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Writers Guild Award-Nominated Screenwriters Discuss Their ‘Worst Notes Ever’

Variety logo Variety 2/10/2017 James Rainey
© Provided by Variety

With screenwriting comes notes — from stars, directors, producers and studio executives — and stories about notes that make no sense.

Nominees for this year’s Writers Guild Awards bonded Thursday night on a panel that delved into many topics including the “worst notes ever” — helpful hints from collaborators that were not helpful at all.

“Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins shared a couple of “worst notes” memories from the making of his film about a young African-American man growing up poor in Miami. The biggest clunker: “So where are the white people?”

That non sequitur drew peals of laughter from the crowd at “Beyond Words,” the Writers Guild of America West’s annual panel with the wordsmiths nominated for awards the organization will give out on Feb. 19.

Jenkins appeared with eight other writers and one producer at the event in Beverly Hills, which was co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation, in partnership with Variety. Among the off-kilter suggestions other screenwriters received:

Damien Chazelle, writer of 2014 breakout “Whiplash” about a music teacher and a drummer, recalled being asked to get rid of the long drum solo that ended the film. The unnamed critic remarked: “He’s good at drumming. We get it.” (Chazelle was appearing for this year’s “La La Land,” a best picture favorite.)

• “Hell or High Water” scribe Taylor Sheridan was asked whether his Western protagonists could lose their cowboy hats and facial hair.

• “Hidden Figures” writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi said Kevin Costner asked if his NASA administrator in the film should have a receding hairline. They passed the thought on to someone at overseeing the film, who shot back: “We want Kevin Costner just the way he is!”

“Manchester by the Sea” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan couldn’t recall the worst note he ever received because he said he routinely responds to the “helpful” comments by entering “a self-induced hypnotic trance.” Lonergan added: “I honestly try to blank out without appearing to do so, of course, because that would be disrespectful.”

Questioned by “Straight Outta Compton” co-writer Andrea Berloff, who moderated the panel, the screenwriters also encouraged the audience — filled with many students and aspiring filmmakers — to be persistent and to have faith in their own instincts.

“I would encourage people to really break rules,” said “Deadpool” co-writer Rhett Reese. “We were ruthlessly persistent. Shamelessly persistent.” After their R-rated comic book film had been turned down by multiple producers and studios, Reese’s partner, Paul Wernick, wrote to producer Simon Kinberg. “We need your Ass (istance),” the pitch began. It got Kinberg’s attention. And the producer began to clear the way for the long-gestating project to finally gain steam.

Producer Todd Black, appearing for the nominated film “Fences,” was one of the several panelists who praised the increasing opportunities for stories about and by African-Americans. Among this year’s recognized films that includes “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.”

Black, a producer on “Fences” and frequent collaborator with star Denzel Washington, said he hoped the success of the films would clear the way for more films that were about people from many different backgrounds.

“I hope it shows the studios there is huge world out there,” Black said. “It’s all different colors and all different races and people will go if… the studios make those films.”

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