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Let's eavesdrop on two Oscar nominees: Arndt and Marber

February 8, 2007 |  6:00 am


Fox Searchlight asked its Oscar-nominated screenplay authors Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine") and Patrick Marber ("Notes on a Scandal") to share their views on everything from what they think of the Oscar race to how they work to create films. Here's their email exchange back and forth — fun, insightful and dishy. Read on:

MA: Patrick, just wanted to touch base and make sure this is your real e-mail address. I'm currently in San Francisco at my 9 to 5 day job (Pixar) and in and out of meetings all afternoon. I'm flying down to LA tonight, and won't be able to kick off our conversation until later this evening. That said, congratulations on your very, very fine screenplay for NOTES. I've read your scripts for both NOTES and CLOSER and have to confess that I get enormous pleasure out of reading such precise, intelligent, and meticulously wrought screenplays. Beautiful work. Look forward to getting into it with you in a few hours.

PM: Hi Michael. Yes this is me typing with thumbs on my phone from the Algonquin hotel in NY. I'm here to see a few previews of my play 'Howard Katz,' then fly to LA Sunday night. So I hope we will meet at the nominees lunch.

I absolutely loved LMS (if you'll forgive the abbreviation). What a fabulous film. From the first scene onwards I felt I was in the hands of a writer who knew exactly what he was doing. But did you? Or was it a film that cohered more in post? This to an extent was the case with NOTES.

Many congrats on your nom. How did you find out? Are you deluged with press interest?

MA: Please forgive me -- I arrived in LA last night and couldn't get a working internet connection until late this morning. My apologies for the delay in getting back to you.

Congratulations to you on your nom as well. I was alone in my apartment in San Francisco watching it on TV -- I've given up pretending to be aloof and indifferent. No matter how you feel about it, we've both been swept up into a big honkin' beauty contest, and to pretend otherwise is absurd. What struck me as funny, though, was that the day before was pretty much a normal day -- you go about your business and you almost think no one's paying attention. Yet as soon as your name is announced, the phones start ringing and don't stop.

PM: I like thinking of you alone in an apartment in San Francisco watching your fate on TV. Very brave of you. I turned my phone off ten minutes before the noms were announced and then on again ten minutes after. I found out I was in by volume of calls. I figured they can't all be phoning to commiserate. I remember two years ago not getting nommed for 'Closer', the silence that descends is Arctic.

MA: With regard to LMS, that quality of storytelling confidence and purpose you sensed was the product of years and years of unwavering procrastination. I'd had the story in my head for a while and had always put off writing it because it felt too small. All those years of sloth and delay, however, paid off big time by allowing the story to ripen and clarify itself in my mind. When I finally sat down to write (to get it out of my head, if nothing else), I had a very clear sense of what I wanted to do.

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Also, I'm a bit of a structure fanatic. Having spent years and years as a freelance script reader, I have pretty strong opinions about the mechanics of storytelling. And I'm a big believer in endings -- the idea that movies are all about their last ten minutes. I'd never start writing a script now without know exactly what the climax will be.

For me, LMS was a lesson in the virtue of having a simple story line and clear, distinct voices for each of your characters. Plot and character are a zero sum game -- the more space you devote to one, the less you have for the other. Having such a simple story line -- a road trip -- opened up room in the script for my six lead characters, whom I love dearly. That sense of getting to know these people intimately is, I think, one of the reasons people have responded so strongly to LMS.

What was the process on NOTES ON A SCANDAL? In your introduction to the script, you mention that it took you eight or nine drafts to settle on the idea of using Barbara's voice-over to drive the script. I should mention I'm a huge fan of using V.O. in movies, especially when it comes from a highly subjective POV, as was the case of Barbara's deluded and self-serving diary entries.

Look forward to hearing the whole grisly story.

PM: Sh*t! Am now in my hotel but too inebriated to write properly. Sorry. Will write 2moro morning.

MA: I love the fact that you're in New York, you're checking your Blackberry, and you're too inebriated to write properly. You're my kinda writer! Look forward to further updates.

PM: Right. Here I am. Sorry. My process on NOTES? Trial and error. And plenty of both. Hard work, hard thinking, unavoidable brain ache until it's done and then the recognition that it's not actually 'done' at all. I'm not sure I have anything as cogent as a "process." I just write very late at night (once three kids are in bed, ditto wife) and then in the cold light of morning I correct and rewrite and think about what I'm going to do that night. I never quite know where I'm going but always hope I'll stumble into coherence. It's all a question of patience, persistence and waiting to tap the right nerve.

