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WrittenBy
F E B R UA RY | M A R C H 2 0 1 7
THE MAGAZINE OF THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA, WEST
©
w w w . w r i t t e n b y . c o m
AWARD NOMINEES
& HONOREES
Pamela Adlon
Richard Curtis
Alex Gibney
Eric Heisserer
Joshua & Michael Jacobs
Theodore Melfi
Trevor Noah
Allison Schroeder
Oliver Stone
Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Starry,
Starry Night
Barry Jenkins under a full Moonlight.
LIONSGATE THANKS THE
WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA
AND CONGRATULATES
DAMIEN CHAZELLE
NOMINEE - ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
WrittenBy
THE MAGAZINE OF THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA, WEST
FEBRUARY | MARCH 2017
VOL. 21 ISSUE 2
©
COLUMNS
6 AWARDS SEASON
BY LISA ROSEN
How many writers does
it take to … ?
12 TOOLS
BY LOUISE FARR
Pamela Adlon’s seen
Better Things.
20 LOCATION, LOCATION
BY PETER HANSON
Keeping a timeline to
Eric Heisserer and Arrival .
DEPARTMENTS
2 FADE IN
4 LETTERS
WEB EXTRA!
A Purple Heart writer dies on the
battlefield fighting for our country,
then is blacklisted posthumously
by vindictive politicans.
The story of a real patriot whose
name honors a Writers Guild Award.
Only online at writtenby.com.
Cover portrait: Tom Keller
2017Writers
Guild Awards
24
BOY MEETS GIRL
BY JACQUELINE PRIMO
Father and son bond as first-time co-writers.
30
DANCING IN SERIOUS MOONLIGHT
BY ERNEST HARDY
Barry Jenkins makes a heartbreaker.
38
SPACE ODYSSEY
BY LOUISE FARR
Orbiting Hidden Figures with Allison Schroeder.
42 SPACE RACE
BY PETER HANSON
No more fear of heights for Theodore Melfi.
46
MAKING COMEDY GREAT AGAIN
BY PAUL BROWNFIELD
Trevor Noah exposes America’s first African
President.
54
THE REAL SUPERHEROES HERE
BY LISA ROSEN
Learning to swim in Deadpool.
62
THE AWARDS SHOW
Nominees & Honorees
THE MAGAZINE OF THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA, WEST
FADE ININ
FADE
Written By
©
“I’d like to write something that my peers, my colleagues,
my fellow writers would find a source of respect. I think I’d
rather win, for example, a Writers Guild Award more than almost anything on Earth. And the few nominations I’ve had
with the Guild, and the few awards I’ve had from the Guild,
represented to me a far more legitimate concrete achievement
than anything.”
—Rod Serling, his last interview, 1975
Then, as now, Rod Serling is a legend. Like an apparition, the
handsome writer continues to narrate television reruns of his The
Twilight Zone. He died, age 50, a few months after that interview,
but the excerpt above remains a testament to the man’s professional
identity. It’s the perfect statement to open a Written By celebrating
the 2017 Writers Guild Awards nominees.
Why is Serling’s statement still relevant some 42 years later?
Nothing has changed. Writers seek the identical “source of respect.”
Because you are The Source. Without you, nothing’s possible in the
business. And writers remain the best judge of a colleague’s work.
You know the tricks of the trade and aren’t fooled by smoke and mirrors. To be nominated remains a “legitimate concrete achievement,”
as Serling put it. No public relations lobbying, no gift bags, no secret
handshakes, no celebrity appearances, no escort services.
Nothing succeeds except superlative writing. Only that earns a
writer’s vote. Your vote.
Turn to page 24. Meet Michael and Joshua Jacobs, nominated
in the Children’s Script—Episodic and Specials category. You’re
looking at two generations. One’s young, early 20s; the other’s approximately… well, you can find biographical details in Jacqueline
Primo’s charming story. Suffice it to say, these two co-wrote an episode of Girl Meets World, which Michael created three years ago for
Disney Channel. It’s Joshua’s first script; it’s his father’s… oh, so
many scripts, too many to count.
Did I forget to mention these co-writers also happen to be father
and son?
“I realized writing this together would be a wonderful experience
for us,” Michael says, “and then the kid gets nominated for a Writers
Guild Award. I never got nominated for any of that. I’ve been doing
this for 30 years—nothing.”
“The whole thing is surreal,” admits his son and co-writer.
“I think the icing on the cake of everything is that the Writers
Guild nominated Girl Meets World three seasons in a row,” Michael
believes. “They nominated Matt [Nelson] for ‘Girl Meets 1961’. They
nominated Mark Blutman for ‘Girl Meets I am Farkle’. And they
nominated Josh and me for a kids’ show about the exploration of democracy versus communism, and about how friends protect friends.
We lost the first year, we lost the second year, and…” This year?
Joshua is already showing symptoms of Serling: “It’s an incredible
honor and to be there with him is the real joy of it. Whether or not
it’s a win or a loss, it’s a win.”
Michael takes the cue from his son: “Being writers, I don’t think
there’s a finer honor than having other writers say, This is good work.”
– Richard Stayton, Editor in Chief
2 •
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WRITTEN
BY
FEBRUARY
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MARCH
2017
WGAW OFFICERS
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D E C E M B E R | JA N UA RY 2 0 1 7
THE MAGAZINE OF THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA, WEST
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THE MAGAZINE OF THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA, WEST
LETTERS
Written By
©
Write to Work
Thanks for the Tools column,
“Book to Film? No, Film to Book.”
The joke used to be that every grocery
clerk was writing a screenplay, but
now that it’s so easy to self-publish,
everyone who can spell their name
is writing a book. While all novelists
recognize that adapting their story to
script form requires specific skills, it’s
refreshing to read Joyce Gittlin and Janet B. Fattal’s admission that expanding a screenplay into a novel has its own challenges. The combination of structure and prose techniques has a learning curve that
is rarely appreciated beyond the bestseller list. Thanks for revealing
both the struggle and the triumph of this journey. Welcome to the
ranks of Published and Produced!
©
w w w . w r i t t e n b y . c o m
SIGHT SEEKERS
Matt & Ross Duffer
Joyce Gittlin
Janet B. Fattal
Paul Laverty
Mike Mills
PUBLICATION STAFF
Editor in Chief
Richard Stayton
Creative Director
Ron S. Tammariello
Editorial Assistant
Jacqueline Primo
Copy Editor
Harley Lond
Richard Price
Taylor Sheridan
Night
Vision
Contributing Editors
Sandra Berg, Paul Brownfield, Louise Farr, David Gritten,
Joanne Lammers, Mark Lee, Susan Littwin, Lisa Rosen
Steven Zaillian in the dark
ARTWORK © 2016 BLEECKER STREET MEDIA LLC.
© 2016 CAPTAIN FANTASTIC PRODUCTIONS, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
WHEN PHYLLIS NAGY MET CAROL
**WB PG001 COVER DEC_JAN (DARK COLOR).indd 3
PAGE 1 OF 1
November 16, 2016 2:03 PM PST
CF_WrittenBy_12-19_2F
1/27/17 7:50 PM
Leslie Lehr, Novel Consultant for Truby’s Writers Studio
“Goldie Kane” was so excited when our new copy of Written By arrived. She purred, smiled, and immediately laid down and went to
sleep. I tried to read the lovely letter to the editor that you put in the
magazine—but Goldie went off to dreamland.
The publicity hasn’t gone to her head, although William Morris,
ICM, and CMA have called about representing her. I told them all
that you and Written By handle her exclusively. Blackie Kane, her
sister, is a bit more butch and prefers to sleep on a Sports Illustrated
swimsuit issue but what are you going to do with daughters?
Again many thanks for you kindnesses,
Arnold Kane
Editor’s Note: “Goldie Kane” is a 2-year-old “daughter cat.” Written
By does not represent her.
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space permitting. Letters may be edited for clarity and length, and the editor will select
representative content. Opinions expressed in letters to the editor are not necssarily those of
the WGAW.
BY
FEBRUARY
Peter Barsocchini, Steve Chivers, F.X. Feeney,
Georgia Jeffries, Peter Lefcourt (chair), Glen Mazzara,
Margaret Nagle, Margaret Oberman, Rosanne Welch
WRITTEN BY (ISSN
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(January, February/March, April/May, Summer (June/July/
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Subscriptions: Annual nonmember subscriptions to WRITTEN BY: $50. Student rate: $30 with a copy of a valid student
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mailing offices.
I appreciated Richard Stayton’s article on August Wilson. I have
seen his plays on stage, including “Fences” with James Earl Jones and
“The Piano Lesson,” and was always moved and uplifted with that
genius’ way of humanizing the conflicting issues in our damaged
society. When I went to see the movie Fences, I approached it with
concern, understanding that film is a visual medium and August
Wilson’s art is totally dependent on words and words and more brilliantly revealing words.
I was surprised and delighted that Mr. Wilson’s words were not adapted out of existence. The Production—from the writing, acting, directing—did great service to one of America’s great writers, August Wilson.
And like a few movies I see once a year, including The Godfather, Fences
joins an illustrious group.
Rick Edelstein
WRITTEN
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EDITORIAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Kat PHaN
4 •
Editorial Offices
|
MARCH
2017
Postmaster: Send address changes to WRITTEN BY, the Writers Guild of America, West, 7000 W. Third St., Los Angeles, CA
90048-4329.
Advertising Policy: Readers should not assume that any products or services advertised in WRITTEN BY are endorsed by
the WGAW. Although the Editorial Advisory Board adheres to
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Editorial Policy: WRITTEN BY actively seeks material from
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Inquiries about column writing should be directed to WRITTENBY@WGA.ORG The WGAW neither implicitly nor explicitly
endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in WRITTEN BY.
AWARDS SEASON
Written by Lisa Rosen
Dispatches From the Nominees
WRITERS HAVE A VERY SPECIAL PLACE IN AWARDS SEASON.
W
hen last we met, a few screenwriters had just entered the
awards fray, recounting their startinggate adventures. Now, into the final
month of their Odyssean journey,
more contenders are reporting back
with their highs and lows.
But first, a few words from awardsseasoned pro Meg LeFauve, such as:
“Have a great press agent who has
worked for writers during awards season. It’s a special skill. They will know
how to make people care that you are
there.” After all, this isn’t only work for
the movie, this is work for more work.
Make the most of it, she advises.
“Mostly, no press cares about the writer
at the screening/event. Surprise. Go
anyway! It’s fun! And the few reporters
who do care will ask you great questions. Stay after each screening and talk
to everyone who wants to meet you.
They always have great energy, and it’s
good karma to give back.”
Eric Heisserer adapted a short story
by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life,”
into the feature Arrival. “I have found
people who have seen the film several
times and [read] at least one draft of
my script, and will ask me very specific
questions about the structure or about
6 •
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FEBRUARY
|
some subtextual concepts.” Heisserer
had a guest approach him after a WGA
screening and ask, “So did you talk to
aliens for this?” She wasn’t kidding.
“She gave me a business card so I
could talk to a guru who’s had several
close encounters with real-life aliens,”
he recalls. “I realized that if I continued
down that conversation, it would get
creepier and creepier, so my lie to cut it
off was, ‘Yes, I did have to consult with
them, but I promised not to talk about
it, so that’s all I can say.’ She nodded
to me wisely, and said, ‘Oh, it’s those
guys.’ I’m like, What? What are you
talking about? According to her, there
are three different races that have been
in contact with humans.”
At least they didn’t give notes. Yet.
This may be Heisserer’s first tour,
but he’s already squirreled away some
sound tips. “I’ve stolen a piece of directing advice from writer Billy Ray: On
very long junket days, especially when
travel is required, and you’re doing a lot
of walking around, bring an extra pair
of socks and change into them after
lunch; you’ll get a second wind.”
NOT A MAGIC CARPET
If any of that walking is on a red car-
MARCH
2017
pet, “stop, take a breath, and take it in,”
LeFauve says. “See it, feel it, be there.
Because it’s awesome, but in the hurried rush you can miss it. Then step out
and smile.”
Robert Schenkkan, who wrote Hacksaw Ridge with Andrew Knight, and
has previously been to the circus for
2002’s The Quiet American, has also
been out this year for the HBO movie
All the Way. Schenkkan enjoys the press
interviews, “but the clusterfuck of a
red carpet is always where the writer
is reminded of his or her place in the
food chain. You are absolutely the most
important person in the universe, until
anybody else steps on the red carpet—
then you’re just chopped liver. You can
see the heads snap and the cameras
snap, and whoever you’re talking to,
their eyes are immediately doing the
Hollywood over-your-shoulder shuffle.
This is something one is used to, but it’s
a humbling experience, always.”
LeFauve’s solution: “Go early. Press
will actually care that you, a writer, are
there. But once Brie Larson shows up,
forget it.”
For Heisserer, the camaraderie with
other writers has been the best reward.
“This is a big deal for some of us, es-
STRANGER
THINGS
Screenplay by ERIC HEISSERER
Based on the Story “Story of Your Life”
Written by TED CHIANG
pecially the feature writers who are all
in our caves like hermits most of the
time,” Heisserer says. “The greatest victory may not be if I take home a statue,
but if I get to shake hands and have a
coffee with Taylor Sheridan. I’m hoping it’ll happen; I am absolutely using
Written By to flirt with another writer
right now.”
Both Sheridan and Heisserer are
nominated for WGA Awards, but
in separate categories—Sheridan for
original screenplay (Hell or High Water)
and Heisserer for adapted. Hopefully
now they’ll have a meet-cute at the
Guild ceremony.
The chance to meet other writers
has been Sully screenwriter Todd Komarnicki’s favorite aspect as well. He
attended the Whistler Film Festival as
one of Variety’s Ten Screenwriters to
Watch, and met other writers there.
“It’s such a lonely job,” he says. “I don’t
talk to a lot of other screenwriters, so
being up close with their process, loving their films, and watching how they
tell stories, and how it moves them,
and why they tell stories, that’s been
a huge gift. We have new friendships
blossoming left and right out of mutual
respect and appreciation.”
The whole experience has been made
even sweeter because Komarnicki became a Writer to Watch after working
full-time for 29 years. “I told the guy,
I think they chose me just because I
move so much more slowly now, I’m
easier to watch. If you’re going to track
an antelope, go for the slowest one.”
At 51, he feels much more grounded
than if he’d entered the heady awards
fray as a younger man. “I’m able to appreciate it for just the sweetness of it,
the wonder of it; so I feel very relaxed
and giddy and am enjoying all these
8 •
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Eric Heisserer had a guest approach him after a WGA screening
of Arrival. “So did you talk to aliens for this?” she asked,
seriously. Heisserer thought fast: “I realized that if I continued
down that conversation, it would get creepier and creepier, so
my lie to cut it off was, ‘Yes, I did have to consult with them, but
I promised not to talk about it, so that’s all I can say.’”
moments. When you’re three feet away
from Tom Hanks grabbing Annette Bening as she walks by our table, and they
whip into a big-band-era dance number
that would have fit in La La Land, and
you see Warren Beatty nearby watching
and clapping appreciatively, well okay,
now you’re among the legends.”
Schenkkan experienced a surreal moment at the Venice Film Festival for the
Hacksaw Ridge premiere. “It was the
first time I’d seen the movie completely
put together and scored,” he remembers. “That’s a tough crowd at the Lido;
they don’t give it up easily.” He was
standing in the back of the theater with
director Mel Gibson and star Andrew
Garfield. “At the end of the movie, the
audience stood up, turned around so
they could face us, and applauded for
10 minutes—
or as I like to
say, one minute
for every year
I spent on this
project. That was
certainly a highlight.”
SHALLOW DIVE
Thankfully, there are always other
moments to bring one back to earth—
like in the gifting salons, where there
is a variety of vendors offering everything from fine jewelry to homemade
brownies. “You have to make an appointment, and then you’re assigned a
guide who walks you through this bizarre bazaar of products and services,”
Schenkkan explains. “These things are
really kind of entertaining in their own
way. There’s a whole formality to it. But
MARCH
2017
again, there’s the reminder of where
you are in the food chain, particularly
as a writer.”
Schenkkan dredges up a painful
memory. “Many years ago when I did
this, there was a resort island package.
I’m a scuba diver, so I’m always interested in that.” But sadly, the resort
wasn’t interested in him, as he learned
during his gifting appointment. “They
have to artfully, discreetly explain that
while they would love to gift you with
this, actually they have to reserve it for
somebody more important than you.
It’s a little weird. It would be like sitting on Santa’s lap, and Santa saying,
‘Well, you have been a very good boy
this year, but unfortunately the model
of the Death Star is only reserved for
our high-end kids.’”
For those who make it to the second
most important awards ceremony of
the year—the Oscars™—LeFauve has
plenty of recommendations, specifically
for female nominees. “When buying a
dress, think about [the wait time] sitting in a car. On the drive there, you
will be stressed at every crease; after the
ceremony, you will spill champagne
on it and not care.” When considering
buying a dress with a train, she adds
that “people will step on it all night, and
you might fall. Do it anyway. A dress
with a train, when does that happen?”
It’s humbling, exalting, and exhausting, this months-long celebration of
your work that leaves you no time to
work. “Don’t plan on doing any writing if you are in a full awards push,”
LeFauve emphasizes. “Let it go, don’t
feel guilty. This is your job right now.
And it’s a rare, lovely time. Enjoy.”
Focus Features
salutes the
Writers Guild of America
and proudly congratulates
Jeff Nichols
on his Writers Guild Award nomination for
Best Original Screenplay
© 2016 BIG BEACH, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
ARTWORK: © 2016 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
THANK YOU TO THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA
CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR
WRITERS GUILD AWARDS NOMINEES
DRAMA SERIES
Written by
Paul Dichter, Justin Doble, The Duffer Brothers, Karl Gajdusek,
Jessica Mecklenburg, Jessie Nickson-Lopez, Alison Tatlock
COMEDY SERIES
Written by
Emily Altman, Robert Carlock, Azie Mira Dungey,
Tina Fey, Lauren Gurganous, Sam Means, Dylan Morgan,
Marlena Rodriguez, Dan Rubin, Meredith Scardino,
Josh Siegal, Allison Silverman, Leila Strachan
FOR YOUR RECOGNITION.
NEW SERIES
Written by Paul Dichter, Justin Doble, The Duffer Brothers, Karl Gajdusek,
Jessica Mecklenburg, Jessie Nickson-Lopez, Alison Tatlock
ANIMATION
“Fish Out of Water” - Written by Elijah Aron & Jordan Young
“Stop the Presses” - Written by Joe Lawson
EPISODIC COMEDY
“Kimmy Finds Her Mom!” - Written by Tina Fey & Sam Means
“Kimmy Goes on a Playdate!” - Written by Robert Carlock
TOOLS
Written by Louise Farr
PAMELA ADLON SAYS LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU WHEN YOU’RE
TOO BUSY TO MAKE ANY OTHER PLANS. LUCKY HER.
you will tell.’” A week later, at the upcharming critics, as did Better Things,
ost writers would have taken
fronts, Landgraf announced he was
which earned a 2017 WGA Award
a nosedive after hearing John
picking up Better Things. “My network
New Series nomination for Adlon,
Landgraf’s comments. Not
C.K., Cindy Chupack, and
Pamela Adlon. The FX presiGina Fattore.
dent had been on the road testBack in 2013, C.K., Adlon, and Vernon Chatman
How did the pilot, directed
screening the Better Things pilot,
by C.K., go from “harrowing”
created by Adlon and Louis
won the Guild’s Comedy Series award for
to an audience-, critic-, and FXC.K. The half-hour comedy,
pleaser? “Louis is an amazing
about a single mother of three
Louie. And when she and C.K. won again
editor,” says Adlon, “and he redaughters, featured a character
based on (and played by) Adlon
cut the pilot after I had shot my
in 2015, Adlon told the West Coast awards
herself—a 50-ish actress living in
season.”
Los Angeles.
This is how C.K. recut it: A
Landgraf loved the script. But
prolonged
sequence in which
audience: “We’re always, like, nobody’s
at FX test screenings, audiences
Max (Sam’s oldest daughter,
declared the network’s first complayed by Mikey Madison)
gonna like it. It’s too surreal.”
screams at her mother did seem
edy to star a woman “relentless”
harrowing, so he wove in snipand “harrowing.”
Adlon’s reaction? “I thought that
pets from a lighter audition scene
was pretty great.” Her inspiration for
with Sam’s acting rivals (played by
the pilot was All That Jazz and its DexeConstance Zimmer and Julie Bowen).
C.K. also reintroduced an end segment
drine-stoked, dying choreographer. “Joe
with actress Sam losing an on-set atGideon, every day, he wakes up and
he takes speed, and he puts in the eye
tempt to “dial down a tiny bit” her oral
drops, and he looks in the mirror, and
sex scene. “Oh, you mean the funny
he says, ‘Show time, folks!’” says Adlon,
part?” her showrunner says. (Somewhose gravelly voice and strength of
thing similar had happened to Adlon
personality belie her five-foot stature.
during her seven-season stint playing
“A relentless, never-ending cycle. That’s
smut-mouthed pubes-waxer Marcy
what I wanted.”
Runkle on Californication.)
Adlon has three daughters herself,
so her series takes on the hamster wheel
IT HURTS TO LAUGH
of soccer snacks, stray socks, and occaBack in 2013, C.K., Adlon, and Vernon Chatman won the Guild’s Comedy
sional breakthrough triumphs of single
Series award for Louie. And when she
motherhood. It also tackles the disand C.K. won again in 2015, Adlon
heartening grind of show business for
really started to see this character, and
told the West Coast awards audience:
an actress over 40 in LA, a town where
all these pieces, coming together,” says
“We’re always, like, nobody’s gonna like
Adlon judges a woman’s expiration age
Adlon. “But then, when they were seeit. It’s too surreal.”
to be 25.
But Better Things is real. And funny
Adlon will never forget the posting how the season was unfolding, they
as it is, it’s not quite a comedy, either,
pilot conversation with Landgraf. “He
were saying maybe we could do someor even a dramedy. Maybe it’s a tragisaid to me, ‘This is essentially your
thing that’s a little less intense.”
dime. I want you to tell me where you
Adlon and C.K. pulled it off. Their
comedy, connecting through fearless
see this show going, and what stories
flawed heroine, Sam Fox, ended up
writing and Adlon’s credibility as a per12 •
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Paramount Pictures thanks
the Writers Guild of America
for recognizing the work of
the late August Wilson.
HIS WORDS LIVE
DIRECTED BY DENZEL WASHINGTON WRITTEN BY AUGUST WILSON
former. And she has wisely surrounded
herself with exceptional young actors:
in addition to Madison as 16-year-old
daughter Max, there’s Hannah Alligood
as Frankie, 12, and Olivia Edward as
6-year-old Duke.
A surprise casting is puckish English actress Celia Imrie (Adlon’s own
mother is British). Imrie portrays Sam’s
semi-abused mom, Phyllis, with brittle
comic force. “Anything I put into her
mouth she just spins into gold,” Adlon
says about Imrie, the Laurence Olivier
Award-winner playing older than her
years. “I’m like, how do I get a little old
fluff lady to be my mom, and also a formidable scary presence? Celia’sJANET
both.”
And so Better Things adds up to a
clever, moving, and amusing take on
three generations of women who, despite all their quirks, feel more real
than previous TV characters. Anyone
in the audience who can’t identify with
Sam’s endless juggling between career,
damp towels, ungrateful kids, and an
aging parent, will still recognize an exhausted homemaker crawling upstairs
on all fours, too wiped out after getting everyone off to school to engage in
planned sexting with her distant, probably married, lover. But life gets serious
beneath the humor. “Hide things from
me, please,” Sam begs Max in the pilot,
only to have denial turn on her in the
season’s final episode, when her oldest daughter forces her to confront the
question of middle child Frankie’s gender. (An acting exercise could be based
on the infinite inflections—ranging
from disdainful, and disbelieving, to
anguished—that Madison, as Max, can
bestow on the word “mom.”)
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With a nod to her father, Adlon always kept a journal and jotted down
ideas that he called “brain bits.” Segall died more than 20 years ago, but
Adlon still has a board he kept on his office wall with his ideas pinned to
it. It wasn’t until 2006 that she landed a story credit on Lucky Louie, but
it was on Louie that her serious collaboration with C.K. began.
