by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship
Our country’s oldest and longest struggle has been to enlarge democracy by making it possible for more and more people to be treated equally at the polls. The right to participate in choosing our representatives — to vote — is the very right that inflamed the American colonies and marched us toward revolution and independence.
So it’s unbelievable and frankly outrageous that in the last four years, close to half the states in this country have passed laws to make it harder for people to vote. But it’s true.
As this country began, only white men of property could vote, but over time and with agitation and conflict, the franchise spread regardless of income, color or gender. In the seventies, we managed to lower the voting age to 18. Yet a new nationwide effort to suppress the vote, nurtured by fear and fierce resistance to inevitable demographic change, has hammered the United States.
And this must be said, because it’s true: While it once was Democrats who used the poll tax, literacy tests and outright intimidation to keep Black people from voting, today, in state after state, it is the Republican Party working the levers of suppression. It’s as if their DNA demands it. Here’s what Paul Weyrich, one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement, said back in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
So the right has become relentless, trying every trick to keep certain people from voting. And conservative control of the Supreme Court gives them a leg up. Last year’s decision — Shelby County v. Holder — revoked an essential provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and that has only upped the ante, encouraging many Republican state legislators to impose restrictive voter ID laws, as well as work further to gerrymander Congressional districts and limit voting hours and registration. In the past few weeks, the Supreme Court has dealt with voting rights cases in Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio and upheld suppression in three of them, denying the vote to hundreds of thousands of Americans. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in opposition, “The greatest threat to public confidence… is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminating law.”
The right’s rationale is that people — those people — are manipulating the system to cheat and throw elections. But rarely — meaning almost never — can they offer any proof of anyone, anywhere, showing up at the polling place and trying illegally to cast a ballot. Their argument was knocked further on its head just recently when one of the most respected conservative judges on the bench, Richard Posner of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, wrote a blistering dissent on the legality of a Wisconsin voter ID law. “As there is no evidence that voter-impersonation fraud is a problem,” Posner declared, “how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials?”
The real reason for the laws is to lower turnout, to hold onto power by keeping those who in opposition from exercising their solemn right — to make it hard for minorities, poor folks, and students, among others, to participate in democracy’s most cherished act.
And you wonder why so many feel disconnected and disaffected? Forces in this country don’t want people to vote at the precise moment when turnout already is at a low, when what we really should be doing is making certain that young people are handed their voter registration card the moment they get a driver’s license, graduate from high school, arrive at college or register at Selective Service.
In a conversation for this week’s edition of Moyers & Company, The Nation magazine’s Ari Berman put it this way: “This is an example of trying to give the most powerful people in the country, the wealthiest, the most connected people, more power. Because the more people that vote, the less power the special interests have. If you can restrict the number of people who participate, it’s a lot easier to rig the political system.” And Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, noted, “For people who don’t have the power to engage in terms of money in the political process, the way we all become equal on Election Day is that we cast that ballot… [So] it’s not just about corporate interests. It is about power. And it is about trying to suppress the voice of those who are the most marginalized.”
So vote, dammit. It is, as President Lyndon Johnson said when he signed the Voting Rights Act, “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.” But don’t stop there. Engage, and start the conversation of democracy where you live — in your apartment complex, on your block, in your neighborhood. There is always at least one kindred spirit within reach to launch the conversation. Build on it. Like the founders, launch a Committee of Correspondence and keep it active. Show up when your elected officials hold town meetings. Make a noise and don’t stop howling. Robert LaFollette said democracy is a life, and involves constant struggle. So be it.
Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. He is the President of the Writers Guild of America, East.
What do you get when you mix TV legend Norman Lear with climate change experts and some of the funniest comedy writers around, and put them all in front of a packed house?
Punchline aside, the result was actually an energetic, sharp panel discussion titled “What’s So Funny About Climate Change?” that sometimes did get a bit boisterous—these were comedy writers and performers, after all—as it set out to answer this question: If global warming is such serious business, why do TV comedians get it right, covering the issue better—and more often—than films, dramatic series and even the nightly news? Is doom and gloom best served with a dose of humor?
