Producers Panel Coverage
Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) always manages to draw an engaging assortment of industry professionals to speak on the ins and outs of their trade, which is most likely at least partially due to the festival’s snug proximity to the Academy Awards ceremony. A woman in line for the panels could be overheard speaking about how, because it’s after the Oscars, the San Francisco festival she’s involved with gets a far shabbier turnout of celebrity guests than Santa Barbara’s. Indeed, every speaker on the back-to-back producers and writers panels is nominated for an Oscar this year, working on some levels to promote their films among the city’s menagerie of retired Academy voters.
Though the writer’s panel was, unsurprisingly, the more compelling of the two, the speakers on “Movers & Shakers,” the producer’s panel, shared some intriguing behind-the-scenes tidbits about their respective projects. Brooklyn’s Finola Dwyer spoke on the challenges of transforming Montreal into 1950s New York, and Mary Parent of “The Revenant” similarly remarked on the magic of transcribing the 1820s American Midwest upon the isolated snowy peaks of Argentina. Parent also quipped that it was the first production she’d been on that set an electric fence up around the caterers to protect them from hungry bears; fortunately, everyone on set avoided Hugh Glass’s grisly fate.
Both Jeremy Kleiner (“The Big Short”) and Steve Golin (“Spotlight”) discussed how their systematically challenging films are set to be screened for representatives of the very institutions they criticize, the former to a group of bipartisan congressmen, and the latter at the Vatican itself. On the topic of challenging institutions, the (all white) panelists very briefly, semi-awkwardly touched on the issue of the Oscars’ lack of recognition of diverse talent. Kleiner shrewdly noted, “The Academy is at one end of a long chain of decision making,” scratching the surface of the overwhelming bias toward white involvement in all aspects of film industry production. While it’s true that the Academy’s nomination decisions take place at the far end of this chain, producers’ roles are at the other; they acknowledged the problem without drawing any productive conclusions concerned with solving it.
An hour and a half after the producers panel, every seat of downtown’s historic Lobero Theatre filled up as the sold-out “It Starts with the Script,” the festival’s largest panel of screenwriters to date, started up. All but two of this year’s 10 writing Oscar nominees took the stage to share insightful perspectives on their content and their craft.
Pixar legend Pete Docter (“Toy Story,” “Monster’s Inc.,” “WALL-E,” “Up”) explained how often, the crux of a story doesn’t materialize until well into the writing process. He described coming upon a storyboarder’s sketch of the characters Joy and Sadness hugging, with the inscription ‘embrace sadness.’ “Wow,” Docter relayed, “That’s the movie!” That small incident led him to the film’s central theme: “the deeper happiness that comes from its relationship with sadness.” “Ex Machina’s” writer-director Alex Garland expressed similar structural perceptions. “Stories are like maths in some respects,” he noted. “The equation might just not work.” His observations on managing the intricately balanced ecosystem of a story drew murmurs and nods of assent from the rest of the panelists. He said that once you’d worked out and balanced issues in a script, “it’s not like the problems are gone, but they’ve settled, like all the spikes have gone down.”
The writers went on to discuss thoroughly the nature of adaptation. Emma Donaghue wrote “Room,” an adaptation of her own novel, and found it “hugely satisfying to take this story and tell it over again.” She was especially delighted in seeing her characters have physical bodies, capable of expressing human subtleties words themselves can’t sufficiently describe. Donaghue also brought up a difference between film and novel writing that rang with veracity for her fellow writers, in that “A book has so much more room, so much more time … Film has this narrative thrust; it moves forward.” Jonathan Herman, writer of “Straight Outta Compton,” sardonically joked, “I understand why they hired me, ‘cause I’m a white, Jewish gay guy from Connecticut.” In adapting NWA’s story for the screen, he noticed “a “Rashomon” thing going on,” with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Wright, all reporting conflicting versions of the story. In addition to struggling to capture a semblance of true events, Herman faced a hurdle in convincing hip hop mogul Ice Cube to be comfortable with his character exhibiting moments of weakness. “This is the way a movie goes,” Herman explained. “You gotta have a low point and some vulnerability so you can come back from it, you gotta have an arc — the audience will like you more that way.”
“The Big Short’s” Charles Randolph shared perhaps the most engaging perceptions on the panel. Regarding his emotional standpoint while writing the film, Randolph explained that he was disheartened by the events of 2008, as he’d “always had this nagging feeling that our system was fair, that there was a tangible connection between success and moral goodness.” He embellished on “Short’s” use of narration and cutaways to break down its economic jargon, used by influential bankers to “obfuscate and hide and empower themselves.” The techniques also added to the film a “meta layer which not only described the things, but gave the audience something beyond the characters to connect with.” Aside from the probing intellectual discussion, Randolph admitted to slacking off as much as anyone else. He agreed with Josh Singer’s (“Spotlight”) praise of research, adding, “The great thing about research is you can just read the most obscure crap and think at the end of the day that you did something.”
Other writers shared their treatises on procrastination; as a writer, it was encouraging to hear that professionals, too, have less-than-perfect working habits. Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), writer of the existential stop-motion drama “Anomalisa,” shared that in terms of having a solid structure, “I tend to try not to. When I have an idea, I like to keep the idea of exploring it alive.” He has also learned to build downtime into his writing, observing astutely, “When I’m blocked or procrastinating, I’m still writing. I just don’t know it.” “Carol” writer Phyllis Nagy also owned up to exhibiting unorthodox writing practices. “I write with constant stimuli,” she said. “I have to have the TV on, I have to have the radio on.” Drew Goddard penned “The Martian,” and shared a quirky anecdote about how, since his wife writes comedy and he writes drama, they avoid both genres. Instead, they “just watch really bad reality television.” Thus, the inspiration for “The Martian’s” “turn the beat around” scene struck him while he and his wife sat in bed watching Bravo.
The panelists all provided fest-goers with unique, intuitive, unexpected perspectives on what it means to write films, imparting on them a greater understanding of this year’s most lauded releases and the act of filmmaking itself as an art.