Adlon explains the turnaround:
“Sam is this very savvy, cool mom who
thinks she knows everything, and then
her daughter’s looking at her like, You
idiot. You don’t see what’s right in front of
your face. That was very meaningful to
Louis and me, and the fact that it was
able to translate was
just a huge victory.”
feelings: “I’m actually fine that I’m in a
constant state of agitation.”
With a nod to her father, Adlon always kept a journal and jotted down
ideas that he called “brain bits.” Segall
died more than 20 years ago, but Adlon
still has a board he kept on his office wall
JOYCE
ME, ME, ME
Daughter of the
late writer Don Segall (The Jeffersons,
Who’s the Boss?, The
Love Boat), Adlon
bloomed early, appearing in Little
Darlings and Grease
2 at 16, then playing the boyish Kelly
Affinado in the girls’
school sitcom, The
Facts of Life. For years, the quirky voices she created, often for little boys, gave
Adlon a spectacular career in animation, and a 2002 Outstanding VoiceOver Performance Emmy for her work
on King of the Hill. Cable viewers came
to love her fearlessness playing C.K.’s
blunt-spoken wife on Lucky Louie.
And later yet, on the groundbreaking
Louie, she was his
neurotic, occasional
girlfriend, Pamela.
Perhaps the best
ever scene of unrequited love, written
and performed by
Adlon and C.K.,
happened on the
“Pamela, Part 3,”
episode, in which
Louie declares his
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2017
with his ideas pinned to it. It wasn’t until
2006 that she landed a story credit on
Lucky Louie, but it was on Louie that her
serious collaboration with C.K. began.
The pair’s creative chemistry is undeniable. “Louis and I have a kind of language that’s very different, and unique
to us,” Adlon says.
After snagging his FX production
deal in December 2013, C.K. pitched
an Adlon show to Landgraf. But Adlon,
still playing Marcy on Californication,
and writing, producing, and appearing on Louie, was cautious. “I was like,
Oh, my God. I have three daughters that
I’m raising on my own. When can I get to
this? Then Louis was, like, ‘Okay, time’s
tickin’. Let’s get going.’ ”
She mulled over concepts, but
couldn’t get excited. “Because it was
about me,” she says. “It was difficult for
FOCUS FEATURES
SALUTES
THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA
AND PROUDLY CONGRATULATES
TOM FORD
ON HIS
WRITERS GUILD AWARD NOMINATION
FOR BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
© 2016 FADE TO BLACK PRODUCTIONS, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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“Louis told me to just keep writing, and not think about story right
now. Just keep going with situations, because it’s a very fractured
existence when you’re a single mom. I always thought that if I had
a tagline for my life, or my series, it would be ‘life is what happens
to you when you’re too busy to make any other plans.’”
me to find a voice for myself, because
I’ve played so many different characters
for so many years, including animation.
It’s very easy to embody different things,
and say, What is this squirrel? Or, What
is this space enema? Then to be actually
playing a version of myself was tricky.”
Adlon tried to create a lead who was
completely different from herself. But
that didn’t work, either. “I realized, at
the end of the day, the raw bones of my
life was the story I wanted to tell. There
came the time when I thought I needed
to start writing and culling all the years
of material that I inadvertently had
[gathered].”
With C.K. working in New York and
Adlon in LA, they emailed ideas to each
other with a skull-and-crossbones in the
subject line, indicating “do not open”
until they could read together on Skype
or Facebook. Chupack and Fattore each
wrote an episode, but there was no literal writers’ room.
In the past, Adlon had given C.K.
acting pointers. Now he advised her. “I
would try to write to story, and then I
would get caught up,” Adlon remembers. “Louis told me to just keep writing, and not think about story right
now. Just keep going with situations, because it’s a very fractured existence when
you’re a single mom. I always thought
that if I had a tagline for my life, or my
series, it would be ‘life is what happens
to you when you’re too busy to make
any other plans,’ you know. That’s just
the way it is.”
And so in Better Things, stories happen in bits and pieces: vignettes with no
obvious storylines, punch lines, or transitions, but more free-form odes to a
scatty kind of motherhood with themes
that, instead of nudging the audience,
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emerge through subtext. There might
be an image of Sam hauling a cooler to
soccer practice on a sweltering day, or
thumping a heavy suitcase downstairs
while a lazy teen ignores a request for
help. “I love seeing things visually like
that, and not being told when to react,”
says Adlon. “Letting people settle into
the story that’s unfolding.”
Moments of Sam’s selfishness are left
hanging: standing her mother up over a
promised birthday trip; being too busy
to acknowledge middle child Frankie’s
pleas to not be ignored. Yet there are
others of warmth and love: Sam and
the younger girls giving up candy to
stay home on Halloween and support a
heartbroken Max.
That “Scary Fun” episode was the
hardest for Adlon to write. It put her
not at odds with C.K., she says, but
disagreeing with him when he found it
scattered. He rewrote it, only to have her
stick to her original, while still in love
with his ending.
“Not going trick-or-treating after all
was a beautiful end sequence that Louis
felt strongly about. He was writing out
that last beat, and he was crying when
he was writing it, and it turned out to be
my favorite thing,” she says.
SAFETY NET
Showrunning, as well as writing and
starring in Better Things, and directing
two episodes, led to a “massive” Season One learning curve, Adlon admits.
“What I figured out during this whole
process is that people feel safe when
somebody can make a decision and say,
‘It doesn’t have to be this complicated.
It doesn’t have to be a committee of 50
people on an email chain.’”
With authenticity crucial to Adlon,
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she brought art from her own home
and items from her daughters’ rooms
into the Altadena house where Better
Things shoots. She chose her own kids’
clothing, too, for her TV daughters to
wear. “I said to my costume supervisor,
‘I don’t want the girls to wear anything
new. I want you to shop at only thrift
stores, and vintage stores.’ And for me,
I just bring in a lot of my own clothes.”
In the pilot she even wore a bulky green
cardigan that belonged to her father.
“It’s fun that I was able to do that, because it’s my shit.”
Being firm about incorporating fragments of her own life into that of her
fictional family doesn’t mean Adlon is
rigid. The opposite is true: her writing
method includes staying fluid.
“The way that I learned when Louis
and I were collaborating for years, on
Louie and before Louie, it’s like you can
have a whole season of scripts locked
and ready to go, and then you walk out
on the street, and you take your daughter to soccer, and you realize, Oh my
God, I have to tell the story of this thing
that happened to me today.”
Since she doesn’t want to give away
anything too personal, Adlon won’t
elaborate on what might have happened
to shift her focus during the season.
“You just throw out three scripts,” she
explains, “because something new happened that’s way more inspiring to you
than something you may have come up
with and executed.”
At times like that, Adlon thinks,
writing can be awesome. “Sometimes
it’s very awesome. And sometimes it’s
the most painful thing in the world. I
believe it’s like working out. If you’re
exercising, and you’re in a regimen,
and you do it consistently, you’re not
going, ‘Come on. Get going!’ But if
you let it go for a long period of time,
it’s almost impossible to get started.
It’s painful. It’s physically painful. And
you’ve got to just sit there and work
through the pain. My dad used to always say that if you write one sentence
every day, at least a sentence, you’ve
written something. But don’t let a day
go by without writing.”
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/ VARIETY
LOCATION, LOCATION
Written by Peter Hanson
DEPARTURE
HOW ERIC HEISSERER CHANGED COURSE TO ARRIVAL
I
n the cerebral sci-fi film Arrival, the US government recruits a linguist named Louise Banks,
played by Amy Adams, to translate messages
from alien visitors. What ensues is not only a
thriller but also a meditation on the profound
question of whether we would live our lives the
same way with the gift—or burden—of awareness
about our future.
Based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by
Ted Chiang, Arrival was adapted by Eric Heisserer,
who notched his first credit with the 2010 remake
of A Nightmare on Elm Street and has worked consistently in genre films ever since. Heisserer, who is
also an executive producer on Arrival, discovered
the source material a decade ago, and estimates that
he wrote nearly 100 drafts. “If I went and found
the actual number,” he says, “I’d have to have my
therapist on speed-dial.”
The story unfolds in parallel timelines, with the
nature of the connection between the timelines
kept secret until the ending. Moreover, two principal characters—the alien visitors—communicate
via complex visual patterns, so most of the film
depicts the heroine’s attempts to decipher code.
Heisserer counts the moment when Louise first
diagrams an alien sentence as his most significant
narrative contribution.
“The biggest craft challenge for me was integrating the time-fugue moments, the scenes between Louise and [her daughter] Hannah, with the
present-day storyline,” Heisserer says. “Unlike the
short story, which doesn’t need to be anchored in
transitions, it was vital in the film for us to understand why and when these things were happening
to Louise. That was where I did the biggest amount
of heavy lifting, to make sure the moments felt justified and contextually right.”
That Heisserer uses words like “logarithmic” to
describe the progression of story events in Arrival
reveals how deeply the scientific process informed
his work. “I felt like the best way to respect the material was to apply some of those same principles to
the writing,” he says. “When I got stuck and I needed inspiration, I wouldn’t go and watch Contact
or Close Encounters; I would watch documentaries
[about scientists]. The more I filled my head with
the documentarian’s approach, the better the writing became. Having read and re-read Ted’s source
material also helped. It allowed me to feel comfortable talking about things like Fermat’s principle of
least time. The only danger was to prevent my script
from feeling like a TED Talk manuscript.”
Connecting with emotions was key. Reading
Chiang’s story for the first time “uplifted me and
broke my heart at the same time,” Heisserer says,
“so I thought, ‘God, can I find a way to lift this
feeling and transplant it into a film?’” Originally,
Heisserer connected to the short story’s perspective
on motherhood, but living with the material for so
long has revealed other dimensions. “A new theme
has seized me by the heart and the throat, which is
how crucial it is we get better at communication,”
he says. “We’re in an age where it’s the easiest [it’s
ever been] to communicate with one another from
across the world—and we are fucking terrible at it.
We need to fix that.”
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CONGRATULATIONS
TO OUR NOMINEES AT THE 2017 WRITERS GUILD AWARDS
DRAMA SERIES
WRITTEN BY DAVID BENIOFF, BRYAN COGMAN, DAVE HILL, D.B. WEISS
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OUR WARMEST CONGRATULATIONS TO SUSANNAH GRANT,
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THANK YOU, WGA MEMBERS,
FOR OUR 11 NOMINATIONS AND
FOR YOUR RECOGNITION
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WRITTEN BY JACQUELINE PRIMO
PORTRAITS BY JILLY WENDELL
boy meets girl
MICHAEL AND JOSHUA JACOBS FIND COMMON GROUND IN THE WRITERS’ ROOM.
M
ichael Jacobs can still vividly recall the inciting incident: “It was a nightmare. We were at a vacation
place for a weekend away, and he said to me, ‘I have
an idea for a show…’”
Indeed, every showrunner-father’s worst nightmare. Jacobs sought to snuff out his son’s fantasy: “I don’t want you
to have an idea for a show,” he said to Joshua Jacobs, who was
barely 20 at the time and attending college at Emory University in Atlanta. “I don’t want you to be a writer, I don’t want
you to think about writing. This is not what I want you to be.
Go be an accountant. Go be a rabbi.”
(Ironically, Joshua is considering joining a seminary.)
But since high school he had been tossing around the idea
for this particular episode of Girl Meets World, the Disney
series his father had created three years earlier. “And so as
Josh is pitching me,” remembers Michael, he had to admit
to his son: “You have a great story here, because the conflicts
are all over the place. Not only social, but individual conflicts.” He should know: Michael Jacobs’ other creator credits
include My Two Dads (with Danielle Alexandra), Charles in
Charge (with Barbara Weisberg), Where I Live (with Ehrich
Van Lowe), and Dinosaurs (with Bob Young).
He recognized that the pitch was authentic, emerging
from Joshua’s observations while attending high school in
LA. The story was based on his time volunteering on the
honor board, a panel of students, teachers, and staff judging “criminal cases” of kids who
transgressed the school rules.
Neither father nor son knew
it at the time, but this was the
birth of a Writers Guild of
America
Award-nominated
script, “Girl Meets Commonism,” written by the pair.
You read that right: in the
episode—the third consecutive
WGA Awards nomination for
the Disney Channel children’s
show—the word is not commu-
nism. It’s “commonism.” But like every episode of the earlier
Boy Meets World series, also created by Michael, the episode
tackles more than many kids’ shows would dare, and packs
more wisdom into each roughly 22-minute episode than
should be possible.
DAD MEETS SON … HALFWAY
“Now when Josh pitched this story, it was upsetting on
various levels,” says Michael. “One, it was a good story: he
went right to conflict—he went to personal conflict, he went
to group conflict, it was a story for an ensemble show. His
every instinct was right. But it wasn’t a complete story.”
Michael is talking to Written By during an interview at the
Guild after the announcement of the episode’s WGA Awards
nomination. Father and son, dressed alike in checkered shirts
(although they promised me this wasn’t arranged), sat together and dished about Girl and Boy, bouncing stories off of one
another and finishing each other’s thoughts—it was difficult
for this interviewer to tell which man’s eyes sparkled with a
greater amount of pride for the other.
“Give him the story, let him write it,” Michael continues
about his response to that vacation pitch, “and then let the
staff go to work on it. Which is what we do anyway. Which,
when I think about it, is communist immediately, I guess
…” He pauses to study his son a moment. “And that’s what
I elected to do, which is to say,
you have half a story. But I like
your half a story. It needs help.
Let me think about it.”
The episode’s first scene is
straight from Joshua’s honor
board high school experience.
“It was a judicial system,”
Joshua recalls. “What I didn’t
like was, I didn’t want to be
a judge of humanity. I didn’t
like the idea because expulsion was always a possibility.
If I feel like somebody’s mad
at me, I can’t stop thinking
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about it. I can’t go to sleep. So to be involved in
somebody’s expulsion to me was just not a possibility. But I also wanted to be fair-minded, and I
understand that schools have a code.”
Two students were expelled during his time on
the board, with Joshua the only member objecting
to their expulsions. “Everybody else was pretty much
in agreement. I kept raising my hand.”
In an administrator voice: “Would you please sit
down, Josh!”
“But we’re a school, and a school should be responsible for the growth of its students and not
giving up on them.”
In an administrator’s voice: “But he killed three people!”
Josh again: “I know, but listen!”
Michael, laughing at the performance, is obviously
proud.
While the students facing the honor board typically committed some small infractions, no matter the misconduct,
expulsion always felt too extreme to Joshua. This opened up
the floor for a wider philosophical debate between himself
and the dean of the school.
“I was in a philosophy class that everybody
took. And we were learning Utilitarianism. So
at the same time [the honor board] was happening, I was learning about sacrificing the individual for the sake of the greater good. And I
never really liked Utilitarianism, because I felt,
where’s the value for the individual?”
Soon, Joshua was confronting the person in
charge of the honor board. “We had this philosophical disagreement, one-on-ones in his office. I would say, ‘How could we not give this
person another chance?’ And he would say, ‘Listen, if you’re making me choose between the
individual and the community, I pick community, community, community.’ Which is what
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his job was. He’s overseeing. But for me I thought: What is
our ‘community’ if we don’t care enough about the individual to
help them do better?”
SON MEETS WRITERS’ ROOM
Gradually, Michael realized that “Josh’s pitches were so good and as scripts came in, you know,
my staff looked at me and said, ‘Why are you
denying us this help?’ And I said, ‘Disney’s not
going to put any kid of mine on staff. It’s nepotism. It’s wrong. I’m not doing it.’”
Joshua’s mom came to the rescue. “Finally, it
was his mother [Patti] who commanded that I
put him on staff,” Michael admits. “And I said,
‘I think this is not right.’ And she said, ‘What’s
the worst thing that can happen?’ I said, ‘The
worst thing that can happen is that he thinks this
is easy.’ And the thing Patti said that made the
most sense to me was, ‘Lots of his friends are
going to take a year, two years, travel, gap years.
Why can’t you think of this as the most extraordinary gap year? Plus, you run around every day, grabbing
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Showrunner Michael Jacobs’ wife Patti convinced
him to put their inexperienced son Joshua on the Girl
Meets World writing staff. “The thing Patti said that
made the most sense to me was, ‘Lots of his friends
are going to take a year, two years, travel, gap years.
Why can’t you think of this as the most extraordinary
gap year? Plus, you run around every day, grabbing
your chest, saying you’re having a heart attack, you’re
having a hemorrhage, you’re gonna die. Why not
spend your last year with your son?’”
your chest, saying you’re having a heart attack, you’re having
a hemorrhage, you’re gonna die. Why not spend your last
year with your son?’”
Really? Or a joke? Michael answers, seriously: “‘Honor
Board’ [retitled ‘Commonism’] got him on the staff.”
The staff wouldn’t allow Michael to treat his son any differently than the other writers. They also assured Joshua he
would get the full—and sometimes brutal—writers’ room
experience. “That’s something I was really indebted to,” said
Joshua, who would go on to write more episodes for the
show. “From day one, Matt Nelson turned to me and said,
We’re going to treat you as just another writer on this staff. He
happens to be your father, but we’re not going to spare you from
anything. Which I always appreciated because I always felt
like I was one of the team.”
Co-executive producer Frank Pace remembers that “Michael expected more from his son than he would expect from
other writers. He expects a lot from other writers, don’t get
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me wrong, but he put a lot of weight on what Josh said.
“Michael takes enormous pride in the work Josh does,”
Pace continued. “And I knew he felt an enormous sense of
fulfillment for he and Josh to write the episode together,
and for them together to get that recognition by the Writers
Guild. Michael made it happen and Josh made it pay off for
Michael. It was the best decision Michael could have made,
to have Josh on our staff.”
Joshua was among the younger staff writers on the show,
compared to the original writers of Boy, who had aged along
with the characters—and actors—into adulthood.
Michael recalls the start of the show. “When they announced Girl Meets World, the first thing that happened
was we found out on social media that the audience had
really, really appreciated Boy Meets World. And Josh would
say, You have a responsibility now. Don’t screw this up. You’ve
got a tiny legacy.”
After all, as a boy, Joshua absorbed his father’s Boy Meets
World, learning about life while watching its stories.
GIRL MEETS A CLOSE
With this newly realized responsibility on their shoulders
and an audience of young children and teenagers loyal to the
Disney Channel, as well as the adults who had been loyal to
Boy Meets World, Michael got tougher on the writers when it
came to stories for scripts.
“I think all of the Boy Meets World fans [watched the pilot
of Girl Meets World], and they were expecting a continuation,
but not quite up to the realization that we had these little girls
[in Girl Meets World],” Michael continues. (The main characters on Girl are 12 years old at the beginning of season one.)
“I think we got an audience of over 5 million for the pilot.
And we hung around 2 million. But I think the [viewers]
who left went, Hey, these are little girls. Also the venue that we
were on, at Disney Channel, I think the mandate is for young
shows … And so the directions to the writing staff and to
Josh were always, Let’s come up with storylines that will intrigue
two audiences. We had the great bimodal aspect of [Boy Meets
World characters] Corey and Topanga being their parents,
and then we started bringing in Boy Meets World regulars. We
were able to hold the balance pretty well.”
As for the WGA nomination for “Girl Meets Commonism,” Michael says Joshua insisted they write the episode together. “I realized writing this together would be a wonderful experience for us. And then the kid gets nominated for a
Writers Guild Award. I never got nominated for any of that.
I’ve been doing this for 30 years—nothing!” Michael says
with a laugh, gesturing toward his son beside him.
“It’s his first script,” Michael continues. “So this experience
has been so incredibly wonderful and I think, If we go back to
spirituality, I don’t believe in coincidence. I think it’s magnificent
that he and I were able to do something and that his experience on the staff was, and continues to be, remarkable.”
“It’s a dream come true in so many ways,” Joshua adds. “I
grew up watching Boy Meets World. I really
was impacted by it. For a lot of people it’s a
great show, but for me it was also my dad’s
real advice.”
Joshua turns to face an imagined audience of fans: “Sorry to break it to everybody,
but he was talking to me!”
He resumes: “I very much want to carve
my own path and be my own person, but I
also want to absorb everything I can from
both of my parents, who I’m very fortunate
to be in awe of. To be a part of the continuation of something that so shaped me and to
learn from him on a more professional level,
I can’t be more grateful and appreciative for
that experience. I’ve learned from the best.
And it was great. We had a lot of fun together, too.”
“The most emotional idea in the world,
on a show about the second generation, is
that the second generation joins you,” Michael adds.
Both father and son agree that co-writing “Girl Meets Commonism” and working together on the series has been a great
experience, but it’s all crashing to a close
with Disney’s announcement of the show’s
cancellation.
Michael’s amazed by the timing: “It’s
funny, the show got canceled, we got
nominated for the Writers Guild Award,
the Producers Guild Award, and Matt
[Nelson] got nominated for the Humanitas Prize for ‘The Forgiveness Project’
[episode]. The pure writer is always upset
on cancellation day. Sometimes you expect the call,” Michael confides. “But Girl
Meets World did not deserve cancellation.
The story wasn’t over. However, Disney
Channel is a kids’ network and this cast
outgrew the venue and there is really no
question about it, so I completely understand. These kids shoot up like crazy.”
Michael’s son gets the last word: “When
this all started out, I said to my dad, I really want to be a writer. And he said, ‘You are
not allowed to talk to me about writing anymore. Writers write. Show me a script.’ So I
have to just keep writing. Because I would
like to call myself a writer.”
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WRITTEN BY ERNEST
HARDY
PORTRAITS BY TOM KELLER
Dancing in
Serious
Moonlight
BARRY JENKINS ILLUMINATES
THE LUNAR LANDSCAPE.
I
t’s an overcast day in Los Angeles, the sky’s grayness intermittently giving way to rainfall. During a break in the
weather, 37-year-old writer-director Barry Jenkins sits on
an outdoor patio of the Four Seasons Hotel, clutching
a cup of hot tea and thoughtfully dissecting his approach to
making the critically acclaimed Moonlight.
After his Medicine for Melancholy feature debut in 2008—a
well-regarded but little seen film about a one-night stand that
turns into a weekend of witty banter and philosophical musing
while measuring the toll of gentrification on San Francisco’s
black residents—Jenkins fell off the radar. For a time he made
short films and commercials, wrote almost a dozen screenplays
(including one inspired by the music of Stevie Wonder), and
worked with a loose-knit collective of fellow Bay Area filmmakers. He was paying bills but making minimal headway in
his filmmaking career.
That is, until he received a copy of In Moonlight Black
Boys Look Blue, an unproduced piece by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the celebrated dramatist and Yale School of Drama
playwriting chairperson whose experimental work fuses
mythology, religion, and questions of race and sexuality.
Mutual friends had passed the work to Jenkins, thinking
the similarity in his and McCraney’s backgrounds—though
they’d never met before, they grew up in the same Liberty City, Florida neighborhood, attended the same school,
and both had mothers that battled drug addiction—might
strike a creative chord. It did.
McCraney’s admittedly “very visual” piece isn’t a play, and
was written originally for his 2003 graduate school application.
Nevertheless, Jenkins adapted it into a screenplay, knocking
out a first draft in 10 days while self-exiled in Brussels. The
result is a dazzling coming-of-age film that follows the life of
Little/Chiron/Black (each name/nickname demarcating periods in the lead character’s life) in Miami, told in three chapters
as he navigates his way through poverty, his mother’s crack addiction, his sexuality and homophobic bullies ... and a betrayal
so deep and painful that it alters the course of his life.
The film lays bare Jenkins’ cinematic and literary influences
(he has degrees in both Creative Writing and Film from Florida
State), while marking him as a singular filmmaker whose style
is poetic and achingly insightful.
Two days after the film earned a Writers Guild nomination
for Best Original Screenplay (adding to its bounty of year-end
awards, including Best Picture nods from the National Society
of Film Critics, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars), Jenkins
discussed screenwriting discipline, responsibilities as a filmmaker, and the power of oldies R&B.
Ernest Hardy: In interviews Tarell McCraney has said he put
the work away in frustration after writing it because he couldn’t
figure out how it would be realized onstage or as a film. What did
you see when you read it? What made you think you could make
it work?
Barry Jenkins: You know, it’s funny. It’s been called a play, a
screenplay, a teleplay. I don’t know what the hell it is. I’ve never
read anything that looked like this or that sounded like this. It
could not have been staged. It could not have been filmed. But
it had that thing in it. There was dialogue in it that was piercing. There were visuals in it that were piercing. The original
piece was 45 or 46 pages, and [my] finished script is either 98
or 103 pages, I can’t remember. So they were different but …
You know how you get a jewel that’s really, really heavy because
it’s so dense? It was like that. It was this very small thing that
was super, super dense because it had so much weight. It was a
beautiful process of digging in and pulling out and seeing, This
goes here, that goes there, this goes there, oh, shit—where does that
go? That’s what it was, man.
