Spotlight on screenwriting

The screenwriters of some of this year’s most talked about movies wrote to us about how their scripts came to fruition.

Danny Strong:

Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell:

American Hustle’

Jim Rash, Nat Faxon:

The Way Way Back’

John Ridley:

12 Years a Slave’

Kelly Marcel:

Saving Mr. Banks’

Melisa Wallack, Craig Borten:

Dallas Buyers Club’

Peter Morgan:


Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber:

The Spectacular Now’

Steve Coogan:


Terence Winter:

The Wolf of Wall Street’

Billy Ray:

Writer Billy Ray.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

I love true stories.

I think it's because I'm constantly amazed, intrigued, inspired (and sometimes appalled) by genuine human behavior. Inventing characters is a lot of fun but I don't think I'm capable of creating a fictional character that could possibly be as dimensional, idiosyncratic or fully realized as the actual people I read about in the newspaper every day — which is another way of saying that when you're telling a true story, life itself has done most of the work for you. That makes things easier.

I also like the feeling I get when I'm working on a true story — a sense of authenticity, that I'm really reporting and not just writing.

But without a great true story, a screenwriter is lost at sea.

MORE: 'Captain Phillips' cast, crew discuss the film | Captain Phillips on screen and in real life

"Captain Phillips" was just such a story. Everyone watching as it unfolded on CNN could see that.

It had all the elements a writer could ask for: great characters, a compelling hero and an equally fascinating bad guy, brilliant set-pieces, unbearable tension — and truly interesting global politics that were just baked into its DNA. It also had an ending that was simultaneously thrilling, cathartic, satisfying ... and oddly sad.

Movies like that can actually be about something. It's hard to adequately express how rare that's become lately. No superheroes, no CGI worlds blowing up — just human beings placed under brutal pressure, revealing (as people always do when placed under brutal pressure) who they actually are.

And it was a true story! My cup runneth over.

Needless to say, it was a job I wanted very badly. I was lucky to get it.

L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan reviews 'Captain Phillips.'

My belief from the beginning was that this ought to be a movie about two captains. They both get up in the morning and get dressed for work; then both go out and do their jobs.

But one is a merchant mariner from Vermont and the other is a Somali pirate. One is very much a part of the global economy, the other lives in a hut in a lawless land, a world governed by AK-47s and despair.

Yet both are responsible for the lives of their men.

That was the lure for me — telling a story about leadership: how these two captains lead, the kinds of decisions they make when the safety of their respective crews are on the line.

Ultimately, our choices define us. We are what we do. When Captain Phillips was faced with the toughest choice he'd ever have to make in his life, he chose to sacrifice himself for the good of his crew. He chose to get in that lifeboat.

Muse, the lead pirate, was also faced with choices during the seizure of the Maersk Alabama and the hostage-struggle that followed, hundreds of choices in fact. At each juncture, he made calculated decisions that put his crew — and himself — in deeper and deeper jeopardy.

I had a lot to say about that.

I also wanted to explore the dynamics between these two captains. One's got the gun, the other's a hostage, but the power struggle between them was so complex, so rich. In some ways, it was a metaphor for America's place in the world today. I loved drilling into that.

Scene from 'Captain Phillips.'

Barkhad Abdi in 'Captain Phillips.' (Jasin Boland / Columbia Pictures)

There was also the chance to sketch the captain himself. Richard Phillips is as genuine as they come — demonstrated by the fact that there were times during the writing of the script when I'd call to ask him a question and would learn that he was on another ship somewhere. Think about that: He survives this horrible ordeal, comes home a celebrity — then goes back out and does his job again.

I had a lot to say about that too.

He, like the movie itself, is real and unvarnished, imperfect but thoroughly human. I always felt there was a real nobility in that; my job was simply to capture it. In that sense, it's really Captain Phillips who wrote this movie — I just wrote it down.

That, I guess, is my true story.

The truth made ‘Captain Phillips’ screenplay an easy sail

Danny Strong:

Writer Danny Strong.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

"I want to tell the story of the civil rights movement," I said. The late, great film producer Laura Ziskin looked at me and said, "Which part?" "All of it."

Many people in our business would've immediately explained why telling such a vast story would never work as a film, but Laura was a fearless producer who simply responded: "Sounds great. So how would you do it?"

The script for "The Butler" began as a beautiful Washington Post profile written by Wil Haygood about White House butler Eugene Allen. Laura brought me the article after she optioned it, and I instantly knew it could be the spark for a very special film. The conceit of taking the audience into any room in the White House at any point in our history was a rich dramatic device.

However, there were also many obstacles in translating it to a movie. The film would take place over many decades, and the journey through long periods of time tends to undercut drama and tension in a screenplay. The second major problem was that the protagonist was a passive character whose goal in life is to be invisible when he is in a room. Not your typical Hollywood movie hero.

