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Santa Barbara Int'l Film Fest 27: Writers Panel
My experience of the Santa Barbara International FIlm Festival began Saturday morning at the Lobero Theatre with JC Chandor (Margin Call), Tate Taylor (The Help), Jim Rash (Descendents) Will Reiser (50/50), and Mike Mills (Beginners). The artists spoke passionately & candidly about their writing processes and their paths to success.
Chandor on Margin Call: "I sort of knew that it was the best thing I'd ever wrote, and that if something was going to come from it, it would." Margin Call is nominated for Best Writing and Screenplay in this year's Oscars.
Mike Mills says his art school (rather than film school) background has influenced his "nontraditional" filmmaking style that is reflected in Beginners. He spoke of the artists that "live in my brain that excite me and that I think of when I'm writing..And the music video world I came from really taught me to be a writer and a director. Because way back in the 90s, you would get a tape, and like 8 directors would get a tape and it was a competition of ideas. Everyone would pitch their idea. And I was looking up to like, Spike Jones and Michel Gondry who didn't just do collages, they did ABCD plots. They did things that developed, like stories, and that taught me to love writing. And I'm still writing from that sort of principal background."
Mills wrote Beginners largely about his relationship with his father, and Will Reiser wrote 50/50 about his experience surviving cancer. Moderator Anne Thompson asked them how writing may have been therapeutic or cathartic for them. The original title for 50/50 was "How I learned Nothing From Cancer," said Reiser. "My idea for the film was that there's a great notion that when you survive cancer, it's almost like you reach Nirvana, clarity, an understanding for life, and I came out of it just feeling like my life had been wrecked, like an emotional tornado had swept through my life, and I didn't feel like I had changed, so I wrote it about this main character who hadn't changed... and all my friends were like 'what are you talking about you're a completely different person, you HAVE changed'...." Reiser went back and wrote the second draft about that journey, and "Doing that forced me to say all the things I didn't know how to say while I was sick...it was really hard and I was really vulnerable, but in writing the script it really allowed me to confront and move past that."
"The kernel of it is about my father," said Mills of Beginners. "It's wild to write from your parents' perspective, and stop being the kid, and to try as hard as you can to see you, and see their world, and their desires and fears, really through their sternum and mind and spirit... that's great therapy."
Chandor said of Margin Call: "It came from within. Unless you're a really skilled writer, that's how you do it."
Descendents is Jim Rash's first stab at adaptation. He talked about how what makes the novel great isn't necessarily what will make the movie great, and it's crazy seeing the work come to life on screen. "It's weird to watch it because you were out of the shooting process, out of the editing process...The first time you see it you're judging it, by the second time you're hopefully loving it."
Tate Taylor writer/director of The Help (movie) has known Kathryn Stockett, author of "The Help" novel since age 5. He had the rights to the movie far before "The Help" novel was such a success. "When it hit the bookshelves the script was done," says Taylor. "And the process was tough because... you know, I had been in LA for 15 years trying to get to the roots of powerful people, and when the book became successful they started calling me. And they would say, 'You have the rights to The Help, what are your intentions?'" No one would take Taylor seriously that he wanted to direct it, and no one wanted to finance it with him directing. As the book got higher and higher on bestseller charts, finally Speilberg read his script and said about Taylor 'If he adapted this, we gotta believe he can direct it.'
Mills spoke about his approach pushing actors to their limits. "Whenever they ask a question, I try to ask a question back." Mills felt lucky to work with Christopher Plummer. "Christopher's instincts were so close to my dad's it was a little spooky at times." When Plummer first read the script, he said "Thank God he has wit." Mills said his father would have said the same thing. "He has a very hungry young spirit, said Mills of Plummer. Mills denies that his and wife Miranda July's relationship is directly reflected in the film but says that it did play a role in making Beginners. "...Being very much in love with Miranda, and being really challenged by Miranda, and having our love show me all my shadowy parts that I can't deal with, and all the stuff that scares me, made me feel very bold. I was trying to capture that turf but not specifically us... the way that love can really change you."
Will Reiser says that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the obvious choice for the main role in 50/50. "What actor can do both comedy and drama and walk that line in a real way?" Gordon-Levitt came on board very late in the game. They had only one week with him to prepare - and that's only because that's how long it took to make his wig. On set Reiser emphasized to Gordon-Levitt how important it was for him to make the role his own-- but in the end, Reiser's friends say Gordon-Levitt does a spot-on impersonation of Reiser.
Viola Davis was Taylor's obvious choice too: "To be truly fearless as an actor is to truly do nothing. She's like a tornado. You can't turn away, you wanna run..."
On his writing process Jim Rash said for him, it's all about the first scene. "What's the first thing they're going to see?"
Prompted by an audience questioner dealing with the same issue, Mills commented on the sensitive/tricky area of writing something autobiographical. "I have two sisters and I didn't include them in the story because I didn't want to trespass on their emotional lives." But even then, Mills thinka they would probably understand that this was just his version of the truth. "I'm not so sure film truth is so truthy. It's always a story. it's always an interpretation."
Someone in the audience asked about the humor Taylor added to The Help screenplay that wasn't in the book. "For me, the movie is about relationships...If you're going to have a film like The Help, you've got to bring in real life humor. In real relationships you treat things with laughter. It's just how we cope, how we survive," says Taylor.
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