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SBIFF Writer’s Panel 2024

The 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival held its annual Writer’s Panel on February 13, 2024. The event featured prominent screenwriters from top movies of the past year, including six Oscar nominees. The honorees were Cord Jefferson for American Fiction, Arthur Harari for Anatomy of a Fall, Josh Singer for Maestro, Samy Burch for May December, Celine Song for Past Lives, Tony McNamara for Poor Things, and David Hemingson for The Holdovers.

The event commenced with the panelists and other film writers walking down the red carpet, being photographed, and answering questions from reporters. Anne Thompson of IndieWire moderated the panel and asked the writers about their backgrounds in screenwriting, how they go about their writing, and questions specific to each individual.

Celine Song discussed her transition from studying psychology and philosophy to becoming a playwright. She shared a memory that inspired the main scene from Past Lives: sitting in an East Village Bar between her American husband and Korean childhood sweetheart. Song compared the experience to an intersection of her “past, present, and future in the same room.”

Returning as a second-time honoree from his work on Spotlight, Josh Singer said his movie Maestro has been a long time coming. Singer also mentioned his past collaboration with Bradley Cooper and admired Cooper’s strong work ethic.

With origins in a small town in Australia, Tony McNamara discussed the fantastical setting of Poor Things, which he described as joyous yet dark. He discussed adapting a book for the first time for the film, where he learned to “let go of the book and create a piece of cinema.” 

After reporting as a journalist for many years, Cord Jefferson was invited to write for television, which is when he fell in love with screenwriting. He went on to work on prominent titles like The Good Place, Succession, and Master of None. An avid reader, he says books most closely replicate “being in someone’s brain.”

David Hemingson has roots in the law industry and is proud that The Holdovers is his first produced screenplay. He recalled receiving a shocking call from prominent director Alexander Payne asking Hemingson to write for the movie. “I thought I was being pranked,” he explained. In the film, Hemingson aimed to honor his mother by creating maternal energy on screen.

Arthur Harari gave insight into the benefits and challenges of co-writing Anatomy of a Fall with his partner. He has been screenwriting since he was young, but didn’t expect the process to be so demanding. Despite the difficulties, he appreciated the excitement of co-writing with his significant other.

A college graduate in screenwriting, Samy Burch felt that working with her husband on May December came naturally. She aimed to balance humor with heartbreak in her writing and says that the satirical humor she incorporated balanced the cynical tone.

As the panel concluded, the honorees shared details about their upcoming projects. Three panelists are working on Western-style films. For instance, Tony McNamara has exciting plans for a gothic-horror-based Western. Cord Jefferson is writing the pilot for a limited Amazon series that will mark Scarlett Johansson’s first TV show. The diverse range of upcoming projects promises an exciting future of talented screenwriting in cinema.

The writer’s panel [Image Credit Caroline Rogers]


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    Caroline is a junior at SBHS. She plays on the girls varsity tennis team and enjoys going to the beach and hanging out with her friends. She loves to write and is excited to be on The Forge.

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