30+ minutes with Chris Terrio who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Argo:
30+ minutes with Chris Terrio who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Argo:
All hail Vulture for this:
Over the next few weeks, Vulture is talking to the screenwriters behind 2012’s most acclaimed movies about the scenes they found most difficult to crack. What pivotal sequences underwent the biggest transformations on their way from script to screen?
In this article, Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio reflects on a tricky scene:
One of the more common critiques of a screenplay one is likely to hear in Hollywood is that a script has “too many men in rooms talking” (which always strikes me as bizarre, since roughly two thirds of The Godfather consists of men in rooms talking. Taken to heart, this note would have given us the tarantella and not “I believe in America” as the opening of the greatest Hollywood film ever made). I knew before I even attempted to write what became Scene 58 of Argo — a scene of nine men sitting in a conference room talking through various scenarios for a cover story to get Americans out of Iran — that the scene would be more difficult to pull off than any of the more (ostensibly) complicated set pieces in the film.
As I wrote and rewrote the scene, trying to get the tone right, I found myself returning to screenplays by writers like Chayefsky and Goldman, two masters who were writing at the time that Argo takes place (Goldman is, of course, still writing and still a master). In their films of the period, one line spoken by a man (or a woman) in a room could change the tone not only of a scene, but of an entire film. And these writers could do it without grandiloquence, but with precision, and often with spitballs — shifting a conversation with an ironic barb that could render the boardroom of a television network or an editorial meeting at the Washington Post speechless. How would these guys write the scene?
I settled on the idea that Mendez would throw a spitball into the self-serious conversation by making a joke about giving the bicycle escapees Gatorade. (Which meant I had to determine whether Gatorade was on the market and a commonly recognized brand in December of 1979. I celebrated when I found a Time Magazine from the year before featuring a dehydrated athlete with a Village People–style mustache: “Gatorade: When You’re Thirsty to Win.” So the Gatorade could stay.) Mendez would make his off-hand joke. The table would go silent. The attention of the room would shift to the court jester speaking truth to power.
Here is the scene from the script.
“Talking head scenes.” If you’re Chayefsky or Sorkin and you receive your dialogue from the gods, that’s one thing. But movies are primarily a visual medium. So the default mode should be show it, don’t say it.
However sometimes, you’ve got talking heads in a room. Then all bets are off. You have to do whatever you can to up the entertainment… even finding one line to spin the atmosphere and pivot the point of narrative attack like Terrio did in this scene.
For the rest of the article, go here.
When these future Vulture articles appear, please email or Tweet me the links. They are not only outstanding learning opportunities, but also a way to uplift the role of screenwriters in the filmmaking process.
For the last 14 years, Variety has put an annual spotlight on 10 screenwriters to watch. Here are this year’s writers:
For the other annual Variety lists I’ve covered since GITS started:
The Hollywood Reporter roundtables typically draw diverse groups of talented people. But the six men who gathered Oct. 2 at the W Hotel in Hollywood might be among the most eclectic bunch we’ve ever assembled. Journalist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, 39, chronicles the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in his still-unfinished Zero Dark Thirty, while comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, 44, takes funny aim at his own family life in This Is 40. German auteur Michael Haneke, 70, brought along a translator to help him discuss his Palme d’Or-winning Amour with sitcom star-turned-scribe John Krasinski, 33, who wrote the anti-fracking drama Promised Land with Matt Damon. And veteran British writer David Magee, 50, shared stories about his fantasy spectacle Life of Pi with Chris Terrio, 35, whose Argo marks his first feature screenwriting credit.
The entire 1-hour conversation:
There’s an old saying in Hollywood about historically based movies: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the story.” This is a tacit acknowledgement of two things: (1) Life doesn’t often play out like a movie, filmmakers needing to shape and mold events into a coherent narrative. (2) That narrative needs to be entertaining, so push comes to shove, it’s the facts that commonly get shoved.
A good example of this is Argo, a movie currently in movie theaters in U.S. and Canada. The film has started its run well, receiving a rare A+ Cinemascore rating and an 86 on Metacritic. That speaks to its entertainment. But what about the facts?
Movieline posted an article in which it featured comments by one of the actual 6 hostages involved in the amazing escape in Tehran in 1980:
Mark Lijek, who’s portrayed by Christopher Denham in Affleck’s awards contender, spoke out after attending the film’s L.A. premiere, giving his detailed version of events. And while there are strong parallels with the film, which began its release last week and has garnered Oscar buzz, the timeline of real-life events had some significant departures from the film, which Affleck starred in and directed.