I do think that if Tarell wrote this, say, two years ago as
opposed to when he did [2003], it would have been a very
different piece. I think it would have been a gorgeous piece of
material, but I don’t think it would have been that dense, core,
gobbledygook of stuff that had all these ingredients that could
lead to Moonlight. It would have been too much its own fully
fleshed out thing. When he wrote it, it was just this beautiful,
undeniable open wound, so to speak, but you had to apply a
structure to it. And then I had to allow my full self to enter it. I
mean, I literally went to the other side of the fucking world to
write this script. I had to get far away from everybody.
What made you choose Brussels to write the script?
So this was five-and-a-half, six years post-Medicine, and my
Plan B had become my Plan A at that point, which is a bit of
a pun since [production company] Plan B ended up becoming
heavily involved with this film. But I’d been making short films
and creating content for commercials in the Bay Area. It was
me and three other filmmakers and we just worked so hard at
it, but since none of us had any business acumen we ended up
working probably four times as hard as someone who knows
how to do those things would. I felt like I needed to get far
away from all that stuff and have nothing to do but focus on
story, character, and scenes. I polled people and asked, “What’s
the most boring place in the world in the summer, in August?”
And everybody said Brussels because everybody who lives there
goes to the coast. My plan was to get my James Baldwin on and
go to Europe to write. I’m not gonna speak the language, not
gonna know anybody. Gonna find a flat on a side street, which
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“On the page, when I’m writing the script, I approach it the same way. The language of constructing the story is me as a writer, as a craftsman, and
it’s housing this authentic language of the neighborhood I grew up in. Yet I’m still presenting it in
a professional sort of craftsman voice that’s been
developed by studying the craft of screenwriting.”
is exactly what I did—a flat on a side street with a bar, a café,
and a menswear store. My whole life was on that block. It was
beautiful. I would wake up with Moonlight and I would go to
sleep with Moonlight, and in-between I would eat, drink, and
shop Moonlight, which is sort of what had to happen. There was
no way to do this without fully inhabiting the main character.
How long did it take you to get a working draft?
The first draft was written in 10 days. Now, the finished
film is not the first draft, but it’s not that drastically different.
Maybe 50, 60 percent [of the final version] was written in
those first 10 days. The finished script differs from the source
material in that Tarell’s piece ended after that phone call in the
third chapter, so you never see Black get into the car and drive
back to Miami. You never see them sit down in the diner. That
stuff didn’t happen. As I’m in Brussels writing, I have this thing
from Tarell that had all these waypoints—I’m obsessed with
aviation—and some of them were very linear. Story two [in
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the film] was very linear even in the source material, story one
not so much, and story three, as I said, just stopped at a certain point. So I have these waypoints, have this outline, and
I’m working very loosely, not super structured. I’m just drinking coffee, drinking whiskey, eating fries—‘cuz it’s Belgium—
drinking coffee, drinking whiskey, eating fries, and working.
Once I get into that third chapter, I’m now working way
past the waypoints. It’s like jazz. I get this Barbara Lewis song
[“Hello, Stranger”] into my head and write it into the screenplay, and I’m going, going, going. Then we get back to Kevin’s
apartment and I wrote that entire scene in one swoop. I remember exactly where I was, exactly what I was drinking—
that was a whiskey night at Lord Byron café, and it was almost
like “pencils down,” like you’re taking a test. I was like, okay,
this is done. And it was scary as fuck because I was like, shit,
what do I do now? So I adapted a book [If Beale Street Could
Talk] by James Baldwin. For the next four weeks that was the
next thing I did.
GOOD HABITS
Are you someone who writes on scraps of paper wherever an
idea hits you, who jumps out of bed at 3 in the morning to get an
idea down, or are you someone who writes largely on a schedule
and gets into a certain headspace and that’s when your juices flow?
I think more the latter. Once I get into a certain headspace is
when the ideas come and I’m most productive. That’s why this
film was written in such a compressed period of time. When
I’m working on something I try to put notes in my phone. I
usually keep a long form, freeform document in—I think the
app is called Scribe? I forget the name of it. I use a technique
when I’m outlining—and I always outline—that is based on
Jessica Bendinger, who wrote Bring It On. She did a guest-post
on John August’s ‘How I Write’ website—I don’t know if I was
in film school or just out of it at the time I read it—and she
had this simple approach to generating a
story outline. It was three beats: the beginning, the middle, the end. And then
you craft the beginning, middle, and
end of the beginning, middle, and end.
And so on. You build the story from all
these mini-stories within the stories. I always do that no matter what project I’m
working on. It’s a very simple thing you
can always do.
The first book I ever read in creative
writing class was Anne Lamott’s Bird
by Bird, and my favorite chapter from
that is “Shitty First Drafts.” So I have
no problem writing a terrible first draft.
I pretty much journal until I get to the
point where I say, Okay, now there needs
to be a first draft of this. And then I plow
through it. But I’m not keeping a scrapbook or anything like that. That just
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17.
JUAN
Good, good. Now... you gotta help
yourself now, gotta move your legs,
keep yourself up.
Juan watching as Little flails his legs beneath the
surface.
Juan laughs.
JUAN
Nah, not like a chicken, you gotta
move 'em side to side like, like
you making waves with your feet.
Juan going into a tread, very smooth, like someone
raised in
the water, born at its edge.
Little taking it to heart, does a passable job of
treading.
JUAN
Not bad, not bad.
(and)
Bet you ain't know you could float,
huh?
Juan taking a hand and placing it under Little's legs,
gently
gesturing him onto his back:
JUAN
Trust me, I got you.
Little laid flat atop the surface now, bobbing with
the
waves.
JUAN
Now just relax, alright, relax.
Little complying -- Little floating, the look on his
face
pure joy. For once, a kid.
See?
JUAN
Juan slowly, gently, easing his grasp, letting Littl
e go:
JUAN
Relax now, stay relaxed. See?
Juan circling as Little continues to bob with the
surface,
swimming around Little for this last part, is circl
ing him.
JUAN
You ready to learn how to swim?
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doesn’t work for me.
“You know how you get a jewel that’s really, really
You wrote Medicine for Melancholy by hand on a notepad.
Is that still how you write?
This is the first script I’ve ever written the first draft of not
by hand. Up to this point, the first draft of everything I’ve
written was by hand, red ink on yellow paper. I don’t know
why. It’s just always been my thing. I’ve written probably 12
features that way. Now, starting with Moonlight, I’m just typing it in. Part of it was my first producer on this project, Adele
Romanski. She was the one who sent me to Brussels to write
and told me, “You know, when you come back you’re not going to have time to transcribe, so just go ahead and type it in.”
And now that I’ve done it I can’t go back. It kills me because
there was something really beautiful about being at the café
and everyone else has a laptop and I’m the only person with
a pen and paper and I’m moving way faster [than they are]
because I’m just whipping through it.
heavy because it’s so dense? It was like that. It was
Novelists and poets often tell younger writers that they must
write a certain number of hours a day, or a certain number of
pages or lines a day. Do you have any such rules for yourself?
Once I’m in the writing phase of something, I do try to
write something every day, seven days a week, even if it’s terrible. I think it’s important to stay in the world of the characters.
It’s more about once you enter that space, you gotta just stay in
it. I don’t have quotas per se. Usually the way it works for me is
I will have two days where I just write a ton, and then on that
third day I get very little done but it’ll be a gut check where I’ll
say to myself, “You kinda got over today, Barry.” Then I try to
hunker down and go back in the next day. I try to end the day
in the middle of a scene, that way when I start back up the next
day I can just get back to work, as opposed to thinking, Oh,
shit, where do I start today?
this very small thing that was super, super dense because it had so much weight. It was a beautiful process of just digging in and pulling out and seeing, This
goes here, that goes there, this goes there, oh, shit—
where does that go? That’s what it was, man.”
A DELIBERATE BALANCE
How do you strike the balance between posing questions,
sketching with ambiguity, and doing justice to characters that have
historically been poorly sketched or underwritten?
Ah, I see where you’re going. I try to push that stuff out
[of mind] as much as I can. I never want to approach a project thinking this is important because X, or this is going to
have meaning because Y. I try to push those things out and
just focus on the character. At the same time, because of the
lack of certain voices, because of the lack of certain characters, there is an added charge. There’s almost this seduction
to say everything about these characters that can possibly be
said in 110 minutes—to tell their whole story when there are
certain things that are unknown to the characters themselves.
By extension those things should be unknown to the audience, especially if you’re making a film that arises from the
consciousness of the main character, as our film does. In some
ways, Moonlight is a first-person piece. It’s meant to be immersive for the audience. It is tough to do the two things at once,
to try and approach this film as I’ve done with quite a bit of my
work, which is asking questions.
Tough? In what way?
I often think that creatively, whether it’s on the page or if I’m on the set
directing, if I’m working toward questions—whether I’m clarifying questions, or whether I’m figuring out what
the question even means—that [process] is going to yield a more satisfying
piece of work. And yet because of the
responsibility created by a lack of certain
images, there is this push and pull to go,
“I can’t depict a black mom if [I portray her] this way because we see so few
black moms in cinema that I now have
to present the most positive version of
that figure as possible. Because if I don’t,
who will?” But that’s not truthful to the
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experience [of Chiron]. So there is
a tension between those two things.
And I will say it’s less seductive on
the page than when you’re on set.
I think on the page I’m pretty rigorous about what the character is
going through, what the movie is
about, and sticking to those things.
Reading the script really underscores the elegance of your use of language. There’s an absence of “ums,”
“likes,” and assorted linguistic placeholders that pepper the way most
Americans speak now, and are often
used heavy-handedly to establish authenticity in screenplays. Yet you absolutely captured the music and poetry
of the way many black people talk. Was that approach a conscious
thing, or a carryover from the source material?
I don’t know if it’s conscious. I think it’s where my voice—
speaking purely in craft terms about my voice—has landed.
You could say the same thing about the visuals onscreen. It’s a
very black film set in this impoverished inner city, and yet the
aesthetics of the film, one could say, are very art house. Know
what I mean? And typically you think those sorts of things [art
house aesthetics and inner-city poor black realities] clash, run
counter to one another. But I think because I’ve authentically
arrived at both voices they go together very well. It’s a very fluid
pairing. I think on the page, when I’m writing the script, I approach it the same way. The language of constructing the story
is me as a writer, as a craftsman. And it’s housing this authentic
language of the neighborhood I grew up in. Yet I’m still presenting it in a professional sort of craftsman voice that’s been
developed by studying the craft of screenwriting.
What would your professors say if they read your scripts today?
If my old professors read my Moonlight screenplay they’d
say, “I can’t see that, why is it in the script?” Well, the actor can
see it. Like at the end of the scene where Kevin first calls Black.
At the end of that scene, in the script—I’m paraphrasing—it
says, “Black hangs up the phone, sits on the edge of the bed
despondent, looks at his phone screen, lies on his back, five
minutes twenty-six seconds, dot-dot-dot, a lifetime.” Now, I
can’t film all that, but when I’m on set, the actor has read it.
So Trevante Rhodes hangs up the phone, sits on the bed, puts
the phone against his head, he’s rubbing the phone against his
forehead, he lays back, looks at the screen, and the phone drops
to his chest. That’s how, through concrete imagery, you’re revealing the interior of the character to the actor, and the actor
can perform and externalize it onscreen without resorting to
voiceover—which I’m a fan of but I try not to lean on.
Who are some of your favorite authors or poets, and do you see
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any of their influence in your own writing style?
Baldwin, absolutely. His non-fiction is just searing and
powerful and has as much of his artist’s voice as his fiction.
I feel like when I’m writing a screenplay, I am trying to create language that—well, not that can stand up to the language
in Mr. Baldwin’s work, but I don’t think a screenplay is just
a blueprint. I mean, you can’t have all this purple prose in it
either. Film is a very difficult medium to translate interiority if
you’re not using voiceover. The way I was taught screenwriting
was that it’s a blueprint; don’t put anything into a screenplay
that cannot be seen or heard. However, there’s gotta be a way
to get at the interiority of these people without going to this
place where you’re falsely projecting what’s inside their head.
When you read some of the best literature, when you read
Faulkner, when you read James Baldwin, when you read some
Hemingway—like The Sun Also Rises—you’re getting into the
interior of characters in concrete terms, in concrete metaphors.
I would say those three for sure have had the biggest influence,
especially since I was studying it all at the same time—writing
workshops, English Literature, and film school. All that stuff
was sort of swirling around and I think it ended up affecting
the way I approach a script.
STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET
In Moonlight, silence itself is a kind of text. What is actually on
the page in those moments when there is no dialogue, when sound
is muted or drops out?
There’s a scene in Moonlight’s first story where the kids are
wrestling in the field, and it’s written in such concrete language
that you don’t even get the idea of silence when you read the
script because it’s not like you’re reading and suddenly there’s
half a page of white space. There are things transpiring in that
silence, emotions that are changing in the space of that silence.
I try to write the film so that the person reading it can see the
movie. I never indicate a camera, ever. I got beat over the head
too many times in screenwriting class to ever go back on that.
“I try to write the film so that the person reading it
and so warm, and that’s what that song meant to me.
can see the movie. I never indicate a camera, ever.
Chiron is the fusion of you and Tarell, and you two navigated
your ways out of your similar background and became wordsmiths
while Chiron has almost surrendered language. Is that something
you two have talked about or given much thought to?
For sure. I wasn’t always this way, though. I feel like people
who went through what Tarell and I went through, more often than not because of the systemic dynamics of the society
we live in, they end up more like Chiron than they do myself or Tarell. I can just speak viscerally from the experience of
the people we grew up with.
Not everybody can become
the head of the playwriting
program at the Yale School of
Drama [as Tarell now is]. Not
everybody who comes from
the world of Chiron is going
to sit and do an interview with
you at the Four Seasons. There
was a point in my life where
I could have become more
like Chiron—not like Black in the third
story, but more like Chiron in the second
story, which is to retreat from the world,
to withdraw into myself because as you
express yourself the world tells you, “No,
don’t talk like that. Don’t walk like that.
Don’t look like that.”
These characters originate, but in
merging myself with him into this character, it felt like
that was the personality that kept asserting itself for
Chiron—that withdrawn figure. One of the things I
most love about the finished product is that there are
scenes where Tarell McCraney ends and Barry Jenkins
begins. I think within the character of Chiron those
seams, over the course of writing and making this film,
just became more and more indistinguishable. I think
where we ended up is this place where the character
very fluidly, organically stood apart from us and ultimately becomes himself.
I got beat over the head too many times in screenwriting class to ever go back on that. But I am trying
to write the script in a way that if you are reading
the screenplay you are seeing the film.”
But I am trying to write the script in a way that if you are
reading the screenplay you are seeing the film. It’s writing in
a writer’s voice, not a director’s. It’s a tightrope but I like it. It
keeps me on point.
Often in contemporary film, music is used
to tell the audience what they should feel or to
spackle over shortcomings in the storytelling,
but the music in Moonlight was crucial text.
Can you talk a bit about the music choices,
especially “Hello, Stranger”?
Bruh, we played [the Barbara Lewis
song “Hello, Stranger”] on set. Like, every
time we shot that scene the song is playing
out loud, which you’re not supposed to do.
There’s no dialogue while the song is playing. They’re just looking at each other, it’s
just gestures. Like anyone who’s obsessed with Claire Denis,
I’ve seen 35 Shots of Rum and I know how that Commodores
song [“Nightshift”] in it moves everyone in the auditorium. I
wanted that experience on my set, so it’s written in the screenplay and I’m playing it as we shoot. And I thought, If there’s
a version of the world where we can’t get the rights to the song,
fine, we’ll find something else. However, I wrote the script with
this song in mind because of the feeling I have connected to
it from my time in San Francisco where I first heard it played
on a vinyl 45. When the producers watch dailies they’re gonna
hear this song over and over again. They’re gonna know what it
means to me. That feeling of the music as it’s embedded in the
film I wanted embedded in the script.
I wanted to create this space where here’s this guy just wanting to be vulnerable. He’s yearning for someone to just tell him
that he is okay. Trying to pair music with that, there could be a
song where the violin is playing and tugging at the heartstrings,
but I wanted something that a) existed in the real world, that
I had a connection to and other people in the audience might
have a connection to, and b) that would acknowledge the intimacy but wasn’t aggressive about asserting it. She’s got a very
powerful voice, Barbara Lewis does, but man it’s so gentle.
Kevin, especially as played by Andre Holland, is such a charming presence. He talks so much, and yet is so gentle, so kind
Ernest Hardy’s criticism has appeared in The New York
Times, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles
Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats
Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions was a recipient
of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award. Blood Beats Vol.
2: The Bootleg Joints, was published in February 2008. He has
written liner notes for Chuck D Presents Louder than a Bomb;
Curtis Mayfield: Gospel; Chet Baker: Career 1952-1988; and
the box-sets Love, Luther; Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black
Music in America; and Superstars of Seventies Soul, among others. His short story, “Cold & Wet Tired You Bet” appears in
Best Gay Stories 2011 (Lethe Press).
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SPACE
ODYSSEY
Allison Schroeder’s career trajectory
goes into orbit with Hidden Figures.
WRITTEN BY LOUISE FARR
PHOTOS BY JILLY WENDELL
O
ne day in 2014, Allison Schroeder was complaining
to her manager about sexism on a shoot she was running. A gaffer had glanced at her and suggested she
take a film class to learn how to manage a set. “Because then we
could take your ideas seriously,” he’d said. Schroeder’s supposed
error? She knew that some gaffers aspire to become directors of
photography, so when the second unit camera operator couldn’t
be found, she had offered the DP role to this ingrate. An angry
Schroeder, who has a USC master’s degree in film production,
kept griping until finally her manager got a word in. “I have
some good news,” he said. Producer Donna Gigliotti wanted her
to write Hidden Figures, about the unheralded female AfricanAmerican mathematicians instrumental in lifting the NASA
space program off the ground in the segregated 1960s.
Being a white female screenwriter in 21st century Hollywood hardly equates with the racism and sexism heaped upon
black women in the era of Jim Crow, or even now. As co-chair
of the WGAW Diversity Department’s Women Writers Committee, Schroeder is well aware of that. Still, she identifies with
those women whose contributions society ignored for so long.
“I felt like we could have been friends, or they would have
been my mentors,” she says, about Katherine Johnson (played
in the film by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia
Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Against enormous odds, the women broke ground in their fields, helping
America compete in the space race with Russia: John Glenn
relied on Johnson’s computations before becoming the first
US astronaut to orbit the earth; Vaughan became NASA’s
first black supervisor after having the foresight to teach herself
Fortran computer language; and Jackson became NASA’s first
black aeronautical engineer, possibly the only one in the country, after fighting to attend an all-white school.
“They’re the type of women I aspire to be,” says Schroeder.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in the West Hollywood apartment Schroeder shares with her husband, TV writer Aaron
Brownstein. Dressed in a striped T-shirt and comfy pants, her
long hair in a ponytail, she is perched on a dining area chair. A
doughnut cushion is in place to ease pressure on the tailbone
she broke recently while giving birth. When the call came in
that she and Theodore Melfi had been nominated for a WGA
Adapted Screenplay Award, she was anxiously awaiting test results that would tell her if baby Emily was healthy or sick. The
good news: she is fine. And Schroeder has since been nominated for BAFTA and Academy Awards.
But today, Schroeder has been up since 3 a.m. with her
beautiful, but fussing, seven-week-old, now burbling happily
in the background while her mother gamely answers questions.
“This is what a feminist looks like: very, very tired,” jokes
Schroeder, who has already done one interview this morning,
has another scheduled for later this afternoon, and, as if that’s
not enough, she’ll trundle down to Fox tonight for a Q&A ac-
companying the latest Hidden Figures screening. With the inspirational movie gathering box office and awards steam, and
with five projects pending and an important pitch meeting
next week, Schroeder has given up trying to write during the
day, which is now reserved for emails, phone calls, and press.
At night, she starts writing at 11 p.m. and works until three or
four in the morning.
“But I can’t imagine not being part of this story,” she emphasizes. “I’ve been writing scripts about strong women for a
long time, and they either don’t get bought, or they get drastically changed. So this is my dream coming true.” Then she
hesitates. “I know that sounds cheesy.”
No, it doesn’t. Not when you’re talking to a writer who, a
few years back, sat through 44 pitch meetings—and 44 rejections—before succeeding with her 45th: a proposal for Side
Effects, a musical about a mixed-race family, starring a teenage
girl struggling with depression. Shot in two parts, it landed on
YouTube’s Awesomeness TV (the online channel later bought
by DreamWorks). “All those jobs I didn’t get, wouldn’t have
led to Hidden Figures,” says Schroeder.
Despite having been pigeonholed as a teen writer, in retrospect it becomes clear that Schroeder, who wrote Mean
Girls 2, and was a staff writer on 90210, was a natural for the
film, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s now best-selling Hidden Figures book. In a prescient move, after reading Shetterly’s
55-page book proposal, the Oscar, BAFTA, and Independent
Spirit Award-winning Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love, Silver
Linings Playbook) scooped the project up for her New Yorkbased Levantine Films.
It was Schroeder’s spec script, Agatha, an imagined account
of 11 days in 1926 when famed mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared, that led Gigliotti to speak with her. Wincing, she recounts Gigliotti’s version of the conversation, which
Schroeder doesn’t recall. “She says that I said, ‘I was born to
write this! You have to hire me!’ And she said, ‘Oh, Lord, these
Hollywood writers.’”
“Cheesy,” Schroeder says again, about her plea.
NASA BABY
But Schroeder was born to write it. She had grown up in
Florida, near Cape Canaveral. Her grandfather worked on
the Mercury space capsule, her grandmother was a NASA
programmer, and she interned at NASA throughout high
school. Later, while an economics major at Stanford, Schroeder worked for a missile launch company. Digging down, her
backstory gets even better.
“I grew up visiting my grandmother at the vertical assembly
building,” she told Gigliotti. “I’d been in the original mission
control, and played on the prototype. They used to time our fire
drills at Gemini Elementary so that we could go outside and get
to look in the sky and see the missile launches.”
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WOMAN POWER
I
f female solidarity is a major theme in the film, it was also the catalyst that drew Schroeder, her Stanford friend Elizabeth Martin, and
Martin’s writing partner, Lauren Hynek, to their first Guild women’s
committee meeting. The three were already acting as a support group
and reading each other’s work a few years ago, but as feature writers they
still felt isolated. “We said, ‘Let’s go and find a community,’” remembers
Schroeder. When someone suggested the trio create a sub-committee to
make changes leading to more work for women, they jumped in.
After brainstorming with the committee, for one project they invited
writers to submit pilots for peer review. The top seven or eight received
one-on-one meetings with showrunners. They also held “how to pitch”
events. And in a twist on speed-dating in 2015 and 2016, in association
with the Alliance of Women Directors, they got female directors together
with female writers who had finished scripts. The idea: team up to create a package. A number of teams were formed through the meetings.
Last year, Schroeder and Martin became Committee of Women Writers
co-chairs, with Hynek as vice-chair.
Schroeder’s theory behind their strategy? “A director, or a studio, or
whoever, has a hard time saying, ‘There’s just no women writers,’ when
they’re surrounded by 50 of them. So it’s just been a lot of how to get
women working, and women working with other women. Essentially, the
point is to make people aware of the problem, and get people in the room
together so you can bypass the middle man.”
When the Guild was invited to the 2016 White House United State of
Women Summit, Schroeder attended, as did Diversity Committee chair
Glen Mazzara (“a huge advocate for women,” Schroeder points out). Appearing with a panel of other women writers, she spoke about Hidden
Figures and the Guild’s efforts to try and change the image of women
on screen. The WGAW has also teamed with the DGA, Google, and The
Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media to address unconscious bias
in the television industry. “Things you don’t even realize you’re thinking,
and evolutionary things, and how we have to retrain our brains to look
beyond our stereotypes, instinctual racism, and judgments of people,”
explains Schroeder.
This year, for Women’s History Month, the women’s committee has
created a video in which female writers talk about the biggest obstacles they have overcome in their careers. “I think we need to talk
about the struggle,” says Schroeder. “Because if we just pretend it’s an
easy road—that’s not actually helping other women. But when you hear
someone else describe a struggle you’ve also faced, you think, Oh, it’s
not just me. If they could overcome it, I can overcome it.”
