The annual Writer’s Panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is always one of the highlights of the week, as the festival gathers writers of some of the biggest films of the year for a discussion of their films and craft. This year’s panel was hosted by IndieWire’s Editor-at-large Anne Thompson, and featured seven screenwriters, every one an Oscar nominee this year:
- Zach Baylin, writer of King Richard, nominated for Best Original Screenplay
- Kenneth Branagh, writer of Belfast, nominated for Best Original Screenplay
- Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer of The Lost Daughter, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay
- Sian Heder, writer of CODA, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay
- Adam McKay, writer of Don’t Look Up, nominated for Best Original Screenplay (with David Sirota)
- Denis Villeneuve, writer of Dune, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts)
- Eskil Vogt, writer of The Worst Person in the World, nominated for Best Original Screenplay (with Joachim Trier)
Jane Campion, Oscar-nominated for her adapted screenplay of The Power of the Dog, was supposed to attend, but was unable to travel to the festival after testing positive for COVID. She sent a video message, expressing her disappointment in not being there.
When asked about how she started as a writer, Heder reminisced about how she used to throw parties as a 10-year-old and hand out character descriptions to all her friends and make them act out a play where she would be killed and then she’d solve her own murder. Heder and Gyllenhaal both started as actors. Gyllenhaal says the difference between acting and writing is that acting is fast and collaborative, while writing gives you time and freedom. Heder, Baylin, and Gyllenhaal, all parents of young children, agree that the biggest challenge to writing is finding the space and time to focus on it. Baylin would write scripts on the back of sides while he would be sitting in the prop truck of Gossip Girl, before he was a professional writer and worked in the prop department. He always knew he wanted to be a writer, he feels writing is the purest part of the filmmaking process.
Regarding how she came to write and direct The Lost Daughter, considering she had never done either before, she said that she was moved by the book, written by an anonymous author who goes by the pen name Elena Ferrante, and pursued them to get the rights to write the screenplay. Ferrante agreed, in a letter, to give Gyllenhaal the rights, but only on the condition that she herself direct it. Gyllenhaal was hesitant, but eventually agreed. She was unsure of how to go about it, so she wrote a first draft which adhered pretty closely to the book, but when she saw Ferrante pen an open letter to her in The Guardian offering her the freedom to tell the story in her own way, Gyllenhaal said she felt she had permission to write the script in her own voice, which was the key to unlocking everything. She admits she let “strange, dark and unusual parts of myself into the script.”
When asked about the film’s controversial portrayal of a mother who doesn’t like being a mother, Gyllenhaal expressed a natural reticence to explore that, being a mother herself, even though she of course understood it, prefacing it by saying, “I fucking LOVE my kids!” But she did recall how she was writing the scene where Jessie Buckley’s character admits that she doesn’t like talking to her children on the phone while on a plane and found herself instinctively looking around to make sure nobody saw her writing it. “We were in dangerous territory, and I liked it.”
Gyllenhaal admits that most of her script was written on planes, as it was the only time she would get six uninterrupted hours. Most of the panel agreed that the most essential thing that writers need is space, and it’s often the hardest thing to find.
Eskil says he was always “a passive dreamer.” He dreamt about making movies when he was young, but, being from Norway, filmmaking felt so far away. Although he felt making movies was out of reach, he said “nobody can stop me writing,” so he just started. He met and befriended fellow Norwegian director Joachim Trier and they decided to make movies together. The Worst Person in the World is loosely considered to be the third film in Trier and Vogt’s commonly-referred to “Oslo Trilogy,” comprising of three films set in Oslo and starring Anders Danielsen Lie, the first two being Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Addressing the concept of the trilogy, Vogt admits it was not intentional. He and Trier found themselves writing films with the same actors and similar themes, so, to avoid people thinking they were just repeating themselves, “just say it’s part of a trilogy!”
