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Archive for June, 2014

Interview: Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias, “Love Is Strange”

Ira SachsLOVE IS STRANGE marks the highly-anticipated second collaboration between writer-director Ira Sachs and screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias. The film premiered to great reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.

Ira and Mauricio’s first collaboration, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards including Best Screenplay, Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Male Actor (Thure Lindhardt).

The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Ira and Mauricio before LOVE IS STRANGE screened at this week’s Nantucket Film Festival.

Your film, LOVE IS STRANGE, which you wrote and directed, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes the Nantucket Film Festival. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?

Mauricio: LOVE IS STRANGE tells the story of a couple who have been together for almost 40 years. Unexpectedly, they’re forced to live apart and rely on family and friends, and their presences will have subtle but profound consequences in these people’s lives. The film shows that love can be difficult sometimes, but it can also blossom with time.

Ira: The film is a multi-generational story.  It centers on a couple in the later part of their lives, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, but you also have Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows who are very much in the middle, and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who is discovering what love can be for the first time.  To me, it’s at its core a film about the seasons of life, and, as Joni Mitchell said it, “the painted ponies” going up and down.  Given Mauricio and my ages, I guess you could say it’s a “middle aged” film, written by two middle aged people, hoping that there is a long time ahead, but knowing it doesn’t last forever.

How did this story come to you? What was your writing process like for you both?

Mauricio: I remember when Ira told me the story of his old uncle, a sculptor who lived with his partner for many years, and was still very active late in his life. His last sculpture was of a young man, a backpacker who happened to pass through their lives once. This image stayed with me, and you will see that it’s very much in the picture. I also was inspired by my parents who have been together for more than 50 years. Ira and I created all the characters, scenes and situations together, then I went off on my own to write a first draft. We met again and again to rewrite the script together.

Ira: Mauricio and I have found a collaborative rhythm starting with KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, continuing with LOVE IS STRANGE, and now working this Summer on a new script, where we begin by spending a few months just talking about our lives, about other movies, about people we’ve known and stories we’ve witnessed or experienced. From those conversations, we loosely create an outline and a set of characters. Then, Mauricio actually does the heavy lifting of the first draft, which he does in about 6 weeks, taking our talks and notes and turning them into actual dialogue and scenes.  This is followed by a time of writing separately, back and forth, between us.  We trust each other a lot, and Mauricio also is very comfortable with the fact that at some point I need to fully own the material before I start directing it.

Any reason you decided to set the film in New York?

Mauricio: We both have been living in New York for a long time, and we both love this city. We wanted to talk about what we see around us. I can’t think of this film being anywhere else.

Ira: I grew up in Memphis and when I started making films, that was the place I know best, and where i found stories I wanted to tell. I always access memories and sounds, and visual experiences of a place in my work, because filmmaking comes the easiest to me when I have that intimate relationship.  I have now spent 25 years in New York, so it’s as much a part of me as Memphis was earlier.

Any horrible New York real estate stories of your own that you care to share?

Mauricio: So many of my friends had to move away because they couldn’t afford the city anymore. In our film, Ben and George are going through a similar situation, but they find a last minute solution to their real estate problem. Staying in the city is crucial for them, but it will take sacrifices from everyone involved.

Ira: Every life lived in New York, or any city for that matter, can be told as a “real estate story,” because real estate is another word for home, and home is always defined by one’s economy, and one’s place in a culture.  I am not a Marxist, per se, but I do look at character always through the lens of economics, and where one lives — or where one can’t live — is as good a way as any of describing a person in the world, and in a story.

Do you have any particular scene from LOVE IS STRANGE that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected? What was it about the scene that moved you?

Mauricio: There wasn’t any major changes from page to screen in LOVE IS STRANGE, but it’s wonderful to see how actors can bring another level to the material, and sometimes the audience has a different reaction from what you intended. For example; in the school scene in the beginning of the film, George is getting fired from his job. It’s a Catholic School, so when at the end of the scene the Priest says; “George, let’s pray.”, audiences have a big laugh; they think it’s the funniest thing.

