Stella Mullin / Daily Nexus

The 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival honors the biggest films and actors from the past year, spanning 10 days and drawing in huge crowds of cinephiles and fans. Yet the festival would not be possible without the talented writers behind those beloved movies. On Tuesday, Feb. 13, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival hosted seven of the Academy Award-nominated screenwriters at their annual Writer’s Panel with moderator Anne Thompson, entertainment journalist and author of “The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars.” 

The panel featured the brains behind some of the biggest movies of the year, and after a round of applause from the audience and introductions, Thompson posed the age-old question: “How did you become a screenwriter?”

Samy Burch (“May December”) spoke first. She went to college for screenwriting, writing speculative screenplays for no one in particular — just for the sake of practicing writing. “May December” was the first of her writing to be produced. 

“I studied screenwriting, so I was a pretty direct line. But I think with any writing, it’s important to keep writing,” Burch said both on the panel and to the Nexus on the red carpet.

“You know, I think a lot of it is an endurance game,” she continued. “I think it took me 10 or 11 feature spec scripts to get one that got made. And this has been pretty lucky.”

Arthur Harari (“Anatomy of a Fall”) shared that he is not a professional screenwriter, but a director first. Co-written with his partner, director Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall” is one of many films Harari has written. 

“I’ve been writing films since I was young because I wanted to make films. That’s it,” Harari said. 

Dave Hemingson (“The Holdovers”) spoke next. Post-graduation from Yale, he attended law school and worked as  an attorney for “three months, three weeks and two days,” before he realized law was not his passion after all. After 28 years of writing, “The Holdovers” is his first screenplay. 

Cord Jefferson (“American Fiction”) started as a music journalist, moving into news journalism before finally realizing he wanted to work on television shows. However, after working in the writers’ rooms for “The Good Place,” “Succession” and “Master of None,” he wanted to write on his own time and not for other people. “American Fiction” is his first movie. 

Tony McNamara (“Poor Things”) said that, growing up in Australia, “when someone said they were going to the theater it meant they were getting a knee operation” which was met with much laughter. He moved from Australia to London to pursue writing, starting as a playwright before moving to television and now films. 

Josh Singer (“Maestro”) thought he had taken an unconventional path to writing— starting in consulting and going to law school, just like Jefferson.

“I thought I had gone on a non-traditional path, but it sounds like it’s actually a pretty traditional path,” Singer said. 

After abandoning law school and consulting to pursue film, Singer subletted an apartment from a woman who happened to be dating Llewellyn Wells, producer of “The West Wing.” Singer was also speccing at “The West Wing” at the time. Wells offered to read his script, liked it, and passed it on, giving Singer a job for the television series. 

Like most of the writers that spoke before her, Celine Song (“Past Lives”) did not start out with the intention to write “the next big thing.” Instead, she initially went to school to become a therapist. But, as fate would have it, Song became a playwright for over ten years. While working on the television series “The Wheel of Time,” she began writing “Past Lives,” which brought her to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) and an Oscar nomination. 

All seven movies have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay. 

Once each writer shared their unnatural entrances to Hollywood, Thompson asked about the backstories to the films that brought them from the writing desk to SBIFF. 

Burch once again spoke first. Loosely inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau case, “May December” is a fictional story that draws from elements of the real-life case, which is essential to the movie. As a child growing up in the 90s, Burch was drawn to focusing her films around the tabloid stories and true crime she grew up with. After writing the script during the pandemic, it was discovered by Jessica Elbaum and Will Ferrell’s Gloria Sanchez Productions, and eventually made its way into the hands of Natalie Portman, who got director Todd Haynes on board as well. 

“This was all in the pandemic, so it was very surreal to not have met any of these people and be like ‘Oh, sounds great. Oh, I’m still in my apartment…’” Burch said. 

Harari began writing “Anatomy of a Fall” at the start of the pandemic in Paris. He and Triet had the privilege of time, writing day and night. Although Harari was more of a writer who wanted to take breaks, Triet pushed him to write at all hours of the day. 

“It’s to a point where I don’t even remember writing the film,” Harari shared. 

Hemingson, a comedy writer, obvious by the audience’s reactions to his one-liners, said that he had written “The Holdovers” as an autobiographical story. When he sent it to his manager, the response was that it was beautiful and deep story, but no one would ever care about an East Coast prep school. 

“Thank you. That’s just my heart and soul, but that’s fine,” Hemingson said, somewhat sarcastically . 

Shortly after the initial rejection, Hemingson received a phone call from director and screenwriter Alexander Payne, expressing interest in the story. Hemingson thought he was being pranked; a few years before, his friend had called him pretending to be Francis Ford Coppola, which Hemingson fell for. But as luck (and hard work) would have it, it was the real Payne, and “The Holdovers” entered the film industry. 

