Writers get their due at Santa Barbara film fest
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Feb 14, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

Writers get their due at Santa Barbara film fest

Emma Donoghue wrote the script for Oscar-nominated Room before she published the novel

OurWindsor.Ca

Emma Donoghue, who wrote both the novel Room and the film adaptation, is no doubt one of the biggest reasons for Canadians to stand proud during awards-season frenzy leading to Oscar night.

But here in California she’s known as an Irish-born writer with little awareness that she has not only lived in London, Ont., since 1998 but became a Canadian citizen in 2004.

There’s also little recognition of the fact that Room is an Irish/Canada co-production mostly shot in Toronto.

Writers are usually among the least ballyhooed of the players involved in creating a movie. Indeed, last week I read a review of Room in an L.A. weekly newspaper in which Donoghue and the novel were not even mentioned, and the film’s director, Lenny Abrahamson, was hailed as its true auteur.

That kind of nuttiness is one reason why my favourite annual event at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is a panel discussion called “It Starts With the Script.”

Online columnist Anne Thompson hosts this panel every year and this time played referee to nine writers, including those who wrote eight of the 10 movies nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Donoghue — the most brilliant Irish writer to settle in Canada since the late Brian Moore — sparkled with charm, humour and insight.

Thompson asked her how she had stayed in control of the movie rights to her universally acclaimed novel.

Donoghue confessed that, early on, she had a fear that some big-name screen writer like Nick Hornby would come along and grab the rights to Room.

So she thought, “I’ll just go ahead now and write the script . . . I inserted myself rather cheekily into the process before the book was published.”

In doing so, she discovered that writing a movie script requires a different approach than writing a novel. A movie has its own narrative thrust and there isn’t room for every detail.

In the novel, Donoghue pulled off a virtuoso literary stunt: telling the story via the first-person stream-of-consciousness of a child. Readers have “to deduce what’s happening to the mother,” she explained.

But “in the movie you don’t have to stay literally in his eyeballs.”

And she had the advantage of “the most expressive face” of Vancouver-born actor Jacob Tremblay as Jack, the child hero trapped in a cramped shed with his mother for the first five years of his life.

Donoghue also gave credit to Abrahamson, with whom she formed “an amazing working friendship.”

Tremblay, who’s 9 now, was unfairly missing from the list of nominated actors, but he was included at Santa Barbara in an event paying tribute to emerging stars.

Asked how he got through the ordeal endured by his character, Tremblay replied: “If you’re an adult, it would be the worst thing that ever happened. But if you’re a kid, you just think, ‘Whatever.’”

Plus he bonded with co-star Brie Larson (the betting favourite in the Best Actress Oscar race).

“We played a lot of board games,” he recalled. And worked with Lego.

At one point they got into an off-screen argument so he’d be ready to shed real tears in a scene that called for mother and son to argue onscreen.

Of the nine writers on the panel, only two were women, both openly gay. Unlike Donoghue, who had a heterosexual heroine, Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the script for Carol, was telling the story of two women having a romance. It took her 18 years to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt.

Nagy explained that for most of the movie, the characters say things other than what they mean but, near the end, Cate Blanchett’s character stops doing so, with the result that “by the time she gets to the lawyer’s office, she is no longer the character I want to sleep with.”

The seven male writers on the panel had a few revelations as well.

“The hardest scene to write can turn out to be the best scene in the movie,” said Josh Singer, nominated for Spotlight.

“It took five years and endless drawings,” said Pete Docter about Inside Out. By the time the animated movie reached audiences, the creators had gone through eight versions figuring out, among other things, the key relationship between joy and sadness.

A big question about The Martian, according to nominated screenwriter Drew Goddard: Would a studio give $100 million to make a film about a man using his own feces to help him survive?

The dirty secret of all writers was summed up by Alex Garland of Ex Machina: “There comes a time when procrastinating has to end.”

One of the writers absent from the panel was the guy Donoghue was once afraid of: Nick Hornby, nominated for Brooklyn.

Toronto Star

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