Hillary Atkin

Filmmakers Behind the Year’s Most Acclaimed Movies — ‘La La Land,’ ‘Arrival,’ ‘Moonlight,’ ‘Hidden Figures,’ ‘Fences’ and Others — Reveal the Challenges They Faced, Lessons They Learned … and the Worst Notes They Received

Feb 17, 2017

For going on two decades, it is an event that has become an anticipated awards season tradition, shining a spotlight not only on the creators of the most acclaimed films of the year but also upon the cultural and societal landscape of which they become part and parcel.

Last year’s Beyond Words panel discussion with the Writers Guild Award-nominated screenwriters was set smack dab in the middle of the raging #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

This year’s event, put on by the WGA West in partnership with Variety at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills last week, visibly demonstrated that despite some gains, inclusion and diversity still have a long way to go.

The participants included Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”), Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool”), Todd Black (producer of “Fences,” written by the late August Wilson), Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (“Hidden Figures”) and Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”).

All of their films have been showered with reams of Oscar nominations, with the exception of “Deadpool,” the Marvel Comics anti-superhero R-rated Ryan Reynolds romp, which made a huge splash this season amongst the guilds — but apparently not enough to win the favor of the industry professionals of the Motion Picture Academy.

Oscar accolades for the other films repped by their writers (and Black, producer of “Fences”) include all the biggies: Best Picture, Best Original and Adapted Screenplay, and directing nods for Chazelle, Jenkins and Lonergan.

Melfi and Sheridan also directed their respective films.

Even though not all of the WGA nominees were present — Tom Ford for “Nocturnal Animals” and Jeff Nichols (“Loving”) were unable to attend — there was, and is, only one woman amongst the bunch, Schroeder.

So it was only fitting that the panel was moderated by Andrea Berloff, nominated for both a WGA and an Academy Award last year for co-writing “Straight Outta Compton,” when she was one of four women scribes contending for feature film screenwriting trophies.

Berloff did a stellar job of questioning the panelists and making sure they all got roughly equal time, a challenging feat in the best of circumstances when there is not nearly as much at stake as the upcoming awards presentations, on Feb. 19 for the WGA and Feb. 26 for AMPAS.

Here are some of the highlights from the panel discussion, edited for length and clarity.

On the challenges in getting the films made:

Sheridan: My journey is unique. I wrote “Sicario,” but my agents said no one was going to make it. [They did.] I moved into a one-bedroom apartment at Sunset and Laurel, and in between pushing a kid in a stroller around the neighborhood, I wrote the script in 2½ weeks — and they shot it.

Heisserer: I had read the short story that “Arrival” is based upon and I loved it and was determined to make a film. All the studios passed. I said I would write it on spec and my agent said it was a waste of time.

Jenkins: I’ve always described the 2003 play that “Moonlight” is based on as halfway between stage and film. In 2008 I was doing commercials and I went to Brussels to write the screenplay. Ten days later I had a first draft of this black, gay coming-of-age thing.

Schroeder: I was born to write this. In July 2014 I came in with the basic framework and by Labor Day we had gone through various drafts.

Lonergan: Matt Damon and John Krasinski came to me with it. Three years later it took off like lightning.

Wernick: We did “Zombieland” in 2009 and we wanted to get out of that genre and into prestige. People said it would never happen. For six years we were pushing the ball uphill.

Reese: We broke the rules. We shamelessly started sending emails to Simon Kinberg. One of them had the subject line “We Need Your Ass (istance)” — and the movie got made.

Chazelle: I wrote “Whiplash” because I was so angry that it took six years to get [“La La Land”] made. At Sundance, I got a few funding meetings, and then a year later we started production.

On their worst notes and other stumbling blocks:

Chazelle: On “Whiplash,” I was told it was too long of a drum solo. He’s good at drumming, we get it, they said.

Reese: We made a parody of “The Sopranos” using fruits and vegetables, and were asked, “Do they have to be all fruits and vegetables?”

Lonergan: I appear to be somewhat in a trance and I try to blank out without appearing to do so when receiving notes.

Melfi: Why do we have to have so much math? Also, Kevin Costner wanted to have a receding hairline, but we told him the studio said he would look old. So then he asked, “Can I chew gum?”

Jenkins: Where are the white people?

Sheridan: I was once told to look for the note within the note and I said, “Just give it to me.” The response was, “Well, we don’t know what that note is.”