The entertainment business is sometimes impossibly difficult, Schroeder admits. “There was never a time when I thought I’d give up,” she
says of her own career, “but there were definitely times when I cried
pathetic tears.” Often tears of frustration. Once she pitched a psychological thriller, with two female leads. “We love it,” executives told her,
“can they both be men?” Schroeder’s answer? No.
—Louise Farr
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An early memory is of the devastating day in 1986
when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing its seven crew members. “They couldn’t find
the cabin right after the explosion,” Schroeder
says. “I actually thought I could find it, and find
them alive, because I was young and believed in
the best. And so my friends and I got on our bicycles, and we searched all the vacant lots, convinced we could save the astronauts.”
Another early memory is of the devastating day in
1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded,
killing its seven crew members. “They couldn’t find the
cabin right after the explosion,” Schroeder says. “I actually thought I could find it, and find them alive, because
I was young and believed in the best. And so my friends
and I got on our bicycles, and we searched all the vacant
lots, convinced we could save them.”
There was more, since Schroeder had written unsold
pilots about NASA and the Manhattan Project. Her
background was perfect. But Gigliotti had an important
question: How would Schroeder make math exciting?
After reading Shetterly’s book proposal, Schroeder
had zeroed in on the stories of Johnson, Vaughan, and
Jackson. And she knew that John Glenn had refused to
launch into space without Johnson’s okay. “Have the girl
run me the numbers,” he’d said.
“You see her frantically crunching numbers as the
countdown’s clicking down, then racing into the control
room. And she’s not allowed in, of course, because they
wouldn’t let her. And at the last second, she finally gets to
be in the room,” Schroeder told Gigliotti.
“Okay,” she remembers Gigliotti saying. “That’s exciting.”
In the same conversation, Schroeder pitched the idea
of switching the iconic image of men on sliders working underneath capsule engines to a woman in a skirt
and pumps, the prim mid-century dress code for female
workers. That made it into her draft, though in the film,
the shot is of Vaughan under the engine of her ’57 Chevy.
“One of my favorite visuals,” says Schroeder.
Once she landed the job, she conferred with author
Shetterly, who emptied her research files for Schroeder.
“Literally, we were looking at YouTube punch card videos, so that we could understand the [computer] programming,” remembers Schroeder, who spent four weeks
on research, then 12 weeks on her first draft.
“It was just doing the research up front, knowing each of the
characters’ thought points that needed to be hit, and then shuffling them around to intertwine them. Structure is ingrained
enough in me that I can just sit down and write a little more
free-form, to discover as I’m going. I really try to hit the point
of attack midpoint at the end of act two, so that’s something I
stick with pretty solidly.”
Initially, Schroeder suggested covering a 40-year span in
the film.
“Donna was, like, ‘All right, lady. Do you know how many
vintage cars I’d have to get to cover that time period?’ So we
just kind of kept shifting, and then there came a point where
she said, ‘Okay, you’ve got the math, you’ve got the science.
Now go have fun.’ And that was one of the best notes I’ve ever
gotten in my career.”
Among Schroeder’s additions: the women getting tipsy together; dancing at a house party; and ogling the handsome
astronauts. In other scenes, Vaughan talks to an enormous IBM computer, and Johnson speaks up at a
Pentagon meeting. “I think the script went out in the
summer, and we were in pre-production in December.”
Of course, not everything in the film was based
on Shetterly’s research. “I could draw from my own
experiences as a woman,” says Schroeder. In one powerful scene, Jackson finally arrives in the previously
segregated classroom she has fought to enter. Says
the professor about his course, filled with white men:
“This isn’t designed to teach a woman.”
A similar slap in the face happened to Schroeder
when she was enrolled in an Oxford, England international economics trade tutorial. Her response became Jackson’s in Hidden Figures: “You teach it like
you teach a man.” Schroeder offers a sly smile. The
Oxford professor’s attitude changed, she says, after she
turned in her first paper.
On a more positive side, she wanted to reveal that
the black women mathematicians of NASA (referred
to as “colored computers”) shared the kind of supportive female friendships she enjoys today. Scene
after scene shows them looking out for each other.
They carpool so as not to have to sit in the back of the
bus. They join a mass march through the NASA corridors in their high heels. And they look on in solidarity as the gum-chewing composite character of Space
Task Group head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) takes a
hammer to the “colored” sign over the black women’s
bathroom: this was Schroeder’s invented Hollywood
reward for an audience that’s suffered along with
Johnson, watching her make a regular half-mile trot
from her white workplace to the run-down restroom
reserved for black women.
To Schroeder’s delight, the Hidden Figures budget
rose after Ted Melfi signed on as director: “We went from being an indie film to, not a huge film, but a studio film, so
suddenly we could go into space. He added a lot of the astronauts, and the parades, and all the things that Donna’s like,
‘We don’t have the budget.’ So, in my draft, it was always on
a TV set that they would be watching a launch. Now in the
final film, they can watch it on a TV set and they can cut to
John Glenn in space, orbiting the earth. Which is obviously,
as we all know, much more cinematic. You feel the gravitas of
the situation.”
SLIPPERY SLOPE?
Maybe Schroeder’s weariness is talking, but after a quick
break for an Emily diaper change, she adds, “I worry: Is it all
downhill from here?”
Perhaps anyone would wonder if a future project could
top Hidden Figures’ surprise success. By most standards, no
matter how inspirational, a movie about mathematics, with
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WRITTEN BY PETER HANSON
PHOTOS BY JILLY WENDELL
SPACE RACE
THEODORE MELFI FINDS THE LIGHT
IN DARKNESS TO REVEAL HIDDEN FIGURES.
“When I started the film, I was scared,” recalls Theodore
Melfi, the director and co-writer, with Allison Schroeder, of
Hidden Figures. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same name, Hidden Figures celebrates the
African-American women whose mathematical wizardry was
crucial to the success of the Mercury space missions during
the 1960s, a time of rampant racism and sexism.
Melfi’s fear emanated from the incongruity of a white
filmmaker being the vessel for an important but previously
unheralded chapter of African-American history.
“I was like, ‘What do I have to offer?’ But I was so moved
by the story, I had no choice. Then I said to myself, ‘I have
plenty to offer. I grew up dirt-poor. My mom was a single
mom. I ate government cheese. I understand struggling.’”
What Melfi didn’t fully comprehend was the scope of
white privilege. “I didn’t really get that until I was at an airport with [Hidden Figures actress] Octavia Spencer about two
months ago,” he says. “We were in London. We had just done
a BAFTA screening, and we were at the first-class lounge. Octavia was there with her stylist, Val. I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got to
get something at the duty-free shop.’ I was gone for about a
half an hour. When I came back to the lounge, I walked up
to Octavia and Val, and they had not been served yet. Not a
damn thing. And the moment I walked in, the server came
running up to me and said, ‘What can I get you, sir?’
“At that moment, I looked at Octavia’s face, and she said,
‘You see?’
“That’s the first time I really kind of got it. As a white
male, it’s privilege that you’re not even aware of, regardless
of where you come from. That deeply impacted me, and it’ll
deeply impact every decision I make going forward—about
the films I make, the people I choose to work with, the people I hire. Inclusion and diversity can’t just be buzzwords.
They are responsibilities.”
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DR. FEELGOOD
Starring Taraji P. Henson, singer/actress Janelle Monáe,
and Spencer—who receive support from Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons—Hidden Figures has
emerged as the feel-good hit of this awards season. Melfi
accepts the designation proudly. “I think a feel-good movie
gives the audience hope to take home,” he says. “They’re taking home the thought that if that character can do it, they can
do it too. People are hungry for hope, especially this past year,
when we’ve realized maybe the country is a lot more divided
than we thought.”
Melfi’s dedication to uplifting entertainment extends beyond Hidden Figures. By way of explanation, he discusses his
breakthrough, the quirky dramedy St. Vincent (2014). “If
you’re looking at St. Vincent,” Melfi explains, “Bill Murray
plays a drunk gambler. He’s not a great guy, but he discovers a
friendship with a little boy that shows him his value, and they
get to laugh and enjoy life together. In Hidden Figures, you
can laugh in a film that has unspeakable things happening,
and yet you don’t feel preached to. You feel inspired. You feel
light. I think comedy is the way to open the human heart, in
order for that heart to receive a real message.
“The core thing for me,” he adds, “is finding the light in
darkness.”
Ironically, the fact that Melfi achieved his goal of making a
positive movie that touches audiences has created unexpected
challenges. He spoke by phone with Written By from the center of the awards-season storm, navigating a hectic schedule
of interviews, personal appearances, Q&As, and screenings,
even as he explores new opportunities—the success of Hidden Figures has not gone unnoticed by the Hollywood community.
“The biggest benefit I see is people actually return my
emails now,” he says. “People I’ve called for years on end—
“I wanted 40 percent space [program], 60 percent
home life. I took a mathematical approach to the rescripting. I note-carded every character, and every
character’s trajectory. Then I made cards for NASA and
what they were going through, and each mission. I
just kind of shuffled and juggled. The last third of the
film, thankfully, we knew—each one of these launches
is archived verbatim.”
who would never return my calls—all of a sudden call me.
It’s a fascinating business in that regard, and you’ve just got
to stay on the ground. If you’re not on the ground, I think
your stories suffer. You start getting out of touch with what is
human and what’s really happening in the world.”
Nonetheless, Melfi scoffs at suggestions he’s finally “arrived” in the business. “Looking from the outside, people
might think so,” he says, “but I don’t have a satisfied bone
in my body. I don’t know if it’s a poor man’s mentality, but I
think all writers and directors have a fear that on any given
day, your stuff isn’t good enough anymore—so I guess that
keeps me motivated, keeps me moving.”
TWO ROADS DIVERGED
An unlikely path brought Melfi to his current success.
He grew up in Brooklyn, where a father he describes as
“abusive” made a meager living by operating a small newspaper. Although Melfi contributed to the paper for years,
beginning when he was just eight years old, he didn’t envision writing professionally. (“I never knew writing was
something you could do and get paid for,” he says.) After
the family relocated to Missouri, Melfi’s father abandoned
the household, leaving Melfi’s mother responsible for Theodore and his two brothers. Following high school, Melfi
explored a number of possible careers, earning degrees in
architecture and psychology. Yet he couldn’t shake his lifelong interest in storytelling, so he cut short the pursuit of
a third degree—a Master’s in Psychology—and moved to
Los Angeles in the mid-’90s.
Through a lean period of crashing with friends and working in restaurants, he took acting classes to learn how to communicate with performers, and he pounded out scripts that
went nowhere. Eventually, he met a producer who needed
help with a project, so Melfi cold-called investors and found
the backing for an indie called Park Day (1998).
A year later, he put financing together for his directorial debut, Winding Roads (1999), which he co-wrote with his wife,
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Kimberly Quinn, whom he’d met in an acting class. “From
then on, I [produced] about nine films like that, and then
my wife said, ‘This doesn’t cut it—you’ve got to start making
a living.’ I’d make 20 grand a year, [because] the business was
designed to never pay anyone a back end at that budget level.”
Quinn suggested Melfi pursue work directing commercials. “I got lucky right away with a spec commercial for
MTV starring Ron Jeremy. The next thing you know, it was
eight years of commercial directing—and finally making a
living. Then I decided to get back to my first love: writing.”
His script St. Vincent landed on the 2011 Black List and
Jack Nicholson briefly flirted with playing the title role before
Murray signed on. What began as a personal project soon became a $13 million feature. The buzz around St. Vincent raised
Melfi’s profile as a screenwriter, landing him jobs including a
remake of the 1979 comedy Going in Style. (Directed by Zach
Braff, the picture hits theaters later this year.) St. Vincent also
put him on director lists throughout the industry.
A DOUBLE LIFE
Melfi’s achievements in multiple craft areas raise the question of which has primacy: Is he a writer who also directs, or
vice versa, and how does producing fit into the mix? He says
that everything he does is a means of protecting the stories he
chooses to tell. “I just always wanted to be a writer my whole
life,” he says. “I loved telling stories, I loved reading, I loved
anything to do with narrative. I initially started directing to
get the stuff I wrote out there, to actually see it made. All of
us have so many scripts and thoughts and ideas, and so few
get made that it gets frustrating.”
Acting classes gave Melfi his first opportunities to blend
writing and directing. “In that process,” he recalls, “I got
to work really closely with actors. I was writing scenes,
bringing them in, putting them up, and directing them.
All the actors there kept telling me, ‘This [material] is
great, you should pursue this as a career.’” Making indie
features helped Melfi learn long-form storytelling, but he
says that making ads—often on spec—provided his technical education.
“Once I started directing commercials,” he says, “I
learned everything there was to know about the trade. On a
Friday night, I’d rent the truck myself and go to the equipment house myself, and load up the truck myself, and learn
every piece of equipment. It was a function of just wanting
to tell stories.”
Melfi says his immersive filmmaking experience informs his
ability to balance and compartmentalize the various jobs he
does on movies. “I didn’t see a difference between writing and
directing,” he says. “How they conflict is I have to turn one off
at points. When I do the writing, I don’t write in the screenplay
‘the camera dollies here.’ I don’t try to direct it on paper. I keep
myself as pure as I can. Once the script is in the shape where
it’s possibly going to be shot, I turn the writer switch off and I
just become a director. The story needs to live visually. I break
down the script as if I had never seen it before.”
Expanding on the topic, Melfi says his “reverence” for
both writing and directing explains a noteworthy personal
choice. “I never have and I never will take a ‘film by’ credit,”
he says. “I don’t take that credit because I don’t believe in that
credit. I believe everyone on the set makes the film together.
It’s a community.”
TRACING FIGURES
Prior to Melfi’s involvement in Hidden Figures, producer Donna Gigliotti acquired the rights to Shetterly’s book
(then in proposal form) and commissioned Schroeder to
write the screenplay. When Gigliotti asked Melfi’s reps
about his availability to helm Hidden Figures, he was in the
midst of chasing a high-profile gig: directing Marvel’s impending Spider-Man reboot.
“The [Hidden Figures] call came in on a Friday night, and
Marvel was going to give us an answer about Spider-Man
on Monday,” Melfi recalls.
“I said to my agents, ‘Guys,
my head’s full.’ They said,
‘You have to hear about
this.’”
Intrigued by the historical
facts underpinning the story,
Melfi read the book proposal
and Schroeder’s script over
the weekend. Afterward, he
got other producers involved
and helped present Hidden
Figures to Fox. Once the
project had studio backing,
he commenced rewriting.
“I kept Allison’s structure mostly intact, and I
went to town adding levels
and layers that I wanted to
explore in more depth,” he
says. “I wanted 40 percent
space [program], 60 percent home life. I took a
mathematical approach to the re-scripting. I note-carded
every character, and every character’s trajectory. Then I
made cards for NASA and what they were going through,
and each mission. I just kind of shuffled and juggled. The
last third of the film, thankfully, we knew—each one of
these launches is archived verbatim.”
Although the two screenwriters didn’t work together, they
discussed story concepts. “There was a little interaction [with
Schroeder] here and there, but I just wanted to do my own
thing,” Melfi explains. “To be crude about it, I wanted to
put a masculine touch on the script, because it already had
a feminine touch. I thought combining two voices would
make a great movie.”
By landing the elusive Murray for St. Vincent and by securing the impressive cast of Hidden Figures, Melfi appears to
have cracked that most difficult of codes: writing movie-star
parts. Yet he rebuffs the notion of deliberately courting important actors. “If you give an actor an honest role,” he says,
“they’ll want to play it, and they’ll know how to play it. When
I showed St. Vincent to Jack Nicholson, he said, ‘This is an
actable piece.’ I spent a lot of time thinking, ‘What does that
mean?’ What an ‘actable piece,’ to me, ended up meaning is
that it’s honest and it’s real and it’s raw, and in that you have
heart and humor and pathos and everything you want. If you
look at the movies that are out this year, you’ll find honest
work. You’ll find honest work in Moonlight, honest work in
Manchester by the Sea. I think that’s the key.
“As a writer and as a director,” he continues, “your sole
purpose in life is to make your work for the audience, period.
This business, this work that we do, is not for ourselves, and
it’s not for critics, and it’s not for the Hollywood community.
It’s for the world. I was at a screening [of Hidden Figures] in
Los Angeles, at the back of the theater. The movie ended,
and a black woman—probably in her mid-50s—was walking
down the aisle, crying and crying and crying. I just stopped
her and I said, ‘Are you okay?’ She said yes, and she found out
that I’m the director. I just hugged her. I didn’t know what
else to do. And she goes, ‘This film has given me the strength
to carry on.’”
“Ultimately,” Melfi says, “that is all that matters in this life.
At the end of the day, when we’re all on our deathbeds, we’re
not going to look back and say, ‘I made that really cool, hip
thing that didn’t do anything for anyone.’ We’re going to say,
‘I had some impact on people.’”
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WRITTEN BY PAUL BROWNFIELD
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MERON MENGHISTAB
Making Comedy Great Again
TREVOR NOAH AND HIS WRITERS
TALK ABOUT THE NEW ABNORMAL.
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O
n Sept. 28, 2015, Trevor Noah took
over The Daily Show after Jon Stewart called it quits. By then, Stewart
had been hosting the Comedy Central latenight program for 16 years, giving it franchise status—not to mention primary news
source legitimacy for the million or two
who watched each night. As Noah himself
noted on his first broadcast: “Jon Stewart
was more than just a late-night host. He was
often our voice, our refuge, and in many
ways our political dad.”
There was a punchline, of course: Dad had
abruptly left, and here was Noah, all of 31,
apparently a globally touring comedian. How
nice for him, but what was he doing here?
Painting himself as something like a fifth
or sixth choice to succeed Stewart, Noah
had a nice line that night: “Once more, a
job Americans rejected is now being done by
an immigrant.”
The sarcasm belied what has become a
unique experiment in American comedy:
the transfer of power from a familiar voice
(Stewart’s patter and persona is firmly in
the tradition of the American Jewish comedy canon) to a fresh-faced African millennial. The shift was inevitably jarring, cost
Comedy Central a portion of Stewart’s
faithful following, and, as Donald Trump
for President went from sideshow to main
event, left classic Daily Show progressives
pining for how comedy’s Cronkite might
have consoled them.
A year-and-a-half later, the with Trevor
Noah part of The Daily Show is coming into
focus, not least in the way he’s handled the
Trump-ocalypse. It isn’t doomsday. It’s almost as if Noah’s seen this guy before. The
second week in the anchor chair, Noah did
an incisive segment showing how Trump’s
xenophobic rhetoric and unbridled egotism
sometimes matched him, almost line for
line, with African autocrats and warlords,
from Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabi to South
Africa’s Jacob Zuma.
And so we have arrived at what Noah predicted, more than a year ago: America’s first
African President.
“To understand how I apply my comedy is
to understand how South Africans have dealt
with a country that oppressed them for so
long,” Noah says, sitting in a conference room
at The Daily Show headquarters on 52nd and
11th Avenue in New York. “We couldn’t exist in
a space of outright rage because then as a nation
we would have been wiped out. The military
was controlled, the people were oppressed.”
Noah is the product of an illegal act—
sexual congress between a white man and a
black woman during the era of Apartheid.
His new book, Born a Crime, provides ample
anecdotal evidence of an upbringing circumscribed by the constancy of threats from racial prejudice and violence.
The day before Trump’s inauguration,
Noah and three of his writers—head writer
Zhubin Parang, Dan Amira, and Hallie Haglund—emerged from their offices to discuss the Trump presidency, The Daily Show’s
shifting point of view under Noah, and the
Trump presidency (because after all, what
else was there to talk about?).
Paul Brownfield: Trump is our 45th president. The joke has told itself. What are you guys
talking about in the room?
Trevor Noah: What’s great about the
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room is, because we have so many different minds,
the conversations are generally, “This has never
happened, we’re all gonna die!” “Don’t panic. Man,
this is funny.” That’s the general evolution of every
single conversation, I think.
Zhubin Parang: Once you get through that
layer of terror, everything is still funny. The fact
that’s he’s president has just added this little skin
of fear to it.
Noah: I’m just a firm believer in, Anything
is going to happen anyway. So I do not believe
in stress. I believe many emotions are a choice.
So as much as people fight me on that, I go,
“You choose to be afraid.” It doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t be cautious or wary.
Parang: I think you’re helped, though, by the fact that
you’ve had this experience with this kind of leadership before.
This is new for people who’ve lived in America our whole lives.
It’s a relationship we’re brand new to and terrified of.
Noah: But even in South Africa I wasn’t terrified. It was literally our Trump coming in. It was chaos. We were like, He’s going to destroy the country. But it still wasn’t terrifying. You know
what it was, actually, it’s not the fact that we had that leader,
it’s the fact that we had come from Apartheid. So we were like,
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“What’s the worst that could happen?”
Hallie Haglund: When you already have a fundamental
distrust of government, you can’t distrust it more when a shitty
guy gets elected. Versus me who feels like I’m a freshman in
college realizing what the world is like.
THE DAILY GRIND
Brownfield: When Trevor took over, he was an unknown
commodity to most of the audience. How hard was it to go from
writing for Jon Stewart to serving Trevor Noah’s point of view?
Dan Amira: You learn over
time to slowly adapt to Trevor’s
perspective and to Trevor’s literal way of speaking, which is
different. Jon was a 50-year-old
white Jewish-American. You’re
not any of those things.
Noah: I’m 50.
Amira: We couldn’t make
black jokes with Jon, but we
made a lot of Jewish jokes.
Now we make black jokes, not
Jewish jokes. It’s going through
Trevor’s voice.
Noah: It happened around
the conventions. I realized for
me the process wasn’t working,
in trying to just teach people
how to write for me, because I
don’t want that. What I like is
a room where we are writing together, and I’m the voice. What
we slowly started doing was making it more of a collaborative
writing experience. I can’t be in a space where if I tell you a
joke, now you’re afraid to write it down, because you’re like,
“Can I write this?” I am black. I am African. So if you make a
joke about Africa and it goes the wrong way, I’ll tell you why.
But I don’t want you to be afraid to
try, because then you will never be
writing with me and for me.
Haglund: It’s also so much an issue of getting to know a person on
a one-to-one level. Someone can tell
you how they are, but sometimes it’s
hard to know yourself well enough
to give someone a laundry list. So I
think that’s why the show and the
writing have gotten so much stronger over time, because it becomes so
much easier to write for Trevor once
we know Trevor and we’re not just
assuming.
Parang: It’s especially difficult to
do that when we hit the ground with
only six weeks of preparation before
our first show. Trevor’s been incredibly patient. We had to restructure
the process while we were doing daily
shows. And Trevor, I think, was able
to begin tinkering with the process
as we were doing the shows, which I
think is a lot harder than just being
able to have several months to start
over and do the whole process from scratch.
We had four test shows in six weeks and then
began the show. So a lot of it was like building
a plane while flying it.
Noah: What I liked about the [Republican
and Democrat] conventions was we got out of
the building. Old habits very quickly die. So
now it is a new thing. We’re in front of a new
audience in a new space. Now it was almost
like we went and did a new show, and brought
that back with us. Now we were shooting toward the audience, writing sketches that involved the audience. We were breaking the
fourth wall. That was a mistake I made. People
would say, “Your writers need to write in your
voice.” I disagree with that. I think the best
writing is when you get along as people. Because then you are thinking closer to a hive as
opposed to people trying to parrot what they
think you would say.
Parang: I think the show’s growth over
the past year has been aligning our process
and the news stories through his voice. I don’t think of The
Daily Show as having a voice outside of what Trevor Noah’s
voice is, if that makes sense.
Brownfield: Much as you’ve gone after him, Trump hasn’t
Tweeted about “the failing Daily Show.” Are you upset about that?
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Parang: Does it hurt a little bit? Sure.
Noah: Let me tell you why I’m not hurt at all. Because I
remember, we reached out to Donald Trump to get credentials
to one of his events early on. And all his people did was, they
replied to us with an email, no subject, no body, it just had three links
of shows we had done. That’s all they
replied with. And then we did, that
was the Amira special, “Don’t Forget
Donald Trump Wants to Bang His
Daughter.”
Amira: We don’t need to give me
credit for that. It was really more of
a group effort.
Noah: When we did that, which
was combing through the archives
and realizing that this man had like
a creepy history of saying things that
left everyone uncomfortable, we did
the show, and within the next few
days he appeared on Live with Kelly
and Michael, and of his own volition
he just brought it up in an interview. I don’t think he would Tweet
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at us because I don’t think he thinks he can handle the heat.
