Beyond Words WGA Academy Awards Panel

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An FBI agent, a Texan AIDS activist, and a hijacked ship captain walk into a room…or at least the people who made them into movie characters did on January 28, 2014, when the annual Beyond Words panel of the Writers’ Guild of America West (WGA) was held a few days before the annual award ceremony. That awards ceremony is the biggest chance for writers in the film and television industries to honor each other’s work from the preceding year. The Beyond Words panel has become a tradition in its own right among the festivities leading up to the awards show. Nominees for both Adapted and Original Screenplay convene to discuss their writing processes, inspirations for the scripts, and anything else that would benefit the screenwriting community to learn about their work.

This year’s panel included representatives from eight of the nominated films, many of whom are also nominated for the 2014 Academy Awards. The panelists were Terence Winter (the Wolf of Wall Street), Spike Jonze (Her), David O. Russell and Earl Warren Singer (American Hustle), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), Bill Ray (Captain Phillips), Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), and Bob Nelson (Nebraska). Discussion topics included the ways in which characters were molded from the writers’ relatives, paring down scripts to find the true focus of a film, and searching for the right balance between dialogue and giving actors the space to act.

Indiezone.TV was lucky enough to be on hand before the panel, giving Christie McDonald the chance to interview several of today’s hottest screenwriters and filmmakers. Want to know many drafts Captain Phillips took or what Earl Warren Singer coins “the Russell Effect?” Browse through the clips that follow.

What’s the David O. Russell Effect? Eric Warren Singer, his co-writer on American Hustle, giddily explains.

American Hustle plunges the audience into the New York City of the late 1970s, when the FBI ran the Abscam operation that enlisted conmen to aid them in entrapping several corruptible politicians on fraud charges. Loosely based on Abscam’s history, American Hustle is another ensemble-centric film by David O. Russell, director of Silver Linings Playbook (2012), the Fighter (2010), and I Heart Huckabees (2004). The period piece plays like a heist film wherein Irving Rosenfeld and his mistress and partner Sydney Prosser attempt to outsmart increasingly dangerous marks, from local politicians to the mafia to Rosenfeld’s wife, under FBI threats. The acting ensemble has already taken home two Golden Globes and one Screen Actors’ Guild win in addition to the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy. The film is nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay for co-writers Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Russell is also nominated for Best Directing honors.

We first interviewed Singer, whose previous work includes the International (2009). He shares what attracted him to the Abscam scandal as a potential film topic before praising Russell for his unique perspective and undeniable talent, which he terms the Russell Effect.

Was winning on David O. Russell’s mind at the WGA’s Beyond Words Panel? Nah. His co-writer’s fashion was.

In our second American Hustle interview of the evening, Russell pulls Singer back to the microphone for a joint interview, displaying that Russell Effect. The filmmaker first made his mark by winning the 1994 Sundance Audience Award for Spanking the Monkey, and nearly all his films since have been lauded for their intimate focus on relatable characters with a few screws loose. After lamenting how Singer was not the only person at the panel wearing a burgundy suit, Russell and Singer both discuss how they collaborated on the script, relying on Singer’s world-building and Russell’s eye for filmmaking.

How do you deal with technological advances between script and production? Throw it all out! Nebraska did.

Nebraska isn’t your average road-trip flick. Produced and directed by Alexander Payne, the black-and-white film follows a father and son as they pair up on a misguided quest to claim a sweepstakes win. Featuring Oscar-nominated performances by Bruce Dern and June Squibb, it pays homage to its Midwestern namesake state and the dry wit and charm of the Nebraskans it features.

Nebraska’s screenwriter, Bob Nelson, has been involved in the Seattle television industry for many years, contributing to sketch comedy shows such as Almost Live. With Nebraska, his first screenplay, Nelson made the switch to drama, a genre he’d always wanted to write. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of humor in the film. Nelson waited ten years from the time Alexander Payne optioned Nebraska to the beginning of its production. He talks with us about that long wait, what changed in the script during that decade, and the steps he and Payne took to ensure the timelessness of the film.  

Tom Hanks is and always was Billy Ray’s Captain Phillips. Sometimes dream casting does come true.

Captain Phillips is a tightly scripted movie that focuses on an American container-ship captain trying to save his crew from discovery and the leader of a small band of Somali pirates who hijack the ship. Based on a true story, the action turns to a cramped lifeboat as a US Navy Seal team takes on the mission to rescue Captain Phillips from his kidnappers. The film has been praised for its even-handed treatment of the pirates and the container ship’s crew. Tom Hanks shines in one of his greatest lead roles, and Barkhad Adbi arrives on the Hollywood scene with a commanding performance that garnered an Academy Award nomination. One of the most intense films of the year, Captain Phillips has received six Academy Award nominations in all, including one for screenwriter Billy Ray, who took home the WGA award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2014 ceremony.

