Every year, I get a kick out of interviewing the Oscar-nominated screenwriters at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. This year’s panel included two rookie film writer-directors (Cord Jefferson of “American Fiction” and Celine Song of “Past Lives”), two first-time feature screenwriters (Samy Burch of “May December” and David Hemingson of “The Holdovers”), two who studied law (Hemingson and Josh Singer of “Maestro”) and two co-writers with live-in partners (Burch and Arthur Harari of “Anatomy of a Fall”). And oddly, three have westerns in the works as their next projects.

Here’s a few highlights of what I gleaned from these brilliant writers.

1. David Hemingson leaned on his relatives for “The Holdovers.”

The television writer first wrote a pilot about an East Coast boarding school that his agent told him he could use as a writing sample. But the script got to Alexander Payne who liked it and cold-called Hemingson to talk about writing a script set in that milieu that he had long wanted to do about a grumpy wall-eyed professor stuck looking after students abandoned for the holidays. Hemingson based the character eventually played by Paul Giamatti on the tough-talking uncle who helped raise him, and the maternal school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) on his mother, a nurse. “The emotional matrix of Mary is my mom,” he said. “I wanted that maternal energy in the film.”

Hemingson’s uncle was a World War II vet who said things like, “Sex is 99 per cent friction and 1 per cent good will,” said the writer. “This is all installed in my hard drive, when I was nine or ten years old. What was I going to do with it, all this baroque profanity? It took 28 years to honor the people you love, that’s why I wrote this movie.”

Next up: He’s writing an 1886 Nebraska western with Payne. And an eastern, a TV noir set in New Haven, Connecticut.

2. Cord Jefferson fell in love with the novel “Erasure.”

The television writer (“Succession,” “Watchmen”) had longed to escape writers rooms and find his own story to tell. He identified with Percival Everett’s satiric 2001 novel and Monk (Jeffrey Wright), the conflicted writer at its center, while making additions and subtractions to the novel. “American Fiction” holds onto the book’s heart: a portrait of a dysfunctional but loving family. “I wouldn’t have wanted a satiric film or just a family drama,” Jefferson said. “Both are improved by the presence of the other.”

He’s so busy he keeps six Final Draft files open on his hard drive for three movies and three TV shows. He gets up at 6 AM to write one scene at a time to completion before moving on to the next, with his hard-driving father’s voice in his head. “It’s 6 AM. You’re burning daylight.”

Next up: He’s writing an erotic thriller, a neo-noir western about two brothers looking for a lost sibling in the contemporary Southwest, and executive producing and writing the pilot with John Wells for Scarlett Johansson’s first TV show, a limited series for Amazon.

3. Tony McNamara let his imagination run wild.

For “Poor Things,” McNamara made many changes from Alistair Gray’s 1992 novel, which director Yorgos Lanthimos finally was able to make after the success of “The Favourite.” “The book is wild,” McNamara said. “It’s a great book about Scottish nationalism. That’s not in the movie. [In the book] the men tell Bella Baxter’s story. It felt like an opportunity to go on a journey with her. Bella’s story is exciting; she has no shame. She experiences these adventures in an interesting way.”

Lanthimos encouraged everyone on the movie to freely express their ideas. “One of the joys of working with Yorgos is there are no limits,” said McNamara. “Then he shapes it as he goes.”

Next up: He’s writing a comedy with Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Colman. He and Lanthimos are also adapting Richard Brautigan’s “The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western.” “It’s a western, if you took a lot of LSD,” he said. “It’s bonkers.”

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 13: (L-R) Moderator Anne Thompson, Samy Burch, Arthur Harari, David Hemingson, Cord Jefferson, Tony McNamara, Josh Singer, and Celine Song speak onstage at the Writers Panel during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre on February 13, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF)
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 13: (L-R) Moderator Anne Thompson, Samy Burch, Arthur Harari, David Hemingson, Cord Jefferson, Tony McNamara, Josh Singer, and Celine Song speak onstage at the Writers Panel during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre on February 13, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF)Getty Images for SBIFF

4. Celine Song started with a real scene from her life.

“Past Lives” was inspired by an essential moment when she was caught between two cultures. “I found myself sitting in this bar, in the Village,” she said, “sitting between my childhood sweetheart who’s an old friend from Korea, and my husband who I live with in New York City. And because I speak both languages I was translating to people who want to know more about each other, of course, because they want to know more about me…It felt like I had become a portal or a bridge between two parts of myself, that I was translating between two points of my own history. And this feeling was so strange and felt very extraordinary.”

Next up: A24 is seeking backers for Song’s next script at the Berlin EFM, “The Materialists,” another relationship triangle, also produced by Killer Films and 2AM.

5. Josh Singer struggled to keep up with co-writer-director-star Bradley Cooper.

Singer, who participated in the 31st SBIFF writer’s panel for “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture and the Original Screenplay Oscar with Tom McCarthy, managed to stay on the Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” through directors Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who passed the baton to Bradley Cooper at a screening for “A Star is Born.” And Cooper, respecting all the Bernstein research Singer had done, kept him on as well. “Bradley works harder than anyone I know,” he said. “He’s a big movie star, is he going to write? Yes. He does all the research. I live to do research, just keeping up with him, Bradley became obsessed.” Eventually Cooper zeroed in on the essence of the story he wanted to tell: “It’s about the struggle to have a family,” he told Singer.

Next up: He’s writing a new take on “Bullitt.” “I’m watching a lot of car chases. Mustangs and Dodge Challengers.”

6. Arthur Harari struggled to keep up with his life partner and director Justine Triet.

A French writer and director of his own films, as well as two of Triet’s films, Harari found himself during the writing of courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall” in a house in lockdown with his director and their two kids. It was intense. “We wrote day and night. The advantage of writing with somebody you can live with is that you can work sometimes too much,” he said. “There’s no boundary between private life and work.”

When asked if they ever fought during the writing, Harari said, “we spent more time in not fighting than fighting. Otherwise there would be no screenplay. Justine was really demanding. It was at the same time difficult, sometimes very exciting, because it’s as if the film was taking us further and further.”

The original central concept was the relationship between the accused mother and her son, “the idea that the kid progressively has the sense he doesn’t know who his mother is. Trying to figure out what is her real personality.”

The movie never reveals whether the novelist on trial for killing her husband is guilty or not guilty. “We’re looking at her and listening to her,” said Harari. “We are wondering who she is. Until the end the kid will never know.”

Next up: He wrote a film he’s going to direct, a body-switch story. “It’s not a comedy.”

7. Samy Burch knocked her first sold screenplay out of the park.

Starting with notecards on the wall, Burch and her husband-to-be Alex Mechanik nailed down the story, which she wrote. The script for “May December,” loosely inspired by the tabloid culture of the 90s, including the Mary Kay Letourneau case, swiftly got picked up by Will Ferrell’s Gloria Sanchez Productions, which got the script to Natalie Portman, who reached out to director Todd Haynes, who brought in his go-to actress Julianne Moore. All of this was during the pandemic. “It was very surreal, to have the commitment of these people,” said Burch. “‘Oh, sounds great.’ ‘Oh, I’m still in my apartment.’”

The script performs a tricky dance between humor and heartbreak. “There is a dark, sinister tone,” said Burch, “but it’s intertwined with something very humane.”

Next up: Burch is not writing a western, because she already wrote one, which is on the chopping block at Warner Bros., “Coyote vs. Acme,” which blends Looney Toons animation with live-action. And “May December” producer Killer Films is also producing her next film, which is in the casting stage.

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