Dark Moments: Jeff Goldsmith talks to 2020 Oscar-Nominated Screenwriters

This is a delightful episode. As always, Jeff Goldsmith hosts a fascinating discussion with his guests. This ScreenCraft-sponsored episode of The Q&A Podcast features 7 of the 10 screenwriters nominated for the 2020 Academy Awards! His guests were Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writer of 1917; Taika Waititi, writer/director of Jojo Rabbit; Scott Silver, co-writer of Joker; Rian Johnson, writer/director for Knives Out; Greta Gerwig writer/director for Little Women; Noah Baumbach, writer/director for Marriage Story; and Anthony McCarten writer of The Two Popes. Read on for our 5 biggest takeaways from the interview — or pour yourself a hot cup of something tasty and click play below to dive right into the audio itself. And be sure to subscribe to the Q&A Podcast via Apple Podcasts.

The 12th Annual Screenwriting Oscar Nominees Q&A Podcast Episodes, sponsored by ScreenCraft and Final Draft:

 

  1. Darkest moment as a screenwriter.

Goldsmith kicked off the interview by asking each writer to share a dark moment from their career.

Wilson-Cairns said it was when she was bartending in London, because it was easier to just get drunk than write script pages.

Waititi said trying to tell people about the darkly comedic concept of  Jojo Rabbit was nearly impossible because no one could understand the tone he was going for.

Silver said he’s had so many dark days as a screenwriter, he can’t pick just one.

Johnson says it’s the moment on every project where the initial excitement for the new idea wears off.

Gerwig said her darkest moment was after the Oscar-nominee luncheon when she went home and checked Twitter to see what her main troll had to say about her. “I feel like my need is to balance whatever gifts the universe gave me with some healthy self-flagellation,” said Gerwig.

Baumbach joked his darkest moment was the car ride to this interview with his girlfriend Gerwig and finding out her troll doesn’t like him either. The group had a big laugh. But more seriously, Baumbach said the darkest moments for him are starting from scratch on each new project and feeling overwhelmed, like he’s forgotten how to write.

McCarten said it was when he was a novelist and his publisher said they wouldn’t publish his third novel, even though they thought it was his finest work.

Read Screencraft’s Tips for Staying Inspired Through the Highs and Lows of Screenwriting!

  1. The power of no.

Goldsmith asked if each writer could recall a time when they had to say “no” to something about a project, or to a job.

McCarten said Angelina Jolie wanted him to write a screenplay about Catherine the Great, but instead of saying no he, on the advice of his psychologist girlfriend, asked her why she wanted to make this movie. She spoke for an hour and he never had to say a word.

Baumbach said it was when he wrote The Squid and the Whale. The film needed to be shot at the Natural History Museum in New York and include the Pink Floyd song, “Hey You.” People told him to find an alternative shooting location and song, but he refused. He stuck to his guns and it all paid off.

For Gerwig’s Little Women, she focused on writing the ending of the story that author Louisa May Alcott wanted in real life: that Jo doesn’t get married. Alcott’s publisher and readers really wanted Jo to get married and fulfill the typical 19th century romantic tropes, so Alcott had to put it in the book. But Gerwig stood firm on going against the book ending. “If I cannot give [Alcott] the ending she would have wanted, 150 years later,” said Gerwig, “then we’ve made no progress – it’s the exact same as it was in the 19th century.”

Johnson said he’s a people-pleaser and that it’s really hard for him to say no. But he has learned a valuable lesson about standing his ground. “Having been through a couple movies, at the end of the day, when you get to the end of the process and it’s your movie that’s up there on the screen, and everyone’s reacting to it, the only thing that matters is if what works on the screen works and you can stand behind it. You’re not going to get points or credit for having pleased anybody along the way,” he says.

Silver remarked that as a writer, not the director, you don’t usually get the final say, so he didn’t have a chance to say no to Todd Phillips.

Waititi said no to pitching Jojo Rabbit to studios because it was such a tightrope walk between tone and history. Instead, he had to write the script as a spec to express his voice as clearly as possible.

Wilson-Cairns also feels like she’s a people-pleaser and wants to be liked. “But the best no I ever gave was the no to the project before 1917.” There was a film she really wanted to write and chased after it, but they refused to pay her rate. Because 1917 was being secretly written on spec, she couldn’t argue that she was worth her rate because she was about to make a film with Sam Mendes. “When Sam was taking 1917 out and we were talking about which studios to go to, I thought, ‘I really hope Paramount doesn’t get it,’ and when they didn’t get it, I was like, “Ha ha, you dicks!’” She says karma worked in her favor.

 

  1. Favorite form of procrastination.

All writers procrastinate at some point, so Goldsmith asked each writer their “go to” procrastination.

McCarten said he likes to play tennis.

Baumbach goes to therapy twice a week and walks to and from the office to take up more time.

Gerwig says she has a lot of ways to procrastinate including rewriting her screenplay longhand. She’s also played with the idea of starting a “running practice” and downloads apps to help her with it even though she still doesn’t have an actual “running practice.”

Wilson-Cairns relates to Gerwig’s running practice procrastination. “Only I don’t do the apps, I go out in Lycra thinking I can run and then I run to the end of my block and I go, ‘Owwww! Why is this hard?’ And I go back to my house and do the bullshit research. Sometimes I’ll spend a whole day picking a name.” She also cleans her house and then rearranges her furniture.

For Johnson, he goes on Twitter. “And now,” he says, “it’s going to be finding Greta’s trolls and flaming them.”

