FIRST MAN's Josh Singer on the screenwriter's responsibility in tackling historical pieces

Credit: Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Credit: Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Below is a guest post written by WGA and Academy Award winning screenwriter Josh Singer.  His latest film is First Man, a look at the life of Neil Armstrong and the space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the moon.

A few Fridays ago, I went to the Smithsonian.  There was a gathering of space historians and I wanted to chat with them, find out how we did.  Damien [Chazelle] and I were scrupulous in our attempts to realistically capture space flight and Neil Armstrong's eight-year journey to the moon.  I was so obsessed with it, I wrote a book—an annotated screenplay—to give historical context and to be transparent about the few places the movie takes license.  Beyond 'showing my homework’, I wanted to start a conversation about the responsibility of screenwriters in tackling historical pieces.  

Why bother?  There's so much blurring of the truth in the news these days, isn't the blurring of the truth in fiction practically irrelevant?

I don't think so.  I think blurring truth in movies is pernicious.  I think the stories and myths we share instill values.  Movies and television inform our culture and, in some cases, teach us how to live. 

This is why Damien and I worked so hard to get the history right.  We wanted to show what getting to the moon actually cost, to blow up the triumphalist narrative around Apollo.  We wanted to make it clear to the country that if we are to tackle the huge challenges we face (income inequality, climate change), we're going to have to stop asking for what our country can do for us and once again start asking what we can do for our country.  

In this way, First Man is about values.  Values Damien and I believe in.  Values we hoped the country would recognize and once again appreciate.  And values that we both tried to live up to in our attempts to capture this history accurately on film.   

Every year, people take shots at various films for accuracy.  Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong.  Sometimes they’re too tough and sometimes they’re not tough enough.  But why let others tell us what’s right and wrong?  Shouldn’t we, as screenwriters, have our own code of ethics?  A sense of what’s responsible and what’s irresponsible?   Maybe even an ongoing discussion to that end? 

This is something I’ve been wrestling with since The Fifth Estate.  And I think it’s worthy of a broader conversation.  Please join me and former WGA President Howard Rodman in that conversation on January 10th at the Library at the Writers Guild Foundation.  Check your upcoming WGA Calendar for more info.

The screenplay for First Man is now available to read in the WGF Library.

WGF Staff's Favorite TV Series of 2018

There was so much good TV this year that it’s truly difficult to pick one favorite show. But the Writers Guild Foundation staff managed and here are their faves.

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Libbie Anderson - Director of Programs and Community Outreach

Killing Eve (BBC America)

In Libbie’s words: “Phoebe Waller-Bridge is, well, killing it (thanks for bearing with me). I was a huge fan of her previous show, Fleabag, and here she continues to deliver progressive female narratives and iconic dialogue.”


Javier Barrios - Librarian

The Terror (AMC)

In Jav’s words: “It’s an amazing example of what you can do with historical fiction”

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Dustin Fleischmann - Events Coordinator

Bojack Horseman (Netflix)

In Dustin’s words: “Only this show could get away with a season that contains an emotional and uninterrupted eulogy for the show’s most complex character with a sub-plot revolving around a sex-robot-turned-media-company-CEO named Henry Fondle. Fans may have always known that Bojack would have to eventually confront himself to overcome his self-destructive behavior, but what season 5 delivers proves that we may have underestimated just how disturbing and powerful that moment would be. Bonus: this is also on Netflix, so you still don’t have an excuse not to watch my recommendations.”


Lauren O’Connor - Librarian

One Day at a Time (Netflix)

In Lauren’s words: “Each episode of this series is a life-affirming one-act play that teaches us how we can be there for each other in unexpected and unconventional ways. It's my favorite simply because, in this detached, empathy-fatigued moment in time, it makes me feel things. It makes me belly laugh through ugly tears. For that, it's the best and I can't recommend it more highly. “


Enid Portuguez - Director of Events and Communications

Kidding (Showtime)

Honorable mention: Terrace House: Opening New Doors (Netflix)

In Enid’s words: “I heard much about Kidding since it marked Jim Carrey’s return to Hollywood, but when it premiered in September, it got lost in my endless queue of shows to watch. When I finally binged all 10 episodes in December, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was beautiful, heartbreaking, absurd, and insightful in every way, from the writing and the characters to the direction and cinematography. I also had to give a shout-out to Terrace House, even though it’s not a scripted series. The Japanese reality show was my solace from the real-life horror shows playing out in the media, and it really did keep me sane in 2018.”