In addition to Norman Lear, the Sept. 19 panel—presented by Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S) and co-sponsored by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE)—featured Rory Albanese, showrunner for The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore and former showrunner, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart; Chris Albers, writer for Borgia and writer/producer, Late Night, The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien, and Late Show With David Letterman; Sidney Harris, science cartoonist for The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and other publications; Lyn Lear, environmental activist and producer; Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D., of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication; and Lizz Winstead, co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show and author of Lizz Free or Die: Essays. It was held at the WGAE in New York.
Serving as co-moderators for the panel were Michael Winship, senior writer, Moyers & Company, and president of the WGAE; and Marty Kaplan, director of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center.
Outside, the city prepared for a week of climate-related activities that would include an estimated 400,000 participants in the People’s Climate March and the UN Climate Summit 2014, where political leaders gathered to set a framework for addressing the most daunting environmental issue facing the planet. Perhaps they could have taken some cues from the panelists. Although they wrote comedy for a living, there was also some meat on their funny bones.
“We hope today’s discussion will inform and inspire you to address this extremely critical issue in your work,” HH&S Director Kate Folb said in welcoming the full house, which included TV writers/producers from shows including The Good Wife,Nurse Jackie, SNL, South Park, Two & a Half Men, Drop Dead Diva, Supernatural,NOVA, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and Days of Our Lives.
Kaplan noted that the organizers for the people’s march, scheduled for two days after the HH&S event, were planning a moment of silence at the beginning followed by an outpouring of cacophony.
“Well, we are the cacophony,” he noted, gesturing around the room.
When Kaplan asked why comedy seemed to have the chutzpah to say what other media won’t (a question taken right from the panel’s subtitle), it was up to Lear—whose ground-breaking hit shows All In the Family, The Jeffersons and Maude, to name just a few, first brought social issues to TV screens more than four decades ago—to get the ball rolling.
Lear said that when he was starting out, TV executives and studio heads were wary of discussing big social issues, pointing out that America’s entertainment landscape was filled with sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, with storylines like “the roast is ruined and the boss is coming for dinner.”
“I was told if you want to send messages, use Western Union,” Lear said. “BeforeAll In the Family, TV families had no real problems. Today, we just hear bumper sticker arguments on television, but they don’t give us any context.”
“Climate change has become a political issue,” Albanese said. “People pick a side. The left likes the environment. Therefore the right has to hate it. We give everyone an equal platform as if it’s worthy of debate. The Earth is in trouble. There’s really not a counter argument. So you get people on one side who think hurricanes are caused by gay marriage.”
“We’re cursed with reason,” said Lear, who added that a little more anger probably wouldn’t hurt when countering climate-deniers.
But his wife, Lyn Davis Lear, a producer and veteran environmental activist, told the audience how she struck a balance—a mix of concern and optimism—in trying to sway minds with the short film that she produced, What’s Possible, for the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Summit 2014. It’s using “emotion and a sense of the spiritual,” she said. “You have to reach people with how climate change affects their everyday lives.” A teaser of her film, directed by Louie Schwartzberg and featuring the voice of actor Morgan Freeman, was played for the panelists and audience.
Lyn Lear said that leaders in the climate movement have sensed that a tipping point has been reached. “With clean forms of energy more competitive with fossil fuels, there’s a sense that things are turning around,” she said.
“Hope is a critical emotion in reaching people about climate change,” said Leiserowitz, an expert in climate change communication. But he admitted that “you couldn’t design a problem that’s a worse fit” for getting people to take on a sense of urgency.
“This is an issue that’s invisible,” he said, referring to the unseen CO2 that pours out of car tailpipes and smokestacks.
He said that TV networks’ belief that they would lose viewers over coverage of global warming was misguided. “The other side is a small minority that has intimidated the country into not talking about the issue,” Leiserowitz said. “Six Americas,” a study conducted by the Yale Project, demonstrates that only 15 percent of Americans are dismissive of climate change. The report found that a majority of people are alarmed, concerned or cautious, he said.
