Beyond Words: Celebrating 2015’s WGA-Nominated Screenwriters

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Photo credit: Variety

As awards season continues chugging along, the WGA-W, the Writer’s Guild Foundation, and Variety gathered together to celebrate 2015’s WGA-Award nominated screenwriters.

Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), Aaron Sorkin (JOBS), John McNamara (TRUMBO), Charles Randolph and Adam McKay (THE BIG SHORT), Matt Charman (BRIDGE OF SPIES), Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (SPOTLIGHT) and Drew Goddard (THE MARTIAN) took the stage at the WGA Theater to discuss their creative processes, what scenes they had to cut from their scripts, and how to approach script structure when dealing with real-life characters.

Even with original screenplay nominees Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO) and Amy Schumer (TRAINWRECK) unable to attend, the stage was packed as John August (this year’s recipient of the Valentine Davies Award) joined the 11 writers on stage to moderate. August told the audience we’d being seeing a lot of lightning round questions to keep the conversation moving.

August first asked the writers: How long was the production process of the film from initial conception to theatrical release?

THE MARTIAN: Three years

SPOTLIGHT: Four years

BRIDGE OF SPIES: Three years (11 months from pitch to production, an incredibly fast turnaround time)

CAROL: “Eighteen effing years,” as Nagy put it.

THE BIG SHORT: Five years

TRUMBO: Eight years

JOBS: Three years

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: Five years

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The Black List Interview: Sean Macaulay

Description=By-line photo of Times Writer Sean MacAulay. Pic: Rupert Thorpe.

Photo by: Rupert Thorpe.

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Today, we chat with SEAN MACAULAY, a screenwriter of 20th Century Fox’s EDDIE THE EAGLE, which stars Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton, and will be released on February 26th. Today we talk with Sean about how the Black List helped him continue to shape EDDIE THE EAGLE (the project’s first writer, Simon Kelton, maintains a “Story By” credit and a screenplay credit in addition to Sean’s), and how he continues to hone his craft as a screenwriter.

The Past:

What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?

Seeing THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN up on the big-screen was pretty mind-blowing. Laconic macho heroes, heart-pounding score, flick knife-fights – everything a 7-year-old boy could want. Years later, it all came full circle when I wrote a long article for British GQ about James Coburn.

Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? 

It wasn’t any one film. I’d always loved movies and even kept a folder of my own reviews as a kid (“RAID ON ENTEBBE. Serviceable hostage drama – 2 stars.”). The turning point for me was reading my first genuinely great script – SCHINDLER’S LIST by Steve Zaillian. It’s so taut and clear and powerful without veering into sentimentality – just a beautifully realized piece of storytelling. I actually go back to that script more often than the movie, and the movie’s pretty terrific. (“Searing wartime drama – 5 stars.”)

What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?

I had my first article published in a national newspaper on my 20th birthday, so not too many strange jobs before I became a writer, unless you count house cleaner and tool shop assistant. Nothing was stranger than working as a journalist in the last great days of Fleet Street. I had to dress up as a woman, a 6ft banana and a taxi cab rapist. I used to sit next to Piers Morgan when we worked on the Sun. He called me a dangerous intellectual because I admitted seeing a film with subtitles. I got to interview everyone from George Hamilton to Joseph Heller to Ron Jeremy. A particular favorite was the Sikh owner of a curry restaurant in Wales who serenaded customers dressed as Elvis Presley. He called himself Patelvis. I can still remember his song: “I don’t drink whisky, I don’t drink bourbon/All I want to do is shake my turban!”

After I moved to LA, I worked for one very long day as an extra on a porn set alongside the likes of Anita Cannibal and Jezebel Flair. I got paid $50 for playing a zealous Arab bidding at a love slave auction. I had some thoughts on the script, but to my continued amazement no one wanted to know.

The Present:

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

Thanks to all my years as a journalist, I still can’t help scouting for good stories. What’s the hook? What’s the angle? It’s like being a prospector, sifting away at articles, biographies, podcast interviews, dinner party conversations, anything… Spotting a good idea is usually instant: When you know, you know. Developing that idea to creative fruition is a whole other matter.

Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?

Every day is a battle to outwit the front brain. I have a trusty Mont Blanc fountain pen and do morning pages à la The Artist’s Way in these special notebooks I got given by a fellow writer. It’s one of the best ways to drain off the mental nonsense. That or a terrifying deadline. When I get stuck, I like to talk things through with my wife, who used to be a producer for John Woo, or go for a walk where, as if by benign magic, some kind of solution usually appears.

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?

Anything by Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges always hits the spot. My pet love is wistful late 1960s/1970s crime buddy pictures that end in death: BONNIE AND CLYDE, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT.

The Future:

If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?

I would love to compile my own cut of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. Three versions of the film exist, but none of them is definitive for my tastes. I would use the 1988 Turner Preview version as the basis, then add the Slim Pickens death scene from the 1973 version, and the wife scene from the 2005 restoration.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

There is no plan b. And I’m too old to go back into porn.

Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive.

Drinks with Sam Peckinpah, dinner with Alfred Hitchcock, cigars with Orson Welles. And Robert Evans to host.

The Black List:

How did you first hear about The Black List? 

Pure word of mouth. For as long as I can remember, The Black List was this mythical holy grail showcase for aspiring screenwriters.

How did you come to work on EDDIE THE EAGLE?

I was hired by an English producer called Rupert Maconick who’d optioned Eddie’s life rights back in 2000. A previous writer, Simon Kelton, had done a couple of drafts, when I came aboard in 2002. It was a labor of love, no question. There was no real money in it. Not upfront anyway. We got my draft set up at Sony fairly quickly, but for various reasons, we wound up in turnaround a few years later. I was off it for three years while Steve Coogan was attached, then I resumed in 2010. I always knew it was a winner. Like Eddie, I never gave up. I just had to get it over the finish line creatively.

What made you decide to upload EDDIE THE EAGLE to The Black List? 

The original producer felt it was a way to get some fresh exposure. He always felt the script just needed to find the right champion. But we also knew the script had to pass the gatekeeper test, i.e., get consistently good coverage. When we got two 9/10s evaluations, we knew we were on the right track.

Any tips for writers when uploading their scripts to the site? How did you get the most out of your Black List experience?

Use the evaluations to face reality about your material. As painful as it is, a low score three times in a row is a clear sign that things ain’t working. Once the script is consistently scoring well, it can generate interest in a way the old cold call/snail mail method could never do.

Walk us through how the script was discovered on the site — what was the timeline from upload to being signed to the film going into production?

We put the script up in September 2013. Within four months, we were among the top 50 downloaded scripts of the year. Within another four months, it got me a manager, Leslie Conliffe at Intellectual Property Group, whom I’ve been with ever since. She had a genuine passion for the script and my writing so we clicked instantly.

Then in September 2014, Matthew Vaughn called about the script. He’d been watching COOL RUNNINGS with his kids  when something clicked in his memory. He said, “What ever happened to that script about Eddie the Eagle I read back at Sony ten years ago?” It turned out he’d wanted to do it all along and we’d had no idea. I said, “It’s right here and it’s a lot better now.” Six months later they were filming.

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: THE EXORCIST

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Considered by many to be the scariest film ever made and the first horror film nominated for Best Picture, The Exorcist has remained at the top of the horror heap for over forty years for good reason — what’s more terrifying than seeing a little girl on the edge of womanhood being possessed by the devil and driven to commit all manner of unholy atrocities? The film is still every bit as shocking and progressive as it was upon release, if not moreso, especially considering that The Exorcist made over $400 million, which means the majority of Americans witnessed the possession of Regan MacNeil in all its visceral detail. The point I raised in my introductory essay for this project is especially applicable with this film — how many general audiences would go see a movie about a single mother and her teenage daughter with intense discussions of female bodily autonomy, free will, and Catholicism if that film were not also a horror film?

