Programs Thu 2.20.2014

On Inspiration, Procrastination and Stories Without Aliens – Writers Talk Writing at the Directors Close-Up

“I think you need some aliens or some monsters or terrorists or Legos.” A week after opening Film Independent’s 2014 Directors Close-Up series with Alfonso Cuaron, moderator John August returned to the stage, playfully ribbing this week’s panelists, fellow writers Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), Scott Neustadter (The Spectacular Now) and Bob Nelson (Nebraska), for eschewing high-concept, visual effects-laden approaches and instead choosing to focus on often contentious personal relationships between essentially two characters.

Delpy observed how Jesse and Celine’s relationship in Before Midnight is still at the core, although it has evolved in the third film of the series so that audiences see their weathered love affair in the context of young and older couples who now occupy the frame. Meanwhile, Nelson cited Louis Malle’s classic My Dinner with Andre (1981) as an inspiration for his father-son road-trip drama and the type of minimalist storytelling he hopes to emulate, and Neustadter emphasized the challenges in getting smaller pictures financed as well as the ultimate reward in bringing personal, character-driven stories to the screen.

Discussing their creative partnerships with their respective directors, Nelson remarked that he was, “pretty certain that Alexander Payne was the right one [for the job since] he’s from Nebraska and I’d seen Election. I felt that we had some common bond in trying to mix drama and comedy.” Establishing the collaborative nature of their relationship, Nelson remarked how right off the bat Payne suggested the Mount Rushmore scene during their first meeting and gave really constructive feedback.

Neustadter admitted that he and his writing partner, Michael H. Weber, were initially hesitant to approach director James Ponsoldt, whose previous film, Smashed, also revolved around the subject of drinking. However, they knew that it was the right fit when they met and, rather than talking about drinking or alcoholism, they connected over what being in love at 17 is like versus as an adult. While Neustadter does not feel the need to direct, at least at the moment, he said that the process of adaptation gives him the sense of directing in terms of shaping another person’s initial vision in a way.

Delpy, on the other hand, observed that she has now developed a shorthand with director Richard Linklater and fellow writer and actor Ethan Hawke over the course of working with them on the Before series. She also revealed that Linklater cast Hawke and her in Before Sunrise in part because both came from writing backgrounds. “It was an interesting process as an actor who wanted to be a director/writer to suddenly have the opportunity to write something without being credited which was ok because in a way it allowed me to write and see people enjoy my writing without having to take the risk of the first screenplay.” In terms of reconciling the multiple roles she juggles in the Before series, as well as in her own directing, Delpy mused that, “I think I ‘kill’ the writer when I’m directing. I ‘kill’ the actress when I’m editing. If I look like shit, I’ll put the scene in anyway if it’s good. I have to ‘kill’ parts of me every time.” Ultimately, for Delpy it’s about being flexible and not overly precious with her writing that she can’t get to set and make the necessary changes.

Imparting advice to up-and-coming writers and directors, Neustadter discussed how important it is to establish a contract from the start with your audience in terms of expectations, but still try to deviate from the Hollywood norm: “We’ve seen enough movies and have enough love and respect for our audience and ourselves as audience members that we like to challenge people and sometimes try to pull the rug out from underneath them.”

Confessing that it’s only natural to face distractions and find oneself procrastinating during the lengthy writing process, Nelson suggested setting up a strict schedule, having a hard outline before you start writing and trying to avoid the internet as much as possible. (August recommends the Freedom app for a digital detox.)

In terms of guidance, Neustadter remarked that reading as many screenplays as you can get your hands on is the best “mentorship” and exposing yourself to both good and bad writing is essential to the learning process. (Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation was particularly informative for him as a burgeoning writer.)

When asked about her early mentors and inspirations during her youth, Delpy responded, “I remember growing up as a kid and thinking that there’s no one that I can completely be inspired by because no woman is doing what I want to do…. yet. For me that was a very, very big drive for me to have my own voice.”

A limited number of single night tickets for the remaining three Directors Close-Up sessions are available one week prior to each event. Next up: Alexander Payne on Thursday February 27.

Laura Swanbeck / Freelance blogger