Hemingson shared that the the character of Mary Lamb was reminiscent of his mother, who he lost too early, and Paul Hunham had bits of his uncle, Earl Cahail, who raised him after his parents’ divorce. Cahail would wake up Hemingson with the phrase “Wake up, kid, it’s daylight in the swamp,” just like Mr. Hunham does in the film. 

As “American Fiction” is adapted from the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, Jefferson’s writing experience was slightly different. He remarked that no piece of art has felt more special to him than “Erasure.”

“It felt like a book written specifically for me … it felt like somebody sat down to write Cord Jefferson a novel,” Jefferson said. 

While writing “American Fiction,” Jefferson could not help but think about French writer Boris Vian. Vian’s novel, “I Spit on Your Graves” was adapted into a film, but he disagreed with the directors’ interpretation and wanted his name removed from the credits. When he went to the first screening, 10 minutes into the film he screamed that he hated the movie, went into cardiac arrest and died at 39 years old.

Jefferson’s greatest fear became that story: unintentionally disrespecting Everett’s novel. After he wrote the film — the process consisted of staying in bed in his pajamas all day writing, with a break to eat a salad over the sink for lunch — it was time to find a director, which circled back to Jefferson himself. 

“Giving [“American Fiction”] to another director would feel like losing a film. Or losing a child,” Jefferson said. “This is the only thing that I’ve ever done in this business that I did purely because I was passionate about it,” he continued. 

Luckily, he did not follow the same fate as the Vian story.

“Poor Things” is also a literary adaptation, being based on the book of the same name by Alasdair Gray. “Poor Things” was McNamara’s first adaptation, and he expressed particular interest in the character of Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, especially because her story was almost completely told from a male perspective. 

“It felt like a real opportunity to go on the journey with her. It gave us the opportunity, because it wasn’t there,” McNamara said.

”We could kind of create a lot of it … You have to kind of let go of the book and create a piece of cinema that has a relationship with the book but is its own object,” he continued. 

While speaking about director Yorgos Lanthimos, McNamara mentioned that “he really challenged you to be everything you can be.” He gave complete creative freedom to McNamara, making the process “weirdly unintense,” according to McNamara. 

While writing, McNamara took inspiration for characters from his wife. The character Duncan Wedderburn (played by Mark Ruffalo) was based on all the idiots McNamara’s wife went out with.

He also wrote each scene and never looked back. 

“Otherwise I’d just start thinking … and that’s bad,” McNamara laughed. 

“Maestro” has been in the works for 15 years.

“Every movie dies 1000 deaths,” Singer shared. 

As someone who referred to famed film director “Martin Scorsese” as “Marty,” Singer has had his hand in the industry for quite a while. However, at the same time he was writing “Maestro” and speaking with Scorsese, Singer was also experiencing poor reviews on “Spotlight” while another one of his movies fell through the same weekend. 

“I thought my career was over. The only thing I had was that I had maybe a meeting with Martin Scorsese lined up to talk about Leonard Bernstein. And that was like my lifeline,” Singer said. 

After tossing the film between Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, “Maestro” landed in actor (also director and screenwriter) Bradley Cooper’s lap. Cooper showed Singer his directorial debut, “A Star is Born,” which Singer liked. The two began co-writing “Maestro” and shortly after, Cooper found records of Leonard Bernstein’s marriage story and pitched the idea that the film should go down that route, with the music as a surrounding story. From there, Cooper and Singer split up scenes, then passed them back and forth for edits. 

Last, but certainly not least, Song reminisced on her time creating “Past Lives.” Inspired by a moment she had in an East Village bar, translating between her childhood sweetheart that only spoke Korean and now-husband who only spoke English, Song realized that she was a bridge between two parts of herself. 

“I was having a drink with my own past, present and future in the same room,” Song said. 

After that moment, Song sat in her New York City apartment attempting to write “Past Lives.” She described her writing process as “maybe” writing, then “kind of” writing and then full speed ahead. 

“The truth is that part of my procrastination process, which is a very important part of the process, is working on about 10 pages or something and just staring at those 10 pages for four months. And the 10 pages I was working on is a scene near the end in the bar,” Song said. 

The Daily Nexus had the opportunity to ask Song what advice she has for aspiring female screenwriters. 

“When it comes to writing, the goal is to just do it. Something that I think is true is that, especially for younger people, everybody’s going to come and tell you what they believe about the thing that you’re working on, the thing that you’re trying to make. I think you should listen to all of it, and I think that you should let it all come in and be open to what everybody else is saying. But at the end of the day, you have to remember that you know exactly what kind of story you want to tell, and you just have to trust yourself,” Song said. 

Finally, to end out the night, Thompson asked about in-the-works or future projects. Jefferson, Hemingson and McNamara are working on Westerns (Jefferson’s being one out of the six things he is working on at the moment). Burch has a film in the casting phase, Harari is working on a film he wrote and is directing, Singer is hoping to create a movie akin to a “Bullitt” reboot and Song chose to plead the Fifth. 

This appeared in the Feb. 22 Daily Nexus printed edition.