I wouldn’t Tweet at The Daily Show, I would Tweet at an organization where that’s not what they do for a living. I would
go after NBC News. I’d go after SNL because they can’t spend
can relate to because we’re all under
the same asteroid hurtling toward
the earth. We talked about India
this week, we do Russia. Austria
and Spain, we did yesterday. There’s
a reason, I think, the show’s viewership has gone up 400 percent in the
world. It seems like a small change,
but people connect with it now. I
meet people in South Africa and
Peru who go, “Ben Carson, jeez,
Ben Carson, that’s so funny.” At
the end of the day it’s all characters.
These are characters in a story that
we are telling.
the whole show [on him], they
have to do other things, someone’s hosting.
Brownfield: A staple of Stewart’s approach was to expose the
corrosive effect of cable news on
political discourse. The Daily
Show has moved away from that.
Noah: Originally, because
cable news was this new thing,
Jon was holding their feet
to the fire. But then at some
point cable news became normal. People have just accepted
that 24 hours of news, people
shouting at each other all the
time, no facts, just opinions,
little boxes on a screen with
people shouting—that’s news.
And so I went, “If I don’t watch
this, which I don’t, and if I consider myself a millennial and I
look at other millennials, I go,
‘They don’t watch this either.
They don’t get their news from
this thing anymore.’ Then what
are we missing out on and what can we be doing that’s a little
bit different?” And that is actually talking about the news itself.
Amira: It’s always on everybody to pay attention to that
stuff, but it’s definitely less of a focus of the show now, for sure.
Noah: You’re always aware of it. For instance, there’s that
guy who runs around doing racist impressions of everyone.
Jesse Watters.
Haglund: He’s on Bill O’Reilly’s show a lot.
Noah: He did a segment on how stupid Asian people are,
according to him, and so we did a piece in response to that.
[Daily Show correspondent] Ronny Chieng went down to
Chinatown. The gist of our piece was, you’re saying people
are stupid because they don’t speak your language. But if you
ask them questions about politics and policy in Chinese, they
would probably be able to give you better answers.
HAIL, TRUMP!
Brownfield: In a general way, the show remains about America but is talking to the world more than it once did.
Noah: That’s where the blessing of Trump is, regardless of
all his curses. Trump is a world-wide phenomenon. Everyone
in the world is looking at America’s politics now. Doesn’t matter where you go. The new parties that are forming in Australia
and in Austria, they’re talking about Donald Trump. The man
who’s against globalization has in effect created a form of globalization in and around news and information. It’s enabled
the show to speak about a wide berth of things that everyone
Brownfield: How do you feel
about the criticism that The Daily
Show has lost a certain satirical edge
because you come across as softer?
Noah: I’ve said this to everyone
here: I do not wish to add to the
fray. I do not wish to add to the
panic. I’m not an alarmist. Yes,
there are things that get us heated
up and riled up, but that’s not
what I’m trying to create. Oftentimes, people make the mistake of misinterpreting anger and
shouting as piercing. I’m like, no, that’s just rage. Rage is rage.
Oftentimes, I feel like in comedy people make the mistake of
thinking the bang is what creates the damage. But you can put
a silencer on a gun and create even more damage without the
sound. Get in, stick your target, smile, and keep moving—
that’s what I thought Colbert was brilliant at.
Brownfield: Still, it means shifting the show’s purview. The
other night, you did an item about Amazon discontinuing sales of
flip-flops with Gandhi’s likeness on them in India. But your comedic takeaway was, wait a minute. Gandhi himself espoused racist
and sexist views during the years he spent living in South Africa. I
sensed the studio audience didn’t quite know how to react.
Noah: That’s why Jon and I got along so well. Because we
have similar views in what we’re trying to do. It’s how it’s perceived that’s different. That’s what I find a lot of the time. Essentially what we’re trying to do is tell the truth. We’re also
trying to find the answers together.
Haglund: This whole election has—when I think about
it, I feel like everybody wants to watch a show where it’s just
pure vitriol directed at Trump. But Trump didn’t come from
nowhere. Trump is a reflection of us. He’s not this guy who just
snatched our country and ran off with it. We elected him. I feel
like this whole thing has forced me to question so much. I was
OK with this kind of stuff when the ends were results that I
wanted, or when the guys I liked were doing it. And now that
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the person on the other side is doing it, it horrifies me, so I need
to re-evaluate what’s important to me, and what’s not. If you’re
just watching someone who’s echoing your belief system, you
just want to turn on TV to have someone be angry and match
your anger, then you’re not challenged to re-examine why we
wound up with a president like Trump. This whole argument
about fake news. Now every news item I hear, it’s like, is this
fake news? Because this really did happen, there was fake news.
I feel like people should be questioning us as much as they’re
questioning legit news sources. You can’t always put blind faith
in the person who’s delivering you the information just because
you like them.
HILARIOUS AFRICAN ROOTS
Brownfield: Ultimately it gets back to Trevor’s life experiences
that inform his comedy. That’s what I find so interesting about
you being here. When have the keys to an American late-night
franchise ever been handed to a quote-unquote foreigner? From
Africa, no less?
Noah: That’s what’s been fun. I’ve got a writer from Uganda here who makes me look like I’m American. When he
first came, no one could even understand what he said. Some
people still can’t.
Amira: He has a very thick accent.
Noah: Wait, I’ll get him.
(Noah phones for writer Joseph Opio, pictured bottom
left.)
Noah: This was a guy that I discovered through a friend.
He was running The Daily Show in Uganda. He basically
made his own news satirical show. He’s super-smart.
(Opio enters the room…)
Noah: Tell Paul a little bit about
what you were doing in Uganda and
how you came to be here.
Opio: I had a show like The Daily
Show, but it was like a one-man operation because we didn’t have the kind of
resources The Daily Show has here. It
was on television. All our TVs are free
to air, so to speak.
Amira: Joe tells us he was one of the
most famous people in Uganda, and I
have no idea how to verify that.
Noah: This is a person I bring in,
you hear how he speaks?
Opio: Perfect American accent.
Noah: He comes in, he knows more
about American culture than some people in the room. He’s watched American movies that people...
Haglund: Ask him anything about
Baby’s Day Out. He knows.
Noah: But on the page, Joseph Opio
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rica. It is an experiment. That’s what I’m growing in time.
People think about things now differently in a room. One
of my favorite moments was when Hallie made Joe a feminist. It was around the tennis and soccer disputes. It was
about equal pay, remember? The US women’s soccer team?
There was an argument, and then Hallie broke down the
argument for equal pay. He truly does not understand.
Culturally we’ve come from a different place. Even small
things in the building, stupid small things. In Africa, a man
walks into a room first. In America, ladies first. And the
reason we do that is because in African culture they say a
man must go into the room because you don’t know what
danger awaits. So if there’s a snake or something in there,
why are you sending a woman in? You’re a coward.
Opio: The hugging thing.
Noah: Yeah, hugging is weird where we’re from.
Opio: You don’t hug someone you’re not intimate with.
Amira: They could have a snake on them. You just don’t
know.
Noah: You see? That joke is informed by the fact that an
African came in the room. He may not have ever made that
joke without being in contact with an African and having a
conversation. This is essentially what The Daily Show is trying
to carry on creating. It’s the spice trade of jokes.
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WRITTEN BY LISA ROSEN
PORTRAITS BY TOM KELLER
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
make short work out of long waits.
Writers Paul Wernick(left) and Rhett Reese photographed at the The Little Bar.
or those wondering why the superhero movie Deadpool was
nominated in WGA’s Best Adapted Screenplay category, look
no further than the film’s opening credit sequence. Set to the dulcet
tones of Angel of the Morning, over a frozen moment in the life of
an upturned SUV full of combatants, we read:
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
PRESENTS
IN ASSOCIATION WITH
MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT
SOME
DOUCHEBAG’S FILM
STARRING
GOD’S PERFECT IDIOT
A few more credits, then:
PRODUCED BY
ASSHATS
before the pièce de résistance:
WRITTEN BY
THE REAL HEROES HERE
Done, sold, give them the gold.
Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick lost track of who
came up with which faux credits during post-production, but
there’s no question who came up with theirs. “Nobody else would
have written that,” Reese says.
They’re as surprised as anyone else that Deadpool would give
them cause to buy tuxedos. (The film also garnered nods from the
PGA and DGA.) “Rhett and I feel like we have that movie in us,
the serious drama that’s usually considered for awards season,” says
Wernick. “We didn’t think this would be it.”
Then again, they’ve worked on it as long and hard as any prestige film, and created a sort-of-anti-superhero movie, teeming with
action and dripping with gore, that’s also a smart, funny, ribald love
story. It’s a Marvel marvel. And kudos to the WGA for once again
recognizing that comedy is harder than death.
Deadpool started as a comic book series in 1990. Character
Wade Wilson was a mercenary with a heart of gold who learned
he had terminal cancer. An effort to find a cure eventually turned
him into the powerful, disfigured, massively messed-up Deadpool.
The series poked fun at its own genre, with Deadpool breaking the
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third version, but you’re not allowed to go back to what
was there originally.”
Occasionally that rule fails them. “There will be a line that
the other will change, and then the other will change back,
and then we’ll change back again. At times we can get a little
passive-aggressive,” Wernick confides. “We’ll have to jump
fourth wall to comment on the action.
The comic won
a slew of fans, including star Ryan Reynolds, who attached
himself to a Deadpool film project 11 years ago.
At that point, Reese and Wernick were about six years into
their writing partnership. The two had gone to the same high
school in Arizona a few years apart, then met up again in Los
Angeles after college. Wernick was producing reality television, and Reese was a screenwriter. The two put their talents
together, coming up with an idea for a scripted parody of a
reality show that was also a reality show in itself.
The Joe Schmo Show stuck an average guy in a mansion
with nine other contestants in an elimination game. Unbeknownst to him, everyone else was an actor, working off
of loosely scripted plots and improvising around him. The
truth was revealed at the end of the game. Reese describes it
as “very much The Truman Show in a reality setting.” Adds
Wernick, “It was probably the most fun we’ve ever had in
Hollywood, even to this day. It was early 2000s, we didn’t
really know what we were doing, it was the Wild West in reality TV. We had a writers’ room—it was a WGA show—and
then you plug this X factor into it.”
After a couple of seasons, Reese convinced Wernick to
try writing a fictional series. Their Schmo writers’ room experience inspired them to use a corkboard and break stories
together. Then, as now, they’d split up and go to their respective homes to write. “We leapfrog each other chronologically
through the script. So
you take Scenes 1 and 2,
I’ll take 3 and 4,” Reese
explains. “We divide up
scenes based on how badly we want to write them,
generally—”
“Or how badly we
don’t want to write them,”
Wernick tosses in.
“A very good point.
Then we trade the scenes
back and forth, revising
each other’s changes.
Our basic rule, and most
often we follow it, is if
the other person changes
your line, you’re allowed
to then rechange it to a
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on the phone and go, ‘How much do you really love this
line?’ An example would be in Deadpool, when he says, ‘I’m
Audi 5000.’ I love the line; for whatever reason it made me
giggle. Rhett kept changing it, and I’m like, ‘We’ve got to
keep it.’ Rhett’s like, ‘Nobody remembers what Audi 5000
was,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s exactly right, it’s Deadpool, he can
make those obscure pop-culture references. And almost the
more obscure they are, the funnier they become.’ Rhett still
maintains that it doesn’t get a laugh in the theater. I have
been in the room where people have laughed.”
Reese’s even reply: “I think it’s very charming.”
Back and forth the scenes go, with very little discussion
necessary. “The iterative process of writing and rewriting
and bolding things that have changed, and unbolding when
you’re satisfied with them, and rebolding when you’re not,
it’s like thesis-antithesis-synthesis,” Reese says.
“It really
does come together, and you don’t have to talk as much as
you think during the writing.” That said, they talk at least
half a dozen times a day, but mostly about business. “And
how much we hate this person or that person,” Wernick says.
Of the many advantages of working with a partner, “the
objectivity that a person provides, looking at your scene for
the first time fresh, is just invaluable, and something you can’t
get on your own,” Reese says. The two have a trust built over
decades; they’ve known each other for more than 30 years,
and have written together for 17. Reese introduced Wernick
to his future wife, married the couple, and is now godfather
to their children.
They also have minds that work along similarly skewed
lines. Their first film was Zombieland, a zombie movie and
a parody of a zombie movie at the same time. “The common thread from Joe Schmo Show to Deadpool is a tone in
which we both make fun of a genre and also still are the
genre,” Reese says.
The combination makes for a lot of wrangling with tone.
How do you go from humor to pathos
without making the audience feel manipulated? “Life isn’t a comedy or a drama, it’s
all those things wrapped into one,” Wernick says. “So we try to mix tones. It’s not
easy; if it’s done wrong it can feel inconsistent. But we try to ground the movie with
the varying tones by basically presenting
life as you see it.”
Reese describes a scene in Zombieland,
navigating a path from tragedy to comedy
that they weren’t sure would work. Woody
Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, reveals
that his child died, and the film flashes
back to the heartbreaking scene. Returning to the present, Tallahassee’s crying. “I
think there were a few misty eyes in the
audience, because it’s about a father losing his son,” Reese says. “But then a few seconds later—he’s
playing Monopoly at the time with real money—he picks
up a pile of $100 bills, dabs his eyes with the cash, and says,
‘I haven’t cried that hard since Titanic.’ We sat in the theater
and listened as the audience essentially went from deathly
still and feeling the emotion of a moment to a big laugh. We
thought, We’re on to something here.”
“The spacing of those tones is also very important,” Wernick adds. “If you stay too long in one particular tone, it
then starts to feel like you’re in two different movies. It’s exactly why we very strategically bounce in and out of time
and space in Deadpool.”
They used a non-linear structure, because otherwise the
film would have been frontloaded with the tragedy of Wade
Wilson’s terminal cancer. “It’s very, very dark, and very
serious, and very sad and tragic, and then he goes on this
path and has all these torturous things happen to him and
loses his girl, and then he becomes Deadpool, and he’s this
crazy motherfucker who’s laughing and telling jokes and
talking to camera, and knows that he’s in a movie. Had
we told that story linearly—and there was a push to tell it
linearly from the studio at one point—it would have been
a very dark movie for the first half or two-thirds, and then
once he becomes Deadpool it would have become a very
silly movie. It would have felt very inconsistent in tone.
By creating that non-linear structure, it allowed us to be
tragic and dark, and then immediately pop in with some
laughs, so the audience felt like, I’m on this ride with him,
I’m not investing too much into one particular tone before I
bounce to another one.”
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“Most writers have that passion project that sits in their
desk and gathers dust. It’s usually a small indie movie
that tells an obscure story. Our passion project was a
Marvel superhero movie. In a world of superhero movies
each making a billion dollars, we couldn’t get it off the
ground, and that was so terribly frustrating, so demoralizing, because we believed in it so much. We felt like, if
we can’t get this made, we don’t know if we can get any
movie made.” –Paul Wernick
Remember how they stopped doing The Joe Schmo Show to
create a series? That series was Zombieland
Zombieland. Say what? They wrote
it as a spec TV pilot and sold it to CBS in 2005, where it sat on
shelves for a year and a half, because nobody thought a series
about zombies would hit.
They credit their producer, Gavin Polone, along with Sony Television, for letting them expand it into a two-hour TV movie that could
serve as a back-door pilot. “We basically used that pilot episode as the
first 58 pages of the screenplay,” Wernick says. “Episode 2 became
the back half and climax of the feature.” As with Deadpool, the film
jumps around in time and space. “A lot of people have examined
the structure in Zombieland,” Reese says, “subjecting it to Act 1, Act
2, Act 3 analysis. And it’s all BS, because it was literally written for
commercial breaks.”
Zombieland came out in theaters in 2009, and was a huge success. The writers became Hollywood darlings for a while, “which
we embraced in a real way,” Wernick says. “In the press, the talking point was, ‘There are so many sequels out there, and so many
movies based on comic books and toys. Zombieland is this breath
of fresh, original air,’ and we came off the success of Zombieland
and booked a comic book movie and two sequels, one based on a
toy. I’m not sure what that says about us.”
The two sequels were Zombieland 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
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The superhero movie was Deadpool.
The Deadpool pitch didn’t go smoothly. The writers
met with Reynolds and spun a tale that omitted the origin story, since it was such a cancery downer. “He was
like, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’” Wernick says. Their agent
begged for another shot, and sent over their pilot for an
HBO drama called Watch. They met up again for lunch,
“and we talked about the pathos and the darkness, and
embracing all that amidst all the humor,” and by the
time the check came he’d hired them.
They worked with Reynolds to break the story for
several months before going off to write it. “Our fear
was that we were writing a dark, R-rated superhero
movie, and would the studio ever make that,” Wernick
recalls. “Ryan said, ‘Let’s write what’s in our hearts, and
worry about whether they’re going to make it later.’”
“And then we did worry about them making it later,
for the next six years,” says Reese.
“Exactly. All our fears were realized.” Worse, they
had to take it out and rewrite another draft every single
year, only to watch it get shelved again and again. “It
was a very, very difficult six years, because it was a script
that we were immensely proud of,” Wernick says. “Most
writers have that passion project that sits in their desk
and gathers dust. It’s usually a small indie movie that
tells an obscure story. Our passion project was a Marvel superhero movie. In a world of superhero movies
each making a billion dollars, we couldn’t get it off the
ground, and that was so terribly frustrating, so demoralizing, because we believed in it so much. We felt like,
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if we can’t get this made, we don’t know if we can get any
movie made.”
They kept busy throughout the ups and downs, working on other projects. “G.I. Joe gobbled up a year and a
half. That was a monster,” Reese says. They made another
HBO project that wasn’t picked up. “I would say the vast
amount of our energy, when we’re not writing, is spent
convincing people to trust us. It gets somewhat easier, but
you’d still be shocked at how difficult it is, even when you
acquire some success and some ammunition to say, we generally know what we’re talking about.” That said, Deadpool
also taught them “that there is no final no. Something is
still alive until the day you die, I guess.”
Back in 2011, Deadpool director Tim Miller created two
minutes of test footage for Fox. “We sat on it for three-plus
years, Rhett, Ryan, Tim, and myself, wondering,
how do we leak this and not get caught?” says Wernick. “We were like this hapless band of thieves
who had this piece of gold that we were trying to
get out to the open market and couldn’t figure out
how to do it. We’re technological idiots.”
Fortunately, someone savvier leaked it at Comic-Con 2014. They swear they have no idea who.
“It was not the people who stood the most to benefit,” Reese insists. The subsequent fan frenzy lit a
fire under Fox, and they greenlighted the project.
After six years of misery, they went into production
within a few months. ‘They’ included the writers,
because Reynolds and Miller wanted them on set
for the entire shoot.
“We always felt like if we could contribute one
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“Writers on films are generally relegated to the back
half of the donkey’s costume,” adds Wernick. “Yes, there
needs to be one voice, the director’s. But it all starts in the
writer’s head. So as long as there’s collaboration and trust,
and the director doesn’t feel threatened by the writer, and
the writer doesn’t make the director feel threatened, it’s
such a wonderful experience for everyone involved.”
little thing every day that helps
the movie get better, we’ve done
our job, and oftentimes it was
only one thing a day,” Reese
says, crediting Miller and Reynolds for creating an inclusive atmosphere. “Writers on films are
generally relegated to the back
half of the donkey’s costume,”
adds Wernick. “Yes, there needs
to be one voice, the director’s.
But it all starts in the writer’s
head. So as long as there’s collaboration and trust, and the director doesn’t feel threatened by
the writer, and the writer doesn’t
make the director feel threatened, it’s such a wonderful experience for everyone involved.”
Even after the shoot
wrapped, they stayed on, spending every day in the edit bay,
adding dialogue. “A lot of it was written in post, because it’s
a man in the mask,” Wernick says. “You can change lines,
much like an animated movie.”
Fox marketing then hired them to work with Reynolds on
much of the film’s ad campaign. By the end of the process,
the studio gave them executive producer credits as well.
Even after all the dicking around they endured, the writers
empathize with the studio’s hesitation. “Fox took a massive
risk by making this movie,” Wernick says. “There was always
“Somebody went to Stanford,” Wernick says.
“There’s some really high-minded classy stuff in there, but
then there’s bawdy and blue humor—The Miller’s Tale being
the prime example—that make you go, Oh my god.”
Adds Wernick, “Mel Brooks and Steve Martin are geniuses; nobody looks at their art and goes, well that’s puerile. By no means am I putting us in that class, but those are
our heroes.”
The film gets super meta super fast. As in the comic book,
Deadpool breaks the fourth wall, acknowledging he’s a character in a movie, and cracking on other Marvel movies.
the fear that it would appeal to one group of people: comic
book nerds.”
Surprisingly, the movie tested higher with women than
men. “I do think we tapped into something by telling a love
story, and giving the movie a beating heart,” Wernick says.
Make that two. Lest we forget, Deadpool is, at heart, a love
story. (As is Zombieland.) “People are always trying to find
that next generation of romantic comedy,” Wernick says.
“How do you tell that so it doesn’t feel like boy meets girl,
boy loses girl, boy gets girl? That stale formula works, if you
do it right.” Deadpool is the highest-grossing R-rated film
of all time.
It isn’t just a romantic comedy, it’s a romantic fucking comedy, fabulous in its filthiness. “Blue and classy don’t have to be
mutually exclusive,” Reese says. “Not to compare this to what
we do, but if you look at The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer—”
Hence the opening credit sequence. “We weren’t sure
it was going to work, but it really does set the tone for an
irreverent movie,” Reese says. After all the drafts—adding
characters, taking out characters, even trying to rein it
into PG-13 territory—they estimate the final draft contained about 70 percent of the first. “Ultimately, I think it
was this mix of tones and textures and all that that made
it the success it was,” says Wernick. “Because it did feel
fresh and original.”
In that vein, up next is Life. This film isn’t meta-anything.
“Life is intended to make you sweat the way Deadpool is intended to make you laugh,” Reese says. “We haven’t seen it
yet ourselves, but if it works it’s a terrifying thriller about a
crew of astronauts in the International Space Station, in a
very claustrophobic space, discovering life that comes from
beyond earth, and challenged when that life proves to be hardier and more dangerous than they expected.” Starring Jake
Gyllenhall and Reynolds, the writers call it an A-lister movie
with a B-movie heart.
They’re also in pre-production for Deadpool 2, because apparently a year can’t go by without them working on a Deadpool script. When asked how they were going to make that
and their Zombieland sequel not suck, Wernick replies, “Got
any ideas?” Says Reese, “You’re trying to find that perfect balance between what’s familiar and what people loved about
the first one, and then enough new stuff so that you don’t
feel like you’re rehashing the first one.” With the original elements, “you twist them just a little bit.”
They are well aware that most sequels don’t end up as good
as the originals. “You’re always working with that fear in the
back of your mind,” Reese says. “But you also know there are
movies like The Godfather 2, Aliens, The Road Warrior, sequels
that at least match if not surpass the original. You try to hit
that mark, or at least make one as good as the first, and if you
fall short you fall short.”
Wernick groans. “Lisa’s headline for the article is going to
be: “Deadpool 2, Writer Says as Good as Godfather.” Leaving nothing on the field, Reese goes deep: “Have I mentioned
that breaking the fourth wall goes back to Shakespeare?”
