Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cinequest 18: A conversation with Michael Arndt.

I can't believe it's taken me three days to post this, but that's life with a full-time job and a toddler. Anyway, Friday came close to my idea of a perfect day: I spent it talking about movies at Cinequest's Day of the Writer event. If they had tossed in free martinis and a shoulder rub, I would have achieved Nirvana.

The mega-fabulous Jens Michael Hussey, Cinequest's Director of PR, invited me to lunch with some of the speakers. (Full disclosure: I used to volunteer for Cinequest in the PR department. So it wasn't just my wit and charm that got me invited.) Jens, bless his heart, introduced me to the day's guest of honor: Michael Arndt, who won the Academy Award in 2006 for Best Original Screenplay for "Little Miss Sunshine" and is now working at Pixar on "Toy Story 3."

I'd like to report that success has gone to his head and made him an insufferably arrogant Hollywood a-hole, but I can't. He's really nice, friendly, humble guy. When I told him how much I'd enjoyed "Little Miss Sunshine," his response was, "I was really lucky." Then he went on to talk about the great cast and crew. Then he graciously inscribed the copy of Little Miss Sunshine: The Shooting Script that I'd tucked into my purse. Basically, I wanted to hug him.

Later in the afternoon, Arndt did an interview with Richard Walter (who chairs UCLA's graduate screenwriting program) at the San Jose Repertory Theater and received Cinequest's Maverick Spirit Award. Here are my notes, as least as far as I can decipher:

On how he started out: "I originally wanted to go to film school. I ended up working as a script reader for studios like Fox and Columbia...I wrote a bunch of edgy, dark scripts that didn't go anywhere. Then I decided to do the exact opposite: a script where people would go insane with happiness."

On the idea for "Little Miss Sunshine": "I happened to see a beauty contest on TV with little girls. I thought, what if one of the contestants was this fat little girl?"

On how his life has changed since winning an Oscar: "'Little Miss Sunshine' didn't get made for a long time. By the time it won the Oscar, I was working on staff at Pixar. I went back to work the next day [after the Academy Awards] and it was like, 'That's nice.' At Pixar, no one gives a shit if you won an Oscar. It's Pixar. But it's like working at Disneyland. I was so used to working alone."

On his writing habits: "Now that I'm working at Pixar, I go into an office in the morning and write all day. But when I'm home in Brooklyn, I wake up around 11, go get coffee, goof around, and when there's nothing else to do, I'll start writing. I can work about four or five hours before I'm ready to jump out the window. I'm not someone who believes you have to write every day. A lot of writing is sitting in a room solving problems and coming up with ideas. It's subterranean work."

On how he wrote "Little Miss Sunshine": "I resisted it. I thought it was too small. Then I saw an anime feature called 'My Neighbors the Yamadas." I realized that every family has a story. I wrote 'Little Miss Sunshine in Three Days.' [Three days? Three days? I almost feel out of my chair.] But I had spent five years thinking about the story. So I would just wake up and start writing."

On why "Little Miss Sunshine" worked while his previous scripts didn't: "Previously, I'd start with an idea of a story and the characters were just to fit that idea. But with 'Little Miss Sunshine,' I saw the characters first, and the story evolved. Once they start talking to each other, I just started hearing their voices in your head. And that tells you what they'll do."

On writing comedy: "In comedy, you set up absurd situations, and the more rational the character acts, the funnier it is. Like when the emcee asks Olive where her grandfather is, and she says 'In the trunk'...If you have a distinctive voice, you'll succeed in comedy. Diablo Cody [the screenwriter for "Juno"] has work for the next three years. With comedy, the writer is in control. Action movie writers are a dime a dozen. Comedies are also cheaper to make!"

And speaking of Diablo Cody: "I'm last year's Diablo Cody. It's amazing that the Academy has honored first-time writers two years in a row, and it's exciting that a low-budget, female-centric story can do so well. I'm a great fan of movies from the 1930s and 1940s, which had strong women. Female energy is great comic material. Comedy has become a boy's club, but in 'Juno,' the male characters are peripheral. The main relationships are among the women, and I hope that's a game-changer."

On the character of Duane: "Duane was especially close to me, probably because I read too much Nietzche when I was young. I thought it would be great to have a character take a vow of silence until he achieves a goal. Duane wants to take off and transcend his situation. He's a prisoner in his own home. I'm in love with characters who have a lunar sense of alienation."

On "Little Miss Sunshine"'s alternate ending, available on the DVD, where the family steals the trophy and hightails it out of the pageant: "That came from the mind of Abigail Breslin. It was shot in one take, because that's all we had money for. The original ending hadn't been working. I had eight different drafts of it." But the ending that they finally used "was an example of finally trusting your instincts. The meaning of the story was revealed in the climax. In this case, procrastination really was my friend."

On determination: "I didn't give up. I wrote 10 screenplays, and none of them went anywhere. I didn't have a Plan B. In the end, writing has to be its own reward. Writing is taking an active stance toward life. By writing, you're finding out how you think."

Why doesn't he write novels? "Good novelists see more deeply into life. Screenwriting is about action. Film can't compete with fiction's sense of interiority. Fiction seems like the deep end of the pool, and I'm a shallow guy." [Editor's note: Hardly. I've met shallow guys, and Michael, you are no shallow guy.]

But of all the things Arndt talked about, what really stuck with me were his comments about authenticity in writing. "Emotion is the final frontier," he said. "Honest emotion is the best special effect." (Think about that next time you're forced to watch "Transformers: The IMAX Experience.")

When they stopped the Q&A to give Arndt the Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award, I couldn't believe that 90 minutes had passed.

But I can't forget to tell you the joke with which Richard Walter ended the event.

"How many screenwriters does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

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