THR’s Writer Roundtable: 6 Top Scribes Talk Standing Up to Clint Eastwood, Dealing with Rewrites and Being Fired by Your Wife
Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian reveal who did what on “Moneyball” and Eric Roth explains his fights with Michael Mann as Hollywood’s star screenwriters dish about their craft in the third of THR’s annual awards season series discussions.
Together, the six A-list screenwriters invited to participate in The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual awards-season roundtable have received a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations (plus five wins). But not once during the lively hourlong discussion at Hemingway’s Lounge in Hollywood did the subject of awards or accolades come up. Instead, the panel — Pedro Almodovar, 62 (The Skin I Live In), Dustin Lance Black, 37 (J. Edgar), Oren Moverman, 45 (Rampart), Eric Roth, 66 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Aaron Sorkin, 50 (Moneyball) and Steven Zaillian, 58 (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball) — discussed their insecurities, how Oscar winners can collaborate and what they would do if they couldn’t write. “I always thought in the worst case to raise my family I could drive a taxi,” said Roth, who won his Oscar for Forrest Gump and was nominated for The Insider, Munich and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “I didn’t think that was so horrible.”
The Hollywood Reporter: Forget, for a moment, all your success. What has been your worst experience as a writer?
Pedro Almodovar: There is one awful, awful experience. May I say it?
THR: That’s why we’re here.
Almodovar: I made a movie about someone that wants to impersonate a transvestite [Bad Education]. They had the makeup artist make up an actor when he was asleep. Suddenly he woke up dressed as a woman and he started to have a panic attack. (Laughter.) Can you imagine? So I completely changed the script.
THR: You changed the script once you started shooting?
Almodovar: Yeah. Sometimes you have to do that. I don’t know if directors ever ask you to change something. But everything is alive when you are shooting.
Oren Moverman: That happens all the time.
THR: If a director started shooting your script and said, “You know what? Let’s change it,” how would you react?
Aaron Sorkin: Well, it’d be troubling. Frankly, I don’t want the director to have to make any decisions except to say “action” and “cut.” You want the script as tight as it can possibly be before the first day of rehearsal and certainly before the first day of shooting.
THR: And what’s been your worst experience as a screenwriter?
Sorkin: My very first movie was A Few Good Men, which was an adaptation of my play. There was an executive on the movie who gave me a note: “If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren’t going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?” I said the obvious answer: Women have purposes other than to sleep with Tom Cruise.
Eric Roth: I’ve had a lot of fights with certain people, like Michael Mann [on Ali and The Insider], who I love. The fights were good fights. They were about the creative things you should fight about. Another [bad experience] was a movie called Mr. Jones, which was not a good movie. I liked the director, Mike Figgis. Eventually. But my wife [Debra Greenfield] was actually a producer on that. We got a call one day from the original director [not Figgis]. I sat at a little study and she was sitting on the couch and she answered the phone and she hung up and said, “You’re fired.”
THR: You were fired by your wife?
Roth: Yeah. Well, the studio fired me. I don’t know. She said, “What should I do?” I said, “Well, go make this [movie].”
THR: What is the relationship like when someone rewrites your script? Steven and Aaron, you share credit on Moneyball. Did you talk to each other?
Steven Zaillian: No, we didn’t.
Sorkin: We talked a tiny bit. I had just turned in the script for The Social Network to Sony, so they were pleased with me. This very dramatic event had just happened with Moneyball [when director Steven Soderbergh was fired shortly before production was to begin], and they wanted me to work on it. When you’re being asked to rewrite any writer, it’s a tricky situation. When you’re asked to rewrite Steve Zaillian, who is a hall of famer, that’s not a job you leap at. So, I told them that I could only do this with Steve’s blessing. I tracked down Steve — he was on vacation in Rome with his family and … well, in his voice it didn’t seem like being rewritten was Christmas morning for him. He was extremely gracious and generous and very professional. I’ll never forget what he said: “Listen, do me a favor, don’t change the movie. Just write more of it.” So I took that note to heart.
Zaillian: I meant if what they’re looking for is for you to add something — and that was how it was being advertised to me — that’s different than reconstructing something. That was easier to take.
THR: Have you seen the finished film?
