TW: Mentions of sexual violence
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival hosted the writers of several Academy Award-nominated films for the Writers Panel in the Arlington Theatre on Feb. 11. Writers Daniel Scheinert, Todd Field, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rian Johnson, Tony Kushner, Martin McDonagh, Ruben Östlund, Lesley Paterson and Sarah Polley were welcomed for a funny yet insightful conversation about their respective films.
Audience members lined up early for the event in hopes of claiming a prime seat in the Arlington Theatre, where the 38th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) has been holding the majority of its festivities and events. Short clips of each of the films were shown after the audience entered the theater, and then the writers took the stage.
Anne Thompson, moderator for the Writers Panel, sparked interesting answers from the panelists with prompts like, “Give us a short resume of how you became a screenwriter” or “What was the most challenging scene that you had to write?” Writers answered questions one by one, each giving invigorating answers that provided a unique perspective into their processes.
The first screenwriter to respond to prompts was Ishiguro, a Nobel Prize winner for literature. Present on the panel for his film “Living,” the Japanese-born English writer spoke about his transition from being a novelist to becoming a screenwriter. In his response to why and how he became a screenwriter, he explained that after writing novels for around 40 years, “the next step [was], thematically, artistically, seem[ing] to be to return to return to an Akira-style movie” that made a huge impact on him when he was 11 years old.
Ishiguro’s film is an adaptation of the 1952 Japanese film “Ikiru,” but it is not an outright remake. Ishiguro explained that after he found himself in the back of a cab with lead actor Bill Nighy, he had a “Eureka” moment and thought he could remake it as an English film built around Nighy. “There is a lot of stuff about English-ness that I wanted to deal with in the film, but essentially it is a universal idea that applies to all people, in every type of society,” Ishiguro said.
The next writer on the panel was Johnson, writer and director of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” a sequel to his 2019 box office hit “Knives Out.” The film serves as a continuation of Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc as the detective is invited to a Greek island.
Johnson’s journey to becoming a screenwriter “started by not thinking in terms of screenwriting, production, post, but thinking by getting [his] friends together [as a kid] and making a movie.” When asked how he anticipated following up the original film, he referred to his love for 1970s-style whodunnits. “They live rent free in my head … I will always hype ‘The Last of Sheila’ … because I feel like there are still people who haven’t seen it … and ‘Glass Onion’ takes a big page from it,” Johnson said.
Continuing on with the night, Paterson represented half of the screenwriting team for “All Quiet on the Western Front” on the panel. The film, based on the 1929 novel of the same name, follows German soldiers who enlist in World War I. When explaining her journey to becoming a screenwriter, Paterson reflected that, “[it was] probably not your normal route. I was a professional triathlete, and I guess I found purpose in moving through suffering.”
Although she was not being literal, the journey from triathlete to screenwriter was more entangled than one might initially think. Paterson said that “the endurance of sport and overcoming adversity” she faced as a triathlete was “exactly like screenwriting and filmmaking.” Paterson once ran a marathon with a broken shoulder to keep the funding for “All Quiet on the Western Front” alive.
The next writer, Polley, adapted Miriam Toews’ novel “Women Talking” for the screen, directing the film as well. Set in the early 2000s in a Mennonite town in Bolivia, “Women Talking” tells the true story of a community terrorized by a series of sexual assaults of the town’s women and girls.
Polley began as a child actress and experienced a turning point at around 20 years old that made her want to shift from an actor to a writer and director. When speaking about the process of adapting the film from the novel, Polley explained that she “had to track each of the characters through the scenes that they weren’t speaking … [and] to give each [character] their space and their respect.”
“I had to write a draft as though they were the only main character … it was a long process.” Polley said. In a film with such heavy content, it was important for Polley to define who and what the film was about. “This film is so much about how these characters move alongside that trauma, and move through it together as a community and not about the details about what happened. I also find, as a viewer that has seen a sexual assault on the screen, it is rarely additive and often becomes fetishized,” Polley said.
