The Santa Barbara International Film Festival brought in the big names Saturday at the Lobero Theatre for its well-attended Screenwriters Panel, “It Starts with a Script.” And for the seven screenwriters in attendance, their scripts ended with award-winning films and Oscar nominations.
Moderated by Anne Thompson of Indiewire, the panel consisted of Graham Moore (“The Imitation Game”), Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), Jason Hall (“American Sniper”), Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), Max Frye (“Foxcatcher”), Alex Dinelaris (“Birdman”) and Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”).
One of the topics that kept coming back around are the liberties taken by writers when adapting a true story, adapting a novel, or working in a historical time period. Film has the power to convince and seek the truth, but often, some on the panel mentioned, audiences love to pull apart films, compare them to history, and call foul.
This led to an interesting discussion with Mr. Hall, who adapted Chris Kyle’s life story into “American Sniper.” As Ms. Thompson noted, the film has become a Rorschach test for anyone who watches it. Mr. Hall talked of spending time with Mr. Kyle and not being sure if he wanted to make the film. When he later read Mr. Kyle’s book, he realized that the man he had met was not the man in the book, that Mr. Kyle had a tender side under layers of post-traumatic stress disorder. He described watching a 37-year-old Mr. Kyle bend down to pick up his kids and saw “an 80-year-old man” who was in pain. “I realized that somebody else went off to war and this is what came back,” Mr. Hall said. “This is what we created. It’s unnatural for humans to take a life.”
Similarly, Mr. Moore answered critics of “The Imitation Game” who claim that not enough was made of lead character Alan Turing’s homosexuality. He said on the whole it is great that the public is debating how the LGBT community is portrayed on screen, but “we wanted to show that he was a mathematician who happened to be gay, not a gay mathematician. We thought that was an important distinction.”
Mr. McCarten talked about the Stephen and Jane Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” and how he wanted to make a film about the carer and not just the caree , and how many famous people’s partners usually wind up as historical footnotes.
Mr. Gilroy went into how “Nightcrawler, a story about a creepy crime scene news cameraman that he also directed – was a reaction to Hollywood’s “rules” of screenwriting, and how he became tired of always giving a character an arc, some sort of redemption at the end, and making his lead character likable. Having spent too much time doing rewrites of other peoples’ scripts, he wrote his satire “for myself,” he said, “with a character with no arc, no redemption, and, to be honest, I didn’t know if it would be made. But it turned out by breaking these conventions … those things connected.” He also wrote one of the film’s lead roles for his wife, Rene Russo.
The writers also announced their upcoming projects. Mr. Moore is writing something top secret for director Michael Mann; Mr. McCarten is working with George Clooney on a story about journalism and phone hacking; Mr. Hall is adapting “Thank You For Your Service” by David Finkel; Mr. Gilroy is writing another L.A.-based story that he wants to direct; Mr. Frye kept his plans secret, all 12 of them; Mr. Dinelaris is working with Guillermo del Toro, going back to the director’s small-budget roots; and Mr. Chazelle has a musical coming up called “La La Land.”