“People want to know more,” he said, and viewers who are engaged tend to seek out more information. Calling it a “gateway drug,” Leiserowitz said that comedy is uniquely suited to conveying the message about global warming. “We come back because we love to laugh,” he said.
But Albers, who also spoke about climate change from a personal standpoint—his home in New Jersey was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy—said comedians and comedy writers can’t do it alone. “We need a story that we can respond to,” he said. “Our shows respond to the news. If the news isn’t talking about the issue, it’s more forced if we bring it up.”
Speaking truth under the guise of entertainment and jokes is nothing new to comedy writers and performers—court jesters were doing it in the medieval ages.
“Comedians have become trusted,” Winstead said. “People believe they’re truthful and don’t have an agenda—other than finding a common enemy and then pointing up the hypocrisy.”
“It can’t just be the comedy shows and a couple hosts on MSNBC who are carrying the water,” she added. “We need better messaging.”
Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, co-creators and writers of HIGH MAINTENANCE, have elevated the bar for web-series.
While each episode features characters buying pot, this is far from being a show that’s only for stoners. In fact, drugs often feel like an afterthought as viewers get drawn into the well-written character studies that take center stage.
The WGAE Write On Blog caught up with Katja and Ben while they’re deep in production on the show’s upcoming season of HIGH MAINTENANCE, which is slated to start on November 11th.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came to the show’s concept?
KATJA: We wanted to create something short, with a story that could occur in real time. One day we realized that using the device of a marijuana delivery would allow us to pop in and out of different characters’ homes quickly, and could provide the framework for pretty much any kind of story we wanted to tell. Plus the brevity seemed crucial, since we didn’t have any real money to pay our cast and crew.
BEN: In the beginning, we thought it would be more of a “revolving door” sort of project where, besides changing the cast every time, we’d also bring on a different director, cinematographer, writer, etc. for each episode. We didn’t feel married to any particular genre then, and truth be told, didn’t have any plans for an arc of any kind. Once we shot a couple of episodes, our vision became more defined and we realized we were the ones best suited to write and direct the series.
KATJA: Right. Then we ditched our ideas about musical episodes and such, and started trying to build out this universe that we had started creating.
What is writing process like for the show?
BEN: Labored and full of procrastination. Ultimately we’re discussing ideas around the clock. We’re married and we spend a lot of time together, so whether we’re eating breakfast or riding our bikes together, we’re coming up with storylines and characters or making improvements or additions to stuff we’ve already written. But sometimes it takes us a while to commit anything to the page.
KATJA: Once we decide on a story we want to tell or a character we want to portray, we outline the story together. Then, whoever has a stronger overall vision for the episode might take a first crack at writing the script. The other will come in afterwards and shade it in with more detail or refine the dialogue. Sometimes both of us will simultaneously write separate drafts of the scripts, then reconvene and marry the best parts into one draft.
How do you think HIGH MAINTENANCE translates from the page to the screen?
BEN: We tend to consider our script only 85% complete when we issue a shooting draft. A lot gets added on set. Sometimes we’ll find a prop while we’re shooting that ends up improving the storyline in an unexpected way. Or an actor turns out to have a trait we didn’t know about and we’ll just adjust accordingly on the spot. It’s important to us that everything feels organic, so we don’t usually ask actors to be anything but a version of themselves.
KATJA: We also like to write for specific actors whenever we can.
Has any episode drastically changed during rehearsal/filming?
KATJA: No, not really. The most dramatic changes that happen from script to film often occur as a result of casting. For example, we’ll have someone in mind for an story and have to recast them due to availability issues. The flavor of the episode can change completely. Often it’s even better and more complex than originally imagined.
Do you have any character traits you especially like to write about/examine/make fun of?
KATJA: I think we like to write about people who are lonely, even people who aren’t physically alone.
BEN: These next episodes have to do with people trying to stay optimistic in the face of adversity – some of the adversity being self-inflicted or even imagined.
KATJA: Along with that, all these characters are just caught up in self-preservation. Or more accurately, preserving what they currently have, while they attempt to get more. And that’s something that’s true for us.
BEN: People want to have it all.
KATJA: Also, we’re making fun of ourselves a lot in this next batch of episodes. We complain a lot and we’re hypercritical, especially of ourselves. We enjoy exploiting those foibles, and working them out through our writing, I guess.
Have you heard feedback from any pot dealers?
BEN:Yes, actually. They say it’s pretty accurate. Also, we have friends in the business on both coasts and we like to run our stories by them from time to time to make sure they check out.
KATJA: I can’t portray anything that I don’t personally find plausible. Period.
Any reason you decided to set the film in New York?
BEN: It was a no brainer. We live here and never considered trying to shoot this in another place.
Who would be the dream deliver client – a real person or fictional – to book on HIGH MAINTENANCE?
BEN: Maureen Dowd. I’d love for The Guy to educate her about reasonable dosing.
KATJA: Obama (and the rest of The Choom Gang).
What other writers, movies, shows, books are on your radar right now?
BEN: We loved THE GUEST (written by Simon Barrett, directed by Adam Wingard). It was- genre-busting and inspirational. Observant, while being totally engrossing. The filmmaking was masterful.
KATJA: We’re so fucking delighted by Jill Soloway’s TRANSPARENT. The best series we’ve seen all year. I love how some episodes jump right into meaty emotional moments from the first scene. We’re suffering withdrawals after blowing through the whole season already. Seriously, I feel a little depressed.
Indica, sativa or hybrid?
BEN: That’s easy. Sativa.
KATJA: Yeah. We’re low energy as is.
On September 22nd, The Writers Guild of America, East and New York Women in Film & Television presented “Master The Art of Pitching Your Project,” a panel discussion on how to effectively pitch your work to people in the industry. The event also set aside time for attendees to try out their own pitches and get feedback from the panelists.
The panel was hosted and moderated by Jennifer Wilkov, an expert in supporting first-time writers and seasoned authors build a strong platform and a well-polished pitch and presentation for their work. Wilkov was joined on the panel by Maria C. Miles, Esq., the founding partner of an entertainment law firm, and Katharine Sands, a literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency and the editor of Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye.
Below are video highlights from the panel discussion.
Part One: Jennifer Wilkov
Part Two: Maria C. Miles, Esq.
Part Three: Katharine Sands
To kick off Climate Week NYC, the Writers Guild of America, East and Hollywood, Health & Society at USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center presented “What’s So Funny About Climate Change?,” a panel to discuss why comedy gets global warming right and how to best communicate the biggest story of our time.
This panel featured the legendary Norman Lear, who noted that television executives have always been wary of discussing big issues like global warming. As he said, “Before ALL IN THE FAMILY, TV families had no real problems.”
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D. of Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, noted that “Hope is a critical emotion in reaching people about climate change.” He added, “We are as certain that people are causing climate change as we know cigarettes cause multiple health problems.”
Rory Albanese, writer/producer of the upcoming THE MINORITY REPORT WITH LARRY WILMORE, stated the sad fact that “Some people in the U.S. think hurricanes are caused by gay marriage.”
Other panelists included Chris Albers (writer/producer, BORGIA. THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O’BRIEN), Lyn Lear (Environmental activist/producer), Sidney Harris (cartoonist, The New Yorker) and Lizz Winstead (Creator, THE DAILY SHOW; Founder, Lady Parts Justice). The panel was moderated by Michael Winship (WGAE President, MOYERS & COMPANY) and Marty Kaplan (Director, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center).
(Photo Credit: Dana Maxson)
I love New York, authors and filmmakers. Bring all three together, and I’m thrilled. You and I cannot deny the impact of words on paper, and lives on celluloid.
In the pages of age inappropriate literature, I glimpsed a world filled with all manner of adventure. My love of books, and admiration for authors increased exponentially as my age increased. Writers and characters became my main mentors. In some ways, I feel I was adopted by Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Alan Watts and Martin Amis. Once, in a Valium dream, Charles Bukowski tried to kidnap me.
In real life, I used to see Bukowski all the time at the Santa Anita race track and Hollywood Park. When his doctor told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, he would die a painful alcoholic death, Bukowski replaced non-stop drinking with non-stop horse-betting. In fact, he bet on every horse in every race. That means he never lost a race, he only lost money.
Although Bukowski didn’t die from drink, plenty of authors have fought battles with the bottle. Some recovered; many didn’t. And while there were non-profit organizations to help musicians who needed treatment for alcohol or drug addictions, there wasn’t one for those in the worlds of writing and publishing.
Six years ago, with the help and encouragement of Robert Downey, Sr and I founded Writers In Treatment, a 501(c)(3) which provides referrals and scholarships to treatment for writers having problems with alcohol and/or drugs. To help fund our efforts, we created the REEL Recovery Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2008, and it’s now in seven American cities and Canada.
And that, my friends, is the lead-in the joyous announcement that on September 26th begins the 3rd International REEL RECOVERY FILM FESTIVAL at New York’s Quad Cinema. This a week-long celebration of films which shed light on themes of addiction, alcoholism, behavioral disorders, treatment, and recovery. With several NY premieres, debuts and films by new filmmakers and industry veterans, REEL RECOVERY presents an eclectic lineup of contemporary and classic features, documentaries and shorts from the U.S., Canada, Iran, Great Britain, Norway and Hong Kong.
The Festival’s primary aim is to celebrate recovery through film and expand the dialogue among artists, treatment-industry professionals, and a public eager to learn more about America’s number one health crisis – addiction.
You don’t need to be an alcoholic or drug addict to enjoy the Festival – this isn’t some preachy “beware of demon rum” event. Far from it. This is about creativity, success and recovery. Even a cursory glance over the event program will give you a glimpse into the vast diversity of topics addressed in film and conversation, including Chasing the Muse…Stone Cold Sober — this year’s much anticipated panel discussion is moderated by author Susan Cheever, and features some of New York’s most creative and successful professionals including actor Joe Pantoliano, actor/author Steve Geng and journalist, Sacha Scoblic.
I would tell you more, but I risk prolixity and this sounding like an advertisement. Suffice it to say, I’m delighted to be back in New York, and I applaud the Writers Guild of America, East for their unwavering support of Writers in Treatment, and the Reel Recovery Film Festival.
For more information, visit reelrecoveryfilmfestival.org.
By Michael Winship
This Wednesday, September 10, you can show the world how you feel about a free and open Internet that’s available to all, with no “fast lanes” giving better access to those with the thickest wallets.
The symbolic “Internet Slowdown” day of action will give Web visitors a taste of what cyberspace would be like if Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were allowed to charge more for faster access, gave favored treatment to content providers that pay more, or even censored those whose opinions or ideas the ISPs dislike. It also will serve as a reminder that we have until the end of business on September 15 – the final day for the latest round of public comments — to tell the Federal Communications Commission what we think about Net neutrality.
According to a press release from the media reform groups Free Press Action Fund and Fight for the Future, “Internet Slowdown organizers are urging website owners — from the smallest blogs to the largest online platforms — to participate in the day of action. They can do so by displaying ‘widgets’ available at https://www.battleforthenet.com/sept10th/ that will make it easy for site visitors to submit comments to the FCC. The widgets also display the revolving icon used to symbolize slowly loading content to illustrate how the loss of Net Neutrality would harm websites and other online services.”
(Not to worry — the icon will not actually slow Internet service — just remind everyone of what might happen if the FCC abandons an Open Internet).
There are lots of other actions you can take on September 10 — such as changing your Twitter or Facebook profile photos to the slowdown icon for the day. If you’ve designed an app for mobile phones, you can send a push notification to your users. There’s plenty more, which you can learn about at BattlefortheNet.com.
Other actions this month will include rallies in New York and Philadelphia on Monday, September 15; a rally outside the FCC in Washington on September 16; and lobbying days at the FCC and on Capitol Hill September 16-18.
The goal: get the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a “common carrier,” a telecommunications service required to deliver all content at equal speeds.
Listen to this report from NPR’s On the Media.
Michael Winship is the President of Writers Guild of America, East. He is also an Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.
Tom Perrotta has written about school elections, suburban life, sex education and the rapture. His bestselling novels are unpredictable page-turners that will make you laugh, squirm and gasp, sometimes all at once. The New Jersey-native’s second novel, ELECTION, was adapted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor into a classic film starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.
In 2006, Tom, along with writer-director Todd Fields, wrote the screenplay adaptation of his own breakout novel LITTLE CHILDREN. The movie would go on to be one the year’s most acclaimed films, earning Writers Guild Award and Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Tom about THE LEFTOVERS, which is his first foray into television. The series, which is based on his post-rapture novel, was brought to HBO with LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof,
When you finished writing the book THE LEFTOVERS, was your original intention to turn it into a television series as opposed to a film like you’ve previously done with LITTLE CHILDREN.
I never considered adapting THE LEFTOVERS for film. The story seemed too complex and sprawling for a two-hour movie. What’s been great about doing it as a series is that we’ve been able to able to build on the book, rather than pare it down. A character like Rev. Matt Jamison (played by Christopher Eccleston) has a much bigger role in the show than he had in the novel, for example. We’re using the novel as a springboard for new stories, rather than simply translating the book into a different medium.
THE LEFTOVERS sees you writing with LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof, Kath Lingenfelter, Jacqueline Hoyt and Elizabeth Peterson, among others. Can you tell me a bit about your experience working in a writing room? What is the writing process for the show like? How do you feel when writers take the characters you created in places you may not have expected? Do you feel the show is darker and more disturbing than the book? Personally, I do and I think that’s a good thing.
In general, I had a great time in the writers’ room. There were days when I had to bite my tongue, or work to wrap my mind around someone else’s idea, but mostly I loved the give and take of collaboration, that feeling that we were all working together to create the most exciting and thought-provoking stories we could come up with. I went in with the attitude that I was not going to play the role of the over-protective author—that wouldn’t have helped anyone. I found it thrilling when people were inspired by the book to come up with exciting original ideas that I could never have come up with on my own. It’s a dark show, as many people have pointed out, but we laughed a lot while generating all those bleak narratives. It was the only way to get through the days.
What advice would you have for screenwriters adapting a book?
Treat the book with respect, but not with reverence.
Do you have any particular scenes from THE LEFTOVERS that you felt translated from the script to the screen in a surprising or different way than you could have anticipated? What was it about those scenes that moved you?
I love what happened with the Heroes Day celebration in the pilot. In some respects, it’s a very faithful rendering of the scene in the novel. Nora Durst’s speech, for example, is taken directly from the book. But once the Guilty Remnant arrives to disrupt the ceremony, what was a relatively low-key scene in the book turns into this operatic riot sequence, so beautifully directed by Pete Berg. It becomes cinematic, in the best scnse.
You co-wrote an original screenplay with FRASIER producer Rob Greenberg. Did you enjoy working on an original screenplay? Is writing original screenplays something you’d like to do again or do you prefer to first write novels?
Rob and I wrote a broad, mainstream comedy, the only time I’ve done that. It was a blast, and I could imagine trying again at some point. But I definitely had the feeling of working outside my comfort zone.
What movies, television shows, or books are high on your radar right now?
I’ve been loving MAD MEN for years, and am sad to see it coming to an end. I’m also a big fan of THE AMERICANS, and am as excited as everyone else for the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE. BROAD CITY was amazing in its first season—I can’t wait for more. My movie of the moment is Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD. My summer reading is a re-reading project—I’m going back to some of my favorite Graham Greene novels, and finding them incredibly rich the second time around. Right now, I’m halfway through THE END OF THE AFFAIR, one of my all-time favorites, and it’s even better than I remembered.
LOVE IS STRANGE marks the highly-anticipated second collaboration between writer-director Ira Sachs and screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias. The film premiered to great reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.
Ira and Mauricio’s first collaboration, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards including Best Screenplay, Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Male Actor (Thure Lindhardt).
The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Ira and Mauricio before LOVE IS STRANGE screened at this week’s Nantucket Film Festival.
Your film, LOVE IS STRANGE, which you wrote and directed, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes the Nantucket Film Festival. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?
Mauricio: LOVE IS STRANGE tells the story of a couple who have been together for almost 40 years. Unexpectedly, they’re forced to live apart and rely on family and friends, and their presences will have subtle but profound consequences in these people’s lives. The film shows that love can be difficult sometimes, but it can also blossom with time.
Ira: The film is a multi-generational story. It centers on a couple in the later part of their lives, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, but you also have Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows who are very much in the middle, and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who is discovering what love can be for the first time. To me, it’s at its core a film about the seasons of life, and, as Joni Mitchell said it, “the painted ponies” going up and down. Given Mauricio and my ages, I guess you could say it’s a “middle aged” film, written by two middle aged people, hoping that there is a long time ahead, but knowing it doesn’t last forever.
How did this story come to you? What was your writing process like for you both?
Mauricio: I remember when Ira told me the story of his old uncle, a sculptor who lived with his partner for many years, and was still very active late in his life. His last sculpture was of a young man, a backpacker who happened to pass through their lives once. This image stayed with me, and you will see that it’s very much in the picture. I also was inspired by my parents who have been together for more than 50 years. Ira and I created all the characters, scenes and situations together, then I went off on my own to write a first draft. We met again and again to rewrite the script together.
Ira: Mauricio and I have found a collaborative rhythm starting with KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, continuing with LOVE IS STRANGE, and now working this Summer on a new script, where we begin by spending a few months just talking about our lives, about other movies, about people we’ve known and stories we’ve witnessed or experienced. From those conversations, we loosely create an outline and a set of characters. Then, Mauricio actually does the heavy lifting of the first draft, which he does in about 6 weeks, taking our talks and notes and turning them into actual dialogue and scenes. This is followed by a time of writing separately, back and forth, between us. We trust each other a lot, and Mauricio also is very comfortable with the fact that at some point I need to fully own the material before I start directing it.
Any reason you decided to set the film in New York?
Mauricio: We both have been living in New York for a long time, and we both love this city. We wanted to talk about what we see around us. I can’t think of this film being anywhere else.
Ira: I grew up in Memphis and when I started making films, that was the place I know best, and where i found stories I wanted to tell. I always access memories and sounds, and visual experiences of a place in my work, because filmmaking comes the easiest to me when I have that intimate relationship. I have now spent 25 years in New York, so it’s as much a part of me as Memphis was earlier.
Any horrible New York real estate stories of your own that you care to share?
Mauricio: So many of my friends had to move away because they couldn’t afford the city anymore. In our film, Ben and George are going through a similar situation, but they find a last minute solution to their real estate problem. Staying in the city is crucial for them, but it will take sacrifices from everyone involved.
Ira: Every life lived in New York, or any city for that matter, can be told as a “real estate story,” because real estate is another word for home, and home is always defined by one’s economy, and one’s place in a culture. I am not a Marxist, per se, but I do look at character always through the lens of economics, and where one lives — or where one can’t live — is as good a way as any of describing a person in the world, and in a story.
Do you have any particular scene from LOVE IS STRANGE that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected? What was it about the scene that moved you?
Mauricio: There wasn’t any major changes from page to screen in LOVE IS STRANGE, but it’s wonderful to see how actors can bring another level to the material, and sometimes the audience has a different reaction from what you intended. For example; in the school scene in the beginning of the film, George is getting fired from his job. It’s a Catholic School, so when at the end of the scene the Priest says; “George, let’s pray.”, audiences have a big laugh; they think it’s the funniest thing.
Ira: I am struck by the fact that when people see the movie, they believe completely in the relationship between Ben and George, as if it’s a couple they’ve always known, and loved. I do believe the script helps in that, but it’s really a testament to the performances of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.
What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?
