LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - If Nick Schenk wins an Academy Award for his “Gran Torino” script, his acceptance speech should include a shout-out to the folks at Grumpy’s, the bar in northeast Minneapolis where he wrote it in longhand over the course of several weeks in 2007.
“I’d have a frozen bar pizza, throw darts, sip a beer and scribble,” Schenk says in a thick Minnesota accent that makes him sound like a character from “Fargo.” “The bartender, Tim Kennedy, is one of my best friends, so I’d ask him questions. I’d say, ‘Tim, what’s the dumbest name for a man?’ And he’d say, ‘Glenn with two N’s.’ There’s a joke like that in the script, and I think that came right from Tim.”
On an average night at Grumpy’s, Schenk would consume three Summit pale ales (“The best beer made in the United States,” he says), but he insists it wasn’t the alcohol that was fueling his creativity.
“The bar was great, because there was noise in the background and there was stuff going on, so it was casual,” explains Schenk, who wrote the initial story with friend Dave Johannson. “When I sat at the computer, it was like, OK, it’s time to work now,’ and it was intimidating. With a pen, you just let it go.”
Obviously, this isn’t the way screenwriters typically work, but aside from using a computer, it’s hard to pinpoint any “typical” process. And this year’s crop of contenders for the best original screenplay Oscar is more motley than most, employing a wide variety of stimuli to tweak their muses, from flinging pencils into the ceiling to strip club sojourns.
In the case of “Changeling,” screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski had 6,000 pages of documents relating to the case of Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie), a woman in Los Angeles in the late 1920s convinced that the missing child returned to her by police was not her son. The challenge for Straczynski was shaping them into concise cinematic form, and for that he simply applied his stringent daily writing regimen.
Typically, Straczynski writes new material from about 8 p.m. until 4 a.m., crashes for a few hours, gets up and revises the previous day’s work from about 1 or 2 p.m. until 8 p.m., then starts the process all over again. Once he had the structure of “Changeling” worked out, he was able to pound out the script in 11 days.
“I write 10 hours a day, every day, except my birthday, New Year’s Day and Christmas,” Straczynski boasts. “I’ve had two vacations in 20 years.”
Absent the beer and darts, Straczynski’s modus operandi isn’t so different from the one employed by Schenk, who would type his bar scribbles into a computer, print them out, take them to Grumpy’s and write new material and revisions on the backs of pages and in margins until he ran out of room. Then he’d return home and repeat the cycle.
“I don’t suggest it for everybody,” Schenk says, “but it works for me.”
It’s a maxim that could be spoken by cinematic wordsmiths from Hollywood to Bollywood.
“Every writer, not only do they have their own process, but I think it’s pretty fluid from project to project,” observes writer-director Tom McCarthy.
In the case of McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” the process began when he conjured up the mental image of a 60-year-old man taking piano lessons. McCarthy asked himself: Why would a person take up an instrument at that age? The answer emerged from his subconscious in the form of the character Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a stagnating Connecticut economics professor trying to hold on to the memory of his late wife, an accomplished pianist.
On a parallel track, McCarthy drew on memories of the artists and musicians he’d met during his travels in the Middle East and developed the character of Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian djembe player living illegally in the U.S. McCarthy brought the two together by having Walter discover that Tarek and his girlfriend had been duped into a bogus sublet of his New York apartment, but he still needed a dramatic engine to drive the story into the second act and beyond.
Eventually, McCarthy came across several articles about Arab men in post-September 11 New York being profiled and sometimes arrested, detained and deported. It led him to join the Sojourners, an outreach program sponsored by New York’s Riverside Church that connects volunteers with noncriminal detainees at Elizabeth Detention Facility in New Jersey who do not have friends or family in the area. On his first visit, he knew the experience would inform an important part of the film, but it would still take a great deal of time and effort to weave it into the plot. And when he did, it created another story thread involving a quasi-romantic relationship between Vale and Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass).
“I think some writers have a eureka moment, like — boom! — here’s my thesis and here’s my main character and I’m off and running,” McCarthy says. “My stories don’t tend to be that way. It’s like I have this character and he’s involved in this, and then I have this other idea, and then I’m going to do that, and they all eventually come together and it feels OK.”
