Talking Shop At Oscar Time

The Academy Award race is on. NEWSWEEK's Jeff Giles and Yahlin Chang talk to five of the year's most celebrated screenwriters about bright lights, dim movie executives--and the pleasures and perils of their trade. Fade in.

Woody Allen once said he wanted to be reincarnated as Warren Beatty's fingertips. He was talking, of course, about Beatty's typing. The morning after the Golden Globes, NEWSWEEK invited Beatty, who co-wrote ""Bulworth,'' and four other screenwriters to trade secrets and talk trash at a round-table free-for-all in Los Angeles. They'd written some of the best movies of the year--and were already picking up trophies on the long road to the Academy Awards. There was a wry Tom Stoppard (""Shakespeare in Love''), a thoughtful Robert Rodat (""Saving Private Ryan''), an ebullient, Italian-born Roberto Benigni (""Life Is Beautiful'') and a wonderfully snarky Don Roos (""The Opposite of Sex''). Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Don, you weren't at the Golden Globes last night.

ROOS: I was at home, overeating. That's usually how I spend the awards time--criticizing how other people look, what they wear. You know, the usual stuff. I wanna know what you had to eat. Was it good?

BEATTY: I had no food! I got there and there was no food--no food and no water.

RODAT: There was no water because they didn't want you to go to the bathroom in the middle of it. We had to order water six times before they'd bring it to us.

Roberto, you looked like you were in heaven.

BENIGNI: Wonderful, wonderful. I felt like Pinocchio in a country of poets! I was there to give a prize. It's wonderful to give something. Very Christian, no?

STOPPARD: You were uplifting, because you just seemed to enjoy it so much.

BENIGNI: Oh, thank you! I like to demonstrate the gratitude. It's a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.

STOPPARD: I'm so ashamed of that sort of anal English reserve. Next time, I'm going to bounce out there and kiss everybody.

Tom, did you prepare your speech?

STOPPARD: Well, there's a vestigial superstition in my mind about preparing a speech which you may not be called upon to give. Last night, I was glad to see that [coscreenwriter Marc Norman] had sheaves of paper and was feverishly scanning them. But for me there's no point in having pieces of paper, because something just comes out. My speeches improve instantly when the affair is over. As soon as you move offstage, your speeches improve, like organic yeast. Ten minutes later, you've got this perfect speech which you never gave.

Has everybody here been to the Oscars?

ROOS: I went once as a member of the Academy. I was behind that statue that twirls when you go to the commercials.

STOPPARD: Well, I haven't even been there as one of those people who fills the empty chair.

Roberto, ""Life Is Beautiful'' is an Oscar contender, yet people begged you not to make it.

BENIGNI: I am embarrassed to talk about my own movie, so I apologize. But the idea of ""Life Is Beautiful'' came to me very naturally. I improvised this monologue about a man protecting his son [in a concentration camp], telling him, ""We are in the most wonderful place!'' And my heart started to beat strong-strong. A lot of people told me, ""Please, you are a comedian, don't do this. You will lose at least 70 percent of your audience!'' But I think an actor has to work in front of his audience, not behind. So at least I was following something I loved so much. Nobody can turn this off.

BEATTY: And it's a risk not to do it.

BENIGNI: Right. Jeopardize is a word I like very much. It's one of my favorite words in English. Cantankerous, also. And flabbergasted! Discombobulated! [Laughter]

Bob, where did ""Private Ryan'' come from?

RODAT: I had just had my second son. And I live in this little village in New Hampshire. In the center of the village, there's a monument with the names of the war dead. The new baby would wake up, and I'd take him for walks around the village.

So his crying wouldn't wake up your wife.

RODAT: Yeah. So it'd be dawn, and it'd be foggy, and we'd frequently end up in front of this monument. One family lost five members in the Civil War. Another lost four in the Revolutionary War. So I'm holding this brand-new baby--with another son asleep at home--and it was right around the 50th anniversary of D-Day. That's where it happened. I don't know if this is true with you guys, but then I go home, and in 45 minutes I have a handful of scenes. In the case of ""Ryan,'' it was the chaotic, brutal landing, the silent notification of the mother . . . And then I go to my wife and I say, ""Is this a movie?'' And she says yes or no.

BEATTY: What's her number?

In film school, screenwriters are taught formulas. Screenplays have to have three acts: 30 pages, 60 pages, 30 pages.

RODAT: It's hideous! And they get you when you're so young and so malleable that you believe this stuff. It's been a real challenge for me to take that stuff and try to blast it out of my brain. Otherwise, you're going to end up with real formulaic films.

STOPPARD: I've read screenplays in which this business has been learned, and it freezes the blood. It's almost impossible to keep reading.

ROOS: You might have read some of mine.

Do you find yourself dumbing stuff down for executives?

STOPPARD: I'm not talking about ""Shakespeare in Love'' specifically, but there's a kind of danger to me--that you can actually ruin a piece of work by trying to cut the food up on the plate for somebody who doesn't know how to use a knife and fork.

ROOS: You try to keep it out of the dialogue. The executives who read the script say, ""Well, the main character is not very likable.'' So without changing what the main character says or does, when I introduce them, I write, Betty, a very likable person...Then they go, ""Oh, these changes are wonderful! Suddenly she comes alive!'' I do that all the time, because your first audience are those readers up there. And you really have to help them because they're young and they're foolish. It's entry-level, you know? Development is entry-level into the business, so the people with the least knowledge are judging your scripts.

Is getting notes on a script misery?