Ira: I am struck by the fact that when people see the movie, they believe completely in the relationship between Ben and George, as if it’s a couple they’ve always known, and loved. I do believe the script helps in that, but it’s really a testament to the performances of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?

Mauricio: I’m looking forward to TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, the new Dardenne Brothers’ film with Marion Cotillard. It’s the first time the Belgian directors work with a big star. Also, VENUS IN FUR. I enjoyed the play very much, but its success relies on a great coup de theatre – it works beautifully on stage, so I’m curious to see how Polanski adapted it to the screen. On television, I’m hooked on GIRLS, VEEP and MAD MEN, so I’m eagerly waiting for the next seasons. And I can’t wait to read Ioannis Pappos’ Hotel Living, which is going to be released by HarperCollins early next year (he’s a friend, so I got an advance copy!). From what I heard it’s a great character piece, hilarious and heartbreaking – my kind of novel.

Ira: I am looking forward to that one too, Hotel Living – it’s the story of an extremely observant, though love-starved, gay man finding his way in the tough world of downtown New York, so I think I will relate - and I just finished a book called Lost and Found in Johannesburg, by the South African writer Mark Gevisser, which was both brilliant and inspiring. He looks at his own city through the lens of both memoir and cultural history in a way that I hope to do in my own work.  In movies, I’m waiting impatiently to see Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY and Linklater’s BOYHOOD, and WHIPLASH, and too many others to count. Though nearly impossible to get funded, it seems there are still many people out there making the kind of personal cinema I get excited about.

If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

Mauricio: There are so many characters in film / TV history I wish I could write for… I recently watched THE LAVANDER HILL MOB again at the Film Forum. I’m crazy about Henry Holland, the Alec Guinness character. There’s nothing like seeing the most ordinary life be turned around to become a sensational adventure on the big screen.

Ira: I like to make up my own fictional characters. They are the only ones I know well enough to make at all interesting.

Interview: Mark Heyman, “The Skeleton Twins”

Mark HeymanOne of the most talked about dramas on the current film festival circuit is THE SKELETON TWINS, which stars two Saturday Night Live alums, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.

THE SKELETON TWINS’ screenwriters Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson, who also director the film, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Mark Heyman, who was nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” at the 2011 Writers Guild Awards for BLACK SWAN, as he brings THE SKELETON TWINS to the Nantucket Film Festival.

Your film, THE SKELETON TWINS, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes opening the Nantucket Film Festival this week. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s about estranged twins who coincidentally cheat death on the same day, causing them to come back together and confront how their lives went so wrong. But eventually they realize that the key to fixing themselves lies in fixing their broken relationship. 

How did this story come to you? Have you ever had a near-death experience you can share?

The story came about through a lot of conversations between me and the director/co-writer, Craig Johnson, over countless cups of coffee in various New York coffee shops.  There are personal elements from both our lives integrated into the story. My only brush with death came from a scuba diving accident incidentally (scuba diving is a key thread in the film). I’d gone very deep, and came up too fast. I ended up getting the Bends, and needing to be taken to a decompression chamber. 

What is your writing process like on a film like THE SKELETON TWINS?

Craig and I note-carded every scene, and would divvy up who was going to write each one. Then we’d share what we’d done, give thoughts, and trade scenes. It was very collaborative, helped by the fact that Craig and I went to film school together and are very close friends. 

Do you have any particular scene from THE SKELETON TWINS that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected?

The famed lip-synching scene exceeded my expectations by a thousand percent.  It wasn’t so much different than I imagined; I just could never have imagined it turning out quite as amazing as it did. That’s what happens when you have people like Bill [Hader] and Kristen [Wiig]. 

What was it about the scene that moved you?