Billy Ray is a screenwriter and director with a history of adapting true life stories to film. His most recent film prior to this one, the Hunger Games, was one of 2012’s top-grossing films. In our interview with Ray, he shares how determined he was to become the writer for Captain Phillips after watching the real drama unfold on his screen. He also discusses his writing process, from outlining to going through multitudes of drafts, and confirms that Tom Hanks was the only man anyone pictured for the title role. Finally, Ray shares a little about his upcoming directing projects.

Getting Scorsese onboard for the Wolf of Wall Street was easier than selling penny stocks to suckers.

A comedic treatise on hubris, greed, and excess, the Wolf of Wall Street has been praised for hoodwinking its audiences into empathizing with the executive stockbroker at its bitter core before realizing how truly awful he is. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances to date as the detestable main character Jordan Belfort. Based on the exploits of the real Belfort as described in his memoir, the Wolf of Wall Street is an enjoyable jaunt straight into the depths of corporate depravity that has earned Martin Scorsese his eighth Academy Award Best Director nomination.

The Wolf of Wall Street was adapted by Terence Winters, a longtime collaborator with Scorsese. His television series, the Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, have won multiple Emmys and dominated the small screen for the past decade and a half. In this interview, Winters shares how his rapid consumption of the memoir made the film an easy sell to Scorsese and DiCaprio. He describes the message of the film and compares the excesses it portrays to those of the banking industry prior to the 2009 Great Recession. Then he discusses the mental state of people who envy Belfort’s life and talks about his HBO productions with Scorsese, including teasing a new Rock & Roll series.

Adapting someone else’s work to film is hard enough. Imagine having to cut scenes that won you a Pulitzer.

The black comedy of August: Osage County is a showcase for both the phenomenal cast that leads the film and the witty, moving dialogue that brings the adaption of this Pulitzer-Prize-winning play to life. The female-dominated Weston family ascends on its childhood home to give assistance to matriarch Violet, who suffers from cancer and addiction. When a death is discovered, years of bitterness and secrets rise to the surface.

Tracy Letts is both the screenwriter for the movie and the author of the original play. His extensive theater background is not limited to writing however; he earned a Tony for his portrayal of George in the recent reprisal of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. August: Osage County marks the third time he has adapted one of his plays for the big screen. During our interview, Letts talked about the movie’s origins on the Chicago stage and the laborious, painful process of transforming it into a screenplay. He describes how important it is that he keeps his acting and writing roles separate and admits to having several projects in the pipeline.

A little contention in the writers’ room is okay when it results in both WGA and Oscar nominations.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on the life of Ron Woodroof, a cowboy from Texas who received an advanced AIDS diagnosis in the 1980s, when medication treating the disease was hard to find and acceptance even harder. Woodroof channeled his adventurous spirit into seeking out new treatments and procuring medication for himself and other AIDS patients, whether or not it was legal. The film has bolstered Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s reputations as serious actors, with both men taking home Golden Globes and receiving Academy Award nominations for their roles.

The film’s scriptwriters, Craig Borten who originally interviewed Woodroof two decades ago and Melisa Wallack, also received an Oscar nod for the film. Dallas Buyers Club is the first primary screenwriting credit for both nominees despite several years of experience in the industry. Borten describes what it was like meeting Woodroof in 1992, how he came to admire him, and his fascination with the buyers’ clubs Woodroof founded. Many years later, Worten pulled Wallack into the project as a writing partner, a collaboration that they term “contentious” with a laugh. Both writers confirm in our interview that maintaining a light-hearted tone was an essential goal while writing the script, one they are happy they achieved.

Think Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight were improvised? Think again, says Julie Delpy.

In Before Midnight, the third film from filmmaker Richard Linklater and his acting and co-writing partners Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, our Jesse and Celine who first met at chance on a train in Vienna have finally married and are raising twins. But while Before Sunrise and Before Sunset examine a fleeting love, Before Midnight delves into the mystery of an abiding one and how to keep the magic alive when faced with the realities of marriage. To date, Before Midnight has won nine writing awards and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film exhibits the same improvised feel as the previous installments, a feat that Julie Delpy explains actually comes from a sharply written and closely followed script.  

Delpy’s first starring role came at the age of 14. Her work in independent films such as Killing Zoe (1994) and Europa Europa (1990) established her credentials as a talented actress at an early age, and her first screenplay was produced in 1995. She reveals in our interview that each Before installment was born seven years after the last although no sequels have ever been planned. She talks about how Linklater transitions into his role as director and she and Hawke as actors only after they’ve locked the final script. It’s at that point when hindsight regrets arise over how much dialogue they’ve written.  
 

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