L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan reviews 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'

Unsure I was even going to be able to pull it off, I started researching U.S. history from the 1950s to 1980s (the years of Allen's service) to see if it sparked any ideas. There were so many fascinating events to dramatize, however, I kept being drawn back into the powerful stories of the civil rights movement.

Reading about the violence that white Americans were inflicting on their fellow countrymen, and the decision by African American (and some white) activists to fight hate with love, was as moving as any subject I had ever studied. Frustrated that these landmark events weren't a part of our national psyche the way World War II or the Holocaust or Watergate were, I decided I wanted to use the character of a White House butler to tell the true story of the civil rights movement. But I still had no idea how I was going to do it.

RELATED: Forest Whitaker says 'The Butler' served him well

The next key (and what turned out to be crucial) decision was to give the butler a son who was a civil rights activist. I did this so I could have scenes take place at the civil rights battles instead of keeping the film confined to the White House. This simple idea brought the entire narrative structure together because it created a plot in which the butler is trying to get his son out of the movement while the presidents are dealing with the violent events that the butler's son is at the center of.

Since the father-son storyline was going to be fictionalized (so much so that the Writers Guild classified the script as an original screenplay instead of an adaptation), I felt the need to change the name of the butler to make it clear I was not telling Eugene Allen's true-life story. Thus Cecil Gaines was born. Since Cecil was not going to support the actions of his Freedom Rider son, the name comes from the idea that he "ceases to gain" equal rights. In many ways, his arc is overcoming his own name.

Scene from 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.' (Anne Marie Fox / The Weinstein Company)

Writing sequence after sequence was extremely emotional for me, as I was deeply moved by these tumultuous chapters of U.S. history. One of my favorite moments is the sit-in sequence in which the son can't get served at a lunch counter even as his father is serving the president of the United States. For me, this perfectly embodied everything the movie was trying to say, and I remember when I was writing the sequence, it was the first time I felt that the premise of a father-son narrative to tell the larger civil rights story might actually work.

The biggest payoff to this approach came after a pre-release screening when an elderly woman whispered in my ear, "I was a Freedom Rider, and no one has ever thanked me before." Hearing this brought tears to my eyes since I had written the film as a love letter to the heroes of the civil rights movement whose only goal was to make America a more perfect union.

How he made ‘The Butler’ speak out on civil rights stories

Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell:

Writer David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer.

Writers David O. Russell, left, and Eric Warren Singer. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Eric Warren Singer

William Burroughs once said, "Hustlers of the world, there's one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside."

That quote was taped to my desk while I wrote "American Hustle," and it served as my North Star for these characters. As the lies consume their lives, they throttle toward an inevitable reckoning with the truth and themselves.

Though they are on the extreme side of the spectrum, I think this is something everyone can relate to. We all hustle ourselves and other people, even if it's in small ways. It's a fact of life. For some, the inevitable moment of clarity transforms them in a positive way. For others, it cripples them.

WATCH: Director and editor of 'American Hustle' discuss the film

And for me, this reckoning cuts to the heart of the journey that Irving, Sydney, Richie, Carmine and Rosalyn are all on. Like it or not, you can never beat the truth — never. It always catches up with you eventually.

My father taught me that.

Scene from 'American Hustle.'

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in 'American Hustle.' (Francois Duhamel / Columbia Pictures)

David O. Russell

What drew me to the story Eric had written is what you see in the movie from the very start: this person. Look at this person. Wow. Who is this person? Doing his hair? So meticulously. Under pressure. Walks hallway. Goes into a room. Whoa — what's the reel to reel? Pressure. Door opens — who now is this woman? Beautiful, glamorous, confident, fierce, what is the relationship exactly? Clearly, it is intense. But it is troubled.

Oh, now who is this person coming through the door, agitated, testosterone. Bossing people, then wait, "he's involved with the woman too?" Awkward. And now he musses the meticulously done hair of the first guy? Oh, they are in a predicament together. Some kind of riveting predicament. Is it personal, emotional? Romantic?

MORE INTERVIEWS: Amy Adams | Christian Bale | Bradley Cooper

But wait, there's a briefcase of cash. What? They go down the hall, they walk into another room now and there are two more intense people, one in particular, a mayor, tense, and he leaves, the deal goes bad! He's upset! They can't keep him there! The others argue over what went wrong.

This world, this predicament, these characters, was specific enough, deep enough, rich enough, to show a vast spectrum of humanity, passion, love, heartbreak, reckoning, survival and, above all, the love for life — no matter what the perils and mistakes. Love for music, dance, food, each other — love of hope, in whatever twisted moment — and there are many.

A wife and son at home who could be loved, cared for — yet the wife, a "Picasso of passive aggressive karate" — an enchanting, bedeviling genius of some kind, the man's match in many uncomfortably formidable ways.

What a world of cinema and life. That stretches all the way to deeper waters, other worlds, including the fishing stories of the Midwestern FBI boss, the ruthlessly ambitious prosecutor, the strangely Arabic speaking Miami Mafioso, his charming henchman who falls for the formidable wife. All propelled by an increasingly higher burning flame of loyalty and trouble and desire.