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You know the details: 12-year old Regan MacNeil becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu after playing with a Ouija board, and it’s up to her single actress mom, Chris, (the always luminous Ellen Burstyn), some conflicted priests, Fathers Merrin and Karras (Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller), and a curious cop (Lee J. Cobb) to save her. Regan and Chris’s single mother/daughter dynamic was still a relatively new narrative base in the 1970s, and even when Regan starts acting out due to the possession, Chris is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter, relying first on science, then on more spiritual options. Some of the scariest scenes in the film are early on, when Regan is subjected to a variety of grueling medical tests (including a particularly brutal spinal tap) that yield no answers, frustrating Chris infinitely since she cannot help her daughter even with the assistance of medicine, and beginning the slow process of Regan’s loss of bodily control. There have been plenty of films about demonic possession since The Exorcist, but the intimacy of Regan and Chris’s relationship in the film’s first act coupled with extremity of the imagery in the film that happens later in the film feels more shocking in the wake of exsanguinated possession films that have been released since. 

The Exorcist is based on the real-life case of Roland Doe, but in adapting the film for the screen, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Peter Blatty made the change of Roland to become Regan, a teenage girl. I don’t fully adhere to Peter Biskind’s theory that the film is all about male fears about menstruation, but I do think it was a very conscious choice on Blatty’s behalf to portray a teenage girl as so monstrous, considering many roles for teenage girls in “adult” films are of the Lolita variety. But, Blatty’s decisions in just how far to go with Reagan’s possession — the spider walk, the head spinning, the green vomit, and the crucifix masturbation — does feel like a conscious choice to explore the horrors of female puberty, and the terror that comes from a mother and from the church when a young woman’s sexuality blossoms. Regan’s self-carving of “HELP ME” into her stomach addresses how even when nearly all hope is lost for her, she still clings to whatever tiny sense of bodily autonomy she still has. The crucifix masturbation is an especially careful choice from Blatty and Friedkin — sexually graphic in a way that few other films are, especially as related to a child, totally sacrilegious to the celibate priests trying to perform the exorcism, and conceptually devastating as a form of self-mutilation — it is nonetheless one of the most singular images in all of horror, and speaks to an overall male fear of teenage female sexuality. 

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The Exorcist is continually lauded as the best and scariest horror film because it presents us with images and concepts so graphic that we cannot help but allow them to get under our skin. Even if the idea of possession defies all logic, you can’t help but feel a little more aware of your own body while watching this film. Most horror films are about the loss of the self, whether that means the physical self, the emotional self, or the psychological self, and The Exorcist hits on all three of those fears, as personified in Regan MacNeil. It’s a truly remarkable thing that the most notorious (banned on video in the UK until 1999 derided by the Catholic League, and possessed by demon according to Billy Graham) horror film of all time is on some level about male fears about teenage female sexuality, and the death of innocence.


 

And with that, we conclude 31 Days of Feminist Horror Films. I’ve really enjoyed unpacking these films, and I hope this series has helped you better delve into the idea of the female experience as it is explored in horror, presented you with a new take on an old favorite, or simply given you more thoughtful scary movies to watch this fall. I’ll never stop talking about women in horror, as I feel that the genre offers a unique window into the female body, psyche, and social experience, and explores a variety of topics that are still rarely touched upon in most mainstream films. I also wanted to note that I really, really tried to find more horror films with women of color or LGBTQ women in the lead, or those made by women of color/LGBTQ women, but there are a dearth of those horror films out there — all the more reason we need more women behind the camera in genre filmmaking. As a super special spooky Halloween treat, here are 31 more feminist horror films for your viewing pleasure:

Alternates:

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Heavenly Creatures

Safe

The Final Girls

Starry Eyes

The Company of Wolves

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Rosemary’s Baby

Mulholland Dr.

