Screenwriters in their own words: The stories behind the stories of ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Green Book’ and more

Writers Joe Robert Cole (“Black Panther”), Diablo Cody (“Tully”) and Josh Singer (“First Man”) on how their stories came together.
(Allen J. Schaben | Kirk McKoy | Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

In Hollywood, many times the stories behind the scenes are just as interesting as those on the screen. So with awards season heating up once again, The Envelope asked the writers of this year’s most-talked-about contenders to reveal the creative processes behind their screenplays. Check out the links for the full first-person essays and continue to check this page throughout awards season for the latest additions.

Diablo Cody, “Tully”

Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in Jason Reitman's "Tully."
(Kimberly French / Focus Features)

“Writing this script saved me. ‘Tully’ became my Tully, my helper, a glowing, soothing presence I could return to whenever I felt overwhelmed. My laptop was speckled with dried breast milk because I’d pump and type at the same time. The manual for the breast pump referred to the action as “expression,” which seemed appropriate. I was expressing all over the place, left and right, literally and figuratively. The relief was tremendous.”

Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther”

From left to right, Florence Kasumba and Danai Gurira in a scene from Marvel Studios' "Black Panther."
(Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

“It was also deeply important to everyone involved with the film that we be respectful of Africa, its cultures and people. All too often the continent of over 50 nations has been painted with a broad brush and woefully misrepresented. We spoke to historians and consultants, and Ryan visited the continent. Hannah Beachler, our production designer, put together a Wakandan bible rooted in tireless research.”

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, “Wildlife”

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Wildlife."
(IFC Films)

“Most of my process as a first-time writer was asking ‘why?’ Why am I making this? Why would this character behave this way? Much like I do as an actor, I tried to turn the material over inside myself and filter that through the characters. Slowly, the script began to shed skins and become itself.” — Paul Dano

Josh Singer, “First Man”

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in "First Man."
(Daniel McFadden / Universal Pictures / DreamWorks)

“So I did what I had done on ‘Spotlight’ — I sent early drafts of the script to Neil [Armstrong]’s family and colleagues. And, not unlike Neil’s journey to the moon, my journey on the script was marked by early failure. Astronauts Dave Scott and Mike Collins were pretty tough. I’d gotten all sorts of technical details wrong. And some of my characterizations of Neil were off. An early scene had Neil repeatedly slamming a phone down on the receiver after finding out about the Apollo 1 fire. Jim Hansen and everyone else who knew Neil were up in arms. Neil would never do that.”

Felix van Groeningen and Luke Davies, “Beautiful Boy”

Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell in "Beautiful Boy."
(Francois Duhamel / Amazon Studios)

“At some point, I felt that we were pushing too much ‘structure’ onto the authentic story. The repetitive nature of a recovery narrative is also the challenging part of it. How do you keep invested in it, when you sort of know what is coming? Yet we needed to embrace this repetitive nature, and try to find a way to experience it like the characters experienced it — rebuilding hope every time.” — Felix Van Groeningen

Peter Hedges, “Ben Is Back”

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges in "Ben Is Back."
Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges in “Ben Is Back.”
(Mark Schafer / LD Entertainment / Roadside Attractions)

“My new film is a love story about a mother and her recovering-addict son. I started writing with this central question: ‘What if the mother, Holly, was like Orpheus and was willing to descend into the Underworld to bring her great love (in this case, her son Ben) back to Earth?’ So instead of having one seminal moment of heroism, she could make an endless string of determined, but often misguided, heroic attempts.”

Gillian Flynn, “Widows”

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki in "Widows."
Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki in “Widows.”
(20th Century Fox / Associated Press)

“Always at issue was the balance: the characters, the themes, the heist. One entire wall of my basement office is covered in whiteboard. I devoted half to the widows — to make sure we were giving them space to be true, breathing people. Because this was a heist film starring women, we wanted some of them to be moms and to see what child care in the middle of an incredibly dangerous crime looked like (uh, hard).”