A playwright, author, director and veteran screenwriter, the next writer Kushner claimed he became a screenwriter after meeting his close collaborator, Steven Spielberg, who “The Fabelmans” is loosely based on. The pair collaborated together on their writings ever since the submission of a draft of “Munich.” Because Spielberg is debatably one of the most influential directors alive today, Kushner admitted that the story presented a new challenge.
“I scream and yell a lot and he puts up with it. We struggled a lot with ‘Lincoln,’ we struggled a lot with ‘West Side Story’ and with ‘The Fabelmans.’ I decided I had to scream and yell less because it is his story,” Kushner explained.
According to Kushner, the famous director also faced challenges with the film, as “it was a terrifying film for him to make, because, after six decades of filmmaking … he never did anything quite like this.”
Following Kushner was Scheinert, one half of the “Daniels,” as directors Scheinert and Daniel Kwan have coined themselves. Scheinert was on the panel for the duo’s hit film “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” After explaining that Kwan couldn’t be there because “he barfed all last night,” Scheinert talked about his journey to screenwriting.
“I have always been a collaborative filmmaker. Like [Johnson], I always came up making things with my friends, and then met [Kwan]. He was one of the best writers I ever met, but he never finishes anything, so I started to convince him to start finishing stuff. It was writing because we wanted to direct it, and we discovered our process and became writers,” Scheinert said.
Speaking more to the film they wanted to create, Scheinert said, “we started to talk about kung fu films, and ‘The Matrix’ and [their] families, and [thought] that would make an interesting movie.”
Answering questions next was Field, who wrote and directed “Tár,” a film serving as a commentary on power imbalances. The film stars Cate Blanchett as the titular character and explores her relationships — of all verities — with the people she interacts with as a conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Field’s evolution as a screenwriter was more conventional, somewhat more than the other members of the panel. “I was about ready to start directing films at the American Film Institute, and I was told to arrive with three short scripts … [and] I had never written a script before,” Field explained. For advice, Field enlisted the help of his father-in-law, screenwriter Bo Goldman. Goldman’s advice for Field was very simple: “unplug the phone, get up at the same hour every day, write at the same hour, after 30 days you’ll have something.” Field worked with the production company Focus Features for “Tár” and said he experienced “total freedom; the script would not exist without them.”
He also spoke about his experience with Lydia Tár. “I started thinking about this character 10 years before I started the script, and if you are lucky enough to get paid to write … we all have notebooks, and things just stay in the notebook. I never thought I would have any place to put this character until [this opportunity],” Field said.
“The Banshees of Inisherin,” which has received critical acclaim this award cycle, was created by British Irish playwright McDonagh. The dark comedy follows two main characters toward the end of the Irish Civil War in their growth apart from each other. However, McDonagh stated that the label that has been assigned to the film’s genre is inaccurate. “[It is] not a comedy … I find it quite sad. There are some jokes in it, but overall it is all about existential dread … I guess most of my stuff has been some kind of balance between funny and dreadful … but I am interested in those kinds of stories.”
These types of stories are a thread that has stuck with him since writing plays and has assisted him in becoming a screenwriter and filmmaker. “[I] tried to make plays that were cinematic … and after 10 years of making [these] plays that were going well, I wrote a short film.” After “making this little leap into making short films,” he wrote “In Bruges.”
Finally, Swedish filmmaker Östlund presented the film he created called “Triangle of Sadness.” As his first English-language film, he did not depart much from his typical method of writing a script. “One thing [I find] helpful for [my process] is telling people, ‘my next thing is called “The Entertainment System is Down,” it takes place on a long haul flight and the entertainment system has stopped working,’ then people come up with great ideas they share with me … and then I steal the best ideas,” he said.
Östlund explained that he got the idea for the “Triangle of Sadness” when he met his wife.
“She works as a fashion photographer, and she told me a lot of interesting stories about her profession. I thought it was interesting to hear these stories that came from the inside of an industry that I’ve seen so much from the outside, and I quite quickly understood that I wanted to make a film that was about beauty as currency.”
Östlund tries to create stories that are relatable and, as he describes, not “too intellectual” when he is making movies.
Audience members exited the theater with important insight. First, what the journey of becoming a screenwriter is like, a process that is different, writer to writer. Congruently, they learned the challenges and the process of writing an Oscar nominated film.