This is what I live for — to make movies about such worlds and a passion and humanity.

Behind ‘Hustle,’ a world of passion, humanity and clarity

Jim Rash, Nat Faxon:

Writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon.

Jim Rash, left, and Nat Faxon. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

It all started with a phone call. At the time, we were at a movie theater. On the phone, our "team" of managers and agents. We ran out into the hallway to answer. (Our apologies to whatever movie we were seeing at the time. This was a call we had been anticipating.) "Congrats, guys. Fox Searchlight has greenlit the movie. It's a go!" said the voice on the other end. Cheers and congratulations followed.

That was in 2005. Before it all fell apart ... the first time.

What followed was an eight-year journey, traversing different studios, directors and producers, all trying to make our first screenplay a reality. "The Way Way Back" — a personal coming-of-age story inspired by our own memories of growing up on the East Coast — took a long time getting to the finish line. But without enduring that epic struggle, the ending might not have been so emotional, gratifying or rewarding.

REVIEW: 'The Way Way Back' has a sweet side and a sting

After making the Black List [a compendium of the year's best unproduced screenplays], the script was picked up by director Shawn Levy and he quickly ushered it through Fox Searchlight. But, soon after our exciting "greenlight" phone call, complications began to arise. The cast was not coming together quickly enough and Shawn's small window before "Night at the Museum 2" was rapidly closing. The movie stalled, and Searchlight decided to give it back.

Luckily, Nathan Kahane and Mandate Pictures were happily standing by to give it a go. But, after two years of unsuccessful dealings and a financial crisis that made making smaller films even tougher, we were given a bit of an ultimatum. Either make the movie with some bankable stars that had foreign value or don't make it at all. The actors on the list presented were great, but not right for the parts we had written. So we spent another five years waiting to get the film out of turn-around.

While "The Way Way Back" was giving us ulcers, it was also providing us with a calling card. One of the companies that we met through our original script was Ad Hominem. They had read it and felt that it matched the tonal balance of comedy and drama found in a novel they were developing into a movie called "The Descendants" and hired us to adapt the book into a screenplay.

Scene from 'The Way Way Back.'

Liam James and Nat Faxon in 'The Way Way Back.' (Twentieth Century Fox)

With "Descendants" behind us at the close of award season in 2012 — and a little more currency in our names — we could bring the conversation back to "The Way Way Back." We decided at that time with our producer, Kevin Walsh, that after everything we had been through, we wanted to direct the film ourselves. We wanted the opportunity to see the vision from start to finish, to live and die by our own choices, and to challenge ourselves at the next level. We put a grassroots-type strategy in place. And, with personal letters combined with a lot of luck, we were able to put together an incredible "dream" cast and get financing from some gutsy investors.

We shot the movie in 25 days on the south shore of Boston. It was an amazing feat only made possible by the energy and experience of our crew and the professionalism of our actors. After post-production in Los Angeles, we aimed high: the Sundance Film Festival.

If we had to pinpoint the ultimate "moment" in this endeavor, it would most certainly be the night our movie premiered in Park City at the Eccles Theater. We were obviously anxious, terrified and pale (or for Jim, somehow even paler). Up to that point, only about 25 people had seen the movie. And now we were about to show it to 1,200 people. We stood backstage before we were to introduce the film, feeling — and looking — sickly. Enough so that the Sundance organizers offered us a shot of whiskey in hopes of bringing some life back into our faces. The lights eventually went dark and the film began to play. And we sat and watched an eight-year journey finally taking its last steps.

The fact that we weren't booed off stage was the first exhale. The second came when people started to applaud. And then finally as the cast and some of the crew made their way up to the stage, the last sighs of relief and emotion were released. It was over and we had somehow made the movie that we had wanted to make, without compromise and with the help of so many talented and wonderful people. It seems that every movie is hard to make, but, at least for us, it was the long oscillating journey that made this one all the more gratifying.

Writer-directors detail how ‘The Way Way Back’ was a long, long road

John Ridley:

Writer John Ridley.

(Jaap Buitendijk / 20th Century Fox)

A nearly universal desire among writers is to make themselves conspicuous in their work. It's completely understandable. When a script that you've spent months — if not years — writing has your name on the title page, who wouldn't want the material inside to crackle with style; full of snappy rejoinders that audiences gleefully repeat as they exit the theater. Moments that scream: "I wrote that."

Having worked the whole of my professional life toward achieving such, it's kind of ironic that in adapting Solomon Northup's "Twelve Years a Slave" I would end up taking the exact opposite approach. From my very first reading of his memoir it was clear that whatever else was required in translating the book to the screen, what would be most needed was as little of "me" as possible.

