wga-2014-beyond-wordsTuesday night at the WGA West’s annual Beyond Words panel, ten WGA Awards-nominated scribes assembled to talk screenwriting and commiserate over the scripting challenges faced on eight very different films. A common theme of the night was distilling fiction from real life, as in Terence Winter‘s The Wolf of Wall Street, David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s American Hustle, Billy Ray‘s Captain Phillips, and Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten’s Dallas Buyers Club. Nebraska writer Bob Nelson‘s advice seemed to ring true with more than a few: “The best thing to do as a screenwriter,” he declared, “is to pillage your family mercilessly.” Nelson modeled Bruce Dern‘s cranky Midwestern senior citizen Woody after his own father, and June Squibb‘s domineering character after his mother-in-law. “When my brother saw the movie he said, ‘That wasn’t writing – that was dictation.'”

August: Osage CountyTracy Letts, who adapted his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County for the screen, echoed that sentiment. The contentious matriarch Violet, played by Meryl Streep in the film in an Oscar-nominated performance, sprung from Letts’ own memories of his grandmother. “She was a really monstrous figure in my mind,” he said. “When I started to write this I wasn’t looking to find a way to sympathize with her, necessarily, but I was trying to find a way to humanize her. .. what I found to my delight and surprise and horror was that she was your mother, too, and she’s everybody’s mother.”

“Jordan (Belfort) was very much based on my grandmother,” joked Winter, who recalled the task of filtering the real life Wall Street swindler into a protagonist that could win over the audience before revealing his true colors. “We have the most unreliable narrator in history and that’s basically license to tell the story in any manner that character sees fit. I wanted Jordan to sell us his story,” he said. “In laughing along with him you’re buying his bullshit. It was a very conscious decision that we never see the people on the other end of those telephones. You never see the damage done, you only see the fun and success and you’re laughing along with these guys until it gets really dark and somebody gets hurt… and by the end of the third act… suddenly you’re appalled and you realize, I’ve been laughing along with this guy for two and a half hours and he’s really an asshole. That’s where it hits you – I bought it. I bought what they’re selling thinking it’s a fun romp when in actuality it’s not at all.”

WGA Beyond Words: David O. Russell and Eric SingerThe American Hustle team of Singer and Russell similarly wrote characters based on actual con artists, even prefacing the film with the disclaimer “Some of this actually happened.” Taking artistic license to use real life figures as a jumping off point to weaving fiction into an ensemble story in service of greater themes was a conscious choice. “Early on I made a decision to let go of what actually happened because it gave me the freedom to write the story I wanted to write and to tell the most compelling story for me,” said Singer. “But I got to cherry pick all the actual things that did happen and fuse them into the narrative… so the research was critical because it gave me a palette to draw from and use what I thought would best serve the story.”

Like his last two unofficial companion films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle examines themes of passion, love, and survival that are personal to Russell, he said. Getting to write for actors close to him like Jennifer Lawrence‘s shrill Long Island housewife further affected the process of creating her character, a character that had been darker and different in earlier drafts. “This is far more interesting to have someone who’s bedeviling and enchanting and a genius of some kind in her way. Many times personally I’ve had my ass handed to me by a woman like that and been lucky just to get up. Jesus Christ, help me. I have a great respect for those women.”

Here are a few other nuggets of sage screenwriting advice and tales of lessons learned in the crafting of this year’s awards nominated films:

wga-julie-delpy-david-russellJulie Delpy, who wrote threequel Before Midnight with collaborators Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater, on the tricky task of writing dialogue that sounds improvised even after many rehearsals and through long takes:
“How do you find that naturalistic feel on something that’s completely written and very long, where you can’t have jump cuts or give it rhythm? Basically, we edit as we’re writing. We’re giving it rhythm during the writing process, which is really the hardest part of this process – to do the final film when you’re actually writing it.”

Delpy & Co. took two years to figure out how characters Jesse and Celine had spent the last nine years of their lives. Knowing every obsessive detail prepared them to write a challenging 14-minute single take scene that had to seamlessly wrap the characters’ backstory and present together:
“We knew Richard was going to do it in one take so we had to give it rhythm and edit it while writing it, so we had to write not only the length of each pause between dialogue but also the moments where we would overlap each other. We had to write all of this in the dialogue. We would put different colors [in the script] for overlaps… we spent a long time writing that scene to make sure it would work in one take.”

wga-spike-jonzeSpike Jonze, who tackled the challenge of writing a romance in which one character is never seen onscreen in Her:
“I was scared because I didn’t know if it was going to work and that was the challenge through shooting. We keep writing in post; our editorial process is basically a writing process. The movie keeps developing. We look at editing as drafts of the movie. [Compared to the Coen Bros.’ method of shooting exactly what they write] our process is much more messy, a continuing process of trying to get as close to what the intention was as possible.”

