The Oscars aren’t so white this season, but they’re still “so male,” as was pointed out tonight by Andrea Berloff, moderator of a panel discussion with ten of this year’s WGA Award nominated screenwriters – only one of whom is female.
Allison Schroeder, Oscar and WGA nominated for Hidden Figures, said that having once worked at NASA, she was “born to write this film” about a team of black female mathematicians who help launch John Glenn into space in 1962. After struggling for years as a production assistant and then as a TV writer, she said she got the call from the film’s producer telling her she’d gotten the assignment while shooting a YouTube video on a cruise ship. It was a good call: without her, there wouldn’t have been a single woman writer or director nominated for an Oscar or for a WGA screenwriting award this year.
Hidden Figures director and co-writer Theodore Melfi, said that one of the bad notes they got from higher-ups asked the question, “Do we have to have so much math?”
Todd Black, who produced Fences, told the packed house at the Writers Guild Theater that he hopes that the success of films like Fences, Loving, Moonlight and Hidden Figures “will show the studios that there is a huge world out there of all different colors and all different races. I’m very heartened by what’s happened this year.” He also said he believes that the Academy “made a huge mistake when they owned the lack of diversity” in last year’s crop of Oscar-nominated films. “It’s the studios and the financiers” who should have taken the lion’s share of the blame, he said.
Damien Chazelle said that his idea for Oscar frontrunner La La Land had been kicked around Hollywood as “an orphan project for five years,” but buzz coming out of Sundance with Whiplash led producers to ask him what else he was working on. “We had this ready to go, and now the same pitch that had fallen on deaf ears suddenly had traction. It got picked up and a year later we were shooting.”
“Whenever somebody tries to give me notes, I go into a self-induced trance,” said Kenneth Lonergan, writer/director of Manchester by the Sea. “I try to block it out, but without appearing to do so, because that would be disrespectful.” Of studio executives, he said, “There’s a shamanistic profession facilitating a process they don’t understand.”
Moderator Berloff, who’s Straight Outta Compton was Oscar and WGA nominated last year, said that she thought that several of this year’s nominees had political messages, but Hell or High Water scribe Taylor Sheridan disagreed. “I see socially reflective films. I don’t see a political film on this panel.” He said he got the idea for his film while pushing his 10-month-old around town in stroller–after quitting acting to become a writer– selling his Encino home, and slowly going broke in a one bedroom apartment in the city. He pushed the kid back up hill, “L.A. isn’t flat, you know,” and then “wrote the script in 2 ½ weeks.”
Current politics took a back seat throughout the evening. Trump was alluded to obliquely during introductory remarks by WGA West president Howard Rodman, but his name wasn’t mentioned once.
Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins said the film couldn’t have been shot anywhere but Miami, and Florida, he noted, “doesn’t have tax incentives.”
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, co-writers and executive producers of Deadpool, discussed their “ruthless persistence” in weathering the six years it took to get the film made.
Eric Heisserer recalled that after “all the studios passed” on his original pitch for Arrival, he decided to write it as a spec script, which took him a year. “Everybody I knew tried to stop me. My agent said, ‘this is the very definition of a waste of time. Everybody’s already said no.'” He didn’t mention whether or not he still has the same agent.