It just works on so many levels. It’s funny and entertaining, but it’s also poignant and real. The whole thing has an arc and payoff, which is a pretty amazing thing considering all they’re doing is mouthing the words to a cheesy 80′s song.   
What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?

I’m a TV junkie, so pretty much all the “must watch” TV shows are on my radar. GAME OF THRONES, MAD MEN, TRUE DETECTIVE. FARGO, etc. It’s an embarrassingly long list. Book wise, just finished The GoldFinch, which I enjoyed, and reading a lot of nonfiction.  

If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

Don’t know. That’s a hard one. If it’s a character I really love, then I wouldn’t really want to write for them, because I wouldn’t want to mess with something that’s working so well.

Interview: Anja Marquardt, “She’s Lost Control”

AMarquardt and BBloom by JoeyKuhn Writers Guild of America, East member Anja Marquardt turned to Kickstarter and Fractured Atlas to finance her debut feature film, SHE’S LOST CONTROL. 

The film has been getting great buzz thanks to high-profile screenings at New Directors/New Film at Lincoln Center, SXSW and the Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for Best First Feature Award and won the C.I.C.A.E. Award.

The WGAE Write On Blog caught up with Anja as she heads to the Nantucket Film Festival, where SHE’S LOST CONTROL will screen on June 27 and 28.

Your film, SHE’S LOST CONTROL, which you wrote and directed, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes the upcoming Nantucket Film Festival. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s exciting to have the film travel like that. My own perception of what the film is slightly changes from time to time. One version I’d say is: it’s about a woman who thinks she’s invincible and can handle the rabbit hole… until it all turns on her and she is forced to adjust.

How did this story come to you? What was your writing process like?

It came to me one day in the fall of 2010. I had been working on another script and realized it was too big (in scope) to be my first feature. So I went for something containable. In some ways SHE’S LOST CONTROL is really a behavioral character study. The first draft wrote itself, in a couple of weeks. It took another year or so to rewrite and rework the narrative structure to sort of mirror the protagonist’s emotional journey – the film’s pace and tension are like a spiral, if you want. It creeps up on you and then hits you.

Any reason you decided to set the film in New York?

It’s hard to imagine the film anywhere else! Seoul maybe, that’d be an interesting sequel. I wrote the film for New York and knew I could find locations there that feel urban yet avoid showing them in an all too familiar light. It was an interesting challenge.

Do you have any particular scene from SHE’S LOST CONTROL that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected? What was it about the scene that moved you?

There was a scene that was loosely scripted as a “dance scene”, a moment where Ronah manages to make Johnny step outside himself, and it’s fun. I was looking to create some lightness between the two main characters, a moment where the film becomes its own opposite. On set, we shot the rehearsal without talking much about blocking or the arch of the scene and Brooke and Marc just went with it. And director of photography, Zack Galler, and 1st AC, Matt Manning went with it as well. We were lucky. I remember staring at the monitor, with some people from the team, and all of us were just completely taken and surprised by it. Interestingly the scene is now more of a seduction scene where Ronah seduces Johnny, and the audience is seduced to believe that maybe this could all turn into a love story. I believe we shot one or two more takes, but most of what’s in the film now is from that first rehearsal.

What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?

I recently watched Steven Soderbergh’s K STREET, from 2003! Incredible. It feels so ahead of its time. It’d be interesting to take its shooting style and level of narrative sophistication and apply it to… say, an Amazon Studios show. One of the most interesting films I’ve seen this year so far is probably HISTORY OF FEAR by Benjamín Naishtat. I’m really curious about THE CONGRESS.

If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

For some reasons, Billy Kwan comes to mind, from THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. This might be tied to the casting of Linda Hunt, but I’ve always felt that this character would be interesting to explore further. A supposed outsider who comes back with a vengeance. In another life, I could see Billy as a contract killer, or part of the defense team for Edward Snowden.

Highlights From “Writing Disabled Characters” Panel (VIDEO)

The Writers Guild of America, East. in partnership with the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, presented a panel on “Writing Disabled Characters” on June 10. 

