There’s a reason they don’t make many movies about writers (this year’s Trumbo excepted). As Anne Thompson of Indiewire who flawlessly moderated the Screenwriters Panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival discovered when she asked her panel of Oscar award-winning scribes to recount their daily routine. The panelists described a grueling regimen of naps, long lunches, meandering research, procrastination, and waking up in a pool of sweat fearful of the next deadline. Somewhere in there the writing gets done.
Then there was Alex Garland (Ex-Machina) who likes to enter a “flow state.” When Garland reaches that point he writes in rapt concentration uninterrupted for weeks, even months. Without a sympathetic spouse he wouldn’t eat or drink either.
Each year the SBIFF brings top-class screenwriters to its Writers Panel at the Lobero Theater to talk about their craft. This year some of the most sought after in the business were there, including Pete Docter (Inside Out), Emma Donoghue (Room), Drew Goodman (Martian), Jonathan Herman (Straight Outta Compton), Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa), Phyllis Nagy (Carol), Charles Randolph (The Big Short) and Josh Singer (Spotlight).
Like many vocations in Hollywood, career paths don’t necessarily follow an expected direction. Nothing could be truer of the writing trade. Novelist Emma Donoghue literally wrote herself into the business by adapting her novel Room before anyone else optioned the book. Pete Docter, who wrote Inside Out, began by making flipbooks on the corner of his math text to entertain his schoolmates. Martian scribe Drew Goodman’s first job in the business was disposing of sewage from the production trailers and went on and write, according to him, a movie about “farming in your own feces.”
Sprinkled here and there were true nuggets of insight and revelation about the movies these talented screenwriters created. Docter described the five-year process on Pixar’s Inside Out that began with the cartoon embodiment of Joy embracing Fear and eventually led to a drawing a colleague made of Joy embracing Sadness which was the key to the film. Jonathan Herman described how a white Jewish gay guy from Connecticut helped Ice Cube and Dr. Dre find their vulnerability in Straight Outta Compton.
In a crushing industry so much of the writing process remains unlikely and intangible so it’s not surprising the important role procrastination ends up playing. “Procrastination is still writing,” the legendary Charlie Kaufman insisted providing the last words on the subject. “I just never knew it.”