Bo Burnham, “Eighth Grade”

Elsie Fisher in "Eighth Grade."
Elsie Fisher in “Eighth Grade.”
(Linda Kallerus/ A24)

“I wrote ‘Eighth Grade’ as a tribute to the young people I was seeing online that no one was paying attention to. Teens, mostly girls, soliloquizing in their bedrooms for 10 minutes at a time, staring straight into their laptop’s built-in webcam. Thousands of videos with titles like ‘How to Make New Friends in Middle School’ or ‘Life Advice #54’ or ‘Being 13 Years Old: The Dos and Don’ts.’ Real kids posting videos that no one was watching — unseen, unprocessed, unadulterated by a built-in audience, desperate to express and define themselves in real time for an audience that may not be there.”

Debra Granik, “Leave No Trace”

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster in "Leave No Trace."
(Scott Green / Bleecker Street)

“After dozens of drafts, the version of the story I was following led to an ending that was different from the conclusion of the novel. I explored many different approaches for ending the film and finally settled on one that was inspired by a place that I’d encountered filming ‘Stray Dog’ in southern Missouri. We found a similar community of scrappy survivors who practice a live-and-let-live ethos in rural Oregon, so we filmed there.”

Kevin Willmott, “BlacKkKlansman”

John David Washington stars in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
John David Washington stars in Spike Lee‘s “BlacKkKlansman.”
(David Lee / Focus Features)

“When Jordan Peele hired Spike Lee and me for this project, the only note he gave us was ‘make it funny.’ We knew exactly what Jordan meant. He wasn’t speaking about broad comedy or jokes; he was instructing us to reveal the irrationality of racism. The more you expose the normality of hate, how it works historically, the more you locate the tentacles that touch us today. That is how you make dangerous subjects humorous.”

Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, “Green Book”

Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Green Book."
(Patti Perret / Universal Pictures)

“You hear the horror stories of three-person writers rooms, but such was not the case with us. It took long hours and many kicks of the sieve for sure, but we could not have been more united on the story we wanted to tell and the way we wanted to convey it.” — Brian Hayes Currie

Elizabeth Chomko, “What They Had”

Blythe Danner, left, is Ruth and Hilary Swank is Bridget in Elizabeth Chomko's "What They Had."
(Bleecker Street)

“I wrote the first draft quickly. I wrote it for me and my mother and her brothers. I could not write her Alzheimer’s without writing how hard it was on the rest of us. It has this way of unsettling you. It can be shockingly hilarious one moment and then turn into something so haunting it takes your breath away. There is no solution, no good answer, but you wait anyway, holding out hope, especially if you’ve been told all your life that God is good.”

Paul Schrader, “First Reformed”

Ethan Hawke in a scene from "First Reformed."

“Three years ago, I gave Pawel Pawlikowski an award for ‘Ida’ at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner. He knew my book, I loved his film and we talked about the ways cinema can evoke the spiritual. That night, walking the nine blocks uptown from Tao to my Chelsea condo, I thought to myself, ‘It’s time to write the script you swore you’d never write. You’ll be 70 next year. Do it just like Pawel did it. Black and white. Academy ratio. What can you lose? It’s time.’”

Chloe Zhao, “The Rider”

Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn in a scene from "The Rider."
(Sony Pictures Classics)

“Things change on a daily and hourly basis on a shoot that depended on our non-actors’ daily schedules, real-life events, weather and the limitations of a five-person crew. I was constantly rewriting on set. If a scene isn’t working, I usually rewrite instead of forcing things and doing more takes.”

Jeff Whitty, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
(Twentieth Century Fox)

“In the hustle I discovered character simply based on my knowledge of New York’s hidden geography. Many events in the memoir take place in Julius' Bar on Waverly and 10th Street in the Village, a bar that is authenticity itself, for it has changed little since Prohibition days. It is perhaps my favorite bar in Manhattan. Lee’s accomplice, Jack Hock, was not fleshed out in the memoir, but I knew she met him there. So in summoning character, I imagined him across the street from Julius where the rent boys used to line up back in the day, the cars pulling up to make an arrangement, then whisking their prize into the night.”