I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I say that Solomon's memoir is one of the most singular documents I've ever read. It is richly evocative in the way scenes are rendered. It's filled with eloquent language and is unparalleled in its urgency. It's an urgency that wasn't arrived at by happenstance. Solomon's is one of comparatively few first-person narratives written by someone who's lived to tell the tale of the inhuman and murderous American slave system. At a time when the ability to read or write was for slaves a death sentence, Solomon used all of himself — his wits, his guile, his physicality — to survive his ordeal. Completing the book within a year of his liberation gave his words veracity and an emotional velocity that could not be enhanced, but in my opinion only diminished, by artifice.

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Believing that, I approached the work as something of a restoration project. I set my mission as being reductive — honing the narrative, or excavating moments in the story that were referenced, but not fully rendered — while avoiding the temptation to be additive: slapping on some modern perspective about slavery because I thought there was some other, better, more present-day thing to say. At the same time, I did not wish to bend or shape the narrative in conventional ways. Solomon's story was life, real and true, and it played out on its own without manufactured arcs. It didn't need to be declarative, merely experienced.

There may have been an inclination, a natural one, for Solomon as a "heroic" character to have been more proactive or even reactive in certain circumstances. To modify the man, no matter how sincere the desire, would have ultimately been dishonest.

Solomon's story begs for honesty. As the voice of his own history, what he wrote deserved fidelity.

MORE: '12 Years' cast, crew discuss the film | On location with director Steve McQueen

The beauty Solomon sees in a bleak environment, the faith he maintains against all reason, speaks for itself. Equally, the hard realities of slavery and the matter-of-fact manner in which the most minor of transgressions is met with the most brutal violence, are depicted in such a vivid manner there was no need to aggrandize them. Solomon recounted events as he had lived them; with an immediacy that resonates to this day.

With all that as my starting point, my basic ethos over the four years I worked on the script was to insert myself the least amount necessary. But when I did, to then execute to the highest degree possible.

A chore made all the more feasible when blessed with a crew and cast that shared equally the desire to be faithful to the source material.

In that regard, above all other things, it has been a uniquely humbling experience to have been one part of a group of dedicated individuals who have helped return Solomon Northup's true story to its rightful place of prominence both here in America and around the world.

Ridley let Solomon Northup do the talking

Kelly Marcel:

Writer Kelly Marcel.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Every writer who sits down and begins a screenplay thinks they know why they're doing it. Knowing why is essential to the process. But sometimes — maybe all of the time— we're fooling ourselves. We don't truly understand why we've written something until long after we're done.

From the moment Alison Owen, our British producer, came to me with a preexisting script of P.L. Travers' story (by Sue Smith) and shared her ideas for how it could become the movie that's in theaters as we speak, I was enthralled.

"Mary Poppins" was a Christmas Day staple in my household as a child. My siblings and I mouthed its dialogue and sang along to the lyrics with full-throated (and tone deaf) abandon. After my meeting with Alison, I threw myself into research and was moved and taken with the revelation that this beautiful character, with talking umbrella and daisy-decorated hat, was born from so much pain. Perhaps more revealing was the way Poppins' author, in turn, had heaped pain upon others too.

WATCH: 'Saving Mr. Banks' cast, crew discuss the film

I plastered my office (shed) with pictures of the people who would come to be the major characters in the film, and so began what would turn out to be a three-year journey from script to screen.

When you write the story of someone's life, you're not actually writing the story of their life. It's not possible or desirable. Movies aren't term papers; they are windows into a special experience that one person had — an experience that holds universal relevance for us all. In the case of Pamela Travers, she had many such experiences.

She had affairs with women. She went to Ireland to adopt a set of twins, returned to England with only one and concealed the existence of her son's brother from him for years. She was an actress and was friends with William Butler Yeats. She was a deeply spiritual woman in a way that was entirely nontraditional for her time. She studied Buddhism and the teachings of George Gurdjieff. So much of her life was colorful and challenging and fascinating, but we chose simply to tell the story of two weeks she spent in Los Angeles in 1961.


Scene from 'Saving Mr. Banks.'

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in 'Philomena.' (Francois Duhamel / Disney Enterprises)

Perhaps at first, I believed it was the most immediately interesting story. Mary Poppins is P.L.'s masterpiece. Her struggle with Walt Disney is obviously dramatic. To understand their battle of wills does not require a reading of Armenian mystics or the intricacies of early 20th century adoption policies.

As I wrote, however, it became quickly clear to me that "Saving Mr. Banks" is not about movies or creativity or Mary Poppins or Walt Disney or penguins.

It is a story about the pain of a little girl who suffered, and the grown woman who allowed herself to let go. I became protective of her, so viscerally so that it was difficult for me to let her go. Retrospectively, I needn't have been concerned in the least. Disney embraced the project with all its stolen property and its smoking, drinking Walt Disney.

That, however, was not their most important gift.

Our director, John Lee Hancock, seemed to be blown in on the east wind.

