Six scribes — also including Kenneth Lonergan, Noah Oppenheim, Allison Schroeder and Taylor Sheridan — discuss the death of satire, bringing autobiography into screenplays and how they would write a film about the president-elect: “Let’s hope for all our sakes it is not the tragedy that so many people fear.”
When a very pregnant Allison Schroeder arrived at her first THR Writer Roundtable, she had a confession: Her husband (fellow writer Aaron Brownstein) once told her that their relationship never would have moved past the first date if he hadn’t liked her writing. “I had just done a web musical and it was online,” recalled Schroeder (Hidden Figures), 38. “And before the second date, he watched the whole thing to make sure I wasn’t a terrible hack because he’d decided he could not be with me for the rest of his life if we had to lie to each other about our writing.” Brownstein would have felt comfortable at the Nov. 11 gathering, where his wife was joined by some of the best writers in film: Pedro Almodovar (Julieta), 67; Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals), 55; Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), 54; Noah Oppenheim (Jackie), 38; and Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), 47.
Somebody said all writing is autobiography. True or false?
ALLISON SCHROEDER True, to a certain extent. You leave your imprint on every screenplay. I like to bring my take as a woman to all my female characters, and that hopefully makes them a little more layered and complex, certainly with Hidden Figures. I interned at NASA for five years, and I grew up in Cape Canaveral, and my grandfather was an engineer on the Mercury capsule, and my grandmother was a software engineer. I literally grew up playing on the Mercury capsule prototypes. So when this came along, I thought: “Yes, I know this world. I know the smell in the cafeteria of NASA.”
NOAH OPPENHEIM My mother grew up in Scranton, Pa., in the tiniest two-bedroom apartment you could imagine. But she saved, from the time she was a little girl, every newspaper and magazine about Jackie Kennedy, and particularly the ones in the aftermath of the assassination. And when I would go to my grandmother’s — my grandmother still lived in that apartment — I would be in my mom’s old room, and I discovered this box of memorabilia, and I was just struck by it, as a little boy, looking at this beautiful woman. And then as I got older, as some boys get into baseball, I got into politics and American history, and I was fascinated by the Kennedys. So I suppose [Jackie] has its seeds in my own story.
TOM FORD Isn’t there something always autobiographical, though? You’re writing the words these people are speaking; they have to go through your filter, even if you’re imagining you are Jackie. [Susan, Amy Adams’ character in Nocturnal Animals,] is quite literally me. Every time you write, you’re writing that character through your lens.
KENNETH LONERGAN But interests do exist outside of oneself, and [so does] trying to understand them and see patterns in the world that other people don’t see, simply because everyone sees the world from his or her own point of view. In that sense, it goes beyond being strictly autobiographical. I get to see the world the way Pedro Almodovar sees it, and he’s also seeing things that are not within himself but outside himself that attract his interest. It’s this nice combination of sharing someone else’s experience but also sharing their experience of things that are not simply a direct reflection of that person’s personality.
PEDRO ALMODOVAR I don’t mean [my films to be] some verification of my life. No, sir.
LONERGAN But you’re not writing about yourself at the time. One of my favorite movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about someone who’s in love with flying saucers and outer space and spaceships — which I also am. And it’s a very unusual movie because all it’s about is a guy who meets a flying saucer and then tries to find it again —
OPPENHEIM — and abandons his family in the process.
LONERGAN That’s the wrinkle in the story. But I overlook it, as you have to overlook some things.
Why are you fascinated by flying saucers?
LONERGAN I just like them. They’re pretty, and they fly around and they’re from outer space.
OPPENHEIM The great unknown.
LONERGAN That’s an autobiographical film, in the sense that Steven Spielberg is personally in love with these flying saucers.
Taylor, how much did you draw on your own life in writing Hell or High Water?
TAYLOR SHERIDAN I was a new father and penniless, [and I] crammed my family into this little apartment because I stupidly at age 40 decided to start writing — and one of the major themes in [Hell] is failure as a father. At the same time, Texas was on fire, markets were collapsing and the way of life that I grew up with was failing and dying. So [my writing] was a very personal exploration of my own experiences and then of a way of life. It was really me reexamining my past.