Hilary Swett - Archivist

Atlanta (FX)

In Hilary’s words: “The second season is always tricky and they made it even better than season one. The show went to some complicated psychological and emotional places and explored the supporting characters in ways that I’ve never seen before. And the choice to have Donald Glover’s character not appear or appear only briefly in some episodes was bold as well.”

WGF Staff's Favorite Films of 2018

2018 was a crazy year to say the least. Thankfully, we have films to give us inspiration, hope, beauty, humor, and sheer fun in the face of Life and horrifying tweets. Here are the Writers Guild Foundation staff’s favorite movies of the year. You can read most of these screenplays in the Library when we reopen on January 2.


Libbie Anderson - Director of Programs and Community Outreach

You Were Never Really Here (screenplay by Lynne Ramsay)

In Libbie’s words: “Lynne Ramsay is an absolute genius and one of my favorite directors working today. Her take on the down-and-out hitman trope is nothing short of a masterpiece.”


Javier Barrios - Librarian

A Quiet Place (screenplay by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski)

In Jav’s words: “[This movie] was a fresh take on the monster movie genre.” 


Dustin Fleischmann - Events Coordinator

Roma (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron)

In Dustin’s words: “Y Tu Mamá También has been my favorite foreign language film since high school, but this might have overthrown it. All the elements from this movie come together to form something authentic and emotionally arresting, from the outstanding performance by Yalitza Aparicio and the signature lingering and meditative camerawork borrowed from Cuarón’s previous collaborations with Emmanuel Lubezki. Since it’s on Netflix, you literally have no excuse to not watch it.”


Lauren O’Connor - Librarian

Support the Girls (screenplay by Andrew Bujalski)

In Lauren’s words: “With most of the action taking place at a sports bar/grill in Texas, this film takes characters we've really only seen objectified in media and in life (that is to say scantily clad waitresses of Hooters-like restaurants and the clientele of such establishments) and looks at their day-to-day travails with warmth, humanity and humor. Also, I appreciate movies that take place in the south that feel like the filmmakers have actually been to the south. It adds to the realism and charm. “


Enid Portuguez - Director of Events and Communications

The Favourite (screenplay by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara)

In Enid’s words: “The Favourite was an odd, quirky film that I couldn’t look away from. The three female lead characters were so compelling in their complexity and motivations, however disturbing or unsavory they may be. So much of my delight stemmed from small, well-timed reactions and lines that were so true to the characters.”


Hilary Swett - Archivist

A Quiet Place (screenplay by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski)

In Hilary’s words: “A Quiet Place was so fresh and raw and shows us how much you can achieve without dialogue. And wrapping a family drama in a horror package was a great call.”

The Big Revision: Introducing the New Writers Guild Foundation Website

Hello new and returning visitors!

We’ve been hard at work the last several months overhauling our entire website and bringing it into the 21st century. In redesigning the site, we wanted to make a few important changes and introduce a new experience for our community!

ALL NEW: The Resource Center

We get asked a lot about opportunities for people living outside the greater LA area to tap into our resources. Our previous website had online resources tucked away in a sidebar with useful links and recommended books accessible to anyone—but it’s been quite a while since we’ve looked at it.

With our new Resource Center, we’re launching a hub with updated recommendations and resources available for aspiring and current screenwriters, with more updates rolling out over the course of the year. We’ve not only retained our Podcast recordings of previous events and our Writer Speaks: Oral Histories series, but we’ve introduced two new resource series: Essential Books for Screenwriters and Essential Web Resources for Screenwriters.

This page is currently in beta and will feature new content over the coming months. If you have an idea for something to add to our Resource Center, feel free to leave us suggestions on the page!

Get all the details about our upcoming Events.

Looking for information about our upcoming events? Now, all details about our upcoming events are built right into our website—with buttons that will instantly take you to checkout. You can view full details on each upcoming event, including location, date, time, and speaker bios. If you’re looking for past events, check out our All Events page or send us an email.

Got a specific question? Check out our new FAQ.

