, familial and relationship struggles of a mixed couple. A woman in a man’s game. The story behind the best worst movie ever made. A champion ice skater’s saga told from multiple viewpoints. A different take on a comic book superhero.
The writers behind films that tackle those subjects — among the most acclaimed movies of the year — took center stage at the annual Writers Guild Beyond Words event, a mainstay of the winter awards season. They are all nominated for Writers Guild Awards in the best original and adapted feature film screenplay categories – and with one exception, all of them have received Oscar nominations as well, some in multiple categories.
This year’s event, put on by the WGA West in partnership with the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills Feb. 1, was moderated by Graham Moore, who won the Oscar and the WGA for his film “The Imitation Game” in 2015.
The participants included Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”), Michael Green and James Mangold (“Logan”), Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“The Disaster Artist”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Steven Rogers (“I, Tonya”), Aaron Sorkin (“Molly’s Game”) and Virgil Williams (“Mudbound”).
The discussion was lively, bouncing back and forth between established veterans like Sorkin, Mangold and del Toro and newcomers including Peele and Gerwig. Both of the latter have also been lauded for directing their respective films with nominations from the Directors Guild and the Motion Picture Academy, as has del Toro, who won the DGA Award and whose movie scored an impressive 13 Oscar nods.
Moore asked about their philosophy of picking a project and their process of writing, as some work solo and some toil with co-writers.
“You want to secure the one that gives you the most freedom, the idea that hasn’t been made yet, that could be successful — or a disaster,” said del Toro. “It’s the one that gets stuck in your throat.”
“Writing is interior,” Gerwig said. “There’s a great quote that writing is like driving at night with your headlights on. You can’t see very much but you know you’re getting there.”
Sorkin took that analogy to a slightly different place. “It’s like walking with a flashlight and the further you go into it the more you know,” he said. “Suddenly you get a great feeling of knowing the ending. I’ve never had anything come to me fully formed. William Goldman [‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’] talked about having a secret. He knew that the Sundance Kid couldn’t swim but he got them to the cliff.”
“It’s a combination of what if and the possibility of where it goes,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you think what you have is a piece of trash, but you’re always looking for an opportunity to be carried away.”
Williams, who co-wrote “Mudbound” with Dee Rees, talked about the story of two Southern families, one black and the other white, in the days following World War II. “It’s different words on the page and on the screen. We had six protagonists, each with a distinct voice, mood, feel and setting. It’s about capturing the essence of the characters but keeping their voices distinct and the tonal shifts cinematic,” he said.
“The tone is interesting but in ours you can’t break away from the reality of a girl in a coma,” Gordon said about the film based upon her real-life relationship with Nanjiani, who starred as himself. “But the laughs in it felt like relief.”
“As Sorkin has said, ‘Write what you know,’ but it was weird,” Nanjiani noted. “Writing was like replacing your own memories and shooting was like letting go of them.”
The conversation shifted to whether the writers use outlines, treatments or index cards.
“I spent a vast amount of time on treatments. Part of the project was how to make a horror movie about race, and it engaged me for five years. Every element of every scene was laid out,” Peele said.
“We don’t write until we outline,” said Weber of his process with Neustadter.
“Outlines make me nauseous,” said Mangold, who is also known for “3:10 to Yuma” and “Walk the Line.” “If you follow one it’s like the difference between a tourist and a traveler. A tourist has the itinerary all mapped out whereas the traveler wonders where he should have coffee that day.”
“My opening scenes run 45 to 80 pages,” Sorkin noted.
“Outlines feel fraudulent,” Gerwig said. “I have to write into what I don’t understand. I never have an outline.”
“I set quotas to write, like a scene a day. But in our movie there’s 265 scenes, so do the math,” Rogers said about his film, which tells Tonya Harding’s story from several viewpoints.
“I use 3 x 5 cards. It’s like a wish list and you can move them around or toss some on the floor,” del Toro said.
“The process is very unique to whatever it is and whatever you find along the way,” said Peele. “I’m sure there is not another movie with the same process — and the process is beautiful in that it is unique. My mantra is that I follow the fun. But fun can evolve into tears. When Chris is in hypnosis and in the sunken place, it’s cathartic. What stops art is losing track of why it’s fun. Even doing my research about secret societies, of which there wasn’t much … in the movie, provided new reference points to connect.”
Gerwig said her mantra is “Don’t be afraid to be bored.” She said she finds it stressful to be pressured into being entertaining all the time and have things move at a quicker pace than what she would prefer.
Sorkin noted he was loving hearing everyone else talk about their writing process, and dished about what he needs make a go of a screenplay. “I have to have intention and obstacle [for the main character]. It takes me months of what looks like lying on the couch and watching ESPN. I also like to drive around listening to music from high school,” he said. “I do a lot of research. Without intention and an obstacle, it’s like fingerpainting. Greta, I can’t write when bored. I feel like it’s going to a dinner party for two hours and you’re the only one talking and it has to be interesting. Most days I spend not writing. Directing is really hard but I loved it because at the end of the day you know you put in a day’s work. With writing, sometimes I don’t finish a scene at night so I know I will have something to write in the morning. The difference between page 2 and page 0 for me is like life and death.”
“Sometimes the most interesting thing is that thing that is most scary. Like the one conversation in a relationship that you need to have but don’t,” del Toro said. “I also look at whether I am going to appease or awaken the audience. Life is funny and sad. That tone is hardest to convey. Only you know when you’ve gone too far.”
Although del Toro is the one most closely associated with horror movies — a traveling museum show called “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters” recently concluded — Mangold got worked up about defying expectations and clichés while working in certain genres. There is one trend in superhero movies in particular that riles him, something he considers extremely frightening.
“Now we’ve actually gotten audiences addicted to a fucking bonus in the credits. It’s fucking embarrassing. It means you couldn’t land your fucking movie is what it means,” Mangold said. “Even if you got 100,000 Twitter addicts who are gambling on what fucking scene is going to happen after the fucking credits it’s still cheating. It’s just cheating, but there’s all sorts of bad habits like that that fucking horrify me, man, that have become de rigueur in the way we make movies and I think the fear of being one of them that did that at the end, then everyone’s patting me on the back and I feel like shit inside because I know I cheated, is probably the greatest thing that scares the shit out of me.”
Williams, who said he spent most of his career in television, ended the night on an upbeat note. “It’s incredible being up on stage with these geniuses,” he noted. “If it comes from the heart, that’s when it lands — that’s why I chase the cursor.”