Zaillian: Yeah. Here’s the thing: Most people imagine that I wrote a script and Aaron rewrote a script and then the movie came out. It wasn’t quite that simple. He wrote a draft, then I came back, then he came back, and we were both at a certain point working independently of each other on the same thing. Neither one of us is accustomed to that sort of thing happening. So it was tough. But the film turned out well. I don’t think anyone ever said writing was easy, but the worst experiences have turned out well.
THR: Give us an example.
Zaillian: A long time ago, I wrote a script [Searching for Bobby Fischer] that a director wanted me to change in such a way that I thought it was going to wreck it. At a certain point, I said, “I really can’t do any more.” He said, “Well, here’s the deal. If you don’t do it, I’m just going to do it myself.” So, psychologically and emotionally, I just detached at that moment. [Producer] Scott Rudin, who has some kind of radar about these things, called me and said, “How would you like to direct the movie?” That’s how Searching for Bobby Fischer came about.
Almodovar: This struggle against directors asking for silly things — in my case, I’m the director, so I ask the silly things to myself.
THR: What is your writing process like? Do you have regular hours?
Sorkin: I envy writers that I hear about who go to their office at 9 and write until 5. And by write I mean they’re actually typing. I go to an office every day and I throw a ball against the wall and I check ESPN and I talk to my friends and I order a pizza and I take a nap. For me, I’m an on/off switch. If I’m writing well, which means writing at all, really, then I’m happy. I can handle any problem. If I’m not writing, I’m miserable.
Moverman: My process is very different. I made Rampart in a way where a lot of it is improvised, where I encourage the actors to throw out the script. I like it when it’s alive like that. Maybe it’s because I had the privilege of directing the last two films that I wrote that I feel there’s a certain danger in going in without the plan beyond the script. I like the chaos of it.
Dustin Lance Black: Clint Eastwood said, “I want to make it just like this,” which you would think would be music to a writer’s ears. [But] I like things that continue to change. That probably comes from having done TV, where things are always changing. So then it became this weird wrestling match where I was having to go to Clint Eastwood, who I was always afraid would shoot me in the face with a .44 Magnum, and say, “I want changes. I think this can be better and this can be leaner.” But he wants to stick with the script. In his gut, that’s what he liked.
THR: You spent a year researching J. Edgar before you wrote. What do all of you do when you’re not writing?
Black: I do some drinking.
Moverman: I pay attention to my kids.
Zaillian: I took up guitar 10 years ago.
Sorkin: I’m a father of a young daughter, so I’m happy to take up my time doing that. And I take a cello lesson once a week.
Roth: I’ve got a lot of kids and grandchildren, and I like to gamble. No one judges you out there. No one gives a shit what you do. It’s just you and the fates. I do write on a schedule, but I’ll write during the day and then stop and go to the racetrack or play with the kids or whatever, then I’ll work until 4 or 5 in the morning.
Almodovar: When I’m not writing or directing, I’m promoting. This is how I summarize my life. So many of the ideas I have come when I am flying or even in a taxi … when I’m in movement, going from somewhere to somewhere.
Black: Airplanes are great. That’s my favorite time to write — when you’re trapped.
Roth: Really? I take a Percocet.
Black: Putting Internet on airplanes is the worst invention ever because it was always a great time when you’re isolated and feeling a little lonely.
Sorkin: Do you write in hotel rooms, too?
Black: Not so much, because then I want to go do something.
Zaillian: Oh, I love it.
Sorkin: Me, too.
Zaillian: I write longhand. I’ll put it into the computer once it’s done. But the first draft will be longhand.
Roth: I have a really old MOBI program [from the company] that went out of business. But I’m afraid to switch. I’m superstitious.
Sorkin: There are certain clothes I want to write in. I wouldn’t write in what I’m wearing right now. I have to get into looser clothes. I take a lot of showers during the day. It has nothing to do with germaphobia or anything like that. If I’m not writing well, I just want a new start. I take a shower, I change my clothes, I feel refreshed, I go at it again.
Roth: I change the weather [in the script].
Sorkin: Speaking of the weather, the four or five days a year that it rains in Los Angeles, those are the best writing days. I declare it a holiday. “I’m writing today.” There’s just something very romantic and dramatic about the sight and the sound and everything having to do with rain.