SCHROEDER Did you think about being in Hell or High Water yourself? [Sheridan is a former actor.]
SHERIDAN No, I can’t stand acting.
SCHROEDER (Laughs) OK.
Are you more confident about writing than acting?
SHERIDAN Absolutely. I had a lot of trouble buying myself as an actor, which is a terrible thing for an actor. But as a writer, you finish, you have something tangible, whether or not it gets made. I’ve written things that I haven’t taken out [of the drawer] because there is no market for them. But I’ll read them and enjoy them and be moved, and sometimes I’ll see something and go back and spend four weeks in hell trying to fix it.
What did your acting experience bring to your writing?
SHERIDAN A tremendous amount. As an actor, and not a great one, I had to do a lot of work to make it seem believable. Exposition in dialogue is something that you do a lot when you’re on television, like I was, and it gave me an allergy to that. [Now] I look for absurdly simple plots so that I can simply focus on the characters. And having an understanding of what dialogue is easy to say and what’s hard to say, that’s helpful, too. You find yourself playing the scene in your head and hearing them talk, and, “No, he wouldn’t say it that way,” and it just refines itself.
LONERGAN I really don’t know what’s going on if I don’t hear it embodied by actors. And I can’t just show up at the beginning of rehearsal without having heard it a few times already.
FORD One actor can deliver the line, and it sounds perfectly natural, and one actor can deliver the line, and it just doesn’t sound believable.
ALMODOVAR Julieta [which originally was meant to star Meryl Streep] would be completely different if I did it in English [with a different actress]. Once I decided to make the adaptation in Spain and in the Spanish culture and language, I changed a lot. I really even forgot the original short stories by Alice Munro [the book is based on her work] for a simple [reason]: In Spain, there’s a guilty complex or the sentiment of guiltiness. And the family culture here [in America] is very different from the Spanish family culture. The language pushed me to do it in a very different way.
When you write, do you have a mantra, like “action is character,” or a guiding principle?
SCHROEDER I have to write a happy ending.
FORD I wish I knew how to write a happy ending. You have to have something to say. Otherwise, you can write and write, and who cares?
SCHROEDER I’m a stickler for structure. So I tend to make sure I’m hitting certain points in the script and that I’m progressing and moving things along. You know, are the characters keeping the plot moving along? And are they true and do I know their motivations?
FORD I visualize as I’m writing. I compile books of photos of all the characters and where they live or what they do, and then I’m really trying to visualize all those things. It doesn’t mean I’m neglecting their character development, but I’m trying to write a film that would hold up without sound.
SCHROEDER That was my first writing, actually. When I switched to screenplays — ’cause I had done musicals and plays — the first assignment in film school was, you have to write a silent film. And it’s tremendously helpful to learn how to do that because dialogue can be a crutch. If you can master a silent film, you’re golden.
LONERGAN I don’t love it when people are dogmatic about what works for them. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate mind is to be able to hold two opposing ideas in place and still function.” My own advice to myself is to try to choose a specific over a generality when I’m struggling. Should I have a scene where she makes dinner? The part of me that’s telling me it’s boring [is because] it’s a generality.
FORD I was trying to adapt [Christopher Isherwood’s novel] A Single Man, and I was really struggling with it. And [Isherwood’s partner] Don Bachardy said: “Forget about the book. Take what speaks to you. Push it aside and make it your own.” And it completely freed me.
SHERIDAN I try to remind myself: Let the characters drive the plot. Don’t tell me something you can show me. “Kill your darlings” is probably the best [advice, from screenwriter William Goldman]. You write this great scene; it doesn’t really fit in; and then you write six scenes to support it — and that’s when you’ve got to get rid of it.
SCHROEDER How long did it take you to write your film?
SHERIDAN About 2 1⁄2 weeks. But for three months, I walked around like a maniac and didn’t speak to my wife and stayed up till 3 in the morning and drove myself insane. And then I had it. And I sat down. I write in fits and spurts — I’ll write 16-hour days, 18-hour days, for six days in a row or longer, and then the thing is done.
LONERGAN It usually takes me about two years. Six to eight months to write a first draft that I like, and the remainder of the time to make it 10 to 20 percent better. And then I give up.
