[Image: NBC] Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’
People who work with words for a living often have interesting things to say. In fact, sometimes I enjoy hearing an author talk about their book more than I enjoyed reading the book, but more often than not one enhances the other.
When you read, you spend time getting to know personas who came from the minds of these authors, and so I love to learn things about the author themselves – where did the characters and stories came from, and do they wear sweatpants all day? If you think about it, I suppose the same could be said for a screenwriter.
Though Screenwriting isn’t a primary interest of mine, THR had a very interesting Writers Roundtable with Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed and starred in the food-truck dramedy Chef and prior wrote the first two Ironman films; comedian Chris Rock, who wrote and starred in Top Five and is enjoying the best reviews of his film career; Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own novel Gone Girl for the screen, and blockbuster-maker Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan, who wrote Memento, The Dark Knight Series, and the just released Interstellar, but never seems to get as much credit as his director brother Chris Nolan. Sorry Jonah.
They are joined by some newer faces – Anthony McCarten (Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything) and Graham Moore (The Imitation Game, the story of British code-breaker Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch) – for a fast-paced conversation about their “perfect” movies, dealing with criticism, and what it’s like to show your film to the real-life person it’s about.
While Stephen Hawking is a famous scientist, the film The Theory of Everything is meant to depict Hawking’s love story with his first wife Jane, whom he met at Cambridge. The writer, Anthony McCarten, is originally a playwright and I think he hit on what makes writing screenplays, especially one about a real person, a little different from other mediums. Here’s McCarten’s take after watching Hawking view the film about himself:
“[Stephen Hawking is] sitting there … and you run this movie, and you’ve made this enormous presumption that I’m going to present to the world something you lived and a fraction of it is absolutely accurate. When it ended a nurse wiped a tear from his cheek and he wrote the words, ‘broadly true.’ Which was an enormous relief, but also said something to me about what the job is when you’re telling a story about a real person – you can’t hope for 100% fidelity but what you’re tracing is the spirit of someone’s life.”
Anything that is, “Based on a true story,” is never wholly accurate, so McCarten’s words about “tracing the spirit of someone’s life” is a great way to describe what biopics and adaptations are meant to do. The rest of the video is filled with more great conversation, but it is a little on the long side at 55 minutes. It’s worth the watch for the fantastic advice, insight into the world of writing, and of course some very funny moments. If you don’t have the time, I’ve included some of my favorite quotes below.
The Abridged Writer’s Table:
“I like detail. For me that’s where it all happens.” – Jon Favreau
“The entire time I was adapting the screenplay, I had a giant sticky note above my computer that said ‘IT IS A MOVIE,’ to remind myself to not try to take everything from the book that I liked and jam it all in the screenplay, but to realize that I had to kind of bash this thing apart and reassemble it as an actual film.” – Gillian Flynn on adapting Gone Girl
“Back to the Future is the perfect movie. It’s perfectly moving, funny, I mean it’s just a … you can think of a million reasons.” – Jonah Nolan
Moderator: Who do you go to for advice to ask, “Is this funny, what do you think?”
Chris Rock: Louis CK for the last 20 years. For funny, Louis likes to go, “What would really happen?” and that’s what I try to take into any writing. “What would really happen?” and then we make it funny.
“I try to show it to the people around me – works in progress – as much as possible and just get a constant sense of feedback.” – Graham Moore on feedback for his writing
“You don’t know how bad you’ve done until you do something good, and you see the difference in the reaction, because people tell you everything is great.” – Chris Rock on his past “bad” films
“I’ve never written a first draft that’s particularly good.” – Graham Moore
Moderator: “Do the critics hurt?
Chris Rock: “A little bit yeah, I can’t say they don’t hurt because…they have influence, and you didn’t do this to not be liked, you didn’t do this to not get attention, you know what I mean? Yeah they hurt.”
Jon Favreau: “When you read a good review like that, like by a great writer, there is something…when they get exactly the things you intend, as you said (motioning to Moore) – when people connect with the things you connect with – it feels like: ‘I did something here, I communicated a feeling, a lesson, or something.’ And when they put as much care into reflecting on what you did and it connects – that’s very moving to me.”
Jonah Nolan: Oh there’s nothing like it.