There is no one quite like John Lee; he is a great American artist in the vein of Clint Eastwood or Frank Capra. He is so adept at making one feel something without it ever feeling manipulative. He does not allow his ego to color a piece. Rather, he draws out what it's meant to be. With Banks, there was always a fear that the film would be overly sentimental, but John pulled us back from the edge every time.

MORE: Sherman brothers of 'Saving Mr. Banks' get in tune with the real one | Costume designer Daniel Orlandi digs deep

John and I continued to shape the screenplay and film until the final shot of the final day. I know that no other filmmaking experience will ever be quite the same. John had me there every day on set from crew call until wrap, just as he had been for Clint Eastwood on his beautiful film "A Perfect World." I will always be in debt to John for his generosity — not only to me but for the character of P.L. Travers, whom I came to love so deeply.

Every single person in the cast and crew owned this film in their respective ways, and each of us takes away our own lesson. For some, it's learning to forgive our parents or to use art to heal ourselves. For others, it's just to remember to take five minutes in the day and have a little sing-along to music that makes us happy.

But for me, the most important lesson came just a few days ago.

A woman came up to me at the end of a screening. She cried as she told me her father was an alcoholic. She said seeing "Saving Mr. Banks" had made her feel less alone. We talked for a time and then shared a hug.

If we can touch one person, give them a moment's respite, then that's reason enough to pick up the pen again.

And, as it turns out, it's why I picked up the pen up in the first place.

L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan reviews 'Saving Mr. Banks.'

Marcel finds purpose in the tale

Melisa Wallack, Craig Borten:

Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten.

Melisa Wallack, left, and Craig Borten. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

Craig Borten:

My emotional attachment to "Dallas Buyers Club" starts with the loss of my father, Buddy. In 1981, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and given six months to live. I observed firsthand the coldness and disconnect of the doctors as well as the limited protocols available. I remember my father's frustration with the medical system. Instead of accepting his sentence, he asked questions, became proactive and looked into alternative treatments in Mexico. Ultimately, my father lived for five more years. I believe his never-say-die attitude helped him to push through the illness and live longer.

When I met with Ron Woodroof in 1992, Ron exhibited that same never-say-die attitude that I had seen in my father, and I was struck by the parallels in AIDS and cancer. I observed Ron's frustrations with the medical establishment, lack of available treatments and changing opinions of the so-called, self-anointed experts. Ron became an unlikely champion for a vulnerable population of people who were often desperate and at times incapacitated. He helped those who were unable to help themselves.

RELATED: McConaughey and Leto invest bodies, minds in 'Dallas Buyers Club'

There are times in life when everyone needs champions, and I have been fortunate to have my own during this 20-year journey. In 2000, I met Melisa Wallack and asked her to work on the script with me. I didn't realize at the time she would become one of my greatest champions. Melisa not only influenced the screenplay in numerous, invaluable ways, but she picked me up in some of my darkest hours of life and helped push the movie forward and ultimately my own character. She would never give up on me or the film.

Her passion inspired my passion. I would not be here without Melisa's support and writing, and it is with that I was ultimately able to show up and continually reinvest in this powerful story. When wrestling with substance abuse, I found at times that conjuring Ron's spirit of a never-say-die attitude helped push me to fight harder at my own life.

Scene from 'Dallas Buyers Club.'

Matthew McConaughey in 'Dallas Buyers Club.' (Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features)

Melisa Wallack:

I grew up in an idyllic town outside Minneapolis with my parents and five siblings. We had dinner together almost every night at a huge circular table with a Lazy Susan in the middle. As the center of the table spun around and small hands struggled to grab at the passing food, my father would listen to us recount what we had learned at school that day. One of my most vivid memories of this nightly ritual was my father's insistence that we tell him how we knew something was true. Who said it? Where did we read it? How did we know it was, in fact, true? It wasn't until many years later that I understood what my father was doing.

I joined the "Dallas Buyers Club" journey in 2000. Craig and I had recently been introduced, and when he gave me the tapes on Ron Woodroof, I knew that his instincts were right and that he had found a great character and an amazing story. Ron's struggle to survive, and unwillingness to listen to those in authority who told him he would not, should serve as a wake-up call to everyone. Ron's sickness awakened him to the politics of AIDS and in more general terms the politics of sickness. What he discovered was an unyielding bureaucratic system that protects corporate profits over the vulnerable sick and dying. Ron's unwillingness to listen and follow protocol literally kept him alive.

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When I think of Ron, I don't think of a victim of the AIDS epidemic, I think of a hero of our times and someone my father would respect. I think of a man who challenged the system, who took on one of the most powerful establishments in our country and who, through sheer will and perseverance, helped himself and others.

For me, Ron's story transcends AIDS. It applies to every one of us in every aspect of our lives. It speaks to the danger of becoming passive participants who follow written protocols and so-called experts' opinions instead of our own instincts. It reminds me of my nightly conversations with my father and his insistence that we distinguish opinion from fact. It reminds me that it is important to be an active member of society and, in the words of Ron Woodroof, that "everyone should ask questions."

Scene from 'Dallas Buyers Club.'