And also:
“I have a lot of friends read [the script]. I actually pitched the movie to David [Russell] in my living room in New York. I spent probably an hour pitching the story. I get a lot out of filling in the blanks, realizing things that aren’t there and getting friends’ feedback.”

captain phillipsBilly Ray on balancing his hero and antagonist characters, played by Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, in Captain Phillips:
“You always want to dimensionalize your characters, especially your bad guys. I wasn’t particularly interested in telling the story of a white American who’s held hostage by four Africans who then get their heads blown off without going deeper than that. You want to tell a story about leadership, you’ve got to describe what kind of leaders these two men are. Put them under pressure, see how they react, see their true nature, and have them impact one another… I remember going in for the first meeting at Sony] and saying exactly that – this is a movie about two captains and they both get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work. And their work happens to put them on this collision course.”

Ray on chipping away at his “elephant” – and listening to Tom Hanks:
“If you want to make a sculpture of an elephant, you start with a block of granite and you chip away everything that’s not an elephant. When you’re doing research for a movie, that’s your block of granite – everything you know about the story is assembled right in front of you. You take a step back and say, ‘Where’s the elephant in there?’ I had a pretty clear of where that elephant was, and so did [director] Paul Greengrass. There were scenes that I now refer to as my Apollo 13 scenes that took place back home, where you saw what was going on with Phillips’ family, Phillips’ wife, that I thought were necessary… Paul wanted to tell scenes that took place in the corridors of power, in the Pentagon… And it was actually Hanks who said, ‘The story is in that lifeboat. Don’t cut away from that lifeboat. The tension will be unbearable but in a good way’… we stripped everything out of the script that wasn’t that, and it turns out that was our elephant the whole time.”

Dallas Buyers ClubDallas Buyers Club‘s Melisa Wallack also credited a collaborator, director Jean-Marc Vallée, with sharpening the film’s focus. Initially the script was split with half of its attention on the politics of FDA drug regulations:
“Jean-Marc really honed it down to this personal story of what Ron Woodruff was going to and pointed out that the most important part was from his perspective. We rewrote it with that in mind and thankfully were able to pare down the FDA to a point where it’s more tolerable because before it was too political, too heavy-handed, and too overwhelming for the script.”

Tracy Letts on the “painstaking process” of adapting his own 3 1/2 hour play for the screen, losing beloved moments in the process:
“My first draft was over 200 pages… [John Wells and I ] talked about it in terms of, ‘How can we tell the same story we told in the theater? Where are the places where pictures can substitute for the written word or a monologue? Where is a place the actor’s face can communicate what it took a monologue to convey onstage?’”… the truth is it’s not natural to take something that lives in the theater and put it in the cinema. In some ways they don’t belong.” Later, Letts described one scene between Jean and Johnna that was key onstage but didn’t make it into the film. “I couldn’t get the tone of that for a screenplay. Something about it seemed out of place, seemed stagey, seemed not of this world in the screenplay. It was in. It was shot. It was cut.”

NebraskaBob Nelson, who learned that oftentimes less is more while hammering out Nebraska‘s toughest scene:
“The scene where the father goes through the house he grew up in [was the hardest] because there’s the balance of how much is said and how much you leave to the actors. There’s one line in there where the son asks Bruce Dern, ‘Do you remember your brother dying?’ And he says, ‘Sure, I was there’ in the shooting script. Alexander [Payne] had taken the word ‘sure’ out of there and trimmed it down even more to ‘I was there,’ which I thought was a great way to go because the father’s not being dismissive anymore. He’s just being honest with his son for the first time. Now Kate is silenced, and there were all four of the main family members involved.”

HerJonze on the toughest scene he had to write, in which Samantha composes a song for Theodore as the two sit on a rooftop:
“What that song was about and what the music was changed many times, and I think it’s because I was trying to do too much in one scene. I spent time writing and again in post rewriting many times over, because we’ll rewrite scenes over and over. The scene was trying to do too many things, to show that he’s in the relationship again and has apologized to her and is giving himself over to her and the relationship, and it’s also showing the beginning of her intellectual ascent… [We] ultimately realized that scene needed to be about him being all in with her, so we ended up reducing it to a very simple idea – that she was writing a song because they didn’t have any photographs together. She wanted to make a song that was like a photograph of their lives together. [Pause] It took us a year into post until we realized that.”