MA: Writing at night is the best. There was a winter I spent in New York when I'd start writing at 9PM or 10PM and go through until 6 or 7 in the morning. The problem was I'd go to sleep and wake up at 3:00PM, and I'd only have an hour and a half of daylight before then sun went down again. That got a little depressing.

PM: Hmm . . . I can imagine. All sounds very Strindberg. The lack of daylight I mean.

MA: Now, strangely enough, I have a 9 to 5 job writing at Pixar. I have to say that after many years of writing alone in my apartment, the process of driving to work, having an office, eating lunch in the company cafe -- all the accoutrements of a regular office worker -- feel like strange and delightful luxuries.

PM: That's interesting. One of the many reasons I wanted to be a writer was to be free! To control my working hours and NOT have to go to an office (though of course I do, every day, but at least it's MY office).

MA: I think every writer gets into the game to be free -- to be their own boss and make their own hours. There's also that fantastically luxurious feeling of just sinking into a different, imaginary world and following your whims -- a kind of professional day-dreaming. I guess I've learned that you need to strike a balance between solitude and the company of others. I spent a couple of hardcore years writing in near-total solitude, and I doubt I'll ever want to do that again.

How, by the way, did you ever get to be a professional writer? I'm one myself, and it still baffles me how anyone is able to break through and start making a living at it. As I mentioned, I spent years working as a story analyst while I tried to figure out how to tell stories. It was a bit like boot camp -- you're glad you did it, but there's no way in hell you'd ever do it again. I finally quit my day job and took a year off -- burning through my savings -- while I wrote LMS. It was kind of a kamikaze move but, thank God, it paid off. When and how were you able to start writing full time? Everyone's story is different.

PM: Well, I began as a stand-up comic. Writing and performing my own material when I was straight out of college in my early twenties. A painful, unsentimental education which has stood me in good stead. It was my boot camp. No review can hurt me now. It was tough and it was fun but I knew I wasn"t a natural. I"d always wanted to write plays (and one day movies) and some time in my late twenties I began work on a play about a poker game and this became "Dealer"s Choice" which I directed at the National Theatre in London. The man who gave me this big break was Richard Eyre who was the Artistic Director of the theatre. This was in 1995. Then I wrote CLOSER for him and the same theatre in "97 which he produced with his usual aplomb. It"s been such a thrill to now work with him on NOTES all these years later.

MA: I think you are exactly right to describe the writing process as one of trial and error. There is a romantic image of writers as solitary and heroic creatures, in full control of their work and their imaginations, but I think the sad truth is that most writing is bumbling around in the dark, trying -- as you say -- to stumble into coherence.

PM: Hey, we are heroic! Don"t tell 'em we're not! The other little myth I just can't buy into is the 'writing must be so lonely' thing. Not true at all, at least not for me. Yes, it's done alone but I never feel lonely doing it. I've got me, I've got my trusty laptop, coffee and the company of all those characters I'm trying to give life to. The struggle can be a bit lonely at times, that recurring feeling of utter "stuckness," but the condition of being a writer doesn't strike me as 'lonely'. That said, I do seem to be quite adept at avoiding my desk.

MA: I think a writer is really only as good as the feedback he gets, and I will confess to being helplessly dependent on the readers that I entrust my scripts to -- usually my brother and a few friends.

PM: My wife Debra reads all my stuff first. She's "The Queen of the Note" round my house.

MA: In the case of LMS, my directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, worked with me, off and on, for four years to hone the script and push it from being 85% finished to being about 95% done. Since Jon and Val live in LA, and I was in NY, most of our collaboration came in the form of e-mailed drafts and long phone conversations. There were a few occasions, however, when I flew out to Los Angeles and spent a full weekend with Jonathan and Valerie, hammering out issues in the script. There's just no substitute for face to face conversation -- often I find that there's a collective intelligence to a group of people that far exceeds the sum of the parts. The trick, it seems, is finding the right group of people.

PM: Yep, it's everything. I've been very lucky to work first with Mike Nichols for two years making CLOSER. Just hanging with Mike was the best film school a writer could have. And then on 'Notes on a Scandal' I worked closely with Scott Rudin and Richard Eyre, two hugely experienced smarties of screen and stage. Scott is a hell of a producer, relentless and demanding but boy he helped me improve this script. Seems to me that dramaturgy is something of a lost art but when you find people who really know what's what it's a great gift. I sat next to Jonathan and Valerie at the Golden Globes, what fun you must have had with them. They were great company - even in mutual defeat!

