Perhaps a victim of too many participants and too little time, a panel featuring the WGA screenwriting nominees Thursday night at the guild’s Beverly Hills theater was heavy on niceties with only traces of insight. Three Moneyball writers — Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin and Steven Zaillian (who also wrote The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) — were joined by The Descendants’ writer-director Alexander Payne, Hugo‘s John Logan, Bridesmaids‘ Annie Mumolo, 50/50‘s Will Reiser and The Help‘s Tate Taylor for an hour-plus discussion mostly peppered with practical advice dished to a large audience of new or aspiring screenwriters. The event was billed as a pre-cursor to Sunday’s WGA Awards, featuring the WGA’s and Oscar’s nominees for original and adapted screenplay.
A couple of panelists did offer up moments of insidery detail. Payne tackled his screenplay for The Descendants after drafts were delivered by the project’s other writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, but he said he had to overlook their take on the story before warming up to the project. “I couldn’t get into the film through their drafts,” Payne said. “I respected their work very much but I had to return to the novel. I learned some of the things I didn’t want to do [with the story] through their drafts.” Payne said the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings paved the way for his version of the screenplay, noting that this was his most “faithful adaptation” he’s done to date. “The [Hawaiian] aristocracy is very insular. They’re very suspicious of outsiders who come in and see what they want to see and leave,” he said. “My principal audience is the people who live there and I wanted people in Hawaii to believe I got it right.”
Payne said previous drafts of Descendants played up the high jinks of the younger daughter (played in the film by Amara Miller), but he said he “jettisoned that” and instead focused on the relationship between George Clooney’s character and the older daughter, played by Shailene Woodley. When writing, Payne said he likes to keep things “austere.” Though he may write a long script with details, when he’s ready to show it, minimalism wins out. “I like to keep it super austere. Ninety-one pages is the best length for a script.”
Bridesmaids co-writer Mumolo (she wrote the script with Kristen Wiig) had the audience laughing describing a scene in an earlier draft that was eventually nixed by producer Judd Apatow. It involved Wiig’s character Annie, who has a surreal dream sequence meant to emphasize the financial disparity with her fellow bridesmaids. “We had a scene in which she tries on an expensive dress and she fantasizes she is being chased by Christian Bale in a forest and then it cuts to him combing her hair while she is lying on a bear-skin rug.” Apatow said Annie’s character needed a “bigger screw-up” and the Bale idea eventually morphed into the lunch scene in which Annie picks a restaurant that causes her fellow bridesmaids to get violently sick. “Judd also said he didn’t think we’d get Christian Bale to do this,” Mumolo said.
The Help writer-director Taylor said he is not wary of changing his script at any moment. While filming in Mississippi, he said he called the studio to tell them he decided to cut a number of scenes. “I told them I wasn’t going to shoot five scenes because I knew they’d end up on the cutting-room floor,” he said. “A producorial hat came over me and I knew they’d end up being a waste of money, so I just didn’t do them.” Taylor won a round of applause with his advice for the audience about screenwriting: “Just be fearless,” he said. “Be willing to take a crap on your computer and go for it. Even from the worst stuff you’ll find a nugget of truth. Don’t overthink it.”
Moneyball scribes Chervin, Sorkin and Zaillian hinted that their project was anything but a cake walk. Chervin said his work on the film was like “the dancing bear,” and joked that “nobody thought you could make a movie out of a book that is a 300-page celebration of statistics.” Sorkin skipped nuance, noting the project was a “long process” with producer Scott Rudin and director Bennett Miller. “I think a lot of people know here that the Moneyball process was not smooth sailing from beginning to end,” he said. He added with a laugh, “I want to buy the rights to the making of Moneyball.” Added Zaillian: “Things that are easy are generally not good, so Moneyball must be great.”