SANTA BARBARA – Controversy was at the forefront of discussion Saturday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival's annual Writers Panel featuring behind-the-keyboard talent involved with some of the year's most celebrated films, all of them nominated for Academy Awards for their work.
With “American Sniper” lighting up the box office and a tempest swirling around who Chris Kyle was, screenwriter and former actor Jason Hall claimed his work wasx was a willful dissection of a soldier “back home, but not back.” Moderator Anne Thompson framed a question regarding negative response to the film quite favorably for Hall, calling it a “Rorschach” reflective of personal politics, so anything regarding Kyle's reported racism wasn't directly addressed. But Hall did say that the late soldier's memoir should be considered in a certain context.
“This book is out in the world, so people think this is Chris Kyle,” he said. “But this guy was back from the war, he had PTSD, and this is what we created. It's unnatural to take a human life. These people have to become something else to do this job…We know what we intended to do. This is a movie about a soldier, exploring the archetype of a warrior and what that cost is and what that cost is to his family.”
The moment got a burst of applause from the audience, but much like “Unbroken's” filmmakers frequently calling that film a story of forgiveness – information more or less tossed away in the film's postscript cards – this is a thematic assertion largely unexplored in the text of “American Sniper,” a movie that never comes around to depicting Kyle in any notably unlikable terms. There was no follow-up with this in mind.
Meanwhile, “The Imitation Game” writer Graham Moore was asked about the perception that his film skirts the issue of computer pioneer Alan Turing's homosexuality by not depicting any sort of relationship or tryst. “Most of the movie takes place at Bletchley, where he was famously celibate,” Moore said, also noting that he didn't feel that Turing ever fell in love again after an early romance. “He wrote a letter to a friend where he described Bletchley as a 'sexual desert.' It's not like we cut it out. It never came up.”
However, spinning things in the direction of the film's current campaign strategy – Harvey Weinstein and Benedict Cumberbatch, along with actor Stephen Fry, recently called for the pardon of the 49,000 British men persecuted in the 1950s for being gay, as Turing was – he noted that the controversy is a good thing. “I'm excited about the debate happening around 'The Imitation Game' because it's a debate I want to happen in culture,” Moore said. “We're really glad our film can be a part of that conversation…Alan Turing wasn't a gay mathematician, he was a mathematician who happened to be gay, and we felt that was an important cultural statement.” Moreover, he said the film was never intended as the last word on Alan Turing. It was intended as the first word.
There was no conversation, however, about the notion that Turing's covering for a spy in the film (a fabrication to make a dramatic point about him being closeted) has left many in the UK offended, as that would constitute treason.
Others on the panel included Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), Max Frye (“Foxcatcher”), Alex Dinelaris (“Birdman”), Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) and Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”).
Chazelle addressed the Academy's unexpected decision ahead of the nominations announcement to categorize his film as an adapted screenplay rather than original. This despite the fact that it was a published original script before a short film was produced using one of its scenes. “The fact that we were talking about what category the script would be considered in for an Academy Award, we were like, 'This is the greatest problem in the world,'” he joked. Ironically, though, after the panel he said there was discussion in the “Whiplash” camp early on about where they should campaign the script, but all involved felt an adapted push would be category fraud. And now…
Dinelaris talked a bit about the unique process of writing “Birdman” with so many collaborators. He recalled the impetus for the idea, when he got a call from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. “He said, 'I want to try and do a film in one take,'” Dinelaris recalled. “'And it will take place in a theater. And it's a comedy.' I was like, 'Who is this?'” To say the least, such a project was outside of the auteur's wheelhouse.
There was a lot of Skyping involved between Los Angeles, New York and Buenos Aires to realize the script, but the biggest challenge, Dinelaris said, “is that you realize when you do a film like this, 95% of what you put on the page is going to be on the screen. That's the scariest thing in the world.” Indeed, with the rhythms of the film being absolute and not a construct of post-production and editing, things had to be planned rigidly in advance, not just with production, but in the writing process, too.
Frye was a highlight, cracking a few jokes with the jovial panel. Listening to everyone talk about their upcoming projects – Hall with Steven Spielberg, McCarten with George Clooney, Moore with Michael Mann – he felt like he really needed to get things into gear. “This is why I don't read the trades,” he quipped. He also talked a bit about he and co-writer Dan Futterman (who worked separately) finding their way into “Foxcatcher” by realizing the importance of Dave Schultz to the story. The character was not originally part of the mixture.
Gilroy, meanwhile, talked about the freedom of writing something as rule-breaking as “Nightcrawler,” which became a financial and critical success in the heightened genre realm. “I feel increasingly strained by the small box you're in [as a writer],” he said. “'Characters have to be redemptive.' 'You have to like them.' And I was just in an ornery mood. So I came up with a character who has no arc, no redemption.” The crowd, full of its share of screenwriters, erupted into applause at that.
Finally, McCarten talked about having wanting to tell Stephen Hawking's story on screen, but feeling locked out of much of its power because of the famed physicist often blocking any meaningful glimpse at his private life. Jane Hawking's book changed that, and so he hopped on a train and showed up on her front door, hat in hand.
“This book was extremely candid insight,” he said. “It's always the person who is the footnote in history, but he himself said he couldn't accomplish what he did without her.”
Speaking of which, yes, the elephant in the room was broached by Thompson: there were no women on the panel. Apparently the festival tried to lure “Gone Girl” writer Gillian Flynn, but she couldn't make it. Would anyone in this group be willing to address the question of why there aren't more female screenwriters in the industry? No one seemed to be willing to touch it, and perhaps with good cause.
“I don't think anyone here is qualified to address that question,” Moore said. “We're all a bunch of dudes.”