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.” (more…)