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Elisabeth Bartlett is blogging the festival scene from Cannes to Los Angeles.
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Writers Panel @ Santa Barbara Int’l Film Fest


Saturday in Santa Barbara writers of the year's prominent movies gathered to talk in the annual “It Starts with the Script” panel. In attendance were Stephen Chbosky: "Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Roman Coppola: “Moonrise Kingdom,” John Gatins: “Flight,” Rian Johnson: “Looper,” and David Magee: of “Life of Pi.”

I love film festivals for these kinds of events that let us in; so close to the perspectives of people that often put so much work in without as much attention: namely, writers. “I am shocked that there are people here to see us,” said Gatins after an audience member thanked the group for being so honest and forthcoming with their stories.  Everyone knows the film industry is hard to break into, but people still think the ones that get in are somehow special, or have something everyone else doesn’t. I have been in LA for a year and a half, and by now I see how it’s so based on chance, luck, and just plain hard work. Panels like these that are refreshingly honest are a large part of the reason why.

Gatins started writing “Flight” at age 31. The movie came out this year; he’s now 44. Gatins wanted to direct the movie himself, but couldn’t get the funding to make it happen. “It was this strange personal rubix cube” Gatins said about the  project. He would return to it between working on other projects. “I knew it would take the passion of one actor to make it happen." Denzel came on board, and then Robert Zemeckis. Gatins gave up his dream to direct it himself because as he told Zemeckis when he asked if he was sure he was OK with him directing, “I can’t get this done without you.” The story of “Flight” is the combination of Gatins’ two biggest fears: plane crashes, and drinking himself to death, he says.

When Wes Anderson first told Roman Coppola about “Moonrise Kingdom,” he put on some Benjamin Britten music and Coppola read the first 5 pages. Then he knew what Anderson was going for. Coppola described their writing process together as “…that rush of doing a crossword puzzle, when you get over the hump and know you’re gonna finish it.” It was different than working with him on “Darjeeling Limited,” with Jason Schwartzman too, (Coppola’s cousin) where they did lots of research and took a trip to India. “Moonrise Kingdom” wasn’t based on any real experiences, but instead, fantasy notions of what they wished would have happened to them at that age. They wrote it in a house together where both Coppola and Anderson's girlfriends were staying too, and so every night they would have fun sharing new writing with them. 

Chbosky wrote “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” when he was 26; then he was 37 when he wrote the screenplay.  He spoke about the “emotional work” it took to go back and get into the younger perspective, as an adult. Magee spoke about the boy letting the tiger leave in “Life of Pi” as a pivotal scene to write. The tiger showed him something in himself that he never had before. Johnson said the diner scene in “Looper” was the most difficult to write.

(photo cred: SBIFF)

Each spoke about their writing process, and how to get through the doomed “writer’s block.” Chbosky writes from 10am-3pm. “By the afternoon my head is crowded,” he says. About writer’s block, “my grandfather who was a steel worker wouldn’t have said, ‘I don’t think I can do this today.”’

“The only way out is through,” Gatins quoted a friend of his, though didn’t say who...

“For inspiration I search the web… then I think, ‘I have kids to feed,’ and I get to work,” says Magee. “I will just start writing something, even if it’s ‘I don’t know what to write’ or ‘I don’t know what to write because of this’ then something usually comes out of that.”

Magee says when he is adapting a book he will first write an outline with all action words from the story, then he has a clear list of everything that happens.

Gatins spoke too about outlining. “You have to have a beginning, middle, and end….but with outlining, I don’t want to know where it’s going all the time.” For example, Gatins didn’t have the stairwell scene from “Flight” in his outline.  

(photo cred: SBIFF)

When a filmmaking student asked about scriptwriting class and sticking to formulas, Coppola quoted Thomas Edison, “There are no rules here; we’re trying to do something.”

The most wonderful part of the panel came at a time that could have easily been unmemorable or awkward, had it been handled differently. During Q&A an audience member came up to the mic and started with, “I have a bad attitude about this industry…” then stumbled his way to saying that he has been let down, how he has a script he can’t get looked at and if anyone on the panel is available… an audible sigh could be heard from the audience as moderator Anne Thompson gently tried to cut him off.  Then Chbosky spoke elegantly. “Looking around this panel, we’re all having the best year we’ve ever had. If you’d asked us all three years ago, it would have been a different story...” The panel nodded.  Chbosky spoke about this industry being very difficult. “Don’t get discouraged,” he said to audience applause. 

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Bartlett Elisabeth
Blogging about the festival scene from Los Angeles

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