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Writers Guild Awards
NOMINATIONS
Transparent, Written by Arabella Anderson, Bridget Bedard, Micah
Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Jessi Klein, Stephanie Kornick, Ethan
Kuperberg, Ali Liebegott, Our Lady J, Faith Soloway, Jill Soloway;
Amazon Studios
SCREENPLAY NOMINEES
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Hell or High Water, Written by Taylor Sheridan; CBS Films
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Written by Emily Altman, Robert
Carlock, Azie Mira Dungey, Tina Fey, Lauren Gurganous, Sam Means,
Dylan Morgan, Marlena Rodriguez, Dan Rubin, Meredith Scardino, Josh
Siegal, Allison Silverman, Leila Strachan; Netflix
La La Land, Written by Damien Chazelle; Lionsgate
Loving, Written by Jeff Nichols; Focus Features
Manchester by the Sea, Written by Kenneth Lonergan; Amazon
Studios/Roadside Attractions
Veep, Written by Rachel Axler, Sean Gray, Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck,
Erik Kenward, Billy Kimball, Steve Koren, David Mandel, Jim Margolis,
Lew Morton, Georgia Pritchett, Will Smith, Alexis Wilkinson; HBO
Moonlight, Screenplay by Barry Jenkins, Story by Tarell McCraney; A24
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Atlanta, Written by Donald Glover, Stephen Glover, Stefani Robinson,
Paul Simms; FX
Deadpool, Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick; Based on the
X-Men Comic Books; Twentieth Century Fox Film
Better Things, Written by Pamela Adlon, Louis C.K., Cindy Chupack,
Gina Fattore; FX
Fences, Screenplay by August Wilson; Based on his Play; Paramount
Pictures
Stranger Things, Written by Paul Dichter, Justin Doble, The Duffer
Brothers, Karl Gajdusek, Jessica Mecklenburg, Jessie Nickson-Lopez,
Alison Tatlock; Netflix
Hidden Figures, Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore
Melfi; Based on the Book by Margot Lee Shetterly; Twentieth Century Fox
Film
Nocturnal Animals, Screenplay by Tom Ford; Based on the
Novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright; Focus Features
DOCUMENTARY SCREENPLAY
Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Written by Jeff Feuerzeig; Amazon
Studios
LONG FORM ADAPTED
11.22.63, Written by Bridget Carpenter, Brigitte Hales, Joe Henderson,
Brian Nelson, Quinton Peeples, Based on the novel by Stephen King; Hulu
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,
Written by Scott Alexander, Joe Robert Cole, D.V. DeVincentis, Maya
Forbes, Larry Karaszewski, Wally Wolodarsky, Based on the book The
Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin; FX
Madoff, Written by Ben Robbins, Inspired by the Book The Madoff
Chronicles: Inside the Secret World of Bernie and
Ruth by Brian Ross; ABC
Westworld, Written by Ed Brubaker, Bridget Carpenter; Dan Dietz,
Karl Gajdusek, Halley Gross; Lisa Joy; Katherine Lingenfelter, Dominic
Mitchell, Jonathan Nolan, Roberto Patino, Daniel T. Thomsen, Charles
Yu; HBO
The Night Of, Written by Richard Price, Steve Zaillian, Based on the
BBC Series Criminal Justice Created by Peter Moffat; HBO
Roots, Written by Lawrence Konner, Alison McDonald, Charles Murray,
Mark Rosenthal, Based upon the Book by Alex Haley; History Channel
COMEDY SERIES
SHORT FORM NEW MEDIA – ORIGINAL
Atlanta, Written by Donald Glover, Stephen Glover, Stefani Robinson,
Paul Simms; FX
“Episode 101” (Now We’re Talking), Written by Tug Coker, Tommy
Dewey; go90.com
Silicon Valley, Written by Megan Amram, Alec Berg, Donick Cary,
Adam Countee, Jonathan Dotan, Mike Judge, Carrie Kemper, John
Levenstein, Dan Lyons, Carson Mell, Dan O’Keefe, Clay Tarver, Ron
Weiner; HBO
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“Escape the Room” (Life Ends at 30), Written by Michael Field;
vimeo.com
“Itsy Bitsy Spider” Episode 1 (Thug Passion), Written by Motrya
|
“Fish Out of Water” (BoJack Horseman), Written by Elijah
Aron & Jordan Young; Netflix
“A Princess on Lothal” (Star Wars Rebels), Written by Steven
Melching; Disney XD
“Switch” (Better Call Saul), Written by Thomas Schnauz; AMC
Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel’le, Written
by Dianne Houston; Lifetime
Stranger Things, Written by Paul Dichter, Justin Doble, The Duffer
Brothers, Karl Gajdusek, Jessica Mecklenburg, Jessie Nickson-Lopez,
Alison Tatlock; Netflix
“First Day of Rule” (Elena of Avalor), Written by Craig Gerber; Disney
Channel
LONG FORM ORIGINAL
Harley and the Davidsons, Written by Seth Fisher, Nick Schenk,
Evan Wright; Discovery Channel
Game of Thrones, Written by David Benioff, Bryan Cogman, Dave
Hill, D.B. Weiss; HBO
“Barthood” (The Simpsons), Written by Dan Greaney; Fox
EPISODIC DRAMA
Confirmation, Written by Susannah Grant; HBO
Better Call Saul, Written by Ann Cherkis, Vince Gilligan, Jonathan
Glatzer, Peter Gould, Gennifer Hutchison, Heather Marion, Thomas
Schnauz, Gordon Smith; AMC
“Under Siege” (The Strain), Written by Bradley Thompson & David
Weddle, Based on the novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan;
fxnetworks.com
Westworld, Written by Ed Brubaker, Bridget Carpenter, Dan Dietz,
Karl Gajdusek, Halley Gross, Lisa Joy, Katherine Lingenfelter, Dominic
Mitchell, Jonathan Nolan, Roberto Patino, Daniel T. Thomsen, Charles
Yu; HBO
Zero Days, Written by Alex Gibney; Magnolia Pictures
The Americans, Written by Peter Ackerman, Tanya Barfield, Joshua
Brand, Joel Fields, Stephen Schiff, Joe Weisberg, Tracey Scott Wilson; FX
“Part 4” (Fear the Walking Dead: Passage), Written by Lauren
Signorino & Mike Zunic; amc.com
“Stop the Presses” (BoJack Horseman), Written by Joe Lawson;
Netflix
American Crime, Written by Julie Hébert, Sonay Hoffman, Keith
Huff, Stacy A. Littlejohn, Kirk A. Moore, Davy Perez, Diana Son; ABC
DRAMA SERIES
SHORT FORM NEW MEDIA – ADAPTED
This Is Us, Written by Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger, Bekah
Brunstetter, Dan Fogelman, Vera Herbert, Joe Lawson, Kay Oyegun,
Aurin Squire, K.J. Steinberg, Donald Todd; NBC
Command and Control, Telescript by Robert Kenner & Eric
Schlosser, Story by Brian Pearle and Kim Roberts; Based on the
book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser; American
Experience Films
TELEVISION AND NEW MEDIA NOMINEES
“The Party” (The Commute), Written by Linsey Stewart & Dane Clark;
youtube.com
ANIMATION
NEW SERIES
Arrival, Screenplay by Eric Heisserer; Based on the Story “Story of Your
Life” by Ted Chiang; Paramount Pictures
Tomycz; vimeo.com
MARCH
2017
“Gloves Off” (Better Call Saul), Written by Gordon Smith; AMC
“I Am a Storm” (Shameless), Written by Sheila Callaghan; Showtime
“Klick” (Better Call Saul), Written by Heather Marion & Vince
Gilligan; AMC
“The Trip” (This Is Us), Written by Vera Herbert; NBC
“The Winds of Winter” (Game of Thrones), Written for Television
by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss; HBO
EPISODIC COMEDY
“Kimmy Finds Her Mom!” (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt),
Written by Tina Fey & Sam Means; Netflix
“Kimmy Goes on a Playdate!” (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt),
Written by Robert Carlock; Netflix
“Pilot” (One Mississippi), Written by Diablo Cody & Tig Notaro;
Amazon Studios
“R-A-Y-C-Ray-Cation” (Speechless), Written by Carrie Rosen & Seth
Kurland; ABC
“Streets on Lock” (Atlanta), Written by Stephen Glover; FX
“A Taste of Zephyria” (Son of Zorn), Written by Dan Mintz; Fox
COMEDY / VARIETY (INCLUDING TALK) – SERIES
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Writers: Dan Amira, David
Angelo, Steve Bodow, Devin Delliquanti, Zach DiLanzo, Travon Free,
Hallie Haglund, David Kibuuka, Matt Koff, Adam Lowitt, Alex Marino,
Dan McCoy, Lauren Sarver Means, Trevor Noah, Joe Opio, Zhubin Parang,
Owen Parson, Daniel Radosh, Michelle Wolf, Delaney Yeager; Comedy
Central
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Writers: Kevin Avery,
Tim Carvell, Josh Gondelman, Dan Gurewitch, Geoff Haggerty, Jeff
Maurer, John Oliver, Scott Sherman, Will Tracy, Jill Twiss, Juli Weiner;
HBO
Late Night with Seth Meyers, Writers: Jermaine Affonso, Alex
Baze, Bryan Donaldson, Sal Gentile, Matt Goldich, Jenny Hagel, Allison
Writers Guild Awards
NOMINATIONS
Hord, Mike Karnell, Andrew Law, John Lutz, Aparna Nancherla,
Chioke Nassor, Seth Meyers, Ian Morgan, Conner O’Malley, Seth
Reiss, Amber Ruffin, Mike Scollins, Mike Shoemaker, Ben Warheit,
Michelle Wolf; NBC
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Writers: Mike
Brumm, Nate Charny, Aaron Cohen, Stephen Colbert, Cullen
Crawford, Paul Dinello, Eric Drysdale, Rob Dubbin, Ariel Dumas,
Glenn Eichler, Gabe Gronli, Barry Julien, Jay Katsir, Daniel
Kibblesmith, Matt Lappin, Opus Moreschi, Tom Purcell, Jen Spyra,
Brian Stack; CBS
COMEDY / VARIETY – SKETCH SERIES
Documentary Now!, Writers: Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Erik
Kenward, John Mulaney, Seth Meyers; IFC
Inside Amy Schumer, Writers: Kim Caramele, Kyle Dunnigan,
Jessi Klein, Michael Lawrence, Kurt Metzger, Christine Nangle,
Claudia O’Doherty, Dan Powell, Tami Sagher, Amy Schumer; Comedy
Central
Maya & Marty, Head Writers: Mikey Day, Matt Roberts, Bryan
Tucker Writers: Eli Bauman, Jeremy Beiler, Chris Belair, Hallie
Cantor, David Feldman, R J Fried, Melissa Hunter, Paul Masella,
Tim McAuliffe, John Mulaney, Diallo Riddle, Maya Rudolph, Bashir
Salahuddin, Marika Sawyer, Streeter Seidell, Martin Short; Emily
Spivey, Steve Young; NBC
Nathan For You, Written by Leo Allen, Nathan Fielder, Adam
Locke-Norton, Eric Notarnicola; Comedy Central
Saturday Night Live, Head Writers: Rob Klein, Bryan Tucker
Writers: James Anderson, Fred Armisen, Jeremy Beiler, Chris Belair,
Megan Callahan, Michael Che, Mikey Day, Jim Downey, Tina Fey, Fran
Gillespie, Sudi Green, Tim Herlihy, Steve Higgins, Colin Jost, Zach
Kanin, Chris Kelly, Erik Kenward, Paul Masella, Dave McCary, Dennis
McNicholas, Seth Meyers, Lorne Michaels, Josh Patten, Paula Pell,
Katie Rich, Tim Robinson, Sarah Schneider, Pete Schultz, Streeter
Seidell, Dave Sirus, Emily Spivey, Andrew Steele, Will Stephen, Kent
Sublette; NBC
COMEDY / VARIETY – MUSIC, AWARDS, TRIBUTES – SPECIALS
68th Primetime Emmy Awards, Written by Jack Allison,
Tony Barbieri, Jonathan Bines, Joelle Boucai, Robert Cohen, Gary
Greenberg, Josh Halloway, Sal Iacono, Eric Immerman, Jimmy
Kimmel, Bess Kalb, Jeff Loveness, Jon Macks, Molly McNearney,
Danny Ricker, Jeff Stilson, Joe Strazzullo, Alexis Wilkinson; ABC
73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards, Written by Barry
Adelman; Special Material Written by Dave Boone, Ricky Gervais, Jon
Macks, Matthew Robinson; NBC
88th Annual Academy Awards, Written by Dave Boone,
Billy Kimball; Special Material Written by Scott Aukerman, Rodney
Barnes, Neil Campbell, Matthew Claybrooks, Lance Crouther, Mike
Ferrucci, Langston Kerman, Jon Macks, Steve O’Donnell, Nimesh
Patel, Vanessa Ramos, Chris Rock, Frank Sebastiano, Chuck Sklar,
Jeff Stilson, Richard Vos, Michelle Wolf; CBS
Triumph The Primary Election Special 2016, Written
by Andy Breckman, Josh Comers, Raj Desai, David Feldman, R J
Fried, Jarrett Grode, Ben Joseph, Matthew Kirsch, Michael Koman,
Mike Lawrence, Brian Reich, Craig Rowin, Robert Smigel, Zach
Smilovitz, David Taylor, Andrew Weinberg; Additional Materials
by Ray James, Jesse Joyce, Jason Reich, Alex Scordelis; Hulu
Michael Agbabian, Alex Chauvin, Ann Slichter, Dwight D. Smith; NBC
Morning), Written by Thomas A. Harris; CBS
Jeopardy!, Written by John Duarte, Harry Friedman, Mark
Gaberman, Deborah Griffin, Michele Loud, Robert McClenaghan, Jim
Rhine, Steve D. Tamerius, Billy Wisse; ABC
RADIO NOMINEES
RADIO DOCUMENTARY
“Chernobyl: 30 Years Later,” Written by Andrew Evans; ABC News
Radio
DAYTIME DRAMA
General Hospital, Writers: Shelly Altman, Anna Theresa
Cascio, Andrea Archer Compton, Suzanne Flynn, Janet Iacobuzio,
Elizabeth Korte, Daniel James O’Connor, Jean Passanante, Dave
Rupel, Katherine Schock, Scott Sickles, Chris Van Etten, Christopher
Whitesell; ABC
“Summer of 2016,” Written by David Shapiro; CBS News Radio
RADIO NEWS SCRIPT – REGULARLY SCHEDULED, BULLETIN, OR
BREAKING REPORT
“6:40am News” November 13, 2015, Written by Philip Pilato; CBS
News Radio
CHILDREN’S SCRIPT – EPISODIC AND SPECIALS
“Girl Meets Commonism” (Girl Meets World), Written by Joshua
Jacobs & Michael Jacobs; Disney Channel
“Legends of the Game,” Written by Thomas A. Sabella; CBS News
Radio
“Just Add Mom” (Just Add Magic), Written by John-Paul Nickel;
Amazon Studios
“Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to Greatness,” Written by Gail Lee; CBS
News Radio
“Mel vs. The Night Mare of Normal Street” (Gortimer Gibbon’s
Life on Normal Street), Written by Laurie Parres; Amazon
Studios
“World News This Week” August 26, 2016, Written by Tara Gimbel
Tanis; ABC News Radio
“Mucko Polo, Grouch Explorer” (Sesame Street), Written
by Belinda Ward; HBO
RADIO NEWS SCRIPT – ANALYSIS, FEATURE, OR COMMENTARY
CHILDREN’S SCRIPT – LONG FORM OR SPECIAL
“Dishin Digital on WCBS-AM,” Written by Robert Hawley; WCBS-AM
Radio
Dance Camp, Teleplay by Nicholas W. Turner & Rex
New and Cameron Fay, Story by Nicholas W. Turner & Rex New;
youtube.com
“Morley Safer: A Journalist’s Life,” Written by Gail Lee; CBS News
Radio
“Vin Scully”, Written by Jerry Edling; KNX
Once Upon a Sesame Street Christmas, Written by Geri
Cole & Ken Scarborough; HBO
“Vin Scully Hangs Up The Mic,” Written by Andrew Evans; ABC News
Radio
R.L. Stine’s Monsterville: Cabinet Of Souls, Written
by Billy Brown & Dan Angel; Freeform
PROMOTIONAL WRITING NOMINEES
ON-AIR PROMOTION (TELEVISION, NEW MEDIA OR RADIO)
DOCUMENTARY SCRIPT – CURRENT EVENTS
“Big Brother Over The Top Launch & NCIS: Special Agent Tony
Dinozzo’s Top Moments,” Written by Erial Tompkins; CBS
“Chasing Heroin” (Frontline), Written by Marcela Gaviria; PBS
“The Choice 2016” (Frontline); Written by Michael Kirk & Mike
Wiser; PBS
“CBS On-Air Reel,” Written by Brian Retchless; CBS On-Air Promotion
“Inside Assad’s Syria” (Frontline), Written by Martin Smith; PBS
“Limitless Promos 15/16” (CBS), Written by Jessica Katzenstein; CBS
On-Air Promotion
DOCUMENTARY SCRIPT – OTHER THAN CURRENT EVENTS
“Mom,” Written by Dan Greenberger; CBS
“The Dollmaker, Halloween,” Written by Jennifer H. Kaas; NBC
“American Reds,” Written by Richard Wormser; WPTS Dayton
TELEVISION GRAPHIC ART AND ANIMATION
“Jackie Robinson, Part One,” Written by David McMahon & Sarah
Burns; PBS
“The Real History of Cinco de Mayo,” (Gawker Media Group), Graphic
Animation by Elisa Solinas; youtube.com
“Netanyahu at War” (Frontline), Written by Michael Kirk & Mike
Wiser; PBS
VIDEOGAME WRITING NOMINEES
NEWS SCRIPT – REGULARLY SCHEDULED, BULLETIN, OR BREAKING
REPORT
OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN VIDEOGAME WRITING
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Written by Brian Bloom;
Activision
“Ambush In Dallas” (World News Tonight With David
Muir), Written by David Bloch, Karen Mooney, David Muir, David
Schoetz; ABC News
Far Cry Primal, Story by Jean-Sébastien Décant, Ian C. Ryan,
Kevin Shortt; Lead Writers Ian C. Ryan, Kevin Shortt; Writers Lynne
Kamm, Susan Patrick; Narrative Designer Navid Khavari; Additional
Narrative Designer Paul Dobson; Ubisoft
“Brussels Under Attack” (World News Tonight With David
Muir), Written by David Bloch, Karen Mooney, David Muir, David
Schoetz; ABC News
MR. ROBOT 1.51exfiltratiOn, Story by Adam Hines, Kor
Adana; Written by Adam Hines; Night School Studio
“Muhammad Ali: Remembering A Legend” (48 Hours), Written
by Jerry Cipriano, John Craig Wilson; CBS News
QUIZ AND AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION
NEWS SCRIPT – ANALYSIS, FEATURE, OR COMMENTARY
Hollywood Game Night, Head Writer: Grant Taylor; Writers:
“CBS Sunday Morning Almanac” June 12, 2016 (CBS Sunday
FEBRUARY
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Written by Neil Druckmann,
Josh Scherr; Additional Writing Tom Bissell, Ryan James; Naughty
Dog
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MARCH
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SCREEN LAUREL AWARD
WRITTEN BY FX FEENEY
ILLUSTRATION BY DREW FRIEDMAN
From JFK to Zero Days
Casting Our Ballots in the United States of Storytelling,
with Oliver Stone and Alex Gibney.
“The illegal we do immediately; the
unconstitutional takes a little longer.”
—Henry A. Kissinger, US Secretary of State, March 10,
1975 (Courtesy Wikileaks)
E
arly on the 23rd of November, 1963, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover briefed his new President, Lyndon Baines
Johnson, over the phone about an important discovery
he’d made regarding the previous day’s events in Dallas.
President Kennedy had been murdered less than 20 hours
earlier. News reports were circulating that the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald—still alive and under arrest at that
moment—had, two months earlier, crossed into
Mexico to contact the Soviet Embassy and arrange for a visa to Cuba.
LBJ had been briefed minutes earlier by
the CIA, and director John McCone told him
their evidence of this trip proved Oswald killed
Kennedy as part of a communist plot.
Following-up on the CIA’s revelation, Johnson asked his FBI chief: “Have you established
any more?”
“No,” Hoover told him. But: “There’s one angle that’s very confusing, for this reason—we have
up here the tape and the photograph of the man
who was at the Soviet embassy, using Oswald’s
name. That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man’s voice, nor to his appearance.
… It appears that there is a second person who
was at the Soviet embassy down there.”
A second person. Calling himself Lee Harvey
Oswald. Who was not Lee Harvey Oswald.
According to the transcript at the Johnson Presidential library in Austin, Texas, after pointing out that the Soviet Embassy visitor only posed as Oswald, Hoover let LBJ silently
“chew on the implications,” as James W. Douglass writes in
JFK and the Unspeakable. Their so-called lone assassin had
been the target of a high-level imposter, eight weeks prior to
his deed. Johnson was free to “draw his own conclusions as to
who was responsible for that impersonation.”
Think of that. The President of the United States and his
FBI chief, staring at an apparent plot to kill the previous president, one whose operational fingerprints implicate their own
side. Yet (as Hoover found even more galling) being treated
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Oliver Stone’s JFK remains a polemical, muckraking marvel, rivetingly
suspenseful despite 53 years of spoilers. The questions this film ignited in
the American imagination not only revealed a long-held, heartfelt, widespread rage against chroniclers of the news—a resentment which has
reached forest-fire proportions in the presidential election of 2016—but
led directly in 1992 to the passage, through Congress, of the JFK Records Act. The bill directs that all existing documents related to the assassination be made public by October 2017.
by their supposed peers as collateral players—mere chumps
to be conned.
Later, in December of ‘63, still seething at the CIA’s lie to
Johnson and himself, Hoover cautioned one of his agents to
be wary when dealing with the agency. “I hope you aren’t taken in,” he scribbled in the margin of a memo: “I can’t forget
the CIA withholding the French espionage activities in the
USA nor the [italics his] false story re Oswald’s trip to Mexico.
Only to mention two instances of their double-dealing.”
MUCKRAKERS, UNITE!
That Johnson’s once-classified conversations with Hoover
are now on the public record at all is the direct result of a
well-written film.
Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991)—co-scripted with Zachary
Sklar, drawn from books by New Orleans district attorney
Jim Garrison and assassination scholar Jim Marrs—survived
a potentially lethal crossfire of attacks on its first release, a
brutal barrage from every major US news outlet of the day,
aimed not only at the contents of the film but against Stone’s
personal integrity. In defiance of this, in fulfillment of a nationwide appetite, the American public nevertheless rebelled
and flocked to see what the picture had to say, earning it over
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$200 million dollars at that year’s box office.
To this day JFK remains a polemical, muckraking marvel,
rivetingly suspenseful despite 53 years of spoilers. One can argue with its theories and conclusions, but not the questions it
raises. The blaze these questions ignited in the American imagination not only revealed a long-held, heartfelt, widespread
rage against chroniclers of the news—a resentment which
has reached forest-fire proportions in the Presidential election
of 2016—but led directly in 1992 to the passage, through
Congress, of the JFK Records Act (upgraded in ’98). The bill
directs that all existing documents related to the assassination
be made public by October 2017. Among those items already
declassified are the LBJ transcripts quoted above.
We have to look past movie history and to two pillars of
American literature—Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet
Beecher Stowe, and The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair—to find
a specimen of dramatic storytelling so politically consequential. Small wonder the WGAW is awarding Oliver Stone
this year’s Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement. His
Nixon (1995) is of a thematic continuum with JFK, as is W
(2008) which he directed. Stone’s perpetual engagement with
the drama and riddles of American history are likewise of a
piece with his more diverse forays into Salvador, Vietnam,
Wall Street, talk radio, “natural born” killers, or even professional football. Each of his films has political bite and could
be characterized as a period piece set in the Historical Present.
“Even Stone’s most amoral characters are, in the end, like
us: all too human,” Guild president Howard A. Rodman
writes in tribute. “Stone has held a mirror up to our times,
and dares us again and again to look at our nation, and ourselves—without turning away.”
Stone’s latest, Snowden (2016), is a perfectly wrought
chamber piece that accompanies us in a dance along shadowy
moral tightropes over which Obama, for all his excellence,
had been condemned to preside. His film calls our attention
to the abyss below, a snake pit of invasive surveillance into
which we appear to be hurtling for keeps alongside Trump.
It speaks volumes about how much the world has caught up
with Stone’s preoccupations that Snowden has been so serenely received—even taken for granted—by pundits and critics
who, if anything, complain Stone has “mellowed.”
Grown subtle, I would argue. In the past, he grabbed viewers by the shoulders and would direct us as much as he did the
movie itself. In unfurling the story of CIA employee Edward
Snowden and his evolution from patriot to whistle-blower, embraced and vilified worldwide on a sudden par with
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Stone is at pains to let the
facts speak for themselves, with particular attention to those
pressures and choices that reveal Snowden as a human being.
Ironically, given the paranoia that has become so much
the air we breathe over the past 50 odd years, when Snowden
went public with his hacked treasures in June 2013, my initial impulse was to think of him as a double or triple agent.
“We need to cultivate our own Assange,” I pictured the team
at the National Security Agency plotting, prior to giving this
prodigy the assignment of going rogue.