ALMODOVAR The longest [for me] was Bad Education. That was based on a short story I wrote when I was an adolescent. I read it again 30 years after, and I thought I could do a movie with it, changing it completely, because I wrote the short story after studying with priests. So it was full of revenge and very anticlerical. I live with my stories for many years. And I always have many of them [in progress]. So I’m taking notes, and then comes a moment [when] I have 100 or more pages, and this is how I finish the script.
What do you do when you reach a dead end?
ALMODOVAR I just keep on writing another story and sometimes mix the three of them, select the best parts of the three and pull them together.
Is writing painful?
FORD No. It’s so much fun.
ALMODOVAR Only fun?
OPPENHEIM It’s fun when it works. The breakthrough moments are fun.
Let’s say you couldn’t write and had to do something else. What would you do?
ALMODOVAR Window dresser.
FORD Are you being serious?
FORD I like that.
ALMODOVAR I was working in the ’70s as an office assistant in the telephone company of Spain. I hated it. But it was an important experience for me because I was in contact with people I couldn’t know. I was very interested in the housewives, and we had a lot of time to talk. It was inspiration for the movies that I did.
SCHROEDER I was doing consulting. I was actually at Arthur Andersen during Enron [the giant energy company that collapsed amid financial scandal]. I had been out of college for three months when Enron happened. So that was a rude awakening to the business world. I did Excel modeling for litigation and royalty audits.
Noah, you already have another job as executive producer of Today.
OPPENHEIM One of the great joys of being a journalist — or a writer of any kind — is that you get to parachute into other people’s worlds and observe and experience them. And my greatest weakness is that I get bored very easily, so the idea that I get to experience something new — that I get to go and have a front-row seat, whether it’s in a war zone or at a presidential debate — I feel very grateful for. All of my experiences outside the world of film are critical to my ability to write. I can’t imagine just going off and writing in a bubble. Maybe that’s my own imaginative failure, but I would run dry quickly if I were just sitting in a room by myself.
What has the Today show taught you about writing?
OPPENHEIM The cliche: Real life is often stranger and more interesting than fiction. I’m just continually surprised, amazed and fascinated by the human experience. And as the world keeps showing us, there’s no shortage of surprises.
What might surprise us about our president-elect?
OPPENHEIM Can we turn the cameras off?
FORD Please, yes! (Laughter.)
OPPENHEIM I don’t know that anything would surprise you about him. I mean, this notion that some people have peddled, that he’s a different person behind closed doors — certainly not behind any of the closed doors when I was present.
FORD How do you have time to write?
OPPENHEIM I wrote this particular screenplay before I had my current job. I went to work for NBC News right out of college, and then did it for about a decade, took a few years off, and I was writing full time. During that period, I wrote Jackie.
If you had to write a movie about Trump, how would you do it?
OPPENHEIM (Laughs.) That story is obviously yet to be told.
FORD Is your next one going to be Melania? (Laughter.)
SCHROEDER I’d like to see that closet scene!
OPPENHEIM You’d need to do a whole movie just on her conversation with Michelle Obama. What did those two women talk about for an hour? God knows. [But] I don’t know what that movie will be. Let’s hope for all of our sakes it is not the tragedy that so many people who did not vote for him fear.
Three of you have directed your scripts. How important is that?
SCHROEDER When I’m writing, I see it in my head, literally playing out. So when I show up and the camera isn’t where I thought it would be, I think, “No, no. I wanted that to be a light-hearted smile.”
FORD You need to direct.
SCHROEDER I’ve always planned on writing my way into directing. I’m going to give birth, and then direct a film.
FORD I would think, as a writer, when you have something you want to say, it’s so hard to hand it over to someone else and to see what their interpretation is.
OPPENHEIM It is hard, although it can go either way. When [director Pablo Larrain] came on board, he really pushed me in revisions to try to find the humanity in every moment and in every scene and channel Jackie’s experience through her eyes. His main push was: How do we tell a universally relatable story about a woman experiencing something that’s hard to fathom? So the version we ended up with is better than the version that would have resulted if I had done it on my own.
SHERIDAN Do you find sometimes, when you’re directing your own work, it can get too literal? You have to step back to find a way to reinvent it?
