Oscarwatch – The Writers, Part Two: Original Screenplay

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In a town where there are more screenwriters than there are people you’d expect that more original screenplays would get produced. It hardly ever happens and when it does, it only sometimes turns out well for all involved. Not every great director can write, and even fewer great writers can direct. Some can do both. Most can’t. This year’s best original screenplays are almost all the work of writer/directors, with a few collaborations in there too.

Two of the best adapted screenplays this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Argo are mostly original works that must be called adapted because them’s the rules.  Argo was based on a magazine article but all of the flourishes and style come from Chris Terrio.  Beasts was based on Luci Alibar’s play but since it’s so far removed from anything we can imagine on stage the film feels as original as you can get.

Winning Best Picture from an original screenplay when the director is also the writer is extremely rare. It happened recently with The Artist, and before that, with Crash, which was co-written by Paul Haggis.  But ordinarily, Best Picture comes either from an adapted work or from a collaborative effort when the writer and director are two different people.

We’ve covered the strongest contenders for adapted, now let’s take a look at Original Screenplay standouts from 2012.

Mark Boal’s screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty.    Telling the true story of a classified op landed Bigelow and Boal right in the middle of a partisan battle, but beyond that, how do you tell this story and have it not be “just another Hurt Locker”? By taking the story into Maya (Jessica Chastain’s) internal world, Boal was able to make better sense of the mission not yet accomplished when The Hurt Locker ended. The first film was about characters who had no control over what was happening to them and no power to win a war that couldn’t be won. Their efforts were subverted at every turn and death took them out at random. It was that calling, that hollow fear that Boal’s script for Zero Dark Thirty answers. Maya’s relentless hunt for the terrorist who ordered the hijacked planes that led to two wars that ultimately killed over 6,000 American soldiers seems to answer what ails us. We should be satisfied when they finally carry out the raid in what she calls “100% certainty” that they have the right guy.  But Zero Dark Thirty wouldn’t be a great screenplay if that was how it ended.

And it wouldn’t be a great screenplay if Boal “took a stance” on torture other than to honestly portray how those inside CIA and our military view the issue. It wouldn’t be a great screenplay if it celebrated our booyah victory against terrorism. It is a great screenplay because it doesn’t do any of those things, it flips the question back on us where it belongs.  This is something we as a nation have to decide how to reckon with.  Beyond that, Zero Dark Thirty is also tensely paced, even funny in places.  Like The Hurt Locker, Boal has written wildly original and interesting characters that only a smart, intuitive director like Bigelow could realize on the big screen.  Zero Dark Thirty is the favorite to win in the original category and it might do just that.

Django Unchained. Ever imaginative, Tarantino has been exploring genres of cinema for decades now and each time he almost reinvents the wheel.  It isn’t that Django Unchained is what people like to call “top tier Tarantino,” in a sense that doesn’t matter at all, does it?  Tarantino is the kind of writer Martin Scorsese would be if he was a writer. There is a scene in Django Unchained where white racists are gathering as a Klan-like mob (the Klan was officially formed after slavery ended) and the topic at hand happens to be how uncomfortable the bags over their heads are. It’s such a funny scene, something that would only pop up in a Tarantino movie.  Django Unchained feels like a movie within a movie because it references so many famous spaghetti westerns and movies about slavery. It upends them by making fun of them. While it’s true that this probably isn’t going to be Tarantino’s Oscar-winning screenplay, it’s hard to think about the original writing in film and not think about this imaginative piece.

Middle of Nowhere. Writer/director Ava DuVernay’s film is about the main character Ruby evolving to make smarter decisions about her life, but it also about the uncelebrated lives of uncelebrated women beyond their relationship to men. It’s one of the only movies this year or any other that acknowledges women can be both learners and teachers, mothers and professionals — that they aren’t required to be just one thing to be made more palatable for the target demo.  Populated by rich, original characters, DuVernay’s screenplay is unexpectedly moving, partly because you really have no idea where it’s headed.  Her characters are surprising because her writing is surprising.  In Hollywood they will tell you that as a woman you can’t really get work after 40. They will tell you that films about black characters don’t make money, unless they specifically target a certain kind of African American audience — either the romcom or the action/comedy genres. They’ll tell you that you have to have a leading male, rather than female, and they’ll tell you that to sell a movie you need stars. Somehow writer/director Ava DuVernay decided not to listen. She made a movie anyway and she made it her way, one that defied the usual conventions about the kinds of story she is supposed to tell. She made a movie that crosses gender and ethnic identity.

The Master. Like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson is one of Los Angeles’ native sons, someone who grew up absorbed in the language of film. To that end, both of them take their references more from film than from real life, thus their films tend to dwell more in the abstract rather than the literal. Where Django is wildly entertaining (albeit almost unbearably violent), The Master is wildly obtuse. It never comes right out and says anything and yet it maps out character development in such a way that you are the one, inevitably, who must dig for deeper meaning.  Where Tarantino is most gifted with shots and dialogue, Anderson is more gifted with clever roadmaps that lead to a more universal theme. The Master is about finding something to guide you in life and how that something doesn’t have to be a faux god, but can be vitality itself, life, love, sex.

Amour. Michael Haneke’s Amour says so much about how we love, what defines devotion and what it means to simply be living versus what it means to be alive. In the universe of these two married people, they are each other’s whole world. This, to the exclusion, perhaps, of their daughter. This, perhaps, to the exclusion of whatever else there is in life. But they have each other to talk to and that is all they require, so great is their relationship. As one starts to deteriorate, the other doesn’t waver, simply does what needs to be done. But after a while, quality of life vanishes. Amour is a truthful, beautiful, painful look at what true love really means and romance has very little to do with it.

Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s clever escapist dream about an adolescent love story is one of his best scripts and one of his best films. It’s about that imaginary place in our deepest memories, a diorama of a time and place most of us can’t get back. The first kiss, the first love, the imaginary pathway to happily ever after. But it isn’t roses and sunshine, it’s subversive too, and even a little bit scandalous.  Moonrise Kingdom should end up being a Best Picture nominee but if not, at the very least, Anderson and Coppola should be acknowledged for screenplay.

Looper. One of the most breathtaking moments in film in 2012 was the second half of Looper. You went in thinking you were seeing one movie, but half-way through you realize it’s something else entirely. Unusually respectful avoidance of spoilers has made Looper less talked-about than it should be. Indeed, it is one of the sci-fi/horror standouts of the last ten years.  Looper is a mind-bender about time travel but it is also a movie about the ongoing debate, nature vs. nurture.   Can a mother’s love change a person’s nature? What does our identity really mean to the bigger picture? Looper is Bladerunner’s punk little sister and will be remembered for years to come as one of the standouts this year.

Flight. John Gatins story about crashing a plane and crashing a life gave Denzel Washington and his castmates much to work with. The film is about sobriety, about taking responsibility for the mistakes in your life, owning up to them, and not running from them.  Made endlessly watchable by Washington’s pivotal performance, and Zemeckis’ tightly woven direction, Flight depends on the metaphor that living is a lot like flying a plane — you can only lie to yourself for so long before your actions catch up with you and it doesn’t take much to send your life into a spiral.

Arbitrage.  Nicholas Jarecki’s film about the kind of people who took full advantage of a crooked system before the Wall Street collapse and how they slimed their way out of consequences, earning bonuses all the while, lining up the 8-ball again exactly the same way once the dust settled. Arbitrage is about how the ruling class rewrites the rules and rigs the game so that they are always the winners.   Arbitrage tests the Hitchcock theory about whether audiences are still with the protagonist even if they don’t morally approve of his actions.  Turns out that, yes, we want Gere to get away with it even if we don’t agree with what he’s doing. It isn’t until the film ends that we realize how much we’ve been had by a clever character and a clever script.

Original Screenplay at the WGA will be different from Oscar because so many contenders aren’t eligible for the WGA.

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36 Comments

  1. Jesus Alonso
    December 17, 2012

    “Maya’s relentless hunt for the terrorist who ordered the hijacked planes that led to two wars that ultimately killed over 6,000 American soldiers results seems to answer what ails us. We should be satisfied when they finally raid in what she calls “100% certainty” that they have the right guy.”

    Those words are wrong on so many levels… specially, if you can judge from the outside.

    Back on the issue, “Cabin in the Woods” should be a nominee. Period.

  2. Jack
    December 17, 2012

    1. Django Unchained
    2. Zero Dark Thirty
    3. The Master
    4. Moonrise Kingdom
    5. Amour

    It’s Boal vs Tarantino again, but QT taking it this year.