A scene from 'Dallas Buyers Club.' (Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features)

Spirit of champions drove the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ script

Peter Morgan:

Peter Morgan stands with Niki Lauda.

Niki Lauda, left, and Peter Morgan. (Manfred Schmid / Getty Images)

I should declare I have never been a fan of motor racing. I don't watch Formula One, the intricacies of engine refinement and lap times leave me cold, I don't even drive fast. So how come "Rush" ended up being an unusually personal screenplay to me?

The answer is that the two racers at the heart of the story, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, represent in some way two halves of me. I was born the son of immigrant Germans and was brought up in the UK, teased as "a Kraut." Jump forward 20 years, and I married an Austrian and live in Vienna, where now I am known as "a Brit." I guess I'm saying I feel uniquely qualified to write about the rivalry between an Austrian and a Brit.

Further, Niki and James are/were men I could identify with, that both conducted their lives and their careers in ways that made sense to me. As archetypes for a drama, both men spoke to me. Perhaps more importantly, as a writer, I felt I could speak for them too. Sometimes you have the good fortune to stumble upon characters whose voices you just — hear. 

Scene from 'Rush.'

A scene from 'Rush.' (Universal Pictures)

I was introduced to Niki Lauda by my wife in 2009. It was the summer, we were both on holiday. In Ibiza. Niki came for lunch. We got talking about who knows what, having young kids, which part of the island is best to live in, the heat probably. But I was mesmerized by the way he talked. His syntax. The abruptness. The lack of frills. I just heard his voice.

After Niki left, I went on the Internet, his voice and very particular sentence constructions still ringing in my ears, and I realized straightaway I could write him. I read about him and became familiar with his three world championship victories and, even more so, the terrible accident he endured in 1976. And his comeback. And the extraordinary events of that season.

Couple of days later, I asked my wife to invite him again. This time I asked him if he'd be interested in letting me write his story. He agreed — even after I'd told him the conditions: that he would never see a page I'd written, that he'd have no control, that he would hate how I portrayed him. People (and I count myself in this number) generally cannot handle an un-Photoshopped version of themselves, but our faults are often the most attractive sides of ourselves. I also broke it to him that the film would not just be about him. He'd have to play a supporting role to his archrival — James Hunt.

RELATED: 'Rush' takes another route with Niki Lauda's help

A word here about James Hunt. He was a rock star sportsman. Controversial, sexy, wild. Uncommonly handsome. Half Bond, half Jagger. I was a 13-year-old boy when James won the world championship, and if you'd asked me what or who I'd most wanted to be at that age, I'd have said, "I want to be him." Tragically, he lost his life at age 45 because of a heart attack, so I was never going to have the benefit of firsthand research, but first Niki and then James' family and colleagues were able to fill in a lot of the gaps from his perspective.

Soon, I had all the facts I needed, and the encouragement of directors Paul Greengrass and Ron Howard, both of whom told me I absolutely had to write it next. The only thing that eluded me was a structure.

In the end, I settled on structuring it as a race itself. I imagined the movie as one big grand prix, with Hunt and Lauda taking turns to pass one another. The screenplay is constructed as a series of overtaking maneuvers. James overtakes Niki. Inspired, Niki fights back, overtakes James, and so on. It had the effect of making the tempo propulsive but also of having the structure become the meaning itself. 

Chris Hemsworth, left, and Daniel Brühl in 'Rush.'

Chris Hemsworth, left, and Daniel Brühl in 'Rush.' (Universal Studios)

Two very different men, rivals, rebels and outcasts, overtaking one another, passing one another, and finding very different paths — and in so doing helping one another to reach individual greatness. What felt fresh was that rivalry was inverted respect, that enemies were dependent on one another. That rivalry and enmity are different ways of expressing respect and love. These were themes I remember "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" exploring so imaginatively.

Jump forward 18 months, and Niki and I meet after the film has played at the Toronto festival, and Niki says, "Please explain something to me. How is it that you write me like a total [jerk], rude and cold and arrogant and objectionable, and now everyone comes up to me and tells me that they love me?"

Morgan on the drive to write ‘Rush’

Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber:

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

Michael H. Weber, left, and Scott Neustadter. (Chuck Zlotnick / Fox Searchlight)

We wrote "(500) Days of Summer" because we loved the romantic comedy — and feared for its survival. What used to be "The Graduate" and "Annie Hall" and "When Harry Met Sally" had become the home of the unrealistic, the unrelatable and the insincere. The genre was in free-fall, and "500" was our attempt to breathe a little life back in.

When looking for a follow-up, we turned our attention to the other genre we loved and missed: the teen movie. The '80s of our youth were chock-full of smart, sensitive, sometimes funny, sometimes heartfelt, always identifiable films about young people. They didn't preach, they didn't judge, they didn't talk down to their audience. What happened to those, we wondered?

