The Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s annual panels are some of the festival’s more insightful events. This year, the writers’ panel, moderated by Anne Thompson, consisted of Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”), Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Alright”), Charlie Mitchell (“Get Low”), David Seidler (“The King’s Speech”), Scott Silver (“The Fighter”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”).
Sorkin began the discussion talking about what attracted him to “The Social Network.”
“What grabbed me wasn’t that it was about Facebook,” he began. “I really didn’t then, nor do I now, know very much about Facebook at all. What grabbed me was that, set against this very modern backdrop with this very modern invention, was a story that was as old as storytelling itself.”
“Friendship and loyalty and betrayal and power and class and jealousy — these things that Escalus would’ve wanted to write about… that Shakespeare would’ve wanted to write about… that, a few decades ago, Paddy Chayefsky would’ve wanted to write about. It was just lucky for me that none of those guys were available.”
Seidler, writer of “The King’s Speech,” explained why he felt compelled to tell the story of King George VI and why his screenplay spent over twenty years in development.
“I started looking at Bernie because he had been my childhood hero. I had stuttered from age three to 16. So I had always wanted to write something about George but I had no idea what the story was.”
“I started reading and there were these blips on the radar called Lionel Logue, his speech therapist. Not much is written about him, but I could smell the story,” Seidler said.
Luckily for Seidler, he managed to track down Logue’s son.
“He said [he had] all the notebooks [his] father kept while treating patients. But there was a small caveat,” Seidler added, explaining that Logue’s son was willing to hand over the notebooks only after getting written permission from the Queen Mother.
“So I wrote to the Queen Mum and she said: ‘Dear Mr Seidler, please not during my lifetime — the memories of these events are still too painful.’ So I thought, alright, if a Brit asks the Queen’s permission and she says wait, you wait. But I didn’t think I’d have to wait very long, she was an elderly lady. Twenty five years later, she finally left this mortal world. So that’s why it took a little while to get started.”
Another screenwriter who took a considerable amount of time to complete her screenplay, Lisa Cholodenko (director and co-writer of “The Kids Are All Right”) discussed her perfect relief from the lonely work that is screenwriting.
“I started writing it on my own, based on the experiences I was going through in my own life. I eventually had a great chance encounter [with co-writer Stuart Blumberg] at a restaurant near my house. He was one of those old acquaintances that you know and admire but don’t have any real history with. We started talking about what we were doing and I told him about this script,” Cholodenko said.
“Unsolicited, he said to me, ‘You know I think you come up with these great character studies but I’d like to see you push out a little and take your stuff in a more commercial vein.’ And then I said to him, ‘I think you’ve got great comedic chops and you do structure great, and here you are writing and rewriting studio films, but I think it’s time for you to start digging deeper.’ So based on him needing to dig deeper and me needing to push wider, I just spontaneously said this could be an antidote to all this loneliness of screenwriting and said, ‘Hey Stu, did you want to write this movie with me?’”
Unlike the other panel participants, Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) was faced with the daunting task of creating a second sequel to a beloved franchise.
“The hardest thing is just trying to figure out what the arc of the heroes in your story is. And it’s really tricky if you’re doing a third film with a character that’s already so well-defined, like Buzz or Woody. It took a long, long time and a lot of meetings to really figure it out,” Arndt said.
When asked about taking creative liberties within a film that’s rooted in reality and trying to do right by the real counterparts of the film’s characters, Silver (“The Fighter”) recounted the reaction of the real Mickey Ward to some of the liberties taken by the film.
“We tried to be as authentic as we can, but… we obviously changed it enough so they could do a movie,” Silver said. “The one part [Mickey] hated was that in real life, Mickey never got knocked down in the fight against Shea Neary. Mickey was really upset that [in the film] it showed him being knocked down.”
As the panel discussion eventually comes to a close, each of the writers discuss their writing techniques — all involving setting time to sit in front of their computers typing. The best advice Seidler believed he could pass on to aspiring writers is to know where the narrative is heading. “I always have a very detailed treatment so I know exactly where I’m going.”
Concluding the advice discussion, Mitchell (“Get Low”) cracked wise, “A lot of things get done besides writing when you’re writing.”