The long road from story idea to final cut of a feature film can be a circuitous one, but 99% of the time it begins with a screenplay—simultaneously an onramp, conduit and roadmap towards achieving a final artistic product. Or, if automotive metaphor doesn’t suit you, think of screenplays as the first proactive step in the alchemical process of converting the intangible dreamstuff of imagination into something material, sharable and (most importantly) actionable.
This year boasted a bumper crop of such alchemists, as duly reflected in a rich lineup of 2021 Film Independent Spirit Award Best Screenplay and Best First Screenplay nominees—six of whom joined us for Week Seven of our Spirit Awards edition of the Directors Close-Up: Kitty Green (The Assistant), Noah Hutton (Lapsis), Mike Makowsky (Bad Education) Andy Siara (Palm Springs), James Sweeney (Straight Up) and Alice Wu (The Half of It.)
The Directors Close-Up concludes next week—Wednesday, April 21—with one final session devoted to microbudget filmmaking, with the nominees of this year’s John Cassavetes Award. Late to the party? Don’t worry! All of this year’s sessions will be available for DCU pass holders to watch On Demand. See highlights from our latest session below:
Moderator Shelby Stone (executive producer, The Chi, Bessie) began by asking what the impetus was for each of the writers’ stories. Said Wu: “For both of my films [The Half of It and 2004’s Saving Face] they sort of emerged out of a personal question I was grappling with.” For the Half of It, these questions stemmed from unresolved issues surrounding the dissolution of a key friendship from Wu’s youth—an intense platonic bond with a straight male classmate. “It felt almost like I was writing for myself,” she said of the project, “not that it would be something that anyone else would ever see or watch.”
For Green and her Harvey Weinstein-influenced #MeToo drama The Assistant, it was a combination of firsthand and collected experiences. “I never see myself as a writer particularly,” she said, saying she sees filmmaking as one combined, holistic process. “I could be inspired by an image or stories—stories of my own or that I’ve heard.”
Makowsky’s inspiration was a lot more direct. His script for Bad Education was a fact-based retelling of the story of the largest embezzlement scandal in the history of US public education—which just so happened to occur at Makowsky’s school, Roslyn High School on Long Island, while he was a student there.
Stone asked how the writers approached the elements of craft. Said Hutton, “I need to write out in prose what I’m really trying to talk about—can I get out in two pages the world I’m trying to create and the story arc?” He says that for the dystopian sci-fi satire Lapsis, his initial draft ran long. “I usually go double [the length] then it’s a pruning process to get back to something more manageable.” Despite coming from a documentary background, he says: “I think I was always drawn to the possibilities of fiction writing.”
“I don’t know if I have a specific, repeatable process,” says Sweeney, who is also a playwright in addition to writing and directing the coming-of-age story Straight Up. “I first try to match the concept to the medium,” saying that Straight Up was specifically designed to be a debut feature shot on a microbudget. He confesses it difficult to take off his producer hat, even while writing—“Is this producible?”
“For Palm Springs, it was hundreds of hundreds of pages of abandoned drafts,” said Siara of the record-breaking 2020 Sundance acquisition. “We weren’t writing for anyone, so we had time to explore.” But now that he has studio assignments and deadlines, Siara is finding it better to have the “full roadmap” of an outline before opening up Final Draft. Green’s approach from the beginning is likewise very technical. “I like boxes. I like maps and graphs,” she says.
For some, it can be tough to let loose. “One thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I really like to write toward an ending,” says Wu. Describing herself as “a structuralist,” she says she has “a writing brain and an editing brain” and that, “I think I live mostly in my editing brain—which I don’t recommend.”
Both of Wu’s films have featured gay Asian American women as protagonists, a fact not lost on Sweeney, who said he was deeply affected by Wu’s debut Saving Face, cherishing the representation the film provided in progressively prehistoric middle-2000s.
Wu’s influence would be felt in his own debut, Straight Up. “The plot didn’t happen to me, but emotionally it’s very true,” he said. “Both of the characters are aspects of myself that are married together—figuratively,” he says.
“I don’t have a great head for concepts, so I usually approach things from a character perspective,” says Makowsky. His ideas usually start with answering a one-line question: “Who is someone who interests me and why?” Like Bad Education’s corrupt school superintendent Frank Tassone, played in the film by Hugh Jackman. Dialogue, he says, is key. “That’s when it all sort of coalesces and comes together—or fails miserably.”
Asked about their writing habits, Green was eager to emphasize that the creative process involves a whole lot more than mere typing.
“I want to challenge this idea of what’s writing.” Of creativity, she says: “It doesn’t come from sitting at a desk, it comes from talking to people, from observing things.” A writer’s value isn’t measured in terms of laptop hour logged: “Don’t punish yourself—live life.”
Coming Up: The Spirit of Cassavetes: Making a Low-Budget Movie
Featuring Merawi Gerima (Residue), Robert Machoian (The Killing of Two Lovers), Kelly O’Sullivan (Saint Frances), Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca), Alex Thompson (Saint Frances), Patricia Vidal Delgado (La Leyenda Negra); moderated by Andrew Ahn (Driveways, Spa Night.) Wednesday, April 21, 5:3opm PT.
The 2021 Directors Close-Up is sponsored by Premier Sponsors Directors Guild of America (DGA) and SAGindie, Supporting Sponsor Sony Cinema Line and Film Independent Spirit Awards Premier Sponsors Genesis and IFC. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey is the Official Spirit. FIJI Water is the Official Water. Getty Images is the Official Photographer.
We’re also honored to be partnering with the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) SeeHer, the leading global movement for gender equality in media, advertising, marketing and entertainment and AMC Networks to further celebrate and act as a catalyst for accurate and meaningful representation in storytelling.