ROOS: The thing I really object to is that the executives give you notes, and then they want to be praised for their notes! They're like writers, too. They say, ""Well, didn't you think my notes were good?'' And you're like, ""Yes, they were. They were so on.'' I don't listen to the notes. What I do is, I go, ""Well, that's food for thought!'' Whenever I say food for thought, that means there's no way that will be in my script.

Warren, you've directed your own scripts.

BEATTY: I feel less and less able to direct something that somebody else writes--unless that writer would come and be with me throughout the entire movie so that it would be an actual collaboration. [To Stoppard] If I were to try and con you into working on a movie with me, I would try and get you to stay to the end. That probably would not be pleasant for you.

STOPPARD: That would be an unusual compliment, because the way things happen in what they call a ""normal'' movie, the writer has no function during production. [To Beatty] Did you have Trevor Griffiths writing with you all the way through ""Reds''?

BEATTY: I'd written the outline. And I became involved with Trevor because I wanted someone who would keep me honest. He was very committed to Marxist thought. But ""Reds'' was pretty much mayhem. It's not the most attractive thing in the world to a [studio]--a three-and-a-half-hour movie about a communist who dies.

STOPPARD: Not the best pitch.

ROOS: At least it wasn't a musical.

Don, ""The Opposite of Sex'' was the first movie you both wrote and directed.

ROOS: I was a very primitive director: manipulate the characters into a pool of light, and have them say all their lines.

Stoppard: Did you move the camera?

ROOS: No. Well, we tried. At first I wanted to move the camera, but I quickly learned that the moving-the-camera thing is tough on focus.

Tom, you had a similar experience filming ""Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.''

ROOS: You directed a movie?

STOPPARD: [Laughs] Yeah, I'm a director, too, you know! I don't just sit there writing hits! By the third week, the producer said, ""Uh, you're not moving the camera a lot.'' And I realized I hadn't moved the camera at all. I had forgotten the camera was allowed to move.

Roberto, you write, act and direct. What's closest to your heart?

BENIGNI: This is really my favorite moment of making a movie--the moment of writing the script. It is so painful and full of happiness. But there is a terrifying thing: subtitles. Oh, they're terrible! If I write jeopardize and not risk, for example, they put risk anyway [because it's shorter]. I choose a word for days and days, and then poof! I tell you something very frank...

BEATTY: You prefer dubbing. Sure. It's the difference between a reading experience and a movie.

BENIGNI: Of course! Oh, yes! No doubt, sir!

RODAT: It's hard to judge acting when it's dubbed, too.

BENIGNI: Acting is the eyes and the body. With subtitles, you don't look in the eyes of the actor! [To Beatty] In Italy, they show all your movies dubbed in Italian. Nobody in Italy thinks you are not a good actor. You are wonderful actor!

STOPPARD: And you speak Italian.

Did you go to the movies as a kid, Roberto? Your family was poor.

BENIGNI: Yes, yes, very poor. My mother and father went to the movies for the first time in their lives when I did one. They stayed all afternoon till midnight--they didn't know you only had to watch the movie once! The first movie I saw was with my older sister. We saw ""Ben-Hur'' in an open movie theater. During the summer, in a field of grass--in a sunflower field. We didn't have money to go in. So we watched it contrary--backwards.

STOPPARD: From behind the screen.

BENIGNI: Yes, so everything was backwards. It was ""Ruh-Neb''! We could see the subtitles on the other side: ""Ruh-Neb! Ruh-Neb!'' [Laughter]

STOPPARD: You know this book ""Angela's Ashes''?

BEATTY: Wonderful book.

STOPPARD: It's about an Irish childhood, and there's this great line in it: ""We were poor, but by God we were miserable.''

Have people lost faith in movies? Or are there more choices than ever?

STOPPARD: There's this whole spectrum, so I would say there's no loss of faith in the art form. By this curious politeness, we haven't been talking about each other's movies, but f--k it. When I saw ""Bulworth,'' I was just astonished by it. I just found it very bold and funny. And the heresy of it--I kept thinking, Did he not show the studio that page of the script? Every so often [a studio makes a movie] that shocks one out of one's prejudice [against Hollywood].

But Fox hated Warren's script.

BEATTY: First of all, I didn't say they hated the script. [Beatty thinks a moment] But I think they hated the script. It was one of those unusual situations where I could make the movie that I wanted to make as long as I kept it under a certain price. The picture's about race and politics and the disparity of wealth and class. That's not entertainment for many people. I don't think it could have been a barrel of laughs to be an executive at a corporation that is owned by an even bigger corporation to be dealing with a guy like me, who's making a movie saying that the most dangerous thing to our democracy is big corporations. [In Hollywood] the consciousness is very much on what rewards the stockholders--and that is big, easily assimilated hits that go into the middle. Mediocre comes from the middle.

You really hustled for publicity.

BEATTY: I felt it was the honorable thing to do--to try to get [the studio's] money back. I must say I was mystified by the way that they tried to get their money back.

You mean the marketing campaign?

BEATTY: Yes.

ROOS: What was the marketing for the movie?

BEATTY: You got me. [Laughter]

Don, what's the difference between the way writers and directors are treated?

ROOS: Oh, it's so different. And I got angry on behalf of writers, because they treated me so well as a director. I remember the first day I came to the set. They had pudding, and I said, ""You know, I really like pudding.'' Well, there was pudding everywhere for the rest of the film. So there's this overblown sense of the director's importance. You pass somebody, and they're talking into a walkie-talkie: ""He's going to the bathroom! He'll be back in five!'' Everybody's so interested in you, and it's wrong. We're all there because of the writer.