Heder had to learn ASL (American Sign Language) to write CODA, and calls it “one of the most interesting journeys of my life.” But there were inherent challenges. She wasn’t sure how the humor in her script would translate to ASL, as English and ASL are two completely different languages. But she confessed she loves ASL, as it is a very cinematic language and works so well on film. There were moments when her script was improved on the spot when it was translated to ASL, citing the example of a line where the script says “die,” which, in ASL, is a very gentle hand gesture, whereas the word “kill” is much more active and energetic, so they changed the line to include “kill” instead of “die,” because it was more effective for the scene, visually, and expressed the emotions better, cinematically.
Heder says she also had to learn the different dialects of ASL, including Gloucester, Massachusetts dialects, where they filmed and where the characters are from. The language was an ever-evolving thing on the set of CODA, she notes, “it breathed all through the process, which was magical.” Heder particularly praised actor Troy Kotsur for using the language in a “magnificent” way. “He plays within the language.” She admits that the subtitles we see are what she wrote, but what he’s doing on screen is not in the script. He’s riffing, so deaf audiences have a whole different experience of the film, which she loves.
Villeneuve said he became a writer because he was terrible at hockey (he’s from Canada). He borrowed his grandfather’s typewriter when he was a kid and wrote a sci-fi story–a “very bad” sci-fi story. He doesn’t consider himself a good writer. A French-Canadian from Montreal, he says writing scripts in English is the “most expensive English language program in the world.” He admits he needs help, which is why he has Eric Roth as his co-writer. Roth would write a first draft and then Villeneuve would take that draft and make it his own. Villeneuve admitted Roth’s first draft of Dune was long and very expensive. “After four pages, we were out of budget.” So Villenueve had to condense it into the long script that would eventually be cut into two parts. They brought in writer Jon Spaihts to help with dialogue. Villeneuve says, “writing is like archaeology: the story exists, you just have to dig to find it.”
Baylin says he could relate to Richard Williams, the main character played by Will Smith in King Richard. Baylin says he understands trying to manifest dreams into success, he could relate to that in Williams. He said they had to write the script first before the Williams family would give them the rights to their story. Although King Richard has the backbone of a sports movie, it’s really a family drama and that’s how he wrote it.
Branagh says the first part of the writing process is reading, lots of reading. He gave himself permission to be himself in writing Belfast. He had planned to finally write this story that he says he had been thinking about for fifty years, on March 23, 2020, the same morning Great Britain went on full lockdown for COVID, so he says “I knew I had time.” Writing Belfast for Branagh was an exploration of the rupture that happened in his life when his family left Belfast when he was young. He admits it took him fifty years to understand it, and he hoped there would be an interesting script in it, something “more than just for myself and my therapist.” About his decision to shoot Belfast, which he also directed, in black-and-white, he said it reflects his childhood, when he would escape to the movies, which were in vibrant color. “Art was color and life was black-and-white.”
McKay noted his Don’t Look Up screenplay was borne simply out of a desire to capture these “bizarre times we are living in.” On making a comedy about the end of the world, he said that “if we can laugh at this, it means we aren’t overwhelmed yet.” The humor comes from the fact that “being alive now is like being in a bouncy house with hyenas and long-stemmed wine glasses.” The hardest part for McKay was convincing Netflix to approve of the ending, which is decidedly NOT happy. Netflix insisted on testing the film on audiences and when it turned out audiences connected with the final scene more than any other scene in the film, they signed off. McKay admits he was “blown away” by the positive response and felt gratified by it. When the actors were given the script, he told them, “You’ll need to walk a tightrope between a Marx Brothers movie and a Lars von Trier movie. Good luck!”
While the festival is always a star-studded affair and a top stop as we head into awards season, its most important aspect is its year-round contribution to the Santa Barbara community, as well as its support for the film industry at large. The funds raised through the festival and affiliated events are vital to the community, providing direct support for SBIFF’s plethora of free programs that serve over 14,000 people annually and reach some of the most vulnerable members of society – including at-risk and underserved youth, low-income families and their children, cancer patients, and transit-dependent senior citizens. SBIFF screens Academy fare in the Arthouse theater throughout the year, even throughout the pandemic, to encourage people to come back to the theater in a safe way.
The festival joined with Direct Relief to deliver aid to Ukraine, which has already surpassed $86K just a few days into the festival! See the link to the fundraiser below.
Photo: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF