Black Swan screenwriter gives insight into the acclaimed film

The 2011 Oscar race has been one of the most frenzied in recent memory, with a barrage of strong contenders for the coveted Best Picture statue.

One of the standouts in a year of notable releases has been the psychological thrill-ride of horrors, “Black Swan.”

John McLaughlin, one of the three credited screenwriters of “Black Swan,” made an appearance at the University of Tampa on Monday to give students insight into the screenwriting process and the inner workings of the Hollywood system.

McLaughlin has had a lengthy career writing various projects for film and television, but the ballet thriller has been his most commercially successful endeavor so far.

It was more than a decade ago that director Darren Aronofsky approached McLaughlin to rewrite a project originally entitled “The Understudy” that would eventually evolve into “Black Swan.”

“He had always wanted to do a ballet movie because his sister was seriously involved with ballet for years and he knew a lot about it,” McLaughlin said. “(Ballet) is so kinetic and so beautiful and the outer beauty conflicting with the terror going on inside of a person made for a good combination.”

“Black Swan” gestated in McLaughlin and Aronofsky’s minds as they researched the notoriously secretive world of professional ballet. They attended many productions in New York City, meeting dancers backstage and sitting on-stage during dress rehearsals.

From talking with the dancers, McLaughlin was able to find a driving conflict in the lead character, played by Natalie Portman, in a performance that has now earned her a Golden Globe win for “Best Actress in a Drama” and an Oscar nomination.

“I think of all the types of artists, ballet dancers have one of the shortest life spans as far as being able to excel at their art. It’s a very small window,” McLaughlin said. “Since it took so long to make the movie, Natalie got a little bit older and she would be one of those persons who would be on the edge and that would be it. It’s very much about being an artist and your shelf life being almost up.”

Throughout the collaboration, McLaughlin always saw “Black Swan” as largely Aronofsky’s project, with the director having the final say on the script. Other than coming up with the final title and devising to use the ballet “Swan Lake” as a basis for the overarching story, MacLaughlin really helped Aronofsky create a skeleton for what would finally end up on screen.

“I can’t take any credit or blame because it’s all Darren sitting around, saying what he wants, what he doesn’t want. And we tried different things,” MacLaughlin said. “It’s a lot of circles when you’re working with a filmmaker trying to hone in on exactly what he wanted to do.”

McLaughlin also stated that one of Aronofsky’s early ideas was to have Portman play both the main character Nina and her real-or-imagined rival and tormentor Lily, played by Mila Kunis in the final version.

In the end, “Black Swan” became a collaborative process between Aronofsky, McLaughlin and the two other writers, Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz. McLaughlin completed six outlines and four drafts while Heyman exaggerated about completing “about 4,000” drafts before the film finally began to shoot.

“Black Swan” has become one of 2010’s most successful and discussed films after a laborious pre-production stage and a relatively low-budget shoot. The haunting image of Portman on the film’s poster and the film’s abundance of memorable and often horrifying imagery have become pop culture staples.

The film’s widespread popularity came as a surprise to McLaughlin.

“I don’t expect anything to ever get made,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a miracle whenever anything gets made and I definitely never expect that people are going to do things like copy the makeup in the movie like (they did) with this.”

After finishing “Black Swan,” McLaughlin focused on writing screenplay drafts for a film adaptation of the non-fiction book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” The in-production biopic recently received a large amount of attention after Anthony Hopkins landed the lead role of Hitchcock.

McLaughlin also used his visit to inform students on the difficult path to success for screenwriters in Hollywood.

“I think you would be hard-pressed to find a screenwriter who would be happy with … the way the profession works,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a thing where you trade money for what you feel is right as an artist and you do it over and over.”

Along with the “Hitchcock” biopic, McLaughlin is developing a possible TV series with Aronofsky entitled “Riverview Towers.”