Screenwriters talk about writing at the Film Festival

Writing about writers talking about writing turns out to be surprisingly easy. The Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) screenwriters panel took place at the Arlington Theater on Saturday morning. This is perhaps the best panel of all film festivals.

The scholars gathered were: Zach Baylin (King Richard), Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up), Sian Heder (CODA), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Eskil Vogt (Worst Person in the World), Denis Villeneuve (Dune), and Maggie Gyllenhaall (The Lost Girl). Jane Campion, reporting that she had COVID, provided a pre-recorded but engaging account of her process of adapting “Power of the Dog” from the possibly partly true source book by Thomas Savage.

All of the panelists were uniformly smart, articulate, self-effacing, quick-witted, self-aware, and happy to be there. And, as the photos show, they listened to each other attentively even if their colleague had the misfortune to be at the end of a long queue. Having them all on stage and able to interact elevates the event beyond rote repetition of pre-packaged awards season stories.

Once again, the panel was expertly moderated by Ann Thompson of Indiewire. His winning formula is to ask the following questions: 1) resume/how did you become a screenwriter 2) specific, thoughtful questions about each film, with follow-ups 3) the writing process and 4) the next project.

Here’s a writing trick that screenwriters can’t use, bullet points! A highlight reel of the most entertaining bits biased by the movies I’ve seen and limited by my inability to jot down all the too fast and too furious quotes.

  • McKay compared living in the mad, crazy world right now to “being in a bouncy castle with a bunch of hyenas holding wine glasses.” Having him on a panel is like inviting a precocious, profane teenager to a garden party who then blasts any sense of social decorum.

  • Heder opened up about his love of profanity, telling us his favorite word is “f***.” “There are others but this is the best”. Gyllenhaal then asked how you sign that in American Sign Language, which quickly evolved to focus on how the performer on stage signed it. And then serve various permutations of the word. The interpreter maintained his professionalism and dutifully signed the variants. It was a crack.

  • Gyllenhaal, whose film’s subtext talks about mothers who are ambivalent about being mothers, said he wrote the scene in which the protagonist admits that she doesn’t really like talking to her children on the phone. She peeked around the plane to see if writing about such a taboo sentiment drew judgment from a fellow flight attendant. Heder, who has young children, admitted she had some “lost girl moments” while writing her film.

  • Vogt said his writing process was about thinking about story and characters without understanding how the plot structure should come together, freeing himself from the limiting “chain of consequences”. “The plot is like the hanger, not the clothes” and, really, nobody says they liked the plot of a movie.

  • Villeneuve, whose first language is French, says awkwardly that he “was writing at the moment” (the second half of Dunes). It was a bit confusing. He returned to his statement a few minutes later to provide some clarification. In response, McKay said, to paraphrase, “good because for a moment it seemed like you were saying you weren’t really listening to anyone on the panel”. Villeneuve ironically that there was perhaps some truth in that.

  • Branagh set up his own internal thriller script by setting himself a 9 a.m. deadline every morning to start writing. The consequence of missing the deadline was that his autobiography which is Belfast was, in fact, dead. He finally freed himself from this chain of stressful consequences by allowing himself to write something.

Anyway, there was more and it was good. There are tickets available for the remaining tributes and panels at sbiff.org. And, there is a streaming option for those who prefer that.