If you ever have a question about the Foundation, you can always reach out to us to get answers. But before you write to us, make sure to check out our new Frequently Asked Questions page to get the best information on questions we typically field. If your question isn’t answered there, feel free to drop us a line.

Of course, please pardon our dust. If you notice that anything is missing or not working the way it used to, feel free to shoot us an email and let us know. We’ll be working constantly to update and tweak the website as needed, so we appreciate your patience.

We hope to see you around our site!

Halloween Script Cavalcade: Audrey Rose

One of the great pleasures of working in a script archive and library is being exposed to storytelling outside of one’s typical genre or wheelhouse. Because I don’t like getting unnecessarily freaked out, one genre I tend to steer clear of is occult-based horror. At the beginning of this week, I was tasked with processing the archival papers of writer Frank De Felitta. Because De Felitta wrote mostly on spooky, supernatural subjects, the prospect of diving into this script collection scared the hell out of me.


I’m writing this blog post not just because it’s Halloween and I want to brag about conquering my fears, but mostly because I want to emphasize how important it is to look at scripts and brush shoulders with topics outside of your storytelling comfort zone. Even if you write emotional, character-based comedies, you can still learn something from the suspense and curiosity inherent to horror. Just as if you write explosive action stories, it’s important to take in a romance every so often because it’s a genre that can help you to understand character growth.

When you’re developing your ever-evolving story sense, all genres and narrative devices are useful.

Born in 1921, Frank De Felitta became known for his novels as well as his screen and teleplays, mostly during the 1960s and 70s. He’s a rare horror writer who, on several occasions, adapted his best-selling novels into films. Notable examples of this are Audrey Rose (Novel: 1974, Film: 1977) and The Entity (Novel: 1978, Film: 1981). De Felitta’s papers—now housed here at the WGF—include original manuscripts for his novels and then later drafts of his adapted screenplays.


While processing this collection, I became particularly intrigued by Audrey Rose. A best-selling novel in 1974, it tells the story of a couple, Bill and Janice Templeton, who are confronted by a man confident that their daughter Ivy is the reincarnation of his deceased child, Audrey Rose.


On Mondays, when the library is closed to the public, we pull out the contents of dozens of unprocessed boxes (most of which are donated by the writers themselves or their families) and lay them out on our long table to organize them and make them accessible. Pouring through the De Felitta papers, which were recently donated by Frank's son Ray De Felitta, I found the original book manuscript for Audrey Rose, then 12 drafts of the screenplay.


Processing collections from before the heyday of computers is always interesting because you can see before your very eyes and hold in your hands the labor that went into writing a particular project. Even though De Felitta adapted novels that he himself wrote, it still took him 12 drafts to get Audrey Rose right. It proves writing is hard.


When processing collections, sometimes it’s the thoughts and concepts you come across that really stick with you. I call it “accidental research.” You learn something from looking at a script you might have been afraid to look at and you end up with a seed of inquisitiveness that keeps you doing further contemplation or investigation on your own.

From folder-ing Audrey Rose scripts, I’ve become fascinated with the idea of previous lives and reincarnation. Regardless of one’s chosen genre(s) or writing style, the notion of “previous lives” can be very helpful for a writer.

When we take in a story, oftentimes we respond emotionally to the subtext, the subconscious and the things which are going on underneath the narrative that unfolds before our eyes. How useful it is, then, for a writer to consider a character’s previous life when determining their behavior and choices in the present. Maybe the reason we connect with certain people in our waking, day-to-day interactions is because we knew them in a previous existence and our souls still know each other.

You know how some people can’t explain their weird abilities or their night terrors?  Maybe it’s a previous life.

I don’t write horror or explore the supernatural in my own writing, but I think considering the previous lives of our characters is a great way to write subtext and navigate the subconscious. For your further rumination, I’ll leave you with this pivotal scene from the first draft of the Audrey Rose screenplay. Ivy Templeton suffers from excruciating, worsening spells, where she seems to enter an altered state. Elliot Hoover, who is convinced the soul of his deceased daughter, Audrey, has been reborn in Ivy, is the only person who is able to calm her down.


More drafts and information on Audrey Rose and many more of Frank De Felitta’s books and screenplays can be found in our archives. Browse the collections here – and always consider that you might find more to inspire you when encountering something outside your specific area of interest.

Happy Halloween!