Stone has applied his fierce intellect to arguing the opposite: the mystery of how conscience operates in a company
man; of how the virtues that made Snowden such a trusted
CIA and NSA contractor (loyalty to an ideal; a relentless
dedication to problem-solving) became the seeds of his rebellion as he grew to believe that our overzealous National
Security Agency was, if anything, the greatest threat we face
to America’s constitutional security.
IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL
“This is not a Snowden kind of thing,” the NSA insider
tells Alex Gibney, in his latest documentary Zero Days (2016),
a WGA nominee for Best Documentary screenplay. “What
he did was wrong. He went too far. He gave away too much.”
This insider is an anonymous “woman” (the implied gender could be a disguise) whose voice and face Gibney abstracts.
Their topic is “Stuxnet,” the public name for the 2010 Cyber
Attack launched against Iran’s nuclear reactors. According to
her, this malware’s actual code name was “Olympic Games.”
O.G., Stuxnet—by whatever moniker the international
spy agencies used—circled the cyber-globe, set up shop in
Iran and, as Gibney’s informer says, closed the doors behind
it. “Once inside, the worm acted on its own.”
A Zero Day assault, computer executive Liam O’Murchu
tells Gibney, “is an exploit that nobody knows about except the
attacker, so there’s no protection against it—there’s been ‘zero
days’ protection against it. That’s what attackers value.”
O’Murchu discovered Stuxnet, together with his fellow civilian coworker Eric Chien, while employed at the Santa Monica
offices of Symantec. The virus briefly throbbed through the Symantec computer systems en route to Iran in June, 2010. Its passage was muscular, self-contained, and palpably dangerous, like
an anaconda in full swoop beneath the kicking feet of defenseless swimmers. Chien and O’Murchu explain to Gibney how
they realized this was no ordinary malware, that it was “elegant,”
devised by “someone powerful,” navigating worldwide, literally
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Alex Gibney’s only access to a bottom-line truth comes through the words shared
by his documentary’s masked source: “We did Stuxnet. It’s a fact: CIA, NSA, and
the Military Cyber Command. It was a huge, multi-national, inter-agency opera-
tion. What I’m willing to give you will be limited, but we’re talking because everyone’s getting the story wrong, and we have to get it right.”
just-passing-by, coursing and coiling underfoot as it probed every
private station (millions, billions) in search of a specific target.
Conscious of what they were staring at, Chien joked to
O’Murchu: “Neither of us is suicidal, right? If one of us turns
up dead on Monday, the other will know.”
Grassy Knoll Gallows Humor, native to these realms of the
unreal we’ve been inhabiting for half a century.
Gibney’s Zero Days graphics are characteristically brilliant
at dramatizing Stuxnet’s technical intricacies, just as they
were for the hacks described in his 2013 film, We Steal Secrets:
The Story of Wikileaks. We’re shown in luminous precision
how the cyber-worm penetrates the Iranian nuclear facility at
Natanz and—acting for itself like an independent Artificial
Intelligence entity in a science fiction movie—takes charge,
lying to Iran’s technicians and prompting the fast-spinning
centrifuges under their bug-eyed scrutiny to wobble, accelerate, and tear themselves apart. This destroyed plans by
Iran’s leaders for building a nuclear arsenal any time soon; it
also added a new and terrifying dimension to world warfare:
“Malware capable of real-world physical destruction,” as the
NSA insider describes it.
No government or entity has ever claimed official responsibility—neither for the attack, nor for the double murder of
Iran’s two top nuclear scientists that preceded it. Hillary Clinton, shown in an archive clip from her tenure as Secretary of
State, adamantly denies any US role in the attacks. Former CIA
director Michael Hayden smiles like The Cheshire Cat when
asked on camera about Stuxnet: “Next question, please.” Gibney persists: Why can’t he talk openly? “Classified,” Hayden
replies. Pressed further, still smiling, he offers, “Two answers: ‘I
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don’t know,’ and ‘I wouldn’t talk about it anyway.’”
Counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke and other
bigwigs try to be helpful but are opaque. Gibney—who also
narrates—is understandably exasperated that it can be this
monumentally impossible to get anybody in the know to talk
with him on the record: How can you have a debate, he asks, if
everything’s a secret?
THE PLAYERS AND THE PLAYED
Gibney’s only access to a bottom-line truth comes through
the words shared by the documentary’s masked source. She
admits to what no one else will tell him: “We did Stuxnet.
It’s a fact: CIA, NSA, and the Military Cyber Command. It
was a huge, multi-national, inter-agency operation. Our main
partner was Israel—Mossad unit 8200.”
Why has she come forward?
“What I’m willing to give you will be limited, but we’re talking because everyone’s getting the story wrong, and we have to
get it right.”
She insists upon a more challenging limit. This mystery
source is—of necessity—not a single person, but a composite
of several NSA operatives who were only willing to answer
Gibney under conditions of complete invisibility. It is actress
Janice Tucker who wears the digital mask. She speaks verbatim
the transcripts taken by Gibney during his off-camera, deepcover interviews. He reveals this trick at the movie’s end, but
fairly. One could see he was getting nowhere with Hayden,
Clarke, or other public gatekeepers. If the deeper-level NSA
players who’ve come forward are somehow “playing” Gibney—using his film as a mouthpiece to plant a leak agreedupon at some higher level—he invites us to join the charade,
eyes open. The final effect he achieves is like that of a magician,
whipping a tablecloth away with a snap—while the facts he’s
painstakingly gathered gleam upright and undisturbed, right
where they were standing. (The NSA, CIA, and the Mossad
have issued no denials against the film since its 2016 release.)
What stands is the warning we’ve been accorded. Cyber
War is no longer a figment of the future—that future is here,
now—and it is world warfare’s first major step beyond the
splitting of the atom, the unleashing of Weapons of Mass
Disruption. The Stuxnet malware was a spectacular success
against Iran, but by so boldly playing our hand we exposed the
cards we’re holding to the eyes of other hostile players around
ALEX GIBNEY
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the global table, and have invited reprisal. “If we can do it to
them, they can do it to us,” the source(s) tell us. We’ve invited
our handiwork to be reverse-engineered, particularly by any
phalanx of cybernauts hard at work for Vladimir Putin.
Gibney’s WGA-nominated documentary feels all the more
prophetic now that it’s been convincingly argued, with bipartisan support, before the United States Congress that Russians
aggressively sabotaged Hillary Clinton with their latest mischief and slyly boosted the fortunes of their fair-haired boy.
Blowback: Donald Trump, the Stuxnet President.
WARRING NARRATIVES
Call this the Age of Disbelief. Conspiracy theories now
flourish like a national sick joke, left and right, about every
pivotal event, whether it’s 9/11 or the slaughter of children
at Sandy Hook. It’s as if we’ve driven ourselves mad by not
squarely facing the molestation we suffered as a society under
those bushes behind the grassy knoll.
Whoever did or did not kill JFK, his death closed one
chapter in American history—our sense of the United States
and its heritage as a shared adventure, “the masterpiece of
human history,” as my late friend Michael Cimino put it.
The murder of Lee Oswald in police custody two days later
began the chapter we are still living in—the one in which
almost nobody believes anything we’re told, especially by the
government, a schism in the American imagination which
continues to dominate our politics, and has reached a surrealist, even psychedelic climax with the elevation of Donald
Trump to the US Presidency.
Trump’s resistance to his Intelligence Briefings is understandable if we remember how the CIA lied to LBJ and Hoover—
but they had the sense to play their doubts close to the vest. For
the alternative is an insane howl: “We’re in a death battle, New
World Order,” barks Alex Jones, a Texas talk show host of whom
Trump is particularly fond. “9/11 was an inside job,” Jones likes
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to holler. “The Sandy Hook Massacre was a hoax! Globalists are pulling
out every stop to plunge the world
into war!” Early in his campaign,
Trump told Jones on the air: “I
just want to say your reputation
is amazing … We’ll be speaking a lot.” The day after the election—9/11, meet 11/9—Trump
phoned Jones in private to reiterate
his respect and gratitude.
“Everything is true and nothing
is true,” President Barack Obama
sighed post-election to David
Remnick of The New Yorker, coming to grips with the shrieking gusts
of Assange-level Wiki-whistles and
Breitbart-bartered Fake News that
defined the 2016 Election. “An
explanation of climate change from a Nobel-Prize winning
physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the
denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’
payroll,” he went on to say. “And the capacity to disseminate
misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate
and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
Stone has been making this point for years, not only in his
hyper-kinetic, multilayered style of filmmaking (especially since
JFK), but also through the more meditative examinations to
which he’s given voice in such documentary work as his 2012
series, The Untold History of the United States (director). Once a
lone voice in the wilderness, today he has plenty of company.
“History,” wrote James Joyce “is a nightmare from which
I am trying to awake.” We may be at the mercy of storytellers, but here’s the good news: We are storytellers. That is
a truth fundamental to all human beings—each of us lives
and breathes our own life story. Our times on this earth are
made spiritual by our needs to seize and comprehend not
only our own stories, but those of whom we love. Those of
us accorded the gift and vocation of “writer” merely live this
quest with conscious intensity.
“Power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy said in
his last public address. The date was October 26, 1963. He
was in Amherst, Massachusetts to dedicate the Robert Frost
library, and had only a few weeks to live.
“The great artist,” continued JFK, “has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world … If sometimes our greatest artists
have been the most critical of our society, it is because their
sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate
any true artist, makes [her, or] him aware that our nation falls
short of its highest potential. We must never forget that art is
not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
We have our work cut out for us.
WARNER BROS. TELEVISION GROUP
PROUDLY CONGRATULATES OUR NOMINEES FOR THE
2017 WRITERS GUILD AWARDS
DRAMA SERIES
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WRITTEN BY
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CHARLES YU
EPISODIC DRAMA
“I AM A STORM”
WRITTEN BY
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LONG FORM ADAPTED
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ON-AIR PROMOTION
(TELEVISION, NEW MEDIA OR RADIO)
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TM & © 2017 WBEI. All Rights Reserved.
VALENTINE DAVIES AWARD
WRITTEN BY DAVID GRITTEN
PORTRAITS BY BARRY MARSDEN
What Have You Done
for Me Lately?
Richard Curtis’ activism and screenwriting change
the world—for the better.
I
t’s been more than 20 years since Richard Curtis won a
WGA award (and landed an Oscar nomination) for his
screenplay of the British comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. His distinctive writing, rooted in sharply observed but
benign comedy, was equally evident in the subsequent hit films
Notting Hill and Love Actually, as well as his adaptations of the
first two Bridget Jones novels. With these films, he effectively
created his own sub-genre; and for a decade or so, it felt as
if he had personally shifted the epicenter of movie romantic
comedies to England.
All of these films bear Curtis’ unmistakable stamp, which
itself feels like an extension of his own character. In person he is
cheerful, affable, self-deprecating—and just occasionally a little halting, shy, and awkward. Not so far removed, then, from
Hugh Grant’s characters in those first three hits.
Yet there are other facets to Curtis. He is upbeat and optimistic about life, and even in these harsh times he clearly believes people are essentially good. Not only do these traits serve
the comic aspect of his films, they also inform the other half of
his life, which has to do with helping make the world an immeasurably better place to live.
Curtis, 60, is this year’s recipient of the WGAW’s Valentine
Davies award in recognition of his humanitarian efforts and
community service. There are numerous reasons why he’s especially deserving of such an honor.
He is co-founder and vice-chair of Comic Relief, the charitable organization he launched in 1985 with British actor-comedian Lenny Henry after they visited famine-ravaged Ethiopia. Three years later, Comic Relief launched the BBC telethon
Red Nose Day from Ethiopia; this fund-raising initiative featured dozens of comedians and other celebrities who urged
viewers to make donations to causes and projects in the Third
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World. Watched by an astonishing 30 million people (half the
population of the entire UK), it raised £15 million ($18.15
million). The telethon has since grown enormously as an annual TV event, and donations now exceed £1 billion ($1.21
billion) representing a success of extraordinary proportions.
Red Nose Day only launched in the US on NBC in 2015,
but the first two annual broadcasts have already raised a total
of $57 million.
CAMPAIGNING & ACTIVISM
Curtis heads up an enormously influential fundraising
organization with worldwide clout. You might imagine this
would be a full-time job. In his life, it is precisely half that: “I’ve
tended to spend 50 percent on fun and games (by which he
means screenwriting) and 50 percent on fundraising,” he says.
“I’ve twice taken an entire year off [from writing] to do a mix
between campaigning and activism. I did that in 2005, and
then again in 2014-15.”
His attraction to the idea of philanthropy first struck him in
his student days at Oxford: “I used to sit around at university
with lots of people who were complaining about poverty and
the government—while they bought themselves five rounds of
beer. And I used to think: Take the cash, give it to someone whose
life you want to change. Get yourself out of the pub and do some
political work. That was when I became interested in making a
difference to people’s lives in any way I could. And that’s what
finally happened with Red Nose Day.”
At the point he and Henry launched RND (as they call
it in-house), Curtis was by no means a public figure, but he
already had a reputation as a writer in British TV comedy. At
Oxford, he met and befriended Rowan Atkinson, who later
became globally famous as the comic character Mr. Bean. The
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Richard Curtis sees his advocacy work and screenwriting as part of a continuum: the
one feeds the other, and always did. Films and TV, he says, have opened his mind and
broadened his horizons. “I feel I’m part of a large community that’s very aware of how it’s
possible to use entertainment skills to change people’s hearts and minds.”
two men appeared together in university revues (“Rowan was
the talent and I was just the stooge,” Curtis explains). Curtis
was featured in Atkinson’s breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they co-wrote a BBC radio show in
1978 before advancing into TV, writing sketches for the series
Not the Nine O’Clock News.
Starting in 1983, Curtis co-wrote the popular BBC series
Blackadder, first with Atkinson and then with Ben Elton. He
had become a significant name within the British TV industry—but when Red Nose Day launched, Curtis could still walk
through London unrecognized.
He was already gravitating toward writing for feature films,
and his underrated screenwriting debut, The Tall Guy, was released in 1989. Jeff Goldblum played Dexter, an unsuccessful
American actor in London understudying for the lead role in
a musical about the Elephant Man; his main job is as fall guy
to an egocentric comedian (played by Atkinson). Dexter falls
for a nurse (Emma Thompson) who treats him for hay fever;
one of their amorous encounters is so vigorous they succeed in
wrecking an entire bedroom.
“It never occurred to me I was writing romantic comedy,”
says Curtis about the film. “I was just trying to write what I
thought I knew about. The Tall Guy was about someone who
was a stooge for a comedian—something I’d done with Rowan—and someone who had also fallen for a nurse while she was
administering hay fever injections, which I’d also done. So it
started a pattern of me writing characters who said things I’d
never had the nerve to say.”
He has always insisted this was even true
of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994),
now regularly cited as one of the great romantic comedies of all time. Some scenes in
it sprang directly from Curtis’ life: he cites
an incident when, after a dance at a wedding, an attractive woman cheerfully propositioned him, but he was too bashful to
accept her offer. That found its way into the
film, which became the top-grossing British
movie at the time of its release—until Curtis’ Notting Hill superseded it five years later.
He struck box office gold a third time in
2003 with Love Actually. Altman-esque in
structure if not in tone, it’s a largely upbeat
account of various people falling in love in
nine loosely intertwining stories. It capped
a decade of astounding commercial success.
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COMIC & FAMINE RELIEF
Yet during this period, when Curtis’ film career soared to
stratospheric heights, his work for Comic Relief not only continued, it increased. It coincided with Curtis broadening the
sweep of his humanitarian interests through his role in Make
Poverty History, an international coalition focusing on issues
relating to aid, trade, and justice.
For his part in Make Poverty History, Curtis joined forces
in 2005 with musician Bob Geldof, a prime mover of the historic Live Aid rock concerts 20 years previously; together the
two men helped organize the string of 10 “Live 8” benefit concerts, held around the world, mostly on the same July day. (The
biggest, in London’s Hyde Park, starred Paul McCartney, U2,
The Who, and Pink Floyd.)
Since Love Actually, Curtis had been mulling over the notion of bringing together the two disparate strands of his working life—by making a film that directly reflected his concerns
about the future of the planet.
The result was The Girl in the Cafe (2005), made for television and financed by the BBC and HBO. 2005 had long been
scheduled as the year for a G8 conference to address global
poverty, and Curtis seized the chance to write a screenplay
about political commitment and a worthy cause. “I had an extra valve put in when I started doing the Make Poverty History
campaign,” he recalls. “I thought, What we want to try and do
is convince the G8 that our responsibilities must be taken seriously—and that the public would like to live in a world without
extreme poverty, where climate change wasn’t wreaking havoc,
particularly among the poor.”
To maintain the audience’s interest, he
unsurprisingly framed this serious-minded
movie as a sophisticated romance, though a
tentative one of the May-December variety.
Bill Nighy (a perennial Curtis acting favorite) plays Lawrence, a shy senior civil servant
in the British government who happens to
meet Gina, a fiery young Scottish woman
with strong opinions about global poverty.
He invites her to accompany him to the G8
summit conference in Reykjavik, Iceland,
where she jeopardizes his career by speaking
out fiercely at a formal dinner attended by
several heads of state. Yet the summit eventually agrees to honor promises they made
five years earlier about the issue.
The Girl in the Cafe was seen by a tiny
fraction of the audience who saw Four Weddings or Notting
Hill—some three or four million—though Curtis calls it “the
film I’ve been involved in of which I’m most proud.”
Yet ironically, his participation in The Girl in the Cafe more
or less started and ended with the screenplay: “I was very busy
that year with the Make Poverty History campaign, so it was
also the film of mine I had the least to do with. It’s slightly
alarming it turned out so well. Perhaps I should have been
more hands-off throughout my career. I only turned up on
one day’s shooting.” On that day, he recalls, he made a single
suggestion to director David Yates: Surely Gina should stand
up to make her impassioned plea about world poverty to these
eminent politicians at the dinner table? “Yates said no. And he
was right. So a good thing I wasn’t there for longer.”
As if to underline that making The Girl in the Cafe was not
an isolated quixotic gesture, in 2012 Curtis wrote Mary and
Martha, another BBC-HBO venture, starring Hilary Swank
and Brenda Blethyn as two mothers (one American, one British) who lose their sons to malaria in Africa and join forces to
help combat the disease. Has the film helped? It’s impossible
to pinpoint a precise effect, but it has been shown in 50 countries across the world, has certainly increased awareness, and
contributed to a significant downward trend in malaria-related
deaths worldwide, though they still stand at 429,000 a year.
That figure is just one statistic that underlines the sheer size
of the task in eradicating diseases like malaria, TB, and AIDS,
as well as addressing global poverty. It’s reasonable to wonder
if Curtis’ innate optimism is ever dented by the scale of the
problems he and his colleagues try to address.
CHEER UP
Not really, it would seem: “Things are getting better,” he insists. “But it depends on how you look at it. There was a very interesting day recently in New York when the papers headlined a
story about an ineffective bomb that had gone off in a trash can,
killing nobody. It was on that very same day that the Global
Fund announced it had reached commitments of $13.8 billion
in the fight against AIDS, TB, and malaria. Now that’s wonderful news—but it literally wasn’t mentioned in the papers.”
Curtis is a believer in process and targets, and another of
his ventures, Project Everyone, which he founded in 2014, sets
“Global Goals” for sustainable development, aiming to end extreme poverty and combat inequality and climate change, by
the year 2030. He has directed a series of eye-catching short
films to aid this endeavor.
Where does all this frenetic activity leave his screenwriting career? The annual telecast of Red Nose Day is broadcast in
March in the UK and in May in the US. It’s a hectic time of
year for him. One wonders if he still has the same enthusiasm
for screenwriting, given the extent to which he throws himself
into “good works.”
“In an odd way, it makes [writing] more fun,” he says.
He currently has an idea in mind—“a delightfully joyful
movie, and I still get a lot of pleasure from that. But I think
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my subjects are changing. It’s not all about first love any more.
About Time (2013) was really about family and marriage and
how to spend your days. This new film is sort of about family
and creativity and love. As long as I can think of new things,
writing gives me just as much pleasure when I think of something funny as it ever did.”
And Curtis being Curtis, he takes the same assiduous approach to writing as he does to his charity and advocacy work. I
remind him of something Four Weddings director Mike Newell
told me when the film was on its way to becoming a massive
hit: that Curtis seemed unique among British screenwriters because he would write drafts over and over again, until he was
convinced he had nailed a scene.
Curtis credits his long-time partner Emma Freud (with
whom he has four children) for encouraging him to rewrite
vigorously: “She just read the first draft of my new film and
rejected half of it. Now that is a very useful counter-voice—I
really had to throw it up in the air and start again. She’s the
one who pushes me to do more drafts, which is great—because
she loves me, I love her, and she knows what I’m trying to do.”
He offers an example of his wife’s tough-minded criticism:
“Emma also thinks strangely that the charity work has given
me less time to write but more time to think. I tend to do projects I’ve had in mind for two years, so they’re slowly boiling on
the stove like stock. And by slowing yourself down, you only
write stories that really resonate. I’m always choosing between
three films I’d like to make and I always choose the one that
means the most to me. If I hadn’t been doing the other [charity] stuff, I might have done all three, and that would have
been less good for the world.”
Curtis sees his advocacy work and screenwriting as part of
a continuum: the one feeds the other, and always did. Films
and TV, he says, have opened his mind and broadened his
horizons: “I didn’t know anything about British poverty till I
saw Ken Loach’s Raining Stones. I knew nothing about South
America until I saw Missing, very little about slavery until 12
Years a Slave, and not much about American politics until I
watched The West Wing. The China Syndrome first alerted me
to those issues [about nuclear power].
“Jose Padilha, who directed the 2014 RoboCop remake, also
made this extraordinary documentary about people starving
in Brazil. Jay Roach has made political films—the guy who
did Meet the Parents and Austin Powers! There’s something
wonderful about that. So I feel I’m part of a large community
that’s very aware of how it’s possible to use entertainment skills
to change people’s hearts and minds. I’m just more impatient
in applying it.”
And what does being a recipient of the Valentine Davies
Award mean to him? “I’m really delighted, because you’re
aware of the different levels of fame. People will have heard of
Notting Hill, but probably not Mary and Martha. Red Nose Day
isn’t really connected to me. No one watching it in America
would make that connection. So the fact that people have put
the two pieces together is delightful.”
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PADDY
CHAYEFSKY
TELEVISION
LAUREL
AWARD
AARON SORKIN
WRITTEN BY DAVID GRITTEN
There are no definitive statistics to back
this up, but one imagines that if a few hundred of today’s aspiring screenwriters were
asked whose career they most admired and
whose writing they wished to emulate, Aaron
Sorkin would top the list.
With more than 25 years of writing for
the screen, Sorkin has developed a style so
distinctive that aspects of it can be parodied:
brainy, complicated characters, tasked with
solving complex problems, often walking
and talking simultaneously as they urgently,
eloquently, and wittily spill out ideas as fast
as a listener can assimilate them. There’s way
more to him than that, though vast swaths of
the public, confronted by a scene fitting this
description, would recognise it as Sorkinesque.
He has attained huge success both in film
(A Few Good Men, The American President,
The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs) and
TV (Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,
The Newsroom, and of course The West Wing).
It’s for the latter that Sorkin is being honored by the Writers Guild of America, West.
Appropriately, Paddy Chayefsky proved
equally as adept at writing for TV and movies in his day as Sorkin is today.
For generations now, screenwriters have
fretted that they receive insufficient attention
and credit for their part in the filmmaking
process. Directors and actors tend to hog the
glory and publicity, while the writer, who
after all is the prime mover in the whole
process, gets elbowed out. As someone who
regularly meets and talks to screenwriters for
Written By, I’ve long felt sympathy for you.
But Sorkin breaks that pattern of anonymity. He isn’t a man given to false modesty, and
in person he isn’t shy about stressing the huge
influence his scripts, especially their dialogue,
have on a finished film. And guess what?
He’s a screenwriter with a high profile, a guy
whose mere name can sell movie tickets or
persuade TV viewers to switch to the channel
that airs his shows. How bad can that be for
the profession?
