In an earlier draft of Andrew Stanton’s “WALL-E” script, the humans of the future were “big, green gelatinous blobs” who had lost the ability to read or speak, so that “the whole movie was basically in non-English.” Not exactly family-friendly material. But after four years of rewriting, Stanton delivered the most critically acclaimed Pixar film to date.
“If you want to write and not rewrite, then don’t write,” Stanton said.
This sentiment was repeated by three of the four screenwriters during last Saturday’s “It Starts With the Script” panel held at the Lobero Theatre.
Tom McCarthy, writer/director of indie-darling “The Visitor,” told moderator and Variety columnist Anne Thompson that he wrote 24 different drafts of his screenplay.
“I always think I’m going to nail it on the first try,” he said.
McCarthy’s idea began with the character of Walter Vale, who was “just kind of walking around” until McCarthy visited the Middle East and a detention center for plot inspiration.
“Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black agreed that the character should be created before the plot. Harvey Milk had been Black’s hero since the screenwriter was 13 years old, but after graduating from UCLA film school, Black discovered that his idol was also an unsuccessful businessman who “visited gay bath houses when he should have been at home with his boyfriend.”
It was Milk’s human flaws that inspired Black’s screenplay. Cleve Jones, a son-like figure in Milk’s life who is portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the film, provided Black with “word-of-mouth research.” Jones told Black the story about the suicidal teenager from the Midwest who Milk coached over the phone, which is one of the most moving scenes in the film.
The screenwriters mostly dispelled the romantic myth of the innately gifted writer (or artist in general) who effortlessly dashes out scripts, instead repeating advice about the importance of rewriting and research. Robert Knott, co-writer of western film “Appaloosa,” was the one exception.
“I drink a lot. I normally start at three in the morning; there’s just a high-speed chase going on up here,” he said as he pointed to his head. “There’s never a first draft for me. … I’m drunk as hell. … And then I look at it in the morning and I’m like, ‘That’s pretty good.'”
But it is also worth noting that Knott is the only panelist whose film went completely undetected by the 2008 Oscar Academy.