Though less antic than in recent years, the writer’s panel “It Starts with the Script” did not exactly disappoint. For starters, it was manned by the most interesting people writing stories in film last year. (Manned by all men, too, prompting Alpha Male jokes from panel moderator Anne Thompson.)
The panelists included:
* Mike Mills, S.B.’s favorite son, who wrote and directed Beginners about his relationship with his gay father, a former director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art;
* Will Reiser, author of the autobiographical cancer comedy 50/50 after an idea hatched with best pal Seth Rogen;
* Jim Rash, a comic actor (Community), who adapted the novel The Descendants for Alexander Payne;
* Tate Taylor, whose storied close friendship with novelist Kathryn Stockett lead to his virtually unprecedented opportunity to write and direct her mega-bestseller The Help, a project that all Hollywood was drooling over;
* and JC Shandon, who wrote Margin Call, a film that never screened here because of its unusual — and perhaps model — marketing-release as an On Demand offering opening concurrently with its theater release. Some theater chains, like our own Metropolitan Theatres, objected to the co-release and effectively boycotted the award-nominated film.
By far, the most eloquent of the alpha pack was Mike Mills, who somehow managed to be humble, too, while speaking in a theater where he grew up watching “way too many fucking surf films.” He looked a little mystic, if not mystified. “I’m an amazing liar,” he replied, when asked how he maneuvered between truth and fiction. But he iterated a theme other panelists would repeat. “I don’t know how real real is,” he said, claiming to dump confession for narrative drive. “The story is my first concern.”
Reiser, whose film about struggling with a disease seemed a treacherous potential mine-field of self-pity, admitted that his first draft “vomited up emotion” and was followed by a rewrite where he “corralled his feelings” into a more powerful narrative. Rash and Taylor, both actors as well as writers, used their innate love of characters to get the story juices flowing, while Shandon told a tale of hard work and superstition mining a world based a little less directly yet also on his own life and his father’s Wall Street ties. At one point, Thomas asked in general if such writing work can be therapeutic. Reiser answered, “I have an awesome therapist. That’s therapeutic.”
Thompson, a critic for the increasingly mainstreaming Web site indiewire, took a supremely even-handed approach, though she focused too long telling stories about the production problems each writer faced. They were interesting tales, such as Taylor’s manipulation of studio “big boys” and Shandon’s explication of how his film deal might change the future of film exposition. But ultimately it began to feel like the subtitle of the panel ought to be changed to “Maybe It Starts with the Script, but It Never Ends.” I wanted more about writing.
She ended a good panel occasionally lit by witty quips by asking each to describe the way they worked — this got things better percolating, though the point made earlier, writers admitting that their own lives were the utterly compelling sources of work when tempered by reflection, seemed the dominant of the day. When working, Mills said, “You’re not in the present in a clean way; you’re constantly being hijacked into the past,” a disruption where the story paradoxically becomes more thematic than chronological. “Hey, that sounded good,” said Mills a little flushed. “By that I mean I’m surprised. I’m not really that smart.”