THR: What’s the first step in your writing process?
Zaillian: In the case of Dragon Tattoo, the first step is to read the book and make notes and try to start seeing some semblance of the movie. One place that was important for me not to start was seeing the Swedish movie. I still haven’t seen it.
THR: Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won a Nobel Prize, said writing is about solving problems, as opposed to pure creativity. Do you agree?
Sorkin: There’s a drive shaft that you have to build. That, for me, is entirely intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something, and something formidable is standing in their way of getting it. Until you’ve found that, you can’t write. It’ll just be finger-painting. You have to build a firm structure for a house before you can do the things that you want to do, the things that are fun to do, which is writing a lot of dazzling [dialogue] … you know, the reason we all became writers. Any time you’re in trouble, if you just go back to the poetics, just go back to Aristotle, a 64-page pamphlet that essentially gives the rules of what drama is. Chances are you have broken one of those rules.
Black: That’s the challenge with these real-life stories, which a lot of us have done. Lives aren’t lived by Aristotle’s poetics. They’re not. They’re not necessarily in those acts. So for me, I get all these wonderful, interesting things that I learn about people, and I put them all on note cards. And then I have this very small table in my house and I arrange them into something that fits … I love the constraint of the counter because it makes it so that it will fit into a movie. If you’ve found that spine, hopefully at the end of the day you have a movie instead of just a timeline.
THR: Is there anything you can’t write? Let’s throw out a test: the Oscars show.
Moverman: Why would you want to write it?
Sorkin: I’m going to take the opposite approach. Why don’t they ask us? (Laughter.)
Roth: I’m sure [producer Brian Grazer] will call you tomorrow morning. He happened to write me last night, and I said good luck.
Sorkin: I hope that Brian does a really good show. It always baffles me that the greatest entertainers in the world cannot put on a show that honors movies.
Roth: But the Writers Guild show, which is written by writers, is not your best evening. (Laughter.)
Zaillian: If there’s one thing that I think everybody would agree on is that the Oscars are too long. They don’t let us make four-hour movies. If it was shorter, it would be better.
Sorkin: I would look at the best of the Oscars from over the years. I think you would find that the greatest moments in the Oscars, aside from who’s winning and who’s not, are tributes that really say, “Hey, film is the one truly indigenous American art form. We’re great at it. It moves people. It changes people. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you do all those things and just celebrate it. Run as far as you can from cheesy.”
THR: Wait — do you all agree film is the one American indigenous art form?
Black: Jazz, man.
Almodovar: It’s a difficult question. It was not invented here. But the major industry is the American industry.
THR: He said art form. Not industry.
Sorkin: It’s a big business too, but we still make very good movies here. So do a lot of other people, but I think we have every right to claim this as ours.
THR: Chaplin, Hitchcock, Erich von Stroheim, the French new wave. There are very strong arguments against this being the American indigenous art form.
Almodovar: Now I don’t think it’s an art form here, though there are a lot of exceptions.
Sorkin: But excuse me, you named some people who were not born in America but came here to make movies. Charlie Chaplin did not stay in England and make movies, and neither did Alfred Hitchcock.
Roth: But don’t you think the key word is “indigenous”? Obviously, it’s an art form all over the world. But indigenous is what made it unique to America.
THR: Lance, did you ever want to do anything other than write? You’ve had success very young.
Black: Oh, yeah. I was in theater for a long time. I grew up in theater as an outlet, because I was so shy. My mom thought, “Oh, maybe we’ll break him of his shyness problem and put him in theater.” Instead, I met a bunch of fabulous gay people and it took me in a different direction.
THR: Were you offended when then-Oscars producer Brett Ratner said, “rehearsal’s for fags”?
Black: Absolutely. Of course. I think a lot of people were, not just gay people. But I also read the letter he put out [to apologize] and I found it incredibly moving. So, I’ll go on record: I absolutely forgave him. I hope he does the things he said he’s doing in that letter. Those are learning experiences. We all mess up. It’s what you do on the other side that counts.
ABOUT THR‘S ROUNDTABLE SERIES
The Hollywood Reporter continues its annual series of exclusive discussions among the year’s most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for upcoming roundtables with actors, producers and animation filmmakers, and go to The Reporter’s website to watch videos of the full discussions.