The panel was hosted by Tom Fontana (OZ, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET) and moderated by Howard Sherman, acting executive director of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. Panelists included George Gallego (Founder and CEO, Wheels of Progress), Alexandria Wailes (actor, NURSE JACKIE), Susan Kim (Writer, WONDER PETS!, ARTHUR), Kristen Lange (Writer, THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW) and Marygrace O’Shea (Writer, LAW & ORDER).

Below are four highlight video clips from the event.

George Gallego (Founder and CEO of Wheels of Progress)

Susan Kim (WONDER PETS!, ARTHUR, DRAGON TALES)

Marygrace O’Shea (LAW & ORDER) and Alexandria Wailes (NURSE JACKIE)

Kristen Lange (MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW) and Marygrace O’Shea (LAW & ORDER)

Action Alert: Help Diversify Television Writing Rooms

We are getting very close to New York state passing legislation that would incentivize diversifying television writing rooms.

The outpouring of emails and phone calls from WGAE members has captured Albany’s attention, and there is a very good chance that legislation will be voted on before the Assembly and the Senate end their legislative session this month.

The bills – A 7373 A and S 5370A – would modify the existing production tax credit slightly to provide a credit for hiring New York women and people of color to write; we hope this will also bring more TV writers rooms to New York for everyone’s benefit.

There are three people who can make this happen. Three legislators who decide whether to bring the bills before the Senate and the Assembly for a vote. The time is now to call these people to urge them to schedule floor votes on the bills. Please take a few minutes right now to call

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (Democrat)
518-455 3791 

(“Please schedule A 7373A for a vote of the entire Assembly before the end of the current session.”)

Senate Majority Coalition Leader Dean Skelos (Republican)
518-455 3171 

(“Please schedule S 5370A for a vote of the entire Senate before the end of the current session.”)

Senate Majority Coalition Leader Jeffrey Klein (Independent Democrat)
518-455-3595 

(“Please schedule S 5370A for a vote of the entire Senate before the end of the current session.”)

Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Film Program at a Discount For WGAE Members

VermontBy Stephen Pite

Vermont College of Fine Arts, known for its ground-breaking low-residency graduate fine arts degree programs, has recently launched a Master of Fine Arts in Film program – the only one of its kind in the country.

The College has announced a special offer only available to WGAE members. Screenwriters and filmmakers are now eligible to enroll for a single, post-graduate semester at a special WGAE rate, enabling them to join the MFA in Film community during one of its two, weeklong residencies

Students can join the MFA in Film cohort for a single semester and participate in an immersive one-week residency in Montpelier devoted to screenings, discussions, and interactive critical workshops.  This is when individual study plans for the ensuing six-month semester are created, under the mentorship of a member of the MFA in Film faculty, all of whom are accomplished independent filmmakers and screenwriters.

To find out more about this special opportunity for WGA East members, contact Stephen Pite, Director at stephen.pite@vcfa.edu or 802.828.8529.

Interview: Michael Weber & Scott Neustadter, “The Fault In Our Stars”

20th Century Fox Presents The New York Premiere of "The Fault in Our Stars" Sponsored by InStyle and Physicians FormulaAs a fan of movies, you may have been asked “Do you know the secret to THE CRYING GAME?,” “Who ya gonna call?,” or “How many times have you seen DIRTY DANCING?”

Right now, moviegoers are asking, “Did you cry your eyes out watching THE FAULT IN OUR STARS?” (Likely answer: Yes).

The WGAE Write On Blog caught up with Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, who co-wrote the film adaptation of John Green’s beloved YA novel.

In our interview, Michael and Scott discuss how they became a writing team, what their writing process is like and how they built a successful partnership even though they live and work on opposite coasts.

How did you two become a writing team?