LONERGAN I find that I’m already looking at it from a non-writerly point of view pretty quickly. The more experience you have, the more easily you shift from this very specific, imaginary version in your mind to welcoming other people coming in and bringing their imaginations to bear on the material. [But there’s always that] first shock of hearing it read out loud and nothing like what you imagined comes out of their mouths.
You had a bad experience with Hollywood with your last movie, Margaret. Is that why you were reluctant to direct Manchester?
LONERGAN No. It was only a bad experience in some ways; in many ways, it was a really good experience. I was very happy with the way the film turned out. And I wasn’t particularly reluctant to direct; I was just not planning to direct this movie.
Have you ever collaborated with other writers?
LONERGAN I have. It was fun for a while. I collaborated a lot with my friends in my 20s and early 30s, writing theater. But we started to fight. At a certain point, the group psyche started to break apart and people started to come into conflict with each other creatively. I remember a show we were trying to write, and we were all locked in my parents’ house in Vermont in a snowstorm, and we almost killed each other. That was horrible.
Is there a dream project you have that you haven’t made yet?
ALMODOVAR The Aspern Papers by Henry James. This is a story that for a long time I wanted to adapt. But the question is always: This is the kind of a story that should be in English [not Spanish]. So, I don’t know.
But it might be your first English-language project?
ALMODOVAR Might be. Might be.
FORD I’m just starting, so I don’t know yet. This is my second film, and I need a little space from it to know what’s coming next. [But] I’ve written something that’s very politically incorrect; I’m not sure that I could make it — which kind of makes me want to.
SCHROEDER [I have a] Stand by Me for girls, sort of about my time growing up in Florida. The fictional part is the journey to scatter the ashes of my best friend’s father. It’s got a quirky sense of humor. Florida is a quirky place, so you’ve got to lean into it. And there’s a miniseries about the hidden women of history that I want to do. I’d also love to remake Clue, and I’m ready to do a Broadway musical.
FORD Oh my God. You’ve really got it lined up.
SCHROEDER People tell me I’m very ambitious right now. But I just have a lot of stories in my head, and why can’t I do them all?
FORD You’re young.
SCHROEDER I’m ready. I would like to do a Bond [film]. I’m thinking about the Bond girls and how I’m going to change them and make them revolutionary. At some point, they’re going to save him.
OPPENHEIM I have an original that I wrote two years ago, inspired by A Face in the Crowd, about a guy who’s plucked from obscurity, a bit of a populist demagogue. But this was before the current presidential election. Real life, unfortunately, has taken all the satirical bite out of that script because it so far exceeded anything that I depicted.
FORD Does anything have satirical bite anymore?
OPPENHEIM That’s a fair question.
Movies like Network that once were considered over-the-top now aren’t over-the-top enough.
SHERIDAN They wouldn’t even be satires.
LONERGAN I’ve always wanted to do an adaptation of The Once and Future King, the King Arthur novel. Or possibly the source material, Le Morte D’Arthur, by Thomas Mallory. I’ve never seen a King Arthur movie that I loved as much as that book.
What one piece of writing would you take to a desert island?
LONERGAN [Marcel] Proust. [Remembrance of Things Past. I’d like] Proust — and a French dictionary, so I can also teach myself French on the desert island.
ALMODOVAR I’d select the stories of an American writer, Lucia Berlin. This lady is a hybrid between Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver, but everything [she writes] is full of life. I could probably live with someone like that, very funny, and learn a lot of things.
SCHROEDER Agatha Christie, The Young Adventuress. I just thought that was a masterpiece, and it inspired me to write.
FORD I would take something quite philosophical, I’m afraid: The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, which lies on my bedside table, and I read a sentence or so every night as I go to bed and contemplate it.
OPPENHEIM Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion. I have a day job as a journalist, and I think what she does — turning history and real life into literature and poetry — is really extraordinary.
SHERIDAN Audubon’s Field Guide to desert island fauna — something very useful. I have this weird thing with novels, where I have a lot of trouble finishing them, and I usually stop half a chapter before they’re done because then the story still lives in my head. I get really depressed when I finish a novel. I don’t want to be alone on a desert island and then finish one, so I would vote for some help-me-survive guide.
Tune in to the full roundtable when it airs on Sundance TV Feb. 12, 2017.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.