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The writers' room

Three possible Oscar nominees share their tips and tools of the trade.

December 23, 2009
  • Left to right, Scott Burns, Mark Boal and Nick Hornby.
Left to right, Scott Burns, Mark Boal and Nick Hornby. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles…)

Three of Hollywood's hot scriptwriters let us into their sancta sanctorum -- that is to say, their offices, which tend to be full of Macintosh computers, unsharpened pencils and pets. But all agree: Real inspiration comes direct from uncluttered minds, not cluttered desks.

-- Randee Dawn SCOTT Z. BURNS A dogged approach

Latest opus: "The Informant!"

The office: A room on the second floor of his home. His desk faces a bookshelf; one wall is full of guitars. "It's not good for me to sit for more than, like, an hour, so I'll get up and play guitar or pull a book off the shelf. And there's something inspiring I find looking at the spines of books." Also present: Lola, his adopted German shepherd. "I'll read a scene out loud to her, and she has a way of whenever I'm done talking, of sighing in this really knowing way."

Tools of the trade: Moleskine notebooks (for outlines); Macs (for everything else); Final Draft (screenwriting software).

Desktop accessories: Phone, box of unsharpened pencils (no sharpener), a highlighter. A picture by Cuban American artist Enrique Martínez Celaya hangs nearby. "I like things being around me that remind me there are ways of producing a feeling other than telling someone how they should feel."

The process: "I get up early, around 6, 6:30, and walk the dog, and then I write for three or four hours a day. Once lunchtime comes, I deal with e-mail and other stuff. I have a weird image in my mind of all the words being in some beautiful pasture in the morning like grazing animals, and if you get up early you can sneak up on them and capture a few."

MARK BOAL Revisiting Iraq from a tranquil setting

Latest opus: "The Hurt Locker"

The office: A sunny room in his home, with "a very nice view of the canyon in Los Angeles; it's all very tranquil and beautiful." Usually present: his two German shepherds.

Tools of the trade: Yellow legal pads, MacBook, reporter's notebooks (from "when I was in Iraq," but pens "were an object coveted by the kids that would come up to the Humvee, so I'd give away my pens and then wouldn't have them when I needed them").

The process: "I've always admired people who have a ritual -- they get up at 6 and have one slice of whole wheat toast and write exactly 500 words and knock off by 10 -- but for me, some things need to be done late at night, and some things are better done in the hustle and bustle of daily life."

The end: "I'm usually strung out by the time I finish something. In New York, when I would finish a big piece I would go to Joe Jr.'s . . . and get eggs, bacon and a vanilla milkshake. The diners in L.A. are very disappointing -- though the compensation is better."

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NICK HORNBY A third at a time

Latest opuses: "An Education" (screenplay); "Juliet, Naked" (novel)

The office: An apartment near his home. "The desk's in the window, and it looks across London, toward the city. It's a fairly featureless room, a couple of pictures up, a nice big desk, shelves of books. And then I have a bigger sitting room that I wander in and out of during the day. I'm very untidy, so even though the idea is minimalist, the execution is not."

Tools of the trade: Large-screen Apple Macintosh, Final Draft, notepads ("in case some kind of inspiration strikes").

The process: "Dead regular. I take a kid to school, normally, then walk straight to the office after stopping at Starbucks, and I'm probably there by 9:30. I get home about 6, but there's a lot of messing around during the day because I have the concentration span of a goldfish. I have a fantasy that I could work in a solid, unbreakable stream -- and it never happens. One of the things that tends to drive me on at certain times of the day is simple self-loathing: 'It's 2:30 and I've done nothing at all and I hate myself.' "

First reader: His wife, "An Education" producer Amanda Posey. He has no assistant.

Eccentricity alert: "The only thing that's become a superstition is I turn books in in thirds. What I want [Amanda] to tell me is, if I hand this in to my publisher right now, would he ask for the advance back and say you need medical attention, or does it seem like something that could be publishable."

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