A collective look at a solitary job

A roomful of first-time nominees banter freely about the good, bad and ugly of their seminal role in the filmmaking process.

February 18, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

SCREENWRITERS Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"), Peter Morgan ("The Queen") and Iris Yamashita ("Letters From Iwo Jima") were splayed across a lounge at the Writers Guild headquarters in Beverly Hills. They had just come from the official academy nominees luncheon and appeared relaxed and chatty, if a little bewildered by the attention.

These original-screenplay Oscar nominees -- the first time for each -- were invited to discuss their craft, their nominations and the state of screenwriting. But as they waited idly for the fifth nominee -- Guillermo Arriaga, still doing interviews at the hotel -- to show up, Morgan and Del Toro slipped into a duet of playful imitation of the "Babel" screenwriter.

Morgan (a Brit doing a Mexican accent): "Research? I spit on your research!"

Del Toro (a Mexican doing a Mexican accent): "Structure? I do not need structure."

(True to Arriaga or not, it was entertaining, and a reminder never to be the last one to arrive.)

Screenwriting is the most solitary of filmmaking roles, but assemble a group of these talented craftsmen and the results are as combustible as they are insightful.

Here are some excerpts:

There has been talk of a

"crisis" in storytelling. Now that the types of stories you've all told in these scripts are

being honored, do you feel that there is greater hope?

ARRIAGA: I think that the capacity of fictionalizing life is diminishing. It's less and less and less, because we are losing our inner life. We are losing our capacity of dialogue, of understanding human beings. We are more and more alienated, and the more alienated a society is the more difficult it is to fictionalize something.

DEL TORO: I think that the problem you have with the screenplay is a particular problem of the form. When you toil on a screenplay, you come out with a document that most people refuse to read. It's not an easy form to write or to read. I think there are millions of stories, but the people that can tell them are choosing other forms.

YAMASHITA: I think the problem is also the system, because the studio system encourages the nonoriginal. Everything is an adaptation or something that they're familiar with, and you come up with something that they're unfamiliar with and they don't know what to do with it.

MORGAN: I don't know why we're all so down on ourselves. I don't think it's so bad. I don't think there are many good directors -- why don't we talk about that?

[Everyone laughs]

Although there is something about screenwriting -- as

opposed to directing -- that many, many people walk around thinking that they could write one.

MORGAN: I disagree. I think lots of people think they can be a director. I think it's the principal thing that everybody aspires to.... Pretty much everyone thinks they can produce a movie, they can market the movie, they can distribute the movie better.... We're working in a field in which absolutely everybody is a fully qualified film critic.

ARNDT: I feel like film has become this very self-conscious medium. In a lot of art forms you see a movement from modernism to post-modernism, and I think right around the time of "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." ... It used to be that movies were about real life, and after the mid-'70s you started to have movies that were about other movies. As a reader -- I used to read screenplays for a living -- you read a lot of stories that are self-referential. I feel like that's a poison on the industry. I know that one of my rules is, if I've seen it in a movie I don't want to see it in my own script.

DEL TORO: Yes, it's a meta-language. Some people in other arts have done it. During the folk-art movement, Lichtenstein started doing it beautifully. But there is a point where that becomes very emotionally sterile.

Is it reading too much into these writing nominations and the adapted nominees honors to see any trend here? Does this signify anything?

DEL TORO: There's a compulsion from film to react to the times, always -- if it's the '60s, if it's the '40s, if it's now. I remember when we were at Cannes with "Babel" and "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Indigenes" ["Days of Glory"], seven out of 10 of the films were about war or the effects of war.... Film reacts like a nervous system of a society.

MORGAN: I think there's a direct correlation between the amount of fact-based films that have been made that are engaging in the real world and the extraordinary blinkered news coverage we get. News at the moment is telling us nothing.

Is the state of the original screenplay in bad shape?

ARNDT: I have to make a distinction between original screenplays in Hollywood and original screenplays in the rest of the world. I think everybody here is working to a greater or lesser degree kind of outside of the Hollywood system. For the example of "Little Miss Sunshine".... the film wouldn't have gotten made if it hadn't been for independent money.

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