“The stories we tell, it’s not just entertainment—far from it.It’s cultural markers, it shapes our memories, and it shapes who we can become,” said screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (Sully) to a packed room of listeners at Variety’s annual Top 10 Screenwriters to Watch panel that took place at the Whistler Film Festival on Dec 3rd.
It’s the festival’s 16th year, and aside from luring film industry types to the slopes for some schmoozing, deal-making, panels and skiing, WFF celebrates independent films, many of which are Canadian. It doesn’t, however, completely shy away from Hollywood. The festival opened with what is considered by many to be a front-runner for the Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s ode to movie musicals La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
Of course, when speaking of Oscars, you might find at least a few of Variety’s scribe picks amongst the nominees come February 26, 2017. Of the 10 to Watch, five had made the trek to Whistler: Luke Davies (Lion), Pamela Ribon (Moana), Jojo Moyes (Me Before You), Todd Komarnicki (Sully) and Jonás Cuarón (Desierto). All of them distinctly different.
Moyes, who has written as many as 12 novels, recalls her quintessential L.A. experience going to a meeting with MGM about adapting Me Before You. She did what she cheekily refers to as “the full Brigitte Jones.” She bought a posh jacket, but inconveniently, the button popped off at airport security.
“But you don’t understand, I have a meeting. I can’t go in without a button,” she tried to reason with the officer. “Move along ma’am,” he barked. The scene repeated, until she said, “I’m going to a meeting in hollywood.” That’s when everything changed. “Hold on, find the button, find the button!” he yelled. “This is why I love Americans,” Moyes says.
At the meeting, Moyes was offered the project. “I’m one of those people who can think of a million reasons to say yes before saying no, so I said yes and set in an Uber they provided to go home going, ‘What have I just done?’,” she recalls. “They’ve created a monster cause I’ve gone on to do more since.”
The film, which coincidentally had a largely female team, including director Thea Sharrock, went on to make a lot of money for the studio. “I had no idea about the stats for women directors,” says Moyes, “and it was just really nice that a) it worked as a film, and b) it made the studio a lot of money because hopefully that will encourage people to think more positively about employing women in positions of creative power.”
Pamela Ribon has her own memories of taking pitch meeting—whilst pregnant. She’d maneuver around her obvious baby bump, trying to (often comically) hide it with pillows. Unable to ask her about her pregnancy directly, they’d ask: “So … what’s new?” To which she’d respond, without missing a beat: “Loving bagels!” Her baby was four months old when she began working on Moana—that baby is now four years old. “It was a very long labor of love,” she quips. Ribon has many more on the way: A sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, Smurfs: The Lost Village and even a series of comic books set in the world or roller derby—an activity she highly recommends for those wanting to learn how to survive in the entertainment industry.
Keeping your voice is a big part of it.
“If you’re going to make something stick, you’ve got to have your voice, you can’t have the voice of a thousand people,” says Komarnicki, who finds himself drawn to the untold stories. “There’s always a secret behind a secret,” he says. Whilst Sully (played by Tom Hanks) was being hailed as a hero in the press, no one knew what was going on with the investigation.
It was essential for Sully to use the right voice to tell the real story.
“The singular vision has been squelched by the studio system, and the reason that Clint [Eastwood] keeps making good movies at 86 is because he keeps the singular vision.”
There’s a framed letter on the wall at Eastwood’s office from a woman who was once his head of development—someone he had relied on heavily when it came to her opinions. This is what the letter says: “Dear Clint, this is the worst script that has ever been written. Not only should you not make it, no one should ever make it. It should be burned. It’s hateful, it’s inhuman, and may it never see the light of day.”
The script that she was referring to was for Unforgiven, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Picture and change Eastwood’s life.
“I keep that letter on my wall to remind myself not to listen to other people,” Eastwood told Komarnicki—whose film he directed with the script pretty much unchanged.
“If I think too hard about how somebody is going to respond to my work, it paralyzes me,” admits Moyes. When she was writing the sequel to Me Before You, a novel that readers had strong, passionate feelings for, whenever she’d get to the point of writing Louisa having sex with anyone else, a little voice would yell in her ear: “No one’s going to like that…” So, over lunch, a novelist friend told her: “Jojo, you have to put yourself in a bubble. They are lucky you’re writing something else. Just write for you.” It was a liberating moment. “You have to know your tone, but it’s really important to keep your own voice running through because if you think too hard about what someone else wants, you lose your voice. You lose what makes the thing special to you.”
Komarnicki never thinks about the audience. “Not because of lack of love for the audience,” he’s quick to clarify. “I never think of the movie being in a cinema. To me it’s just the characters and loving them and figuring out their story and if somehow I do that right then maybe in some distant future it might be in front of an audience, but it’s just me and them figuring each other out. I love the wide open space. I write until I put the words ‘the end,’ and I never stop until i have 160 pages.”
Jonás Cuarón can relate. “I never think in terms of the size of the movie—I think in terms of the story [and the story informs the rest].”
He began to write Desierto about eight years ago as he was observing anti-immigration rhetoric becoming more commonplace. He wanted to tell that story of hatred towards foreigners and migrants—and the film ultimately focuses on a group of people attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the United States and the friction between them and a racist vigilante-type who has taken border patrol into his own hands.
At the same time, Cuarón had come across an early Spielberg film called Duel, a very simple story about a truck chasing a car. The truck, however, becomes a metaphor for whoever the audience wants it to be, whether a bully or a boss at work—“anything that’s oppressing you.” Cuarón wanted to explore his own themes through this kind of visceral style of storytelling, with minimal dialogue. So he wrote a draft and showed it to his father: Alfonso Cuarón. The only note he had was, “I want to do a movie like this.” And so, Gravity (which the younger Cuarón wrote and the elder directed) was born.
Next up? A futuristic remake of Zorro also starring his Desierto lead, Gael Garcia Bernal. (Expect more robots than horses.)
Australia-born poet, novelist and screenwriter Luke Davies has a knack for finding the heart in a story. Perhaps it’s something to do with the life he led. His book, Candy, a cult fave about love and heroine was in many parts autobiographical. He later adapted it into a film starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish. When he later inked the script to Life about a photographer who is assigned to shoot that iconic picture of James Dean, with encouragement from director Anton Corbijn, he was able to find that emotional core by thinking back on his brief friendship with Ledger, who’d died only a few years after Candy was released.
So when the producers of Lion came to Davies with a book that was just published, he had a strong reaction to adapting it.
Lion, starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, tells the story of a young Indian boy who gets lost miles from home and is eventually adopted by an Australian—25 years later he is determined to find the family he lost.
“I loved it so much, and I loved it so deeply immediately,” he says. “It was such a pure kind of fable, and yet at the same time it was really exhilarating because it’s a story that could have never happened in the history of civilization until 10 years ago when Google Earth was released. Those two things together felt really exciting—a mythic fable from the dawn of time, reunification with a lost mother, meets a dazzling technological story where a guy literally finds his mother from space.”
There are so many stories on screen. Big. Small. In between. And somehow, they get told. That in itself, for each of the writers, is a small miracle.
“The thing that I find incredibly seductive about Hollywood is the eternal optimism,” Moyes says. “I mean you have to be slightly insane to think that any film will ever get made ever because once you’ve been on the inside of the process you realize how many obstacles there are to anything ending up on a screen.” And yet, they do. And it all begins with a word. A sentence. A page. And finally, a script.