The torrential storm had moved past Santa Barbra County by the time the Writer’s Panel kicked off, but road closures meant Indiewire’s Anne Thompson ended up moderating a panel with Paul Schrader and Kevin Willmott. Will Fetters’ arrival was delayed but he joined just in time near the end, after spending four hours on the road.
Talking about how they got their start in writing, Willmott who penned BlacKklansman said he had always loved movies and would watch blaxploitation films. Once he saw Gordon Parks’ Shaft, he thought it was “the coolest thing in the world.”
Schrader told the audience that he had started off as a film critic and that initially he didn’t think there was a place for him as a filmmaker. But he watched Bresson’s Pick Pocket, and a few years later he wrote Taxi Driver.
Will Fetters had gone to law school, on route to becoming a lawyer, but an incident with the law changed his career path. When he had a moment to think about what he wanted to do, script writing was on the cards for him.
Asked about their process, the three shared how they stay motivated. Willmott said he gets up early. While working on BlacKkKlansman he would send Spike Lee drafts back and forth, but when he got frustrated he would get out of the writing chair. “I keep the chair pure. Get out of your writing chair when things start to get frustrating. It might help you find a fresh approach. It certainly will make it easier to get back in the chair the next day. You want to be happy in the chair.”
Fetters who spent over nine years working on A Star is Born has three young children and has a writing office at home said, “Don’t feel you have to put in nine hours of work every day. Sometimes, a three-hour burst of good writing is all you need, and all you’re going to get.”
Paul Schrader said as s storyteller he likes to tell a story “for 45 minutes. If that person is interested, you have a story.” Schrader said he mixes up his routine and told the audience that one of his most recent breakthroughs came while driving over some train tracks. He said, “When a scene isn’t working, I stop and walk away.”
Talking about the genesis of their ideas for their films, Schrader said the idea for First Reformed was in fact based on an intellectual decision not an emotional one. He had presented Cold War’s Pawel Pawlikowski with an award for Ida and he had written a book about spirituality and film, and after presenting Pawlikowski’s award he walked home and “decided it was now time to write the script I swore I never would.”
Fetters said he’d wanted to do A Star Is Born for over nine years, but no one wanted to do it, even when Cooper had committed to it. Cooper had a passion to tell this story and wanted to get it done. Fetters mirrored what producer Bill Gerber had said in the earlier producer’s panel, that stars aligned for the film to be made and told.
Telling a story that had already been told, Fetters said he had to look at the cultural landscape and that recognize that fame couldn’t be the gratification for the story, especially in this day and age when fame can be universal and anyone can achieve it. He looked at the idea of a woman succeeding and the man failing but thought that was dated. He found the secret to the story by looking at what happens when you get what you want. He wanted to explore the gears that mesh inside that fame.
Schrader praised Lady Gaga saying, “She’s a revelation. A mix between Judy and Liza.”
Willmott said when he and Lee got the script for BlacKkKlansman, they wanted it to speak to today and tried to bring a governing idea to the film. He felt that Flip (Adam Driver) had lost ouch with the reality of who he was, and had lost his Jewishness in early drafts of the script, so he worked to bring that out.
Willmott had tracked the progression of the slogans and noted that the Klan’s slogan in the ’30s was America First. Duke in the ’70s had also used MAGA and so it was easy to connect the Klan to today through that.
He said for the third act of the film, it needed a dramatic climax and even though it was fictionalized to some extent, he raised the stakes with his creative licence while staying loyal to facts.
Fetters said a challenging scene to write was the 12-note sequence. He needed to find a way to angle the moment after Cooper’s character dies. He wanted something that meant something. Fetters said it was Cooper’s idea to bring Sam Elliot back to her for that scene to help handle the void and the aftermath. “There’s nothing he can say, but we needed to be honest.”
The panel ended with Thompson asking what they were working on next. Willmott teased that he and Spike were already working on something together, and Schrader said, his next project will be “a modern Western, a meta-Western, a Western after David Lynch and Terry Malick took a shit on it.”