For the most part, the writing process is a solitary one.
Holed up in a brownstone garret in New York, a writer could go days without looking out the window. The good news is that apparently, they can be lured from their natural habitat with the promise of lunch.
Which is how the Hollywood Reporter recently corralled five screenwriters at the Union Square Cafe for a frank look at films that have left them reeling, for good or ill, including “Babel,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Departed,” “Borat” — and even “Jackass Number Two.”
Appropriately, every writer has a story.
There’s newcomer Aleksandra Crapanzano, who’s been adapting Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books,” and her fellow New York University film school classmate Joshua Marston (2004’s “Maria Full of Grace”), who recently finished adapting Jonathan Lethem’s “The Fortress of Solitude”; Lauren Versel, who has scripted 25 screenplays for Hollywood studios, only to see none of them get made, and whose Lucky Monkey Pictures is co-producing “The Trespasser” for Fox; there’s Neil LaBute (2003’s “The Shape of Things”), in town to work on a new play called “Swallowing Bicycles” and pen a BBC TV series called “Autobahn”; and Shari Springer Berman (2003’s “American Splendor”) has just finished co-writing and co-directing “The Nanny Diaries” for the Weinstein Co.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: SO, HOW ACTIVE HAVE YOU ALL BEEN IN SEEING FILMS THIS YEAR?
Aleksandra Crapanzano: I have a baby, so I only see things that come to the house, basically.
Shari Springer Berman: I find that when you’re making a movie, it’s very difficult, so I have this huge gap while we were in production [with “Diaries”], and I’m trying to catch up now.
Lauren Versel: The ]Writers Guild of America] needs to send us more screeners.
Joshua Marston: It’s always an indication of what films have truly big campaigns when they send the screeners to all WGA members.
Berman: I prefer to see a movie in the theater. I think that’s the way it was meant to be seen, so I use screeners as a last resort.
Marston: The truth is, none of us has seen anything.
THR: NOW, THAT’S NOT TRUE. WHAT SCREENPLAYS THIS YEAR JUMPED OUT AS PARTICULARLY NOTEWORTHY?
Crapanzano: “Babel” was extremely good.
Berman: Incredibly harrowing. I needed a drink after I saw that movie.
Neil LaBute: The script is interesting to talk about with that one. The script was there, obviously. It has to be, but I didn’t feel it so strongly. The timeline, the break in the timelines, the pacing — they were very tenuous. And I thought the connection to the Japanese story was very slight.
Berman: I had a little problem with that; I thought the Japanese story stood on its own very beautifully, but I didn’t quite see how it tied in.
Marston: For me, the first time you go into the Japanese story, it’s like, “Wow! OK, they’re taking me into a world I’ve never been to: deaf Japanese teenagers playing volleyball.” I totally commend the writer who manages to take me there.
THR: I KEEP COMING BACK TO “LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.” I RECALL READING THAT THE SCREENWRITER — MICHAEL ARNDT — WENT THROUGH 100 DRAFTS TO GET IT TO THE FINAL VERSION.
Berman: That’s hard to believe.
Marston: That must be counting every sentence revision. The word “draft” is so fluid that the claim in itself makes me suspicious.
Versel: I really liked that script a lot. I thought it was very enjoyable — and surprising that it became popular. It’s nice to see something that original reaching the masses in a way that [2004’s] “Sideways” did.
LaBute: I’m less surprised, perhaps. I think it has the elements that make sense for it to be popular. There are enough feel-good things. Anytime someone sort of triumphs over — or rather, mediocrity rises to the top and says, “We rule,” that appeals to a lot of people.
Marston: And yet, what’s interesting is that it’s a script that a lot of people — everyone! — passed on when they were trying to get financing. That’s fascinating to me, when a script that all these people passed on turns into a movie that’s not only really popular, but suddenly the script itself is getting recognized and talked about as a possible Oscar nominee.
THR: WHAT OTHER FILMS COME TO MIND THAT YOU’VE ENJOYED THIS PAST YEAR, SCRIPT-WISE?
Versel: Can we talk about “The Departed?” I didn’t love it as much as I’ve loved all the other Scorsese films I’ve seen. The casting was odd for me. I couldn’t tell the difference between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon; I kept thinking they were the same character and we were flashing back and forth in time. I kept thinking, “Oh, this is interesting. Marty is going for a nonlinear structure.”
LaBute: I liked a lot of the peripheral characters. Mark Wahlberg was great. Alec Baldwin made me chuckle. Baldwin is great when he’s doing these supporting characters; he’s a really good supporting actor. Cops are hard to write now because television does them relatively well all the time. The thing about “The Departed” for me is, I didn’t find it as visually exciting as I expected. [Scorsese’s] films are like a master class in directing, and I didn’t have a “remember that shot” moment I’ve had from almost every other film he’s done.
Berman: There was that sequence where Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are on the phone at the same time, and they’re each waiting for the other to talk, and it’s like a Mexican standoff with cell phones. That’s something that stayed with me — he wasn’t afraid of a long silence.
LaBute: He seemed more enamored of his script and what was going on between people than coming up with a beautiful way to shoot a scene. I felt like he was trying to be the ringmaster of a difficult script.
Berman: It was a very male movie. I think Scorsese usually has very strong female characters, but the female [lead] in this was the weakest. [Once], I allowed myself to say the woman was just there as a foil and not really a full character. I really enjoyed [the film].
Marston: If you’re talking about nominating scripts, for me it’s a major issue that the one and only [lead] female character in a script feels contrived.
Versel: ... Can we talk about “Borat?”
Marston: The interesting thing about “Borat” is that comedy depends on the straight man. And the straight man is what’s in the script. Yet, it’s being talked about — I presume — as a possible Oscar script.
Crapanzano: But is there a script?
LaBute: I think there was a framing device.
Marston: Would you give an award to “Candid Camera?”
Versel: It is “Candid Camera,” I was thinking about that. But what came before “Candid Camera?”
Berman: Cinema verite.
Versel: Right. You would not give a nomination for screenplays to those films. Did anyone see it?
Berman: It’s really hysterically funny.
Versel: I took my daughter; she was begging. I thought it was inappropriate, but I broke down. It’s funny, but I was expecting it to be so much funnier.
LaBute: Well, I liked “Jackass.” Part of it is you’re laughing at them because there’s no better word — they’re jackasses.
THR: BUT YOU WOULDN’T GIVE “JACKASS” A SCREENPLAY NOMINATION — OR WOULD YOU?
LaBute: It depends on how many drinks I’ve had. Half a bottle of something, and you never know.
THR: WHERE DO YOU DO YOUR BEST WRITING?
LaBute: No. But I marvel at the people I see writing at Starbucks. I sometimes watch those people to see how much writing they do, and they do a lot of going up to the counter to see if anyone is watching them write. There’s a certain showmanship to it, but I can’t write there.
Crapanzano: I live in a house, so I work on the top floor of our brownstone, but if I’m at a point where I need to rethink something, I take a walk.
Marston: I do my best work on a small tropical island ...
LaBute: That should be built into any deal.
Berman: I work in my apartment. I’m trying to train myself to write in my office. It’s very weird writing there, when it’s 4 in the afternoon and you’re still in your pajamas and you haven’t seen a person all day.
LaBute: I can write pretty much anywhere. I’m very good at blocking it all out.
Versel: I write in the top floor of my brownstone, too. I think when you’re really into something you’re writing, it doesn’t matter where you are. Writers are always in their pajamas, and there’s terrible sloth, and then you climb out, and you have to go outside, and there’s lights on, and it’s weird.
Crapanzano: Something has to get you out of the house.
Marston: That’s the reason we all came to lunch today.