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Sideways screenwriter is latest Semel Chair

Jim Taylor, the screenwriter of the Academy Award-winning film Sideways and several other well-known films, is Emerson’s latest Jane and Terry Semel Chair in Screenwriting. During this yearlong appointment for the 2011-2012 school year, he teaches an intensive weekly course in advanced screenwriting to Emerson upperclass and graduate students.

Taylor is a Seattle native who studied liberal arts as an undergraduate at Pomona College. His career in film took off in an unusual way: after winning money on The Wheel of Fortune at age 30, he used the earnings to enroll at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. For most of his screenwriting career, Taylor has collaborated with director/screenwriter Alexander Payne, co-writing several mostly comedic movies, including About Schmidt, Election, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

Their upcoming film, The Descendants, starring George Clooney, is more dramatic than most of their previous films. It tells the story of a Hawaii land baron who tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife is involved in a boating accident. Already getting rave reviews and Oscar buzz, the film will be released in theaters Friday (November 18). A special sneak preview screening for the Emerson community, followed by a Q & A with Taylor about the film, will take place Thursday (November 17) at 7:00 pm in the Bright Family Screening Room at the Paramount Center. For more information about the screening, contact Anna Feder.

ECT spoke to Taylor about his career, his collaboration with Payne, and his latest film.

Jim Taylor

Semel Chair in Screenwriting Jim Taylor's latest film, The Descendants, opens in theaters November 18.

You took a really interesting path to becoming the successful producer and screenwriter you are today. Could you talk a little bit about some of the highlights of that journey?

Certainly winning an Oscar was a mind-blowing experience. Surreal, actually. But I think the best thing has been to watch a film I've worked on and to feel proud of it. For the most part, I'm very self-critical; so it's a big deal to actually look at something and say, “Hey, I did a pretty good job!”

Where have you taught before?

In the past I've taught screenwriting at New York University and at Columbia. The best thing about teaching at Emerson is the enthusiasm and intelligence of the students. It's an opportunity to interact with some of the brightest, most talented students at a great school. I get a peek into the future of American filmmaking.

Which one of the movies you've worked on has felt like your greatest accomplishment?

[Alexander Payne’s and my] first movie, Citizen Ruth, was one of those films that nobody thinks could ever get financed so it was a big achievement just to make it. Even though it wasn't successful at the box office, it established our voice and made the other movies possible. I'm also very proud of my wife [director Tamara Jenkins’s] movie, The Savages, which I executive produced.

Why do you think you and Alexander Payne make such a dynamic duo?

I guess the most important thing is that we make each other laugh and we respect each other. If there's ever any creative disagreement, we can work it out without any hurt feelings. Also our respective superpowers complement each other very well.

Is working with another person difficult in any way?

Working with a partner definitely has its challenges, but I find that the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. If you're writing comedy, it's especially nice to have someone you respect who can laugh at your jokes and help you see when you're on the right track. It's very easy to get discouraged and throw out good stuff if there's not another person around to say, “Wait, wait. It works!”

Tell me about your upcoming film, The Descendants.

It's a bit more dramatic and less comedic than the films I've written with Alexander, which surprises some people. But there's still plenty of humor in it. The book it's based on is a first novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. She's a young woman and it's really impressive how mature her insights are. I'd say she's an “old soul,” for sure. Anyway, The Descendants is a movie for adults, which is more and more rare these days, because the trend lately has been for the major studios to finance fewer movies designed to appeal to a mature audience.

How did you find out about the book and why did you choose to make a movie out of it?

Alexander and I have a small company along with our partner, Jim Burke, called Ad Hominem Enterprises that is financed by Fox Searchlight. The Descendants was submitted to Ad Hominem by the author's agent and we loved it so much that we were very aggressive about obtaining the rights, which meant competing with other producers who also wanted the book.

So what was it like working with George Clooney?

He's both a total professional and lots of fun. Alexander likes to say that he thinks Clooney is one of the most successful human beings who's ever lived. He spends a lot of time on the set instead of hiding out in his trailer and he loves to joke around and do impressions, etc., which helps keep everyone in a good mood.

What actor besides George Clooney stands out to you in the film?

The whole cast is amazing, but Shailene Woodley is a real discovery. She's a star in the making and I'm sure you'll be seeing a lot more from her.

What part do you enjoy most about the filmmaking process?

I think editing and post-production are the most satisfying, because as you refine the film it really comes to life and you can see the tangible result of all the work that came before.

You said you're pretty self-critical. Why do you think that is? Is it just your personality, or is that how most people in the film industry are?

I think most writers are self-critical. We spend a lot of our time trying to figure out what we've done wrong and very little time saying “Aha! That’s it!” There are plenty of people in the film industry who are not at all self-critical. They may get a lot done, but they don't tend to be very interesting as artists.

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