Enter Tim Tharp's "The Spectacular Now." Tim's novel had been nominated for the National Book Award but was flying pretty far under the radar when we first laid eyes on it. Immediately we knew it was perfect. Two reasons: One, it was a beautifully written, take-no-prisoners account of being a teenager. And two, there was a whole buncha drinking in it — which meant an automatic R. (Kids can maim each other, stab each other, kill each other — but anyone sips a beer and it's deplorable. Don't ask.)

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Let's face it, being young is not a PG-13 experience. If you've been there, you know. We wanted to capture not just the experience of being young but also the feeling. It had to sound real, it had to look real, it had to feel real. We saw that automatic R as a plus, not a minus.

Not many other people did, to be sure. So it was only natural "The Spectacular Now" became an independent film. Gone were notes like, "Let's make sure the car scene feels like a trailer moment" and "Can there be a wet T-shirt contest at the house party?" In fact, gone were any notes at all. We could write the best version of the movie, the most honest version, the version the two of us would most want to see.

Being honest about these aspects of young adulthood was the easiest part of the adaptation. Much trickier was taking a book that's largely internal and making it external and cinematic. The book is told from its main character Sutter Keely's point-of-view, a POV clouded by booze and a somewhat inflated sense of self. To capture that sensibility (without an over-reliance on intrusive voice-over) was an exciting challenge and one we never would have achieved without the exceedingly gifted creative partners we found along the way.

Scene from 'The Spectacular Now.'

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in 'The Spectacular Now.' (A24 Films)

Initially, one of the most appealing aspects of "Spectacular Now" to us was how different it would be from "(500) Days." But the truth is, there's a lot more connective tissue there than meets the eye. "500" is a coming-of-age movie masquerading as a love story. And "Spectacular Now" is a love story masquerading as a coming-of-age movie. Both films are about a time in your life when, for better or maybe for worse, someone else has the power to change who you are. The central question is whether you let them.

Turns out, no matter what we do, we wind up writing about these things. God only knows what that says about us. That we're incredibly immature, probably. No, definitely. But also, that the elements that define these stories — flawed characters, emotional honesty, love, loss and loneliness — are the very things that attract us most as storytellers.

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Why a screenwriting team adapted ‘The Spectacular Now’

Steve Coogan:

Steve Coogan.

(Jennifer S. Altman / For the Los Angeles Times)

In 2009, I was sitting in my flat in New York on stand-by, playing Part No. 4 in yet another studio film. In the U.K. my career was healthy, but I was typecast and a little frustrated. An agent I'd just fired decided to dent my confidence by telling me that another hotshot agent had said of me, "I wish I'd gotten hold of Steve Coogan when he was 35." I was nearly 44.

I decided to experiment: I would ignore all the professional advice I was getting, like, "Steve, you need to be in a frat-boy comedy," and I would find a project and pursue it just because I wanted to. No advice, no market research, no focus groups — just something that spoke to me. I came across an article in the Guardian online titled "The Catholic Church Sold My Child." I started to read the article out loud to my then-girlfriend, the lovely China Chow, and by the end I was sobbing. It was written by Martin Sixsmith, whose name I knew from his days as a BBC correspondent. It was a summary of a book he had written about a retired Irish nurse named Philomena Lee who wanted to trace her son, who had been forcibly adopted by Irish nuns to a U.S. couple for money in the 1950s.

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The twists and turns of this story were compelling, tragic and painful. Accompanying the article was a photograph of Philomena and Martin sitting together on a bench — they were laughing. It seemed at odds with the tragic story; it tempered the sadness.

Fast forward two years (with Gaby Tana co-producing with me), I found myself in the Sussex kitchen of Dame Judi Dench, trying to condense the screenplay I'd been writing with Jeff Pope to a one-hour anecdote. After she insisted I stop calling her Dame Judi, I asked her if she was interested, to which she replied, "very, very interested." After that, Jeff and I made sure we had scenes where there would be no dialogue — only close-ups of Judi alone with her thoughts, the pain etched on her face.

Scene from 'Philomena.'

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena.' (Alex Bailey / The Weinstein Company)

Straying from the book, we made Martin a central character in our screenplay. We had conducted numerous interviews with him and Philomena, which informed the whole narrative. It was difficult to categorize: odd couple, road movie, mystery, comedy, tragedy. We were never sure, but we knew we wanted it to be naturally funny to lift people up. We took creative liberties with the story and the characters too — mostly with Martin, whom we made more spikey and cynical than he is in reality. I was putting a lot of myself into his character. I had considered directing the film myself early on, and to not be in the movie, but my fear of directing, along with my vanity, got the better of me. So I decided, with Gaby and the BBC's Christine Langan's support, to give the part to myself; an early Christmas present, if you like.

Stephen Frears flirted with us right up to the wire and gave us good advice — mostly about clarity and brevity. He told us to watch "It Happened One Night," and "Philomena" certainly has a flavor of that. My touchstone was "Missing," directed by Costa Gavras. It showed that the search was just as important as the person being looked for. Pathe loved it and gave us the money to make it. We told Stephen that the ship was sailing, and he jumped on board.