Like McCarthy, Robert D. Siegel, writer of “The Wrestler,” belongs to the stumbling-through-the-dark school of screenwriting, where character trumps plot and stories emerge slowly and organically, not in lockstep time with the set of beats outlined in a Robert McKee seminar.
“Plot is kind of a hassle for me,” admits Siegel, a former editor for the satirical newspaper the Onion. “I’m much more into: Is this an interesting guy? Is this an interesting world?”
Siegel was introduced to the world of “The Wrestler” in 2003 by director Darren Aronofsky, who had previously been in talks to shoot another Siegel script, “Paul Aufiero” (later retitled “Big Fan”), about an obsessive New York Giants fan. When that project stalled, Aronofsky asked if Siegel would like to write a film set against a different sports backdrop — the low-rent world of independent wrestling. As a primer, he gave Siegel a copy of the 1999 documentary “Beyond the Mat,” whose subjects include Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a onetime WWF star struggling with alcohol and drugs, reduced to working the fringes of the industry.
Intrigued, Siegel searched the Web and discovered that there were dozens of indie wrestling shows every weekend, all across the country in places like high school gyms and local Elks Lodges.
“I started going to a bunch of these — usually in Queens, Yonkers, Long Island or New Jersey — and they were awesome,” Siegel says. “There might be 20 people or 200, and usually it would be a mix of bloodthirsty scumbags and men with their kids. The wrestlers would be a bunch of younger weekend warriors, who were probably forklift operators or bouncers, with one big-name wrestler from the ‘80s. Some of them could move impressively well for guys in their 50s — but some of them could barely move. They’d stand in the middle of the ring, and a younger opponent would just bounce off them and pretend to get hit.”
Siegel carried a notepad with him and jotted down ideas whenever they occurred to him, from character details to full-blown scenes.
“If you go to enough of these shows and meet enough of these guys, a pattern emerges,” Siegel says. “In wrestling parlance, they would say they love ‘popping a crowd’ — getting fans off. It’s still a thrill for them, even if it’s at a much lower level.”
Slowly but surely, the film’s has-been protagonist, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), took shape, along with his love interest Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper whose advancing age is putting her on a career trajectory similar to Randy’s. Naturally, the emergence of Cassidy called for additional field research.
“It wasn’t exhaustive,” Siegel says coyly. “But I did enough to feel like I was familiar with the subject and that world to write about it.”
In most cases, a screenwriter’s process involves neither naked women swinging on poles nor sweaty steroid cases in spandex, but it almost always includes a large amount of procrastination. For Andrew Stanton, a propensity for time-wasting actually led to a creative breakthrough on his script for “WALL-E.”
The initial idea for the film came in the form of a single sentence (“What if mankind left Earth and forgot to turn the last robot off?”) bandied about during a 1994 brainstorming lunch attended by Stanton and fellow Pixar principals John Lasseter, Pete Docter and the late Joe Ranft. Docter took an initial crack at the story, but it got pushed aside as the company became immersed in other projects.
Flash forward more than a half-decade later: “Finding Nemo” is in the middle of production, and Stanton is cloistered in his office, trying to pound out a rewrite as the clock ticks away.
“I would be sitting there with my door closed, throwing my pencil into the ceiling, trying to do anything but finish my deadlines,” Stanton recalls. “I listened to a lot of soundtrack music to try to get myself into the mood, and I think something by Jerry Goldsmith came on and I started to remember that little robot sentence. A week later, I had written the first act of ‘WALL-E.’ I’m never that productive.”
In the case of Jenny Lumet, however, procrastination was a luxury she could not afford while writing “Rachel Getting Married.” As a single woman with a son (now 13) and a full-time job as a teacher at his school in Manhattan, Lumet simply had no time.
“I would love to say that I had a certain amount of hours every day that were just mine, but when you have a kid and another job, it just doesn’t freakin’ work like that,” says Lumet, who still teaches at the school. “Someone is always asking for you to heat up some nuggets or money for Skittles. You just grab whatever time you can. So it was a lot of really-early-in-the-morning and really-late-at-night.”
Today, Lumet’s life also includes a husband and a 7-month-old daughter. But in some ways it’s a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Says Lumet: “I wrote my latest script cleaning spit-up off me and being screamed at every three minutes. So I guess my ritual is to work in chaos.”