Wernick: We were told to get rid of the line “It’s a face I’d be happy to sit on.” We kept it, and it’s our favorite line.

Chazelle: A big modern musical? The reality is that it wasn’t working but at this moment [after “Whiplash”] it was the first time people were asking me what’s next. I was lucky to have a full script, and music. It was the same exact pitch that had fallen on deaf ears. I had to get in before the door closed.

Jenkins: We had a rough cut when #OscarsSoWhite was going on. Everything was in process. I was asked what do I think, because when people read the synopsis it seemed like they didn’t need to watch it. We stumbled into it.

Black: I’m proud of this. I’ve made so many black movies. AMPAS made the mistake of owning the lack of diversity but it’s the studios and financiers who are responsible. The Academy can only vote on what’s presented. I’m very happy about “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Moonlight” all going anyway. We were lucky. I hope it shows the studios that with their success people will go if they are good movies. The indies have been much more embracing.

Heisserer: At STEM schools, Amy [Adams] herself had conflicts with male scientists. It was very intimidating.

On whether characters in films must have a major arc:

Lonergan: Being a studio executive is a shamanistic profession to sell a product. They think there has to be three acts and an arc — whatever that means. Not to be too cynical, but any good story will have a beginning, middle and end. On a purely creative basis, lead characters can’t shake off what happens to them. I believe most good stories have a character arc, but you can’t just lay one in over the story.

On the depiction of male tenderness:

Sheridan: They [the brothers] are aware that they are martyrs and that’s liberating. The two others [law enforcement officers] are not capable of expressing emotions and are cruel to each other. I wanted audiences to be befuddled and to see elements of heroes and villains. You don’t have to know their motivations.

On the political undercurrent:

Black: I hope not everything is looked at in that way. We have a responsibility to make sure audiences are getting messages but we can’t let that interfere with emotions and feelings. We have the biggest voices on TV and in film. We need to make it interesting, fun, painful and understandable at heart.

On their filmic journeys:

Chazelle: It’s about people living in their heads, their dreams and their existence in L.A. that I experienced. You feel so close but so far away. The billboards, the studio gates, the lack of seasons, the fake paradise that can make you crazy. Yet they’re trying to make it and see that shining pot of gold.

Lonergan: I did lots of research on the Massachusetts towns this is set in. It all fell in and gave me lots of scenes — like those on the boat — and the socioeconomic station of the people. I’m not from there so I really had to have it be convincing.

Melfi: On the math, the key is the audience has to care about the characters. We dug into their home lives and how they made it all work. The score was helpful, thanks to Hans Zimmer and Pharrell. NASA helped with the words.

Schroeder: It was very cinematic to see her [Katherine Johnson] climb up on the blackboard and do equations.

Black: Denzel is fascinating as a director. He knew the material so well, line by line, that he would say where a comma was. There’s a rhythm and he knew that, as a performer. It has a cadence and we were slaves to every word. You learn how to perfect scenes by the rhythm. It’s the best experience I’ve had in 30 years.

On lessons learned, and advice for aspiring screenwriters:

Schroeder: You have to fight hard. It gets discouraging.

Chazelle: Not to get too disheartened. It’s a useful thing I learned firsthand.

Jenkins: It was a pure experience, but not the part about taking eight years.

Sheridan: Pay respect to the script. If it calls for a red car, but the props people only find blue or green and ask what to do, it’s a great lesson — there is not a wasted word.

Lonergan: I was afraid of it and didn’t know I was deserving. Whenever terrible adversity happens, there’s an equal amount of love to get through it. Seeing it reflected meant something. It was quite a lesson to me.

Black: Specificity. Every word counts. You can say things without ever saying them. All of Denzel’s [character’s] stories — seemingly crazy tales — it all added up to something. You don’t have to say it exactly but go around it in a clever way like August did. Well, until they had to specifically say what they felt.

Wernick: The fact that “Deadpool” existed is no lesson. We are on our own weird course. You have to chart your own path.

Reese: You need the fortitude and the passion to love what you’re doing and to keep pushing.

Lonergan: Knowing what you want most. You can always say no.

Sheridan: You have to be the most ruthless editor of your own work.

Jenkins: It has to be self-generating.

Black: You don’t have to follow the rules. Write what’s in your brain and heart.

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