Mauricio: I’m looking forward to TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, the new Dardenne Brothers’ film with Marion Cotillard. It’s the first time the Belgian directors work with a big star. Also, VENUS IN FUR. I enjoyed the play very much, but its success relies on a great coup de theatre – it works beautifully on stage, so I’m curious to see how Polanski adapted it to the screen. On television, I’m hooked on GIRLS, VEEP and MAD MEN, so I’m eagerly waiting for the next seasons. And I can’t wait to read Ioannis Pappos’ Hotel Living, which is going to be released by HarperCollins early next year (he’s a friend, so I got an advance copy!). From what I heard it’s a great character piece, hilarious and heartbreaking – my kind of novel.
Ira: I am looking forward to that one too, Hotel Living – it’s the story of an extremely observant, though love-starved, gay man finding his way in the tough world of downtown New York, so I think I will relate – and I just finished a book called Lost and Found in Johannesburg, by the South African writer Mark Gevisser, which was both brilliant and inspiring. He looks at his own city through the lens of both memoir and cultural history in a way that I hope to do in my own work. In movies, I’m waiting impatiently to see Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY and Linklater’s BOYHOOD, and WHIPLASH, and too many others to count. Though nearly impossible to get funded, it seems there are still many people out there making the kind of personal cinema I get excited about.
If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?
Mauricio: There are so many characters in film / TV history I wish I could write for… I recently watched THE LAVANDER HILL MOB again at the Film Forum. I’m crazy about Henry Holland, the Alec Guinness character. There’s nothing like seeing the most ordinary life be turned around to become a sensational adventure on the big screen.
Ira: I like to make up my own fictional characters. They are the only ones I know well enough to make at all interesting.
One of the most talked about dramas on the current film festival circuit is THE SKELETON TWINS, which stars two Saturday Night Live alums, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.
THE SKELETON TWINS’ screenwriters Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson, who also director the film, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Mark Heyman, who was nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” at the 2011 Writers Guild Awards for BLACK SWAN, as he brings THE SKELETON TWINS to the Nantucket Film Festival.
Your film, THE SKELETON TWINS, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes opening the Nantucket Film Festival this week. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?
It’s about estranged twins who coincidentally cheat death on the same day, causing them to come back together and confront how their lives went so wrong. But eventually they realize that the key to fixing themselves lies in fixing their broken relationship.
How did this story come to you? Have you ever had a near-death experience you can share?
The story came about through a lot of conversations between me and the director/co-writer, Craig Johnson, over countless cups of coffee in various New York coffee shops. There are personal elements from both our lives integrated into the story. My only brush with death came from a scuba diving accident incidentally (scuba diving is a key thread in the film). I’d gone very deep, and came up too fast. I ended up getting the Bends, and needing to be taken to a decompression chamber.
What is your writing process like on a film like THE SKELETON TWINS?
Craig and I note-carded every scene, and would divvy up who was going to write each one. Then we’d share what we’d done, give thoughts, and trade scenes. It was very collaborative, helped by the fact that Craig and I went to film school together and are very close friends.
Do you have any particular scene from THE SKELETON TWINS that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected?
The famed lip-synching scene exceeded my expectations by a thousand percent. It wasn’t so much different than I imagined; I just could never have imagined it turning out quite as amazing as it did. That’s what happens when you have people like Bill [Hader] and Kristen [Wiig].
What was it about the scene that moved you?
It just works on so many levels. It’s funny and entertaining, but it’s also poignant and real. The whole thing has an arc and payoff, which is a pretty amazing thing considering all they’re doing is mouthing the words to a cheesy 80’s song.
What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?
I’m a TV junkie, so pretty much all the “must watch” TV shows are on my radar. GAME OF THRONES, MAD MEN, TRUE DETECTIVE. FARGO, etc. It’s an embarrassingly long list. Book wise, just finished The GoldFinch, which I enjoyed, and reading a lot of nonfiction.
If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?
Don’t know. That’s a hard one. If it’s a character I really love, then I wouldn’t really want to write for them, because I wouldn’t want to mess with something that’s working so well.