Under the Skin

Suspiria

Carrie

The Stepfather

The Haunting

The Descent

Alien

Pan’s Labyrinth

Dark Water

Ravenous

Night of the Comet

Audition

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Halloween

A Tale of Two Sisters

The Guest

American Mary

The Hunger

Kureneko

Poison Ivy

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural

Black Swan

Full List:

American Psycho

Near Dark

Repulsion

Poltergeist

The Babadook

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Honeymoon

Excision

May

The Craft

Picnic at Hanging Rock

The Slumber Party Massacre

Candyman

Black Christmas

Rabid

Drag Me To Hell

I Spit on Your Grave

Ms. 45

Ginger Snaps

Sisters

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Trouble Every Day

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Eyes of Laura Mars

The Innocents

We Are What We Are

Cat People

Death Becomes Her

Eyes Without a Face

Possession

The Exorcist

 

 

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: CAT PEOPLE

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Perpetually lauded for its use of shadow and suggestion to create scares, Cat People still feels incredibly modern and spooky 70 years after its release. Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon) meets Oliver at the Central Park Zoo while sketching a panther, and the two strike up a flirtation, which leads back to Irena’s apartment. Noticing a strange statue of King John of Serbia fighting a large cat, Oliver asks for more details from Irena, who tells him about how her village turned to Satan worshipping and witchcraft after being enslaved by Mameluks, but some of her fellow villagers fled into the mountains to escape, thus eventually becoming Cat People, including Irena’s mother — this conversation all happens through suggestion, and throughout the film, director Jacques Tourneau allows the audience to fill in the narrative blanks with their imaginations of some of the more taboo elements of being a cat person.

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Irena fears her feline bloodline — which turns her into a panther when angry, or more pressingly for Oliver, aroused — will ruin her relationship with Oliver (especially after his thwarted attempt to buy her a kitten) but Oliver is persistent, and they quickly marry. But of course, Irena will not consummate the marriage because she’s afraid of killing her husband during sex, and a frustrated Oliver turns to his assistant, Alice (Jane Randolph) for comfort. He eventually decides that Irena see a psychologist to deal with her issues about their marriage, Dr. Judd, but Dr. Judd has a far more lascivious interest in Irena than just a doctor/patient relationship. Angry about her husband’s betrayal by going to Alice and frustrated by the process of therapy, Irena grows more violent: killing sheep at the zoo, stalking Alice through Central Park as a male predator would, and following her to a swimming pool in the film’s scariest sequence, which is done all via shadow. Oliver too realizes that he cannot make it work with Irena, telling her he wants a divorce so that he can be with Alice, and Irena reacts poorly, menacing her husband and Alice at work. She then tries one final time to find peace with some help from Dr. Judd, but when he tries to seduce her instead, Irena turns into a panther and kills him before fleeing to the Central Park Zoo once again, closely followed by Oliver and Alice. At the zoo, Irena takes responsibility for her actions, and allows herself to be killed by the panther she was drawing when she first met Oliver — it’s an ultimately tragic ending for her character.

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Released during the Hays Code era in Hollywood, it’s kind of amazing that a 1942 film deals so matter of factly with a sexually confident lead who is so concerned with the raw power of her desires becoming dangerous that she denies herself love, passion, and companionship. The idea that Irena has descended from a long line of sexually aggressive female feline predators who lead a matriarchal society is really radical, as is the idea of a Serbian community relying on witchcraft and black magic to survive after their Christian beliefs have been stripped away. Likewise, the frankness with which the film deals with divorce feels incredibly progressive, and it’s a relief to see Oliver and Alice portrayed as normal, flawed folks who’ve found themselves in a romantic bind, just as it is refreshing to see Irena defined by more than her marital status. Dr. Judd is another totally progressive character, and his lack of morality in dealing with Irena, his patient, ultimately leads to his death. Irena is a fascinating horror protagonist, one who’s outsider experience as a Serbian immigrant with “wild” ways makes her infinitely relatable to anyone who has felt alienated as an American, and her final act of self-sacrifice is incredibly moving. By now, the idea of female sexual desire as deadly is well-trod territory in horror, but Cat People is  an incredibly important film in the genre for introducing the concept of female sexual autonomy, the power of female desire, and for dealing with adult relationships in a frank, nuanced manner in order to better serve the horror narrative.