MA: It must have taken a while to get over the "holy-crap-I'm-making-a-film-with-Mike-Nichols!" feeling. Or did it ever go away? Sorry to be a gossip, but I'd love to hear one tiny anecdote about working with him (if you can permit yourself). Any pearls of wisdom, or even a good joke or two. One of the greatest pleasures in life, I think, is being in the company of exceptionally intelligent people. It really must have been a dream just to spend time hanging out with him. And having Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Clive Owen in your movie is nothing to complain about either. You must have been pinching yourself.

PM: I was. In between trying to pinch Natalie too. I could write a book about the joy of working with Mike. But I"m afraid all the best anecdotes are scurrilous and private. He is the funniest man I"ve ever met and I love him dearly.

So now it"s 2.50AM in LA. I arrived 1AM from NY but slept on the plane so now my body has no idea what time it is. My brain is in NY, my legs are in London, my fingers appear to be in LA typing this. Got to be up at 7AM to record the Errol Morris Academy thing. But at least we are now in the same city and will meet today I hope. I think I have a brief crack of time between various interviews, pamperings and press "opportunities" sometime mid-morning so will e-mail you something then. I'm pooped. But I'm in my favourite hotel in LA and the Pringles are plentiful so how bad can life be?

Meanwhile, permit me to probe, do you allow yourself to contemplate the giddy prospect of winning? I know you're compelled to be modest and humble (and I'm sure you are) but surely, you gotta admit you've got a shot? There's a lot of love for LMS. Rightly so.

MA: With respect to the question of "the giddy prospect of winning" (yes, you've baited me into it), my circumstance is complicated by the fact that my script is a contemplation, so to speak, of the American pre-occupation with Winners and Losers. If I were to jump up and down, pump my fists, and chant "In your face! In your face!" it might be considered unseemly, if not downright hypocritical.

PM: Having now met you at today's nominee's lunch you don't strike me as a fist pumper. Did you have a good time?

MA: I'm a fist-pumper, but on the inside. (Kidding.) The nominee luncheon felt like the fastest two hours I've ever spent. In a way, it's almost like torture -- there's a room full of the most talented movie people in the world, and you barely have time to talk to 5% of them. So many people you want to talk to, so many things you want to say, and it's over before you know it. I felt badly that you invited me to join you for a cigarette and I, unfortunately, don't smoke.

PM: No. It is your good fortune. And I shouldn"t be attempting to corrupt you.

MA: I thought I'd catch up with you later, but then I couldn't find you again. My apologies. Again, it all seemed to happen in the blink of an eye.

PM: One of the great pleasures of the noms lunch for me was that I took Zoe Heller as my guest. She is the author of the novel "Notes On A Scandal" and we"ve become firm friends over the last couple of years. She has been a model "adaptee" (interested, helpful, understanding of "infidelities") and it was a thrill to celebrate with her. Felt like the end of a very long journey. I also loved seeing everyone get their certificates and applauding each other. It felt like we were all winners together. I felt a little teary!

MA: I have taken an attitude of cautious pessimism heading into the so-called awards season, based on my theory that the key to happiness is having low expectations. I just assumed I wouldn't win anything, and therefore couldn't be disappointed. However, at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, I found myself in the alarming position of hearing my name called out, and soon I was stumbling up on stage and babbling out a speech that I had prepared in case of emergency. That put the fear of God in me. The enormity of the situation is finally starting to dawn on me -- this is really happening! -- and the prospect of having to run up on stage and make a speech in front of a billion people is something I really need to sit down and think about. One of these days.

How 'bout yourself? Have you done this kind of thing before? Do you know already what you'd want to say? Have you been given any good advice? And why, dear Patrick, are you Brits so much better than us Yanks at making acceptance speeches? Is there some secret academy in England where they teach you to be witty, cheeky, suave and gracious all at the same time?

PM: Believe me, pal, if by some miracle I am invited to take the stage on Feb 25th you will not, I suspect, see Brit wit and suavery (is that a word?) from me. Gratitude yes, happiness yes but ... oh, we shouldn't be having this conversation. It's naughty and vulgar and horribly wrong. I wonder if a writer has ever wept on receiving an Academy Award? I can't think of a weeper. Huh. What does this tell us? That writer's are unsentimental? Steely? Above it all? We know this is not so. Discuss . . .

MA: I believe being naughty and vulgar is what this conversation is all about. Right?

PM: Oh, I can be a whole lot more vulgar. But having seen my work, I guess you know that. Good luck to you!