  3. December 17, 2012

    I’ve been pulling for Craig Zobel for COMPLIANCE, which shows mastery in setting, character, dialogue, revelation and tension. But only a miracle could make that happen. So it will be between Mark Boal, Quentin Tarantino, PT Anderson, Rian Johnson, and Michael Haneke; however, either Tarantino or Johnson could end up being replaced by Wes Anderson/Roman Coppola.

  4. PJ
    December 17, 2012

    Frontrunners aside, I hope Looper can sneak in there.

  5. Clarissa
    December 17, 2012

    I actually read the Middle of Nowhere screenplay this weekend and my gawd. I really hope voters read the script and watch the film and dare them to not say it’s a excellently crafted major new work by a major new voice.

  6. Adam
    December 17, 2012

    I’m constantly bothered by what makes a screenplay “original” or “adapted”. Yeah, adapted is something based on a previously published literary piece. In Argo’s case, a magazine article.

    Yet the King’s Speech, based on a well known historical figure, whose story has been told many times before , is an original screenplay. Have their not been any published biographies or books or “magazine articles” on King George and England prior to the war?

    And the WGA sucks.

  7. Chung
    December 17, 2012

    ZDT should not be labeled as a great screenplay if it isn’t truthful by trying too hard by pretentiously avoiding being political.

  8. David Lindsey
    December 17, 2012

    My gosh! How do you choose from those films?

  9. Wellington
    December 17, 2012

    “Middle of Nowhere” is only getting nominations at afro american awards. Not even one important award nod. So, it’s sure OUT of the Oscar race. Am I right?

  10. steve50
    December 17, 2012

    “ZDT should not be labeled as a great screenplay if it isn’t truthful by trying too hard by pretentiously avoiding being political.”

    There are so many things wrong with this logic I don’t know where to begin. Are you saying that it isn’t a great screenplay because it’s not truthful? And the reason it isn’t truthful is because it doesn’t politicize the story it’s trying to tell? And this act of avoiding politics is pretentious? Therefore, only screenplays that incorporate politics are great and all the rest are pretentious?

    I thought so. I need a drink.

  11. kasper
    December 17, 2012

    Or remember when the Coens were nominated for adapted because O Brother was inspired by The Odyssey.

  12. David Lindsey
    December 17, 2012

    Where does TED fall? I thought it was a great screenplay.

  13. Question Mark
    December 18, 2012

    I think QT has it this year. He and Boal are the two major contenders and I feel that some of the laziest Academy voters (who don’t see ZDT) will assume that the similar subject matter means that Boal has ‘written the same script’ that he was already awarded for once. QT is also a former winner but he hasn’t won in 18 years and is one of the biggest names in Hollywood.

    The other nominees will probably be Haneke, PT Anderson and Anderson/Coppola. All share the same chances of winning and general ‘story’ of winning — that the Academy really likes their latest film and wants to reward one of them for years of making quality movies.

  14. Kane
    December 18, 2012

    Chung, I think a movie about the hunt for bin Laden doesn’t have to be too political if the filmmakers don’t want it to be. It’s their choice. The story is ultimately about the hunt for him and the CIA agency and Navy SEALS who do the hunting. It’s not about W. Bush or Obama giving speeches. I’m sure they wanted the film to be non-political so the heroism and hard word is focused on Maya and the SEALS. They were the ones doing all the heavy lifting after all. If it became political then everything would focus on the presidents and the politicians.

  15. December 18, 2012

    “ZDT should not be labeled as a great screenplay if it isn’t truthful by trying too hard by pretentiously avoiding being political.”

    There are so many things wrong with this logic I don’t know where to begin.

    LOL I know. I can’t understand the people who have been complaining that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t take any specific political stance, indeed, only that same political stance which that person also takes. Isn’t it normally the case that people take offence when a film is particularly partisan, rather than the other way around?

    Take your own opinions out of the equation. They’re not a part of this film. Did you expect Mark Boal to write your opinions on torture into his screenplay? And are you incapable of watching a film that doesn’t support your political opinions? 0D30 doesn’t even advocate for the other side, it’s utterly non-political. Make your own mind up, and stop expecting everyone else to agree.