I got an inkling of all this late in 2015
when Steve Jobs opened in London. I was
due to interview Sorkin for Written By on a
Sunday, but the previous evening there was
a BAFTA screening of the film, followed by
a Q&A session that I moderated. It was a
crowded stage—the six lead actors, including
Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, alongside director Danny Boyle and Sorkin. Strikingly, after hearing from all eight in turn, I
turned the Q&A over to the audience—and
almost everyone who raised their hand had
a question for Sorkin. Forget that Boyle is
arguably Britain’s best-loved director, or that
Fassbender and Winslet are two of our most
highly-regarded actors. The audience wanted
to hear from the screenwriter.
And why wouldn’t they? He has a brilliant
talent for restructuring a story (imagine the
Steve Jobs story as a conventional biopic, and
shudder). His gift for dialogue sets him apart:
at its best it can feel operatic, while some of
the longer speeches he writes for his characters have the ebb and flow of great soliloquies.
I made the observation to him that some of
his dialogue had a musical quality. “Dialogue
is music,” he shot back. Because he genuinely
believes that, Sorkin is insistent that actors
should get every word exactly right and in order. I informed him that more than 20 years
ago, Billy Wilder had told me precisely the
same thing. Sorkin shrugged silently with a
broad smile, as if to say: point proven.
It’s significant that Sorkin originally
wanted to be a playwright; his first big hit
film, A Few Good Men, was a stage play. He
wrote the film adaptation largely without interference, which colored his attitude to interference and “studio notes” on his scripts:
“The idiosyncrasies, the authorial voice gets
stripped out,” he told me. “And those idiosyncrasies are not mistakes, I think they’re
beautiful. You want that. And you shouldn’t
have to get a unanimous vote from everyone
around a table to be able to do that, because
you won’t get unanimity.”
Sorkin, then, has fought his own battles
and developed his writing style relatively unimpeded, partly because of his formidable
personality. He admits he’s acutely aware of
the possibility of failure, that with his next
script he’ll be “found out.” But then if it’s really anxiety that fuels his work, maybe it also
infuses his writing with a zest and urgency.
And for those of us who admire his work,
who’d want him to lose that?
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WRITTEN BY BURT METCALFE
I met Dan Wilcox in 1979. I was executive producer of M*A*S*H,
M*A*S*H and he and
partner Thad Mumford had joined the writing staff for the last four of 11 seasons.
Dan was a smoker then, the only one in the group, and was relegated to an arm chair
in the far corner of the writers’ room. The rest of us sat at a large round table. Dan
did so without complaint, perhaps yet another example of service to fellow Guild
members.
He was always a prolific contributor to the day’s work. My wife felt he was the
most adult, least neurotic writer in the group. Certainly all comedy writers know
what a supreme compliment that can be—or in some cases a badge of honor. After
long stretches of trying to solve a story problem, or searching for a joke amidst unproductive hilarity (much of it obscene), I would often beg in frustration, “OK guys,
now one for the script.” Countless times Dan, after sitting pensively in his remote
corner, would be the one to come up with the “one.”
Dan grew up in Manhattan and became a Guild member on the East Coast in
1965, when he got a job writing for Bob Keeshan’s children’s show Captain Kangaroo.
Following that, he worked on Sesame Street for two-and-a-half years, joining a group
that signed cards to authorize the Guild to represent them in collective bargaining.
Following the M*A*S*H years he moved to MTM, where he worked with Allan
Burns. Perhaps sensing the same energy and wisdom I had perceived, Allan was the
first to suggest Dan consider running for the board.
In 2005 he did just that, beginning the first of four full two-year terms. He has
become passionately active in several areas, including the Internet and new media.
He chairs the Career Longevity program, and has long fought for the causes of local
news writers and daytime writers.
Dan Wilcox has been heartened by having been able to support news writers
Kathy Kiernan (KNX) and Courtney Ellinger (KCBS/KCAL), and daytime writer
Karen Harris get elected to the board.
DAN WILCOX
In addition to serving the Guild, he continues to write and teach. He stopped
smoking years ago.
WILCOX ON WILCOX
I ran for the Board in the 80s, and I lost. Later, someone called from the
nominating committee and asked me to run again. I thought, Now I can do it.
And again, I lost. I came in ninth place. Then someone stepped down and in the
constitution if an opening occurs, the board can fill it. I was invited to take the
place. I served for another year and got a feel for the board and how it worked.
This time I knew what I wanted to do.
Now, while chairing the Longevity Committee, I try to get attention to older
writers and get them hired. But it’s not easy to change things.
What I’ve succeeded at is hard won and not enormous, but still satisfying. I used
to go camping and I remember one of the campgrounds had a sign: Please leave the
campsite in better condition than you found it. My goal is to leave this campsite better
than I found it.
WE PROUDLY CONGRATULATE OUR
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PAUL
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SUSANNAH
GRANT
The Guild’s Paul Selvin honorary
award is given each year to the
WGA member whose script best
embodies the spirit of the constitutional and civil rights and
liberties that are indispensable
to the survival of free writers
everywhere.
WRITTEN BY LISA ROSEN
Working on Confirmation was satisfying “in a
million different ways,” says Susannah Grant. The
first reason that comes to her mind occurred during a
visit to a college campus a few years ago.
“Great college,” she remembers. “Highly educated young people, all around 20 years old. I was
talking to a group that was interested in film, and
they asked me what I was working on. I mentioned
the story about Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas
confirmation hearings. Out of 10 of them, only two
knew what I was talking about.”
Not long after that, Grant asked Professor Anita
Hill if she ever had a difficult moment with her
students when they first realized who was teaching
them. “And she said, ‘Most of them have no idea who
I am or what I’ve done.’” Grant was shocked, even if the
hearings happened in 1991.
“Regardless of whom you believe, you cannot deny
that it’s completely changed how we talk about, think
about, and litigate sexual harassment. The fact that that
galvanizing moment had just been abandoned from
our cultural history was very upsetting, for a couple of
reasons. One, you just should never forget moments
like that. Two, because it was such a clear example of
the sacrifice of public service, and that civil rights are
never handed over. There’s usually a body count; they
have to be fought for. It’s really important to reinforce
that—every day—for people to realize how hard-won
the civil liberties we do enjoy were. It’s so easy to forget.”
Part of the reason for cultural amnesia? The hardwon victories. “Of course I have healthcare, of course
my kids go to school with kids of other races. It was
not long ago that that wasn’t the case.”
And it may not always be the case going forward.
Watching President Trump sign the Global Gag Rule
flanked by seven men was all too reminiscent of Anita
Hill facing an all-male panel of senators.
Which brings Grant to another reason this story
is so timely. “Everybody who knows about Anita
Hill—if they believe her, and not everyone does—
knows that she spoke up because she thought it was
her civic responsibility. But the only reason those
hearings were held was because the American people
demanded it.”
Grant lists the public’s actions that forced the
hearings: “The news got out that she had these allegations and the Judiciary Committee was not pursuing
them. The American people flooded Capitol Hill
with calls. They shut down the switchboard. It’s so
important to remember the power of the citizenry,
and that those people work for us. If we make our
will known, and it is overwhelming, it can become
impossible for them to ignore it. That’s the thing I
was most struck by, and that I find to be most relevant for today.”
The resulting HBO film that premiered last April
is a revelation, even for the people who were glued to
their televisions while the hearings unfolded. Grant,
executive producer Michael London, and star Kerry
Washington were all compelled to make the movie
after seeing Freida Lee Mock’s documentary, Anita.
“It’s beautiful,” says Grant. “But I came away from
it thinking, I really want to know what happened
when the cameras weren’t rolling.”
To write the screenplay, she dove into the research,
fully cognizant that only two people know with absolute certainty who was telling the truth.
“And I’m not going to pretend I’m one of them.
I thought that was really important. You can say
whom you believe, and whose story makes more
sense to you, but I think when you approach a story
like this, you end up with a much better script if you
open your mind to all the possibilities.”
Grant also wanted the script to be fact-checked by
all involved, so it would become bulletproof to critics on
that front. She reached out to both Hill and Thomas for
their participation. (Thomas declined.)
After all of her interviews, Grant came away feeling the story was not primarily about who was telling
the truth, as compelling as that angle is. “The conflict
didn’t seem to be between him and her—it seemed
to be between the powerful and the powerless. In that
situation, I would put both Anita Hill and Clarence
Thomas on the more powerless end of the scale.”
Grant is thrilled to receive the Paul Selvin Award,
even as she hastens to note that Anita Hill was the one
who did the real hard work, not her. But as the college
visit highlighted, writing stories that dramatize constitutional rights and civil liberties is one key to protecting them. In a democracy, hidden figures need to be
revealed, for the betterment of all.
Grant is more comfortable discussing what the
Guild means to her. A family member recently came
down with a mysterious illness that took five doctors
to diagnose. “Honestly, every single doctor’s visit,
I thought, Thank god for everyone in the years before
who fought their butts off for us to have fair pension and
health programs. And I’m really proud to be a part of
the group that’s on the negotiating committee now to
make sure that that right—not privilege, the right—
of healthcare is sustained for writers in the future. I’m
a huge believer in the power of collective bargaining
and fellowship of a union, so I’m really pleased to be
among the members.”
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Mike JuDGe
WRITTEN BY STAN BERKOWITZ
Who is the real Mike Judge? Is he a snickering overgrown adolescent, like his
creations Beavis and Butt-Head? Or does he see himself as a calm, sensible guy,
surrounded by eccentrics like Hank from King of the Hill, which he co-created
with Greg Daniels?
I couldn’t say. I’ve only met him once, just a few months before he was selected
to be this year’s recipient of the Guild’s Animation Writing Award, and back then,
he seemed a little guarded—as anyone might when asked to make conversation
with a stranger. But then again, he also seems kind of guarded and suspiciously
easygoing in the interviews I’ve subsequently read. Which means the best way to
discover who he is might be by looking at his work.
And there’s a lot of it: 222 episodes of Beavis and Butt-Head, plus a B&B
theatrical feature from 1996 that he co-wrote and co-directed, and—just as
he did with the series—provided the voices for both Beavis and Butt-Head, as
well as some of the other characters. Then there are 258 episodes of the Emmywinning King of the Hill, which provided WGA coverage for its writers––not
always a given in the animation field.
And let’s not forget his live-action work: most recently, there’s HBO’s Emmynominated Silicon Valley, which he co-created with John Altschuler and Dave
Krinsky, and before that came the feature film Extract (2009), which Judge
wrote and directed.
Judge’s first live-action feature was 1999’s Office Space, which he also directed,
but it’s 2006’s live-action Idiocracy that gives what I believe to be the clearest picture of who Judge is. Co-scripted with Etan Cohen, Idiocracy is set in a cartoonish
America of the future, where stupidity runs rampant, the president is a muscular
half-wit, and an IQ of 100 qualifies someone as a genius.
It’s biting (and, as it turns out, prescient) social satire, and it helps put Judge’s
earlier animated creations, Beavis and Butt-Head, into better perspective. A lot of
viewers thought they were charming little devils out to puncture society’s pretenses,
but in light of Idiocracy, it’s pretty clear that Judge actually intended the two of
them to be (slight) exaggerations of the kind of people who took Beavis and ButtHead as their heroes: the MTV audience.
That Judge got away with it is an indication of how finely honed his satirical tools are (and that Idiocracy never found a mass audience bolsters George S.
Kaufman’s belief that satire is what closes on Saturday night).
The one time I spoke with him, Judge was in the midst of writing, producing,
and directing Silicon Valley, and I wanted to know if he had any more animation
projects lined up. He told me that when he’s working on an animation project, he
feels a need to do live-action, and vice versa. So the wait for more animation from
this very gifted and very prolific writer/director/producer/animator/actor might
not be long.
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“UNDER SIEGE” (THE STRAIN)
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JOE LAWSON
EPISODIC DRAMA
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HEATHER MARION
JAMES ANDERSON
FRED ARMISEN*
MICHAEL CHE
TINA FEY
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IN COMEDY WRITING HONOREE
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* REPRESENTED IN ASSOCIATION WITH
DIXON TALENT, A WME|IMG COMPANY
** REPRESENTED IN ASSOCIATION WITH
UNITED AGENTS
WRITTEN BY F.X. FEENEY
JEAN RENOIR
AWARD FOR
INTERNATIONAL
SCREENWRITING
ACHIEVEMENT
ABBAS
KIAROSTAMI
“I don’t like to tell stories,” Abbas Kiarostami
once remarked.
He was being half-playful. From his birth in
1940 to his death from cancer at 76 in the summer of 2016, Kiarostami lived stories—first as a
poet, photographer, and graphic designer, then
most unforgettably as a self-taught filmmaker, in
the years both before and after the seismic jolt of
revolution in 1979 radically transformed his native Iran. What’s more, he loved discovering stories. His great body of work—some 40-plus films
between 1970 and his death—bears the glowing
stamp of this excitement. Such passion makes it
only natural that the Writers Guild should honor
his memory with this year’s Jean Renoir Award
for International Screenwriting Achievement.
What Kiarostami loathed, what he defied, was
any impulse to dictate a story to his viewers. “I
don’t like to explain, arouse the lower emotions,
give advice; I don’t like to burden audiences with
a sense of guilt,” he said. Watching other people’s
films? “I’m very reluctant when I see an attempt
to make me cry. It puts me off.”
More playfully still—teasing the slam-bang
aesthetics of movie-lovers worldwide, over-awed
by Hollywood’s often violent grammar—he
welcomed complaints that his methods (long
master-shots; nuanced repetitions; slow if sure
surprises) put some people to sleep: “There are
films that take their viewers hostage. I like films
that put you to sleep. I like films that are kind
enough to give you a little nap in the theater, but
that keep you awake, after. The film that has lasting power is the one you begin to reconstruct the
moment you emerge.”
Yet Kiarostami himself was always wide awake,
in frame after frame. The act of paying attention
is the essence of what his movies are about and he
invites us to be particularly vigilant on the borders between illusion and reality.
THE POET OF THE ZIG-ZAG PATH
His breakthrough to an international audience came with Close-Up (1990), in which Kiarostami appears as himself, by name, but with his
back to us, covering an actual courtroom trial in
Tehran. Amazingly, after the trial, he persuades
both the man on trial and his accusers to play
themselves in re-enactments of the crime. Much
as the word “docudrama” has been applied to
this film with a plodding regularity, the result
is closer to poetry: unpredictable tensions built
into each scene push against the “crime-story”
under scrutiny; we’re invited to risk surprise at
the mixed motives and mysteries in each of the
people we’re watching.
“I know my actions cannot be justified legally,” the meek defendant, Hossain Sabzian, tells
the turbaned judge, as he confesses to a hoax he
perpetrated on a well-to-do family: “But I want
my love of the arts to be taken into account.”
He had briefly convinced the Ahankhah family
that he was a famous filmmaker, and would use
them and their house in his next movie. In reality, he was a poor laborer struggling to support a
small family. Was he trying to fleece his victims
financially? No. Instead, Sabzian relished having
“won their respect. They were ready to obey me,
to cut down trees in their yard if I asked, simply
because they supported me morally as a director.”
He’s magically been transformed into a revered
being, “a man aware of people’s sufferings and
difficulties.” Even when he accepted money from
one of the sons as “an advance” against the mirage
of a budget, his motive was not theft (though he
certainly needed money): What he treasured was
that the act of giving money made the charade
“more real.”
Making matters more real is the heartbeat in
Kiarostami’s body of work. Through the 1990s
his reputation grew largely in response to what
are known as the Koker films, named for the village where they were made, some 350 miles north
of Tehran. Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987)
and its most direct companion Life, and Nothing
More… (1992) chart the fortunes of two young
brothers, Babek and Ahmed Ahmed Poor. They
played the leads in the first film, but their fates
were unknown after the Manjil-Rudbar earthquake of 1990, which claimed the lives of 40,000
people and wracked the region around Koker.
The second film details Kiarostami’s search—using actor Farhad Kheradmand as his proxy, in the
role of “The Director”—for evidence of what has
become of the two boys. The way is made exceptionally hard by blocked roads and widespread
devastation. The protagonist and his son encounter a motley of survivors in this oddly silent,
oddly pastoral landscape (Kiarostami’s eye dotes
on the beauty of zig-zagging roads and mountain
valleys) but they never find the two boys.
“You can’t forget that over 20,000 children
were killed in that earthquake,” said Kiarostami.
“My two heroes could have been among them.”
“I’m drawn to unique people,” Kiarostami said. The man under arrest in Close-Up and the survivors of the Koker quake have
that quality in common.
Extremity, whether inner or outer directed, has brought forth
something indelible in their spirits that Kiarostami valued above
all and was eager to communicate. “Often films don’t represent
people,” he said. “They don’t relate to people. None of my characters come from cinema. I don’t let them become fake beings.”
The young man who emerges at the center of Through the Olive
Trees (1994) is a marvel of stubborn will. Himself a survivor of the
quake, deputized by the film crew Kiarostami has once again sent
into the breach, he refuses to work as a mason, though that’s what
he’s been trained to do—all the endless rebuilding in the quake’s
aftermath has left him sick to death of lifting stones. He is happy
to work as an actor. Alas, he keeps blowing the simple lines he’s
been asked to say. “You’re supposed to say you lost 65 of your family,” he is repeatedly told—but refuses, on principle. “Why? I only
lost 25 of my family!” Kiarostami shrewdly juxtaposes dramatic
license and life and these little exchanges—one can feel him siding
with the boy. Twenty-five is a terrible enough number if they’re
your relatives.
Meantime, between takes, he delivers an impassioned marriage proposal to the young woman he loves. They were engaged
before the quake, but most of her family was wiped out and the
distant aunts and uncles who’ve taken over want her to have
nothing to do with this young man. “He doesn’t have a house,”
they argue. (What do they expect? Nobody does, except in the
most makeshift sense.) “Old women only think of rich men and
houses,” he argues back. “Intelligence and understanding are important, too.” She is staring at a book, refusing to look him in the
eye. “Have you got a heart made of stone or what?” Then we hear
the buzzer and he has to break off and do another take of his two
or three lines—blowing that death toll figure, again and again,
before mounting the staircase to his first mark and hectoring the
silent beauty. “I swore I’d never be a mason again,” he tells her.
“But I’d do it for you.”
KIAROSTAMI’S CHERRY ORCHARD
His iconic masterpiece is Taste of Cherry (1997), which won
the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Here we follow “Mr. Badii”—we are
never given his familiar name—as he drives the ever zigzagging
roads, which crown the high hills above Tehran. The surrounding
landscape is arid and rugged and he is on a peculiar quest. He
wants to find an able-bodied male willing to bury him, after he
has committed suicide. “I’m not asking you to help kill me,” he
carefully explains to anyone who will hear his pitch. He does not
want to violate anybody’s religious beliefs. He has already dug the
hole and will crawl in on his own. “I’m only giving you a shovel,”
he pleads. “Twenty spades full of earth over my head, if you call
my name at sunrise and I don’t answer. If I do, take my hand and
help me out of the hole.” He will leave a thick wad of cash waiting
for them on the dashboard of his car, which they are free to take,
no matter what he may decide.
He never says why he wants to kill himself. “When you’re unhappy you hurt other people, and hurting other people is a sin,”
is as close as Badii comes to an explanation. The silence surrounding his desire gives his need sympathetic power. We know only
that he cannot turn his mind from the prospect, whatever he
decides, and that becomes the mainspring of our emotional involvement, and the film’s suspense. The overall feeling is directly
akin to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”
Kiarostami concludes with a shock—I leave this detail to the
film, if you haven’t seen it. Suffice it to say this is the boldest
expression yet of his kinship to Pirandello, Brecht, and Thornton
Wilder in terms of openly inviting us to resolve his protagonist’s
agonies with the power of our own imaginations. An interesting controversy briefly arose, at first, over Taste of Cherry. Critics
wondered, including this critic: Was his ending tricky because of
censorship? Iran’s present government is, after all, a theocracy legendary for its punitive power, and suicide is a sin that goes against
their every acceptable code.
Kiarostami rejected this. “Censorship is often the first or second
question I am asked in the West. I get irritated,” he says on the
Criterion edition of Taste of Cherry. He endured poverty at home,
because certain choices of his—like refusing to bring back those
two missing boys in Life, and Nothing More...—made his movies
unpopular with the Iranian public. “Censorship doesn’t bother me.
Not that I endorse it, but the problem of censorship has always
existed. Even in our homes we grow up burdened with it.”
As an American critic—and an ardent admirer of Iranian
actor and filmmaker Parviz Sayyad (Dead End, 1977; The Mission, 1983), who brilliantly satirized the Shah but chose exile in
America after the revolution because he knew his brand of confrontation would see him dead under the Ayatollah—I delayed
seeing Kiarostami’s films for years because I assumed they’d been
crushed under the thumb of authoritarian rule. How wonderful to discover, as with Andrei Tarkovsky and his relation to the
Soviet Union, that certain chameleons of genius not only persist,
but thrive against hostile circumstance.
“No form of inquisition can control our fantasies,” said Kiarostami. In the same spirit by which poet Boris Pasternak chose
to stay in Russia after the Soviets took over in 1917, he needed
native soil to stay fertile, and fruitful—to become himself, artistically. Whether navigating the court systems or observing the
workers, Mr. Badii engages in his lonely quest; his portraits of
everyday life in contemporary Iran feel timeless, profound.
Given that in 2017 we Americans awaken each day in the
“homeland security” of a national security state, questions of
censorship, of authoritarian rule, have more urgency than ever.
Kiarostami sets a wonderful example. His films are built cleanly—free of outward manipulation. He had the strength to face
the world as it is, and the cunning to choose his battles. One can
fight dictatorship, first and last, by trusting life’s constant transformations, and staying true to that: “All certainty in whatever
form is an absolute lie. That’s why doubts persist, and make a
situation more real.”
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three female leads, would be considered a potential flop. Instead, as
Schroeder speaks, it continues to soar at the box office.
But Schroeder suffered lean years, when she didn’t make enough
money to qualify for health insurance and lived in a rat-infested
studio just to stay in the industry. With every rejection, she would
give herself no more than 24 hours to wallow on the couch with her
cats before getting back in the game. That remains her rule. “This
town is flooded, and it’s a real struggle to get the jobs,” she says.
“You take odd jobs to make ends meet, and so you have to want it,
and you have to keep going. It takes a long time to make it.”
Despite her math and science talents, she always danced, and
she won a science fiction writing competition in middle school.
At Oxford, she actually wrote an award-winning musical, and another for her senior thesis. And she has just sold a scripted music-themed drama, Inspiration, to E!. “I’m pretty extroverted for a
writer, and I get bored easily,” she says about her forays into Asian
Indian Bhangra dancing, improv, and stand-up. But on graduation, she went into finance. “There was something very exciting to
me about a pantsuit, and an expense account, and being the head
of a boardroom.”
Unfortunately (fortunately?) her timing was off. The Enron
scandal hit Wall Street, and the Arthur Andersen accounting firm
where she worked collapsed. Restless at KPMG, and assigned to
help a client, instead of turning in spreadsheets like her colleagues,
she produced a movie. Her boss’s reaction: “Go to film school, for
God’s sake, Allison.” And she did.
Luckily, she’d saved enough money to pay her way through
USC, living with roommates in Los Feliz and budgeting carefully. With her goal of directing, she watched fellow students
bankrupt themselves financing movies that went nowhere beyond the occasional festival. She decided to instead write her way
into directing via a thesis script instead of a film. Once out of
USC, she didn’t flinch about taking entry-level jobs. “A lot of
my classmates, they wanted to make it big. Of course, we all
wanted to make it big. But it’s a process, and I was willing to be
a PA.” Which she was, on the Smallville TV series and Pineapple
Express feature, before landing on 90210 in 2008 as a staff writer.
“I actually had to take off ‘financial consultant’ from my resume
because no one would hire me.”
Schroeder spent time on the Hidden Figures set where she had
her hair done in a beehive, and did a cameo. She was watching the
lead actresses perform a scene in the segregated NASA cafeteria
when she noted their demeanors were reserved, as befitted that
time. “The moment they yelled ‘cut,’ they all just burst out laughing and joking with each other,” Schroeder says. “Octavia Spencer
said last night, ‘I’m a modern woman with agency.’ And I thought,
that’s right. The characters had to hold themselves back, but these
women don’t. They’re modern women. They can laugh and rule
the set. It’s okay now.”
One reason the movie is touching people, Schroeder believes, is
because audiences keep expecting something terrible to happen to
these women during their struggle, and it doesn’t. As the stakes in
their stories grow higher, the women just keep rising above adversity. “I’d like there to be justice in this world, and there rarely is, and
I get pretty devastated by it,” Schroeder says. “I hope we can see the
hope in Hidden Figures.”
W G AW
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