Barney’s On the Beat

Writers’ Roundtable: When Helen (The Queen)
Mirren was asked at the Arlington the other night how she went
about choosing a role, she replied: First she read the script. Then
she checked out the director. Writers have long been the low man
and woman on Hollywood’s totem pole, but at a Saturday
screenwriters’ panel, six of them got cheers and rousing applause
when they walked onto the Lobero stage. Starstruck audiences
hanging on every word uttered by their idols normally have little
interest in who put those words in the actors’ mouths. But for the
Santa Barbara International Film Festival panel discussion, movie
mavens packed the Lobero to hear what screenwriters of such films
as The Queen, Little Children, and Little Miss Sunshine had to say
about their role in the moviemaking process.

“Writing is a very lonely profession,” confessed Guillermo
Arriaga, Mexican director, teacher, and screenwriter of Academy
Award nominee Babel. So lonely, he said, “I want to direct, to have
contact with people.” What’s essential for success in
screenwriting, he said, is “Drive and passion, a profound
obsession. Do not wait for the opportunity. Create it.” While
others on the panel worked from outlines, “My screenwriter teachers
would flunk me in a second,” Arriaga said. “I’m lazy.” No outlines.
Writing the film 21 Grams, “I didn’t know how it was going to end.
Characters reveal themselves.”

But Brit Peter Morgan (The Queen) told the group, “I’m a
research fanatic.” When interviewing insiders for the movie, he
found that “Everybody I spoke to had a completely different version
of what happened” during conversations involving Queen Elizabeth
II, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and others, he said. The result “is
what made sense to me.” Asked how close the movie came to “real
history,” Morgan replied: “I think it’s accurate but I’ll never
know.” As for the queen’s reaction, “I don’t know that we’ll ever
find out. I don’t want to find out.” Morgan said he recently got a
letter from Blair saying that after Blair left office he’d tell
Morgan “What you got right and what you got wrong.” At his
acceptance speech after earning a Golden Globe award for The Queen,
Morgan called Queen Elizabeth a “stubborn 70-year-old woman” and
wondered aloud what it would take for leaders to listen to their
people when it concerns “something of real importance.” In the
current Newsweek, Mirren — when asked if the queen had seen the
film — replied: “I’m sure. Who could resist?”

Santa Barbara’s Jason Reitman said he “fell in love” with the
Christopher Buckley book Thank You for Smoking, wrote the
screenplay in 2000, “and it sat for five years” awaiting financing.
“I wrote it quickly” but the last five percent was difficult and
took a long time, he said. He also directed.

Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, spent three years
thinking about the idea. “I wrote the first draft in three days,”
then did a hundred rewrites. Arndt, while working as a studio
script reader, said he learned that “Hollywood is awash” in failed
scripts that are 80 percent okay, but the writers didn’t have the
patience to “make them come together.” Talent and hard work are
important to success in the field, but “a lot of us are up here [on
the Lobero stage] because of luck,” he said. “My script happened to
land on the right desk.” But it wasn’t luck that won the Sunshine
cast top honors in Sunday’s annual Screen Actors Guild awards, an
upset win over the likes of favored Dreamgirls. While making Little
Miss Sunshine, Arndt said, everyone agreed that dropping poor dead
Grampa from the third floor of the hospital, as planned, wouldn’t
work. They settled on the ground floor.

As for screenwriting, Aline Brosh McKenna — who wrote The Devil
Wears Prada — observed, “I wish it was glamorous.” You sit at a
desk and “go over it and go over it.” When it came time to make
Prada, Meryl Streep, who played the imperious Miranda Priestly,
“wanted to make her meaner.”

Todd Field, writer of Little Children, did the first draft in
two months, and then worked hard on “the last 20 percent,” which is
“when you find out what the script wants to be.” It’s a chancy
profession. “One script I wrote for a year, every single day, and
no one would make it,” Field said.

“Finish what you begin,” urged Arriaga. “I question every word I
write. I get so emotionally involved. I really like what I do and I
think it’s a privilege to be a writer.”

Morgan, when asked the significance of the stag’s appearance in
The Queen, admitted that he’d made that up. The 14-point buck “had
lived beyond its natural life expectancy” and the queen “needed to
confront an institution that has survived beyond its life
expectancy,” he said. “I don’t know what would happen to me if you
took away writing. I have to write. That’s why I don’t want to
direct.”

You can reach Barney at 965-5205 or via barney@independent.com. He also
writes a Tuesday online column at independent.com and Barney’s Weekend
Picks on Fridays.

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