(Top, L-R) Martin McDonagh, Lesley Paterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tony Kushner, Anne Thompson, Rian Johnson, Todd Field, (Bottom, L-R) Daniel Scheinert, Ruben Östlund, and Sarah Polley attend the Writer's Panel during the 38th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

The inherently hot ticket that is SBIFF’s screenwriters panel upped the game yet further this year, packing the Arlington stage with all of the current Oscar noms in the writing categories — original and adapted screenplays. 

What follows are a few of the many comments overheard at the star-studded panel. 

Daniel Scheinert, one of the dynamic filmmaking duo known as the “Daniels” and co-concocter of the wild but sweet Everything Everywhere All at Once, is rightfully riding a buzz of cult-like appreciation gone big, and gone Oscar-nommed. As he said at the Arlington, “This is our Marvel movie, which took six years to write.” A critical moment in getting the film made was sealing the deal for Michelle Yeoh’s involvement, but “Michelle’s schedule kept changing, which allowed us to rework things.” As for the film’s wild ride structure, Scheinert admitted, “We’re attracted to tonal shifts. It’s our mantra.”

Sarah Polley, director/screenwriter of Women Talking, was asked by moderator Anne Thompson (from Variety) about the deliberate decision to leave scenes of sexual abuse out that were central to the background of the story — scenes which are also excised from Miriam Toews’s remarkable novel. “It was not about the details,” Polley noted. “Sexual abuse material onscreen rarely moves the story forward, and is often fetishized. It’s about women dealing with things.”

Lesley Paterson, the professional triathlete turned screenwriter and co-writer of the remarkable adaptation of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, explained that the rights were optioned 16 years ago. She drew parallels between her athletic and writing lives: “There is the endurance of sport and overcoming adversity. You have to be malleable.”

The goal of All Quiet, about doomed young German soldiers in the trenches at the end of WWI, was “seeing it from the other side. We’re so used to thinking of Germans as villains, understandably. But the larger subject is the betrayal of the young generation.” In the film, and in war, she commented, “the uniform means more than the man.”

Director/writer Martin McDonagh, whose deceptively mild-mannered The Banshees of Inisherin takes the blend of comedy and madness of McDonagh’s In Bruges to a new level, offered that his latest film is “about existential dread. My work bounces between the comedic and the dreadful.”

It may have surprised us that the contrarian crackpot on the panel was Todd Field, creator of the seemingly serious Tár. Then again, as we learn in the film’s surprisingly comic finale, the film is more satirical than it lets on. Ditto, its maker. 

When asked about his writing process, Field first announced he’d make it fast, as he had to pee. “When you’re adapting, you have something to plunge into,” whereas an original project involves a sometimes long prep period and the lingering question: “When do you start to leave the gate? That outline process — that’s the process.” He also added, perhaps only half-jokingly, “I’m a mumbler. I am my own collaborator.” Then, off to pee.

Writing Tár began in the fateful COVID lockdown smackdown moment of March 2020. “I was very happy to have something to do. I had been thinking about the character for 10 years. I never thought I’d be able to do something with it.” Despite the startling specificity and insider’s view of the classical world, Field claimed that “it didn’t necessarily have to be set in the classical world. She’s at the top of a power structure.”

Creative factors and urgency arrived after he’d met Cate Blanchett on a Joan Didion project that went unmade. Field had found his muse, and his Lydia Tár. “She thinks like a writer,” he said, “a filmmaker. She thinks of the whole thing, not as a ghettoized actor. She stubbornly appeared when I was drafting.” In contrast with Field, McDonagh said, “I don’t believe in outlines. That’s why there are surprises and twists and turns in my films. [The Banshees of Inisherin] is my least plot-y film, and maybe the saddest.” After a pause, he added with his easily tapped wry grin, “Hopefully.”

Eyes on the Program Prizes

Looking at the upcoming program, which runs through Saturday night and includes TBA slots for popular films heading back to town, I can vouch for a few titles. I was especially affected by the Croatian film Traces, about a mid-life anthropologist’s quest for meaning surrounding ancient Slavic funerary symbols and her father’s death, while the film itself pulls us into heightened awareness of signs and symbols.

Stephen Frears’s The Lost King relays the fascinating true story of a humble woman’s (the wonderful Sally Hawkins) obsession with and advancement of the legacy of Henry III, with Shakespeare and a Henry friendly ghost in the shadows. 

Although I’ve yet to see it, all bets are on the Irish film The Quiet Girl, up for a foreign-film Oscar. As director-writer Colm Bairéad said at the International Directors Panel, at the Arlington on Sunday, “I enjoy when something has a modesty to it, but when you tune into the frequency of it, it comes much more. It’s not going to wow you with plot. The plot isn’t the thing. I’m obsessed with point of view.”

Teen Angels with Matches

Canadian director Sheila Pye’s The Young Arsonists serves up interesting twists on the coming-of-age theme, with gothic touches. Shot in Caledonia, Ontario, the film uses as a recurring, telling motif of a burning house as a cleansing and purifying gesture. Based in 1987, four alienated young teenaged girls with various skeletons and haunting memories in their collective closet find a taste of freedom in an abandoned house. When a development company comes on the scene to take control of the house, the conflict between freedom and the lockstep of order and progress galvanizes our heroines’ resolve, while clarifying the essential youthful confusion of our young arsonists. 

Suffice to say, this ain’t no mild-mannered young teen genre flick, to its credit.


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