    FS

  16. steve50
    December 18, 2012

    (maybe I should have posted here – Toronto Film Critics hit a homerun)
    http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/the-master-puts-toronto-film-critics-association-under-its-spell

  17. December 18, 2012

    It’s a critics’ groups hat-trick!

    London’s choices (for nominations) are just as good as Toronto’s, if not better!

    http://screenonscreen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/london-critics-circle-nominations.html#more

  18. Kane
    December 18, 2012

    Right you are, gents. I feel there are those who would want this film politicized so it can fit their agenda and use the film to their advantage somehow. I don’t need 0D30 to tell me what’s right and wrong. The fact that they don’t do that very thing is putting trust in the audience.

  19. December 18, 2012

    TY for that Toronto heads-up steve. I knew they’d be announcing some time this week, but hadn’t checked yet. London and Toronto have knocked it way out of the park today!

  20. Chung
    December 18, 2012

    @Paddy Mulholland
    “Did you expect Mark Boal to write your opinions on torture into his screenplay? And are you incapable of watching a film that doesn’t support your political opinions? 0D30 doesn’t even advocate for the other side, it’s utterly non-political. Make your own mind up, and stop expecting everyone else to agree.”

    The problem with this kind of argument is that the nature of ZDT is inevitably political. Having a partisan stand doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad thing. This film is about the killing of Laden, isn’t it? You claim this film is
    “non partisan”, and Bush and Dick Cheney were purposely avoided and not mentioned in the film, and ironically, Obama’s statement anti water boarding statement was mentioned in the film, so if the film wasn’t being political, why avoid Bush and mention Obama? Oh now, you are going to say I am an Obama supporter(in fact, I am, and a proud one). What is wrong with taking a stance, especially in a film like this? To purpose avoid being labeled as “partisan” by avoiding certain truths and stance for the sake of avoiding being “political” is not a great screenplay, it is cowardly screenwriting. Why don’t you stop attacking people who do not hail this film and have a stance on “truth”? You honestly can tell me this film is telling the “truth”? Or you are just defending this film any way you can just because this film was director by Bigelow, the Academy Award winning director of The Hurt Locker? Nobody is asking Bigelow/Mark Boal to be “partisan”, but the review from Christian Science Monitor is probably right, this film is amoral, this film tried too hard of being political, and as a result, this film doesn’t have a heart, doesn’t stand on anything, and this attempt alone of refusing to tell the truth and give proper credit of people involved or people who refused to capture Bin Laden(Bush, Cheney) is in fact judging, cowardly, and political. It is like the silence of many pro gun politicians. When we had 20 some innocent kids who were killed due to gun violence, they refuse to take a stance because the are worried about their NRA rating, and they think if they spoke out, they would be viewed as “partisan”?
    Don’t give me that nonsense of ZDT’s screenplay is a non partisan screenplay, it is like saying there is nothing political about “platoon”, but the difference is Oliver Stone actually took a stance, and Mark Boal/Bigelow didn’t, they are too worried, they wanted to avoid being partisan and criticized. I have not seen the film, and I will see it tomorrow, and if that was the case, the screenplay would not be a great screenplay because if a film is political in nature, the truths need to be told regardless if it appears to be “partisan”, so now, stop it already, people have a right to criticize Bigelow and Boal’s real intention in making this film, and that is making a controversial film by taking advantage of its political nature and pretending they are not partisan. Either you do it right, or you don’t. Give me a break already.

  21. rufussondheim
    December 18, 2012

    Good to see The Master picking up some awards. Even though I didn’t care for it as much as others (at least after only one viewing) it’s nice to see it winning awards simply because it’s great to see challenging films win stuff. Haven’t seen ZDT yet, so I can’t compare. And even though I enjoyed the heck out of Life of Pi and Argo, I wouldn’t call either “challenging” and Lincoln definitely ain’t challenging either (although it is good).

  22. Chung
    December 18, 2012

    “Make your own mind up, and stop expecting everyone else to agree.”
    Isn’t this exactly what you are doing?LOL. You expect everyone to view this film as a great screeenplay without any doubts or criticisms, and at the same time, you are telling me to stop expecting people to agree with me? Agree with me about what? When one makes a film like this, is is about telling the truth, and if telling the truth appears to be what you called “partisan”, then it is not a great screenplay in my opinion, given the political nature of the subject matter. Oh, what’s next? You want to say I am sexist, right? Or God forbid that anyone would dare criticize Bigelow and Mark Boal. Oh please, give another break, please.

