It’s all in the script: SBIFF offers an in-depth look at screenwriting with Oscar nominees

 Discussing screenwriting in a Santa Barbara International Film Festival panel were, from left, moderator Anne Thompson; Stephen Chbosky, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"; Roman Coppola, "Moonrise Kingdom"; John Gatins, "Flight"; Rian Johnson, "Looper"; and David Magee, "Life of Pi." MIKE ELIASON/NEWS-PRESS

Discussing screenwriting in a Santa Barbara International Film Festival panel were, from left, moderator Anne Thompson; Stephen Chbosky, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”; Roman Coppola, “Moonrise Kingdom”; John Gatins, “Flight”; Rian Johnson, “Looper”; and David Magee, “Life of Pi.”
MIKE ELIASON/NEWS-PRESS

Saturday afternoon’s “It Starts with the Script” panel at SBIFF was an even-handed affair, giving six of the Oscar-nominated screenwriters time to discuss craft, take questions from the audience (mostly good ones), and offer encouragement to those hoping to make it in the industry.

Critic Anne Thompson returned once again to host the event at the Lobero, bringing on Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being A Wallflower”); Roman Coppola, (“Moonrise Kingdom”); John Gatins (“Flight”); Rian Johnson (“Looper”); and David Magee (“Life of Pi”). “Zero Dark Thirty” writer Mark Boal was a no-show.

Mr. Magee started off the discussion, sharing his history of adapting Yann Martel’s episodic novel and going into the script not knowing how the production would deal with having a tiger as a major character.

Although long contract negotiations are well known in Hollywood, Mr. Magee signed onto the project after meeting director Ang Lee over a sushi dinner.

The script was designed to offer viewers multiple interpretations, he said, which led to bemusement when critics assumed he had a definite way of reading the film.

Rian Johnson, who also directed sci-fi time-travel hit “Looper,” discussed the origin of the film as a short script that ended with the now-famous diner scene where the future version meets the younger version of the film’s hero.

From the short, which then could have gone many ways, Mr. Johnson decided to set the two against each other, and the second half was born. Mr. Johnson said that “lashing yourself to the mast of the story” ensures you never stop writing — or rewriting. The diner scene, for example, was the most rewritten of all the scenes.

Mr. Gatins entered wearing a white Stetson, removing it to reveal a shock of salt-and-pepper hair. He turned out to be one of the funniest on the panel as he talked about going from family-friendly films to writing an R-rated drama about a drunken airline pilot on a downward spiral.

The idea came, he said, when he found himself on a plane next to such a character, a pilot on his day off who would not stop talking about his failed life.

Mr. Gatins went from annoyance to inspiration on that flight. However, he didn’t have the clout to direct the script — only Robert Zemeckis could make the film happen.

Mr. Coppola talked about the freewheeling method of writing “Moonrise Kingdom” with director and frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, saying Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” gave them the context in which to write. The work is featured prominently in the film.

Mr. Chbosky — who adapted his own novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” for the screen and directed the film — talked about the difference between approaching the story as a 30-year-old screenwriter and as 26-year-old novelist.

He made sure, he said, to write the adult characters with a little bit more sympathy.

The panel took time to answer questions from the audience, many of whom were young students. It was Mr. Chbosky who offered the final advice:

“Don’t ever be intimidated that there’s some right way to do this,” he said, “If you tell a great story, trust me, they will find you. … So I hope that you don’t think that anything we say up here is anything other than encouraging.”

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