On Saturday, March 5, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival held its annual writer’s panel at the Arlington Theatre. Moderated by Anne Thompson, who cited the event as her favorite — every year — the panel featured Oscar-nominated screenwriters Kenneth Branagh of “Belfast,” Siân Heder of “CODA,” Adam McKay of “Don’t Look Up,” Denis Villeneuve of “Dune,” Zach Baylin of “King Richard,” Maggie Gyllenhaal of “The Lost Daughter,” Jane Campion of “The Power of the Dog” and Eskil Vogt of “The Worst Person in the World.” Unfortunately, Campion, as she explained in a video to the audience, was unable to attend in person due to catching COVID. Attendees excitedly welcomed each writer with thunderous applause.
The panel began with each writer providing a short resume of how they became screenwriters. Gyllenhaal answered first, crediting the act of writing as an outlet to clarify her own ideas. As an actress, she had learned how to take the core meaning of a work and express it, which is the same mindset she applied to her adaptation of “The Lost Daughter.” She touched on the nature of adapting a screenplay, as “The Lost Daughter” is based on a novel written by Elena Ferrante of the same name.
Heder also started as an actress, attending a weekly group workshop of writers and actors entitled “Tuesdays at 9.” Eventually, she brought a scene to the group, which later became a part of a short film. She avidly wrote for television as she was pushing “CODA” for nine years.
Villeneuve had always been a “passive dreamer.” He recalled an anecdote from his childhood where he stole his grandfather’s typewriter and wrote a science fiction story, which was not very good, in his estimation. Still, he relentlessly continued chasing the joy of writing, leading him to where he is today.
Baylin figured writing was the “easiest way in.” Jokes aside, he appraises writing as the “purest part of the process” where he had complete control. While working on numerous different projects throughout his career, including three seasons of Gossip Girl, he was writing his own script in the backroom — in the increments his breaks would allow him.
Branagh’s involvement with writing “began with relative isolation and a voracious desire to read,” an organic culmination of his love for films, reading and scripts.
McKay, a crowd favorite, offered an answer clad with jokes. He began discussing a poor life in a small town in North Dakota, immediately cutting himself off and diverting into the true story: grew up in the ’70s and ’80s; Dad took him to movies all the time; always wanted to write screenplays; wrote three bad ones and the fourth one was not bad. Now, here he is today.
Vogt adopted Villeneuve’s label of the “passive dreamer,” professing his love for the art of film. He envied the life portrayed within movies from a distance, as he was not in a creative family. Eventually, in his late teens, he met Joachim Trier, his co-writer for “The Worst Person in the Word.” They helped each other throughout their respective careers and eventually worked to create their Oscar-nominated film.
Gyllenhaal further elaborated on adapting a screenplay when asked how much freedom she felt in making the story her own. She again draws from her experience as an actress, explaining that acting as an art form is highly collaborative, so she learned to find her own freedom through each job. This ability to “find freedom” seamlessly translated to her experience writing. In fact, Farante expressed unwavering support for Gyllenhaal, allegedly stating that “the contract is void unless you direct it.”
While “CODA” is also an adaptation (of a French film), Heder had an additional type of adaptation to make: the adaptation to visual language when writing about people who are deaf. Although she was taking American Sign Language (ASL) classes, she was unsure about how humor would function in ASL. Rhythm and cadence operate much differently in spoken and signed language, which provided a slight challenge when writing the script. Heder meticulously went through every line in the script, dissecting each meaning and how the signing would operate. She would adjust the line to the signing that would best portray the emotion of the moment. For example, she switched a line in the script from “dying” to “killing” as “killing” had much more emotive signing that accurately underscored the nature of the scene. Hearing audiences and deaf audiences have an immensely different viewing experience, as Troy Kotsur often riffed off the script with ASL, something that most hearing audiences would not necessarily pick up on.
When asked if she intended to be so profane in the script, Heder cheekily responded, saying “I’m very profane.” She informed the audience that there are many ways to sign the word “fuck,” to which the SBIFF ASL interpreter began signing each way. The audience heartily laughed in response.
Villeneuve credited Eric Roth’s knowledge of “Dune,” thanking him for being able to adapt from Roth’s original screenplay. He had to break the final screenplay into parts and decide how to separate it. Villeneuve emphasizes his satisfaction with the current ending because, while it may have appeared abrupt, it was the most optimal ending without making a 4-hour movie.
The main angle that he focused on from the beginning was that of “mother and son.” Villeneuve credits the functionality of this adaptation with the focus on the female character.
Baylin always had a clear idea of where “King Richard” lived. He never had an interest in showing adult Venus and Serena, but rather the emotional journey that the family goes on. In addition to independent research, Baylin also invited the Williams family to provide insight on the script, both of which proved to be very helpful.
To write “Belfast,” Branagh allowed himself to go back and view his life with kindness and compassion. Due to the pandemic, he was able to listen to hundreds of hours of footage during a time “when art was color and life was black and white.”
McKay was trying to find a way to highlight the apocalyptic nature of the current global landscape. “Don’t Look Up” serves as an allegory for the climate crisis and the lack of media coverage regarding it. McKay referenced how his co-writer, David Sirota, made a hilariously accurate joke: “It’s like the beginning of the movie Armageddon but no one cares.” He strived to convey the immediacy of the matter with comedy, but rather than following the traditional narrative structure of a comedy, he did not have a happy ending. He also praised his all-star cast, including Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Vogt compared the conception of “The Worst Person in the World” with the human experience during quarantine. When being stuck inside for months on end, people begin to ask themselves all sorts of existential questions: “Why am I here? Why am I doing this? What is it all for?” The film explores these questions.
Finally, the panelists discussed their respective writing processes. Some highlights include Heder’s penchant for research through human interaction, Branagh’s project having been fifty years in the making, and McKay’s belief that one just needs to “find the right music.”
The panel ended with roaring applause and immense appreciation for everyone involved.