There are some spoilers in the article, so I won’t post them here, but it is interesting to learn some of the details of actual events to see the challenges facing screenwriter Chris Terrio and director Ben Affleck. You may go here to read an interview with Terrio about precisely that point.
Takeaway: As writers, especially when adapting historically based stories, we need to find a balance point between what actually happened and what constitutes an entertaining narrative.
For more of the Movieline article, go here.
Plus this just posted on Indiewire: “‘Argo’ is Totally Inaccurate — Which is Why It’s Great”.
Dennis Faye at WGA.org has a great interview with Chris Terrio, screenwriter of the movie Argo which opens this weekend in the U.S.. The setup:
On November 4, 1979, militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Six Americans managed to escape, seeking hidden refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
Iranian authorities soon started to suspect something was amiss. As the noose tightened, CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez snuck into the country and rescued the “house guests,” by masquerading them as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction film, complete with fake passports courtesy of the Canadian government and a real, live, phony production office set up in Hollywood.
Of course, given the situation with the remaining hostages, the U.S. wasn’t in the position to tout this victory. The story was tucked into the CIA vaults until declassification in 1997. In 2007, it became the focus of a Wired magazine piece by Joshuah Bearman. The article caught the eye of the development team at Smokehouse Entertainment, who turned to screenwriter Chris Terrio to accomplish a task almost as challenging as Tony Mendez’s original stunt: write a credible script about the escape.
“Even at the genesis of the project I was cynical,” admits Terrio. “This story could so easily turn into a self-congratulatory kind of nudge/wink exercise. I wasn’t sure that I knew how to do it, and I was a little bit afraid of the tonal dissonance of the material.”
Luckily, Terrio talked down his inner cynic. His blueprint for the Ben Affleck-helmed Argo might not be exactly historically accurate, but it does a remarkable job of capturing this moment in history’s emotional truths – and it’s thrilling as hell.
Some excerpts from the interview:
When you’re basing something on a true story, how does reality come into play? Like how do you tell a three-act thriller and still honor the truthfulness of it?
Well, in a sense, because in its DNA, it’s an escape and rescue story, so you have three acts that are built in, which of course is a gift when we’re trying to write something. You have the setup, which is, “Here’s the predicament.” You have the second act, which is, “Here are complicating factors involved in the rescue.” Then, finally, you have the rescue or the escape. So, in that sense, I knew that built in was a happy ending and built in there was a lot of tension.
But then there’s the problem of a lack of a central villain.
Yeah. A lot of the forces that are coming to bear on our hero and on everyone are invisible. There’s not one antagonist in the film, it’s a widely distributed sense of threat that’s out there. It’s sort of a big geopolitical problem that they’re up against, in a sense.
Since you can’t throw invisible stones at characters, you have to begin to create stones that have weight and that have sharp edges and that feel credible. So that’s in a way how the story developed, just to get a sense of the various ticking clocks and the various sorts of obstacles hanging above the heads of the characters.
And then the next problem is how do you reconcile the three tonal worlds of the film – the world of Washington and its bureaucracy; the world of Tehran and the immediate sort of clear and present danger of the guards that are combing the city with automatic weapons; and then the world of Hollywood where the challenge really is to create a convincing fiction, or film? The problem becomes how do you write a script in which those three things are the same movie, and in which the tone feels like it carries over from one scene to another?
Some of it is just trial and error. You don’t want the characters in Hollywood – Lester Siegel and John Chambers – to turn into kind of a Vaudevillian sideshow. You want to feel that they’re human beings who are deeply invested in the lives of other human beings who are the six houseguests.
You want to feel that in the world of the CIA, it’s a deadly serious world of an espionage thriller, but also Bryan Cranston and his character has an acerbic sense of humor, so you could imagine him meeting up with Lester and with Chambers and sort of having the same conversation.
And then further, with the houseguests in Tehran, you have these six people who are in this is Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit kind of situation where they’re stuck in the house, but you also want to feel that the way that they talk and the way that they relate to each other can cut from Hollywood or from Washington to them and still feel like you’re watching characters in the same movie. I’m not sure that I did solve all these problems, but you write the script and hope for the best.
For the rest of the interview, go here.