Michael: We met in 1999 at Tribeca Productions. While still an undergrad at Syracuse University I went looking for a summer internship.  Scott had recently started working there after graduating from Penn.  The first conversation we ever had was about how much we loved RUSHMORE.  He hired me as an intern and we quickly became friends.  And our conversation about RUSHMORE pretty much set the tone for our relationship.  Upon graduation I returned to Tribeca, as an assistant for Robert De Niro.  By that point Scott was Director of Development.  We’d spend our lunch breaks together, talking about movies we’d seen, scripts we’d read and life in general.  Eventually we shared our own ideas.  And then one day we decided to try writing together.  First we outlined the idea – sometimes in person but usually over email and phone calls. When it came time to write we simply divided up scenes and then emailed them back and forth.  It’s the same process we use today, now living on opposite coasts.  Nothing ever happened with the first screenplay we wrote together but our friends liked it and their response gave us the confidence to keep writing.

What career lessons did you learn from working at Tribeca Productions and how have those experiences shaped your move into screenwriting?

Scott: Looking back now, those four years were invaluable for a whole boatload of reasons. First off, when I started working in development, I naively believed that only the best writers and the strongest material had any chance whatsoever of selling. I realized a week into the job – that’s totally false! Lots of okay writers manage to sell their okay scripts. Which meant we didn’t have to write the greatest script of all time. We just had to be okay. Which I thought we could do. Secondly, a lot of screenwriters have an antagonistic view towards the development process and development executives. But having worked on the other side, I know we’re all on the same team and we want the same things (most of the time, anyway). Not to mention, the fact that I gave notes for many years before receiving them, I can often read between the lines in ways that other writers who haven’t seen that side of the process cannot. So, yeah, I think we’ve benefited tremendously from having worked in that capacity.

When did writing become a full time career for both of you?

Michael: In New York we had our day jobs and writing together was a side project.  Then Scott moved to London and then LA.  We were always writing but we probably didn’t take it seriously until he was in LA.  Even then it was a few years before we got our first job, which was a movie pitch we sold to FOX.  We still kept our day jobs.  In fact we had them through production of (500) DAYS OF SUMMER – I was working part-time for De Niro and Scott was writing coverage for various producers and studios.  Our attitude was one of practicality:  just in case this all goes away let’s keep our safety nets in place.  I think we finally shed the other gigs around 2009.

What’s the writing process between you two like with Michael in New York and Scott in Los Angeles?

Michael: We never write a word until we’ve extensively outlined the entire movie. There’s no rigid format to the outline – merely a list of scenes with as much detail as we can get in there.  We’ll email and talk as we go over the outline again and again, filling in blanks and solving problems.  Usually Scott wants to start writing and I have to apply the brakes.  Eventually we get to a place where we’ve addressed as many issues as we can in the outline phase.  Then we divide up a small batch of scenes – enough to cover a day or two of writing.  As those batches are completed we will email them back and forth.  We’ve never written in the same room.  We know we’d get nothing accomplished that way!

What is your individual writing process? Do you need to be in a private room? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you edit as you go or knock out a first draft?

Scott: We both go to coffee shops and tea rooms but that might be where the similarities end. I am never not listening to music when I write. I like distractions, busyness, a lot going on around me while I’m working. Weber also manages to move forward if something isn’t working whereas I’ll get stuck on a scene or a line or a word. I’ll go back to the beginning and edit and tweak and I can’t move forward until I feel like everything up to that point is as good as we can make it. And then, once the first draft is completed, I’ll wind up going through it all again, realizing that what I thought was perfect was extremely flawed and start changing things all over again. At a certain point I literally have to close the document and take it off my desktop or I will start changing things. It’s a character flaw (one of many!)

The next project coming out from you two is an adaptation of John Green’s FAULT IN OUR STARS, a hit YA book, whose audience is very devoted to the text. What are the challenges to adapting a book where so many readers have such strong attachments to the entire book?