Silver says everything is a procrastination because he never wants to write.

Waititi says, “What I do is say, ‘Oh, this character needs a Trans Am so I need to look at Trans Ams.’ And then I’ll spend the rest of the day searching for Trans Ams. Then I’ll buy one. Then I’ll spend most of my time looking for mechanics to fix the Trans Am and that becomes a whole new thing.”

 

  1. Personal moment in their film.

Part of why the films nominated for Best Screenplay are so good is because they are personal to the writer. Goldsmith asks which moment in everyone’s film could only have been written by them.

For Wilson-Cairns, it was the cherry blossom scene. “Where I grew up, my whole garden was covered in [cherry trees and blossoms]. My gran used to swear violently about the blossoms… but when some of the trees died, she was heartbroken.” Wilson-Cairns says for her, the cherry blossom scene in the film is her grandmother.

Waititi says it’s the scene in Jojo Rabbit at the dinner table. “It’s when Scarlett puts the ash on her face and has the scene between herself and her husband, which is something my mother never did but she was a single mother and really, the film is a love letter to solo moms, and mothers in general.”

For Silver, co-writer of Joker, “It’s the scene in the elevator with Zazie Beetz when [Arthur] is trying to make a connection with her. I often feel awkward… so that was easy for me to access and write those kinds of scenes.”

Johnson, writer of Knives Out, says his family is nothing like the family in the film, but, “If you grow up in a big family and the family dynamics of everyone just screaming at each other but everyone still loves each other,” that dynamic is personal to him. He says he never yells more or feels more comfortable than when he’s with his family.

Gerwig says there’s one line in Little Women that she sadly said to one of her real friends who was getting married. “It’s the scene where Jo and Meg are talking before her wedding and Jo says to Meg, ‘Why do you want to marry him?’ and she says, ‘Because I love him.’ Then she says, ‘You will be bored of him in two years and we will stay interesting forever.’”

For Baumbach, whose film Marriage Story is semi-autobiographical, he said it’s a scene where the couple is in mediation with their lawyers and they stop to order lunch. “Adam Driver’s character is given the menu and has trouble coming up with what he wants to order. Greta knows this, I often ask her what I should order. Also, the opening of the movie is in Park Slope where I grew up.”

McCarten says the entire film The Two Popes is personal considering he was raised Catholic. “[My upbringing] was Byzantine, medieval. I’m one of eight children and [there was] probably more coitus than interruptus. My mother was intensely religious.”

 

  1. Film endings.

Goldsmith noted that all the writers ended their films with fantastic endings and asked how they came up with the endings, and if the endings changed during the writing process.

McCarten said, “The working title for The Two Popes was Confessions, so I knew it would be two people, two flawed individuals, who had to come to terms with their flawed-ness and also find a common ground between them.” When he remembered that Germany and Argentina had played each other at the World Cup, he saw it as a metaphor for the competition between the two Popes. “I thought, that’s the ending. They’ll sit down, have some pizza and watch a World Cup game.”

Marriage Story ends at a school pickup and drop off. Baumbach says the movie was always about two people’s survival and then coming together after a divorce. “Divorce by design breaks one thing into two… I always saw it as they had to come out the other side of this, they had to go forward. I had this image from the beginning of his shoe being untied and her tying it for him. So I wrote the movie to try to arrive at that ending.”

For the ending of Little Women, Gerwig says she wanted to eschew romance for Jo following her dream to be a professional writer. “The last shot of the movie is her getting to hold that book. I wanted that to feel like the thing you didn’t know you needed to see. Ordinarily, the most satisfying moment is when the hero and heroine kiss and the right people are together. I wanted that emotional moment to be with her and that book.”

At the end of Knives Out, we know that Marta will vomit if she tells a lie. Johnson is a huge Agatha Christie fan and knows that ultimately, “who dunnit” is the least interesting part of the story. “The vomit moment, for example, that was because… it’s a trope of the detective laying the whole thing out. Screenwriting-wise, we’ve just watched our protagonist sit passively for 20 minutes while another character explains the entire story. So I needed an active moment where [Marta] won, where she did something active to beat Ransom and earn [her triumph] basically.”

According to Silver, the thing everyone was most concerned about with Joker was that comic book fans would be upset if the movie rewrote Joker’s origin story. So it was important to establish a plausible deniability that none of this happened, “That it was all just some mental patient telling a story. That way we can go, ‘Well, Joker still doesn’t have an origin. So that’s what we tacked on at the end [with Arkham Clerk] so we can say, ‘Well, maybe it never happened.’”

The ending of Jojo Rabbit is essentially a battle for the city and Jojo finding the courage to rebuke Hitler. He then goes outside to dance to David Bowie. “It was important for me to make the film feel very contemporary,” says Waititi. “The point is to make it feel like it could happen today.” He says there’s currently an attitude about World War 2 films, where people feel like they’ve seen the story before and they get it. “Obviously, we don’t get it because we are doomed as a species to repeat our mistakes. Also, I just like a happy ending.”

For 1917, plot-wise, Wilson-Cairns says the most important part is that Schofield gives the crucial message to the army commanders that stops more soldiers from dying. But finding Blake’s brother is really the emotional ending. “What I really loved in that scene is that you learn Schofield’s first name,” says Wilson-Cairns. “Ultimately, you don’t need [that information] to want him to survive… but you need that at the end to make him feel like a real person you want to survive the war.”

 

This episode was sponsored by the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship.

 


Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards


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