Roman Coppola, Chris Terrio, Stephen Chbosky, John Gatins, Mark Boal and Billy McMillin, along with moderator Dustin Lance Black, reminded the audience at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills that they didn't drop from the sky as award-worthy writers, but rather suffered through the same demons at the keyboard as anyone else.
Chbosky ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") in particular was able to extrapolate universal lessons from his experience adapting his successful novel into one of the most highly regarded scripts of 2012, describing for example, "how do you go from Christmas to New Year's in 10 seconds saying as much as you said in 45 pages in the book."
The answer: show the character taking a Communion wafer on his tongue, then dissolve into him taking acid.
In fact, though his first pass at the adaptation was a "kitchen-sink" draft that went well over 200 pages, Chbosky the director was often ready to cut Chbosky the writer.
"Look at that beautiful look she gave him," he said, recalling one mid-scene moment in "Perks." "There's another half page of writing, but the scene's over."
Terrio related how he resisted the idea that you could make a coherent screenplay out of the "Argo" story, which had elements of "The Player," "The Bourne Identity," "All the President's Men" and "Syriana," among others, but had a breakthrough when he imagined a scene "that ended up in the film almost exactly as I scrawled it." That scene: the table read of the script in Hollywood set against near-documentary style shots of hostages in peril in Iran.
Terrio also described his first phone call with "Argo" director and star Ben Affleck, saying he was "collaborative and humble and excited and nerdy — all the things that make a writer really excited."
McMillin ("West of Memphis"), representing the only documentary discussed Thursday, said he is fascinated "with language and character and the way real people can seem like fictional people."
Boal ("Zero Dark Thirty") and Gatins ("Flight") quickly developed a running gag in which they would answer each other's questions — Gatins especially displaying a sharp sense of humor — but each occasionally took it upon themselves to discuss their own movies. Boal took on the subject of honesty and truth, mentioning as an example how he left out an aspect of the raid on Osama bin Laden's that he didn't feel was sufficiently substantiated.
"If you put your name in something, that's the ultimate check," Boal said.
Gatins was effusive about Robert Zemeckis, praising the "Flight" director for bringing him to Atlanta with him for the shoot of the movie (knowing how badly Gatins had wanted for years to direct the movie himself) and allowing his continued input. Gatins commented that Zemeckis is also "almost OCD-like about details" and implied that Denzel Washington wasn't far behind, noting that the star saved every draft of the script and would occasionally call back ideas from years-old versions.
Chbosky suggested that it was no coincidence that all the films represented on the panel could boast a tight relationship between writer and director.
"We were all able to see it through to the end," he said. "It makes a difference."
WGA prexy Christopher Keyser and Variety editor Tim Gray introduced the panel. Two other scheduled panelists were unable to attend. "Life of Pi" writer David Magee was trapped in New York because of weather, while David O. Russell of "Silver Linings Playbook" had a little ol' meeting at the White House.