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I was worried about sharing the screen with England's "national treasure," but, on reflection, acting with her was a lot easier than it would have been with an amateur. She raised my game, and in between takes I made her laugh by doing impressions of unsavory television personalities. Stephen kept my comic inclinations in check often with just a wave of his hand, which was his way of saying, "Be a dear and take it down a peg or two, would you?" If Judi was asking a perfectly legitimate question to do with the scene, Stephen would teasingly ask if anyone had Helen Mirren's number as if to replace her! Judi would shoot him a look.

The film deals with many themes through its two central characters: intellect, intuition, class, faith. Martin is secular (that's my stuff), Philomena was and still is a Catholic. When the real Philomena was on set, she would tease me by telling me she was praying for the film. Stephen was worried about how to end the film, and then, on the last day of shooting, the whole landscape was laced with a perfect frost. "I have my ending!" he exclaimed.

The Philomena story spoke to him

Terence Winter:

Steve Coogan.

(Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times)

Within the opening pages of Jordan Belfort's memoir, "The Wolf of Wall Street," I felt a certain familiarity; like him, I was always obsessed with becoming rich.

During high school, I worked three part-time jobs simultaneously, delivering meat for the neighborhood butcher, working as a waiter at a local synagogue and on Sundays, waxing cars.

To fuel my ambition, I'd wander the furniture department at Macy's, coveting the leather couches and Persian rugs I'd one day be able to afford. But my preparation for untold wealth didn't end there.

Knowing I'd need such things for my future mansion, I mailed away for the Franklin Mint's "Art Treasures of the Louvre" mini-ingot collection, a set of engraved silver coins so tiny they came with a magnifying glass. At night under the covers, I imagined my rich friends and I in my wood-paneled library, sipping port (whatever that was) while passing that magnifying glass back and forth, soaking in the opulence that was the miniature "Mona Lisa."

Scene from 'The Wolf of Wall Street.'

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street.' (Mary Cybulski / Paramount Pictures)

Yes, I wanted very much to be rich, but hard work alone was getting me nowhere; I needed to go to Wall Street. So I headed to college and then to law school, where I attended classes at night while working for Merrill Lynch during the day. Eventually, I landed an interview to become a bond trader, a job that could earn me millions. My meeting was scheduled for Oct. 19, 1987 — the worst day on Wall Street since the crash of '29. By the close of the market, my dreams of wealth were hopelessly dashed. Would I ever make it to Macy's?

Flash forward to Hollywood 2007, where during the previous 20 years I'd traded the fantasy of becoming very rich for the reality of becoming very happy with what I do for a living. My agent sends me "The Wolf of Wall Street" to consider adapting into a screenplay. I read about Jordan and his childhood desire to be rich at all costs.

He'd begun as an ambitious kid from Queens, hawking Italian ices on the beach, eventually dropping out of dental school and failing in a wholesale meat venture before finding his way to Wall Street. As in my own life, the crash of '87 sent him in a new direction, me to Hollywood but him to Long Island, into the "boiler room" world where he began hustling dubious penny stocks.

The official 'Wolf of Wall Street' trailer. (Paramount Pictures)

He began drawing lines for himself in the sand, things he swore he'd never do, then he crossed those lines. He became a serial philanderer, abusing more drugs than a rock band, a man accused of bilking investors out of millions. Eventually, through a combination of Quaaludes and rationalization, he found himself up to his neck in very hot water.

I understood this guy. I could have become this guy. But how could I make an audience understand him? The answer was to let Jordan speak for himself.

It was a conscious choice on my part as a screenwriter to employ voice-over, a storytelling device used to great effect by Martin Scorsese in "Goodfellas" and "Casino." We'd let Jordan speak directly to the audience, "selling them" his story. Throughout the insanity and debaucherous fun, we'd never show you the people on the other ends of those telephones, the anonymous masses taken in by dishonest brokers, the "schmucks" hoping to get rich quick.

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If you'd start to question the ethics of this despicable on-screen behavior, there'd be plenty to distract you. Lavish beach houses, designer clothes, girls in bikinis, Ferraris by the dozen. And that is precisely the point.

We live in a society that applauds the accumulation of wealth while rarely questioning the means by which it is acquired. It doesn't matter how you get those diamonds as long as you get them.

The human animal is greedy by nature, and though we may tell ourselves otherwise, any one of us could have become a Jordan Belfort given the right circumstances.

Who knows how many kids are out there, worshiping at the altar of the Kardashians, convinced that bling is the answer to all of life's questions.

Until we stop valuing consumption for consumption's sake, there'll be a lot more wolves prowling Wall Street.

Scene from 'The Wolf of Wall Street.'

A scene from 'The Wolf of Wall Street.' (Mary Cybulski / Paramount Pictures)

Wolf of Wall Street’ writer Terence Winter finds a rich connection