You know it’s going to be an entertaining evening when a “fight” breaks out amongst acclaimed screenwriters of some of the most honored films this awards season.
That’s what happened at the Writers Guild of America West’s Beyond Words Feb. 4 event, which spotlights the writers of original and adapted screenplays who are up for WGA Awards. Most of them, not surprisingly, are also nominated for Oscars.
Screenwriter John August moderated a panel that included “Straight Outta Compton’s” Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, Aaron Sorkin (“Steve Jobs”), John McNamara (“Trumbo”), “The Big Short’s” Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, who also directed, Matt Charman (“Bridge of Spies”), Drew Goddard (“The Martian”), Phyllis Nagy (“Carol”) and “Spotlight’s” Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, who also helmed the picture.
The discussion began straightforwardly enough, with August questioning each of the writers on how long their respective projects took to get from page to screen. While the total amount of time added up to approximately 54 years—including the 31 McNamara said he was inspired by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, but not actually working on the script, Nagy took the prize for how long the journey was for her adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, which had originally been called “The Price of Salt.” Try 18 years.
Nearly all of the represented films are not only period pieces, but based on real people, some living, some dead. August asked the writers about the challenges of depicting such characters.
“Ice Cube was excited, very collaborative and involved from Day One. I had been interviewing him from the beginning,” Berloff said. Her partner was asked about some of the other “Compton” characters, specifically Suge Knight and NWA manager Jerry Heller. “We didn’t want to write one-dimensional characters and aimed to put heart and soul into them. But Suge was a hard-core villain,” said Herman.
With “Steve Jobs,” the man himself died three weeks before Sorkin was approached to write the script in 2011. “I had access to John Scully, who had been CEO of Apple, and Lisa, Jobs’ eldest daughter, who didn’t participate in Walter Isaacson’s biography,” Sorkin said. ”That was my way in.”
For “Trumbo,” whose main subject died in 1976, it was also his daughter that provided input to McNamara. “The challenge was filming writing, which is really boring. Yet Bryan Cranston made it exciting,” McNamara noted.
It was the son of James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies,” who fleshed out his father’s character for Charman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ethan and Joel Coen. “You get the emotion of the family and feel how they were ostracized. You ask for their blessing and to tell their story,” Charman said. “Donovan wasn’t flashy. He had been forgotten. Then, I pitched away in L.A. and found a home for the story.”
With “The Big Short,” Randolph said he didn’t want real characters that the film is based upon in his head and avoided meeting them, while McKay sought them out. “I had to meet them,” he said. “These guys profited from pain. I saw they were still angry and wounded. I saw guys who believed in a market economy.”
For “Spotlight,” the screenwriters obtained the life rights to the stories of the four reporters at The Boston Globe and two editors. “To me, it was the story of Marty Baron coming from Miami and setting his sights on an iconic institution in the city of Boston as an outsider,” said McCarthy. “It was evident how rich and pure this was. Sitting with survivors, we tried to capture the heart of their story. We had to earn the trust of everyone involved. We wanted to get it right.”
“We talked to all of them in Boston and did tons of research. It helped in gaining their trust,” Singer said about the journalists. “They were very collaborative. They are curious and smart people.” Added McCarthy, “We couldn’t have gotten it right without them.”
While “Carol” and “The Martian” are both adapted from books, their journeys to the screen were very different. Goddard latched on the story before the book was even published, while Nagy had met Highsmith and developed a relationship with her decades ago.
“She tested me on my feelings about Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard, and I passed,” said Nagy. “She didn’t place ‘The Price of Salt’ in her personal pantheon.”
“I hate research,” Goddard said. “After being in TV for 20 years I was sick of exposition and just wanted to let action tell the story. The author had been giving away the book on his website. At one point I got to tell him, ‘You can give up your day job. Matt Damon signed on.’”
August asked about scenes each of them wrote that were left on the cutting room floor. They include:
–From “The Big Short,” the discovery that the Christian Bale character has Asperger’s Syndrome and the real tragedy suffered by one couple portrayed: their nanny accidentally fell asleep on and killed their child.
–In “Carol,” a “peculiar” and funny sex scene between Therese and her boyfriend Richard.
–The Donovan family looking up at the sky at Sputnik in “Bridge of Spies.”
–Baron and Ben Bradlee Jr. asking to be put back on the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal story toward the end of the 9/11 crisis.
— A thorough examination of the canvas material that NASA used in supplies in “The Martian,” which Goddard loved, but director Ridley Scott did not.
–A scene at the Compton Swap Meet where Eric (Eazy-E) hears Dre’s music and sees people buying it. Later, a scene on Eric’s deathbed where he marries Tomika.
–In “Trumbo,” when Dalton first meets his wife-to-be where she works as a carhop, discovers she’s married and decides to pursue her anyway.
Sorkin wouldn’t answer the question. Instead he said, “I have the greatest respect for Danny [Boyle].” He then asked if he could answer another question. Later, he discussed how Jobs referred to Steve Wozniak as “Rainman” in his screenplay, but at that point, the film was a few months shy of its actual opening in 1988. “I’m not apologizing,” he said.
McNamara mentioned that many younger people do not know what the Hollywood Blacklist is, thinking it’s a script contest or the NBC drama starring James Spader.
McKay was starting to discuss breaking the fourth wall, when a character speaks directly to the audience, when Sorkin, who had also adapted a Michael Lewis book, “Moneyball,” broke in with his own question for “The Big Short” guys.
“I was trying to adapt another one of his books, ‘Flash Boys,’ about high-speed trading but I couldn’t understand it. I said to try to explain it to me like I was an eight-year-old – a dumb eight-year-old. How did you guys explain the 2008 housing market meltdown and financial crisis?’
Retorted McKay: “You mean, how did the guy who did [the 2008 Will Ferrell comedy] “Step Brothers” figure it out? That’s the first draft of the question, right, Aaron? Will you re-ask the question?”
If this reads like a tiff, it actually had the entire panel and the crowd rolling in the aisles—and Randolph patiently explained to Sorkin that there were many, many articles written about the crisis with information from which they incorporated into the screenplay.