Sat. Sep 26th, 2020

Santa Barbara Film Fest: Writers Panel featuring Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Noah Harpster

Top: Christopher Markus, Noah Harpster, Greta Gerwig
Bottom: Stephany Folsom, Lulu Wang (courtesy of SBIFF)

The writers panel at 35th Santa Barbara Film Festival featured a range of writers from all types of films that earned success in 2019.  Here are some of the panel highlights:

Christopher Markus (Avengers: Endgame) decided to be a writer while watching an episode of Baywatch in the ‘90s.  “Hey, somebody writes that and they get paid to do it!” 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood writer Noah Harpster revved up the crowd early by telling of his days studying acting at UC Santa Barbara.  He then recounted how he started writing as something to do between auditions.

Greta Gerwig, Oscar-nominated for writing Little Women, got the most love from the room the entire evening, as the crowd hung on every word she said.  She told stories from when she was starting out and what she studied in school, “I studied philosophy because there are lots of ways to not make money.”

She shared the secret to how she learned to become a screenwriter.  When she was auditioning for roles, more often than not she was given entire working scripts.  When she wouldn’t land the part, she would hold onto the script and then compare that to the final product when the film finally came out and learn from the differences.  The audience loved that.

Stephany Folsom, writer of Toy Story 4, recounted how she was told to sign an NDA and get on a plane to the Pixar headquarters in northern California, not knowing anything about the project.  She arrived and the entire brain trust of Pixar was sitting there.  They told her the project was Toy Story 4 and her instant reaction was “why??”   Big laughs.

Folsom came to understand when they said that even though so much seemed to be wrapped up in Toy Story 3, Woody’s story still needed a final chapter.  What she loved most, however, was the chance to write Bo Peep as an action heroine, something the franchise hadn’t seen before.  The depth of Folsom’s passion was not lost on the audience, and they erupted in applause when she explained the theme of the film, which, for her, centers on Bo Peep and her journey: “who do you become when the world throws you out?”

Noah Harpster told of the year and a half odyssey of bringing Fred Rogers’ life to the screen.  For so long, they had been promised that “there will never be a Fred Rogers movie.”  That all changed when they met with Fred Rogers’ widow and she gave it her blessing, with only one caveat:  “her only demand was that we not treat her husband as a saint.”

Harpster told of the moment he realized the power of Rogers.  His own two year old was having a particularly bad day and, out of desperation, Harpster put on a Mr. Rogers Neighborhood tape and his two-year old instantly calmed down and gave Mr. Rogers an attention he himself had never even seen.  “Fred Rogers was a warlock.” 

Lulu Wang (The Farewell) admitted she was self-taught as a writer. As she discussed her challenge of having no real climax to her film, she discovered that the fear of the lie being revealed was the monster needed for tension throughout the film.  “You don’t need a climax if there is the constant fear of the monster in the background,” she remarked.

In response to this, Harpster said his movie really doesn’t have a climax either, so he supposes Fred Rogers is his monster, which the audience absolutely loved. 

Then Harpster and Markus looked over at each other as they both instantly realized their next billion-dollar concept:  “Fred Rogers: Avenger.” 

Wang said that she enjoys it when her actors don’t know if they are in a comedy or a drama.  “I like that my actors didn’t know, because that’s life.  Who goes to a funeral and says, ‘will this be a drama?’ “

Talking about their next projects, Wang told the crowd that she’s writing a film with an all-female writers room.  When it was suggested that they add a man to make it more diverse, she said, “Nah.”

There were audible “oohs” in the room when Markus announced his next film is a screen adaptation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Gerwig noted she will be acting in The Three Sisters in the spring, then writing the film Barbie.  “Which is a natural extension of Chekhov,” she quipped.

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