Michael: Our job is to produce a script that honors the spirit of the book but is also a fully realized story to anyone not familiar with the source material. The last thing we’d want is for the author or the fans of the book to be disappointed in the movie.  That said, there are always changes to be made.  In the case of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS we had to condense a few parts of the book, especially the ending.  And there were some moments that needed to be more cinematic.  So far the response has been great.  And John Green has publicly stated that our beginning and ending are better than his.  We came to the book the same as everyone else – we read it and immediately fell in love with it.  So John’s approval means a lot to us.

The characters in FAULT IN OUR STARS, SPECTAULAR NOW and your other screenplays are all young and have personal issues not normally seen in romantic comedies, such as cancer or alcoholism or what may be called abnormal social behaviors. What draws you to these kind of characters in love stories?

Michael: Their stories are an emotional journey that comes from a real place.  As we’re outlining and writing, the question Scott and I continually ask is, “What would really happen?”  It’s the tool we rely on more than anything else.  We never think, “What would be the funniest moment here?” or “How can we make this into a set piece or a trailer moment?”  I think this way of thinking comes from the movies we grew up on; Cameron Crowe and John Hughes are two of our heroes.  They told stories about young people that were honest and heartfelt and they never talked down to their audience.  And so now we gravitate towards material in that spirit.

Has there been a scene (or scenes) from one of your scripts that you watch on the big screen and been surprised by your personal reaction to it?

Scott: Definitely the best thing we’ve ever done in my opinion is the Reality/Expectations sequence from (500) DAYS. When Fox Searchlight optioned the script, they had almost no notes. No one said “can they end up together?” or “can you re-structure it in a more conventional way?” or anything like that. But Peter Rice, who ran the division at the time, said to us there was one thing he felt was missing which was some way to trick the audience into believing the couple might get back together at the end. Otherwise, what are we rooting for? Amazing note. And from that came the moment when they’re trapped on the train heading to an out-of-town wedding, the scene in which they “reconnect,” remembering the time when their relationship did in fact work, and ultimately reality/expectations wherein all hope is officially and irrevocably lost. I wrote that scene at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up and I knew, as I was writing it, this was going to be awesome. (A huge rarity, trust me.) I also had absolutely no idea how Marc was going to pull it off! When I saw that on screen for the first time, I completely lost my shit. And honestly it still gets me every time.

Having been labeled Hollywood’s go-to writing team for adaptations by the Wall Street Journal, how do you compare working on screen adaptations to writing original screenplays?

Michael: That’s nice praise but I can name dozens of writers whose adaptations we greatly admire.  For us we simply want to keep working on movies we’d go see. Hopefully a mix of originals and adaptations.  We enjoy writing both.  The only difference for us is that it seems as if it’s gotten a lot harder to get the originals made.

So what books, movies, television shows are high on your radar right now?

Michael: We could spend hours answering this question! We both love Mad Men and Game of Thrones. I recently devoured David Benioff’s City of Thieves, which Brian Koppleman recommended to me. I couldn’t put it down – Benioff is an incredible writer.  Is there anything he can’t do?  Scott is a huge fan of British TV; Luther and Orphan Black and many others.  My apartment is half library.  I try to read everything published by NYRB; one book after the next they knock it out of the park.  I also love Europa, Melville House and Graywolf.  The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah is a recent Graywolf novel that I loved.  It broke my heart a dozen different ways.

If you could write a scene for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

Scott: That’s a great question. I don’t know if there are specific characters we’d love to write for. There are certainly a ton of performers – Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Hackman, Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole. And there’s one persona – the late 60s/early 70s Woody Allen. Virgil Starkwell in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, Fielding Mellish in BANANAS, Miles Monroe in SLEEPER, Boris Gruschenko in LOVE AND DEATH, Alvy Singer from ANNIE HALL etc. Such a specific, unique voice that only he could write and only he could perform. But, man, it would be fun to try!

Michael: Neither of us know how to answer this question.  I wouldn’t dare to presume I could put new words in the mouths of Lloyd Dobler or Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly. I love these characters but I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them!