  23. Chung
    December 18, 2012

    Correction
    I wrote “When one makes a film like this, is is about telling the truth, and if telling the truth appears to be what you called “partisan”, then it is not a great screenplay in my opinion, given the political nature of the subject matter. ”
    I forgot to ad if telling the truth appears to be partisan, and the screenwriter tries to avoid that “partisan” appearance, then it is not a great screenplay.
    I will see the film tomorrow, but what Christian Science Monitor wrote is my deepest fear about ZDT.

  24. Kane
    December 18, 2012

    Chung, you said the film tried to hard to be political. You said in your initial comment that the film takes no political stance. A bit confused by that. Also I highly doubt Bigelow and Boal are afraid of being too political given how political Hollywood is. They aren’t the only producers on the film. Boal took an incredibly journalistic approach, which requires him to put aside his own beliefs. Other films that took journalistic approaches include Zodiac, All the Presidents Men, (to a point) The Social Network, and even The Hurt Locker. You can even throw in Generation Kill and anything David Simon has ever done. Last I checked they all did fine. Not every movie that involves foreign affairs needs to be as political as Lincoln. It’s a clear “we want to get this guy” type of movie where the people who hunted him down had to put aside politics to do their jobs. The only politics might be office politics. This is meant to be down and dirty, realistic approach where all the politics are back across the sea and there’s nothing but intelligence gathering and a midnight raid. Why ruin what these people did by showcasing holier than thou morals and motives? Like I said before, I don’t need someone “telling” me torture is wrong.

  25. Sean C.
    December 18, 2012

    They will tell you that films about black characters don’t make money, unless they specifically target a certain kind of African American audience — either the romcom or the action/comedy genres.

    Not speaking to its artistic merit, but Middle of Nowhere‘s gross stands at $211,000, so I would hardly call it a resounding rejection of conventional wisdom on that score.

  26. Kane
    December 18, 2012

    Sean C, plenty of movies made less than that. Middle of Nowhere was independently produced and shown in fewer theaters. I do believe this should be seen by many people, but the fact is if it’s a low budget shown in a handful of theaters and there’s not a lot of word of mouth from the media outside of people like Sasha then the public won’t even know that such a movie exists.

  27. December 18, 2012

    Fucking hell. I sure opened some can of worms there! Some people aren’t worth arguing with…

  28. December 18, 2012

    MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is my favorite film this year. I’ve seen it THREE times! And am fine with seeing it a FOURTH! Emayatzy Corinealdi’s performance was as quiet, yet as powerful as any I’ve ever seen. And BRAVO to Ava Duvernay for writing and directing such a thought-provoking piece. Simply BRAVO!

  29. Chung
    December 18, 2012

    “Fucking hell. I sure opened some can of worms there! Some people aren’t worth arguing with…”
    Some people? You mean you can’t stand people who disagree with you. Anyone who doubts or have a negative opinion about your precious Bigelow and ZDT is not worth arguing, uh? It is not because they are not worth arguing, it is because you have no argument at all, it is your incapability of accepting different opinions, it is because you will defend Bigelow to death if you have to. Let’s be clear, sure, some people,lol

  30. Bethany Nanc
    December 18, 2012

    Wellington, Educate yourself. Middle of Nowhere was no is Ted for two Gothams and won one. and is nominated for four Spirit Awards. As far as I know, those are not “Afro-American” awards.

  31. Bethany Nanc
    December 18, 2012

    Autocorrect blues- Middle of Nowhere was nominated… Thanks.

  32. Kane
    December 19, 2012

    Bethany, you beat me to the punch! Was gonna say those exact same things. All I’ll say is nothing is out of the race. Ever. Remember Gary Oldman’s and Javier Bardem’s surprise nominations? They only came with BAFTA nods and a few others. Even more surprising was Marcia Gay Harden who had a NYFCC win and nothing else. The most surprising of them all, perhaps? Tommy Lee Jones for In the Valley of Elah. He had a sattelite nod and I believe a London Film Critics nod.

  33. October 16, 2013

    渋谷 トリーバーチ

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