Judd Apatow makes me laugh. He makes a lot of people laugh. He kept the packed house at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills laughing Thursday night as he moderated the "Beyond Words" panel of WGA Award nommed screenwriters. It was a good group -- Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire"); Lance Black ("Milk"); Tom McCarthy ("The Visitor"); Jonathan Nolan ("The Dark Knight"); and Eric Roth ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") -- that reflected a range of pics.
Apatow joked at the start about not preparing for the event, but he'd clearly done a little bit of homework. He zeroed in on Roth to start, noting that the esteemed screenwriter had been a friend of Jim Morrison when they both attended UCLA in the mid-1960s.
"Can we talk about that all night," Apatow said.
Roth breezed over this interesting chapter in the L.A./rock'n'roll/Hollywood history with a dry mention of weird scenes ("I did get high with him a lot") and the observation that the Lizard King, in all his tight- leather-pants-whip-it-out-in-Miami-rock-god glory, really wanted to be a respected poet, or maybe even a screenwriter. "He wanted to be here," Roth said. (I think he meant Morrison would've loved being in a setting that conferred on him the status of being a really good writer.)
Apatow then warned McCarthy that the only thing he was more interested in than Jim Morrison stories was behind the scenes tales of "The Wire." (McCarthy co-starred as a really craven character -- a corrupt newspaper reporter -- in the HBO drama's final season last year. He shredded in the role. I loved HATING him.)
"So, what role as an actor pissed you off so much that you decided to write," Apatow asked, zeroing in on the heart of the question, no matter how delicately phrased, that is always asked of actors who decide to write or direct, or do both in the case of the multi-talented McCarthy.
(Pictured above, from left: Eric Roth, Lance Black, Judd Apatow, Jonathan Nolan, Tom McCarthy and Simon Beaufoy.)
McCarthy didn't really respond, but instead told a funny story of how the State Department cajoled him into going on a trip to show his first writer-director effort, 2003's "The Station Agent," to auds in the Middle East.
(It wasn't particularly pleasant but the experience did inspire a character for "The Visitor," McCarthy noted.)
And to the question of which brother has the upper hand if fists should fly, Nolan quickly responded "I got 40 pounds on him."
Black was fairly joke-proof as he spoke of earnestly doing his research for the Harvey Milk biopic with Milk's friends and associates in "prostitute hotels" in San Francisco. Apatow mentioned that he knew the establishments but you could tell he was impressed, with "Milk" as a movie and also with Black's charming mixture of talent and good fortune with his Little Biopic Spec That Could.
"Can you believe this his happened to you?" Apatow asked Black, in all sincerity.
Beaufoy drew incredulous tsk-tsks from the crowd when he discussed the ups and downs of getting "Slumdog" to theaters after it was handed off from the now defunct Warner Independent to Fox Searchlight, which had earlier passed on the pic. At one point last August Warner Bros. execs told helmer Danny Boyle that it would be a direct-to-DVD release.
With "Slumdog" now an awards season darling and worldwide B.O. hit, the vindication is sweet, Beaufoy said, particularly on these shores.
"We never thought America would take this film to their hearts at all," Beaufoy said.
"Why? Because we're assholes, like that guy at Warner Bros.?," Apatow shot back.
Apatow did allow for a moment of vulnerability in the fourth act when the conversation turned to the size of the budgets of the scribes' respective pics. (Yes, references to another kind of anatomical sizing contest were made.)
"It scares me -- big budgets," Apatow confessed. "I'm Jewish. I feel guilty about spending all that money....Then the writers strike happened and I said 'Fuck 'em.' So thank you (WGA West prexy) Patric Verrone. You freed me to spend other people's money."
Nolan also had some words of encouragement for the aspiring screenwriters in the crowd, referencing the sacred scribe truism Write What You Know.
"That sucks. Forget that. Write whatever you want," Nolan said, noting how much he admired "Slumdog" precisely because the world of Mumbai was new to Boyle and Beaufoy. "To me, that's filmmakers saying we can make films wherever we want. And that to me is genius."
"They don't call it the cockpit for nothing." A pearl of a line from "Airport '79," written by Eric Roth.