By Pete Hammond
December 29, 2010
It’s amazing that any good script ever gets made anymore. If there is one common thread running through most of the contenders for screenplay honors this year, it is what a long, looooong journey it is from page to screen. And another fairly obvious truth: the road to Best Picture starts on the page. In fact, since 1933, only 3 movies have managed to win the Best Picture Oscar without at least having their screenplay nominated and, in the majority of cases, actually winning. One of those movies was Hamlet in 1948 but its credited writer, William Shakespeare, wasn’t around for the rewrites. The other two were The Sound Of Music (1965) and Titanic (1997).
The writers strike in 2007 proved not much gets done without scribes and the effects of that strike, particularly in terms of quality screenplays, is still being felt. Nevertheless 2010 is a rich feast as far as the writers are concerned but none of it was easy. Among the screenplay contenders, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, Get Low, and Inception were each percolating in the minds of their writers for more than a decade. In the case of The King’s Speech, it was more than 3 decades. The Kids Are All Right and Hereafter were thrown into drawers, unfinished, only to be rescued years later. And to demonstrate just how important the right words and concept are, it was 11 years between Toy Story 2 and 3. Of course the wait for just the right concept and script paid off when Toy Story 3 not only became the highest grossing film of the year, but also the number one animated film of all time and the best reviewed movie of the year on Rotten Tomatoes.
On the other hand, it doesn’t always have to take years to see a script turned into a movie. Another of 2010’s most critically acclaimed hits, The Social Network, was fast-tracked. The events it depicts happened just six years ago and were still unfolding when Aaron Sorkin wrote his screenplay even as the book it is partially based on was still being written itself. That seems to be an exception as most Oscar caliber scripts languish in development hell, most of them “too good” to get made until fate — and a reasonable budget — intervenes. Of all the branches in the Academy, the writers have been the ones to go off the page as it were and select offbeat and sometimes unexpected and unheralded nominees.
Here is a rundown of the screenplays that completed Hollywood’s obstacle course and now have a shot at the industry’s highest award:
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Animal Kingdom – David Michod: This tight Australian crime thriller about a 17-year-old trying to survive in a fearsome crime family has so far won lots of notice this awards season for co-star Jacki Weaver but could be recognized by writers for writer/director Michod’s powerfully effective and almost Shakespearean-like tale.
Another Year – Mike Leigh: Leigh’s uniquely original scripts borne out of a long and involved rehearsal period in which his actors all contribute to the final product have won him four previous nominations here (Secrets And Lies, Topsy Turvy, Vera Drake, Happy Go Lucky) and this slice-of-British-life drama could make it five.
Biutiful – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: After directing such critically acclaimed films as Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel all written by Guillermo Arriaga, Inarritu strikes out on his own to write this very personal, dark, and moving journey about a man whose life is in freefall. He’s been previously Oscar nominated as a director, producer, and for Foreign Language Film. But this could be the first time he is recognized for his writing talents.
Black Swan – Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J McLaughlin: This script started out as sort of an All About Eve set in the world of ballet but it morphed into much more than that once it finally got into the hands of Heyman, director Darren Aronofsky’s director of development. After 10 years and almost being permanently shelved just a month before production was to begin, it’s turned into a hit movie and major awards magnet.
Blue Valentine – Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne: First written in 1998 and then rewritten more than 60 times, Cianfrance, who also directed, took 12 years to finally see his very personal story of a failing marriage hit the screen. The rawness of the dialogue and intensity of the scenes nearly landed this with an NC-17 until distributor Harvey Weinstein convinced the MPAA to change course and award an “R”.
City Island – Raymond De Felitta: This spring crowd-pleaser about a loud but loving and highly dysfunctional New York family was one of the first to get its screeners out, a good thing since many Academy members missed it and now seem to have a sense of discovery as they have been catching up with it. Whether that translates into a long shot surprise nomination in the writing category is anyone’s guess. But this movie has been full of surprises since winning the audience award at Tribeca two years ago.
Company Men – John Wells: The timeliness of WGA president John Wells’ story of corporate executives being downsized and thrown out of a job could be the thing that gets his fellow writers to give this a whirl in the DVD player. But the Weinstein Company seems to be pushing other higher profile movies in this category like The King’s Speech and Blue Valentine a little more forcefully. Its 76% fresh ranking at Rotten Tomatoes suggests that critics at least have liked what they’ve seen.
Conviction – Pamela Gray: She wrote two films, A Walk On The Moon and Music of the Heart, both released in 1999. But it would be another decade before she earned another big screen credit for this remarkable true story of Betty Anne Waters who spent 18 years putting herself through school in order to become a lawyer and get her wrongly convicted brother out of prison. Still this might be as much of a long shot as that triumph was.
The Fighter – Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington (co-story): Another long in development dream project, this true story of boxer Mickey Ward and his relationship with his crack-addicted brother Dicky was another case of ‘never say never’, thanks in large part to the perseverance of star/co-producer Mark Wahlberg who didn’t stop training even when the Paramount movie looked dead until further rewrites and budget cuts got it a greenlight from Ryan Kavanaugh/Relativity Media. With strong Best Picture prospects, this would seem a shoo-in for a nomination.
Get Low – C. Gaby Mitchell, Chris Provenzano: Mad Men writer Provenzano dreamed up the story of a hermit wanting to throw his own funeral in 2001 but then saw it reworked five years later by Mitchell. The result of this shotgun writers’ marriage was this long-in-development film finally got made and gave Robert Duvall another major starring role and shot at a second Oscar at age 80.
Hereafter – Peter Morgan: As a writer Morgan tended to do real life stories like The Last King Of Scotland, The Queen and Frost/Nixon, the latter two both winning him Oscar nominations. But the death of a friend led him into very different territory with this very spiritual tale on the tenuous connections between living and dying. With director Clint Eastwood insisting on not changing a word, Morgan got to live the writers dream and could land his third nomination although the film seems to be fading in memory this awards season.
Inception – Christopher Nolan: Shortly after winning his only Oscar nomination to date with his original screenplay Memento 10 years ago, Nolan came up with the concept for this startling and emotional story about dream invaders. It took a couple of enormously successful Batman films but Nolan finally got it made, winning that “dream” combination of rave reviews and blockbuster box office. This would seem a certainty to earn him his next dance with Oscar.
The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg: Indie filmmaker Cholodenko wanted to go a little more commercial. And commercial filmmaker Blumberg wanted to go a little more indie. So the perfect combination was formed to write this family dramedy about a Lesbian couple with two teen kids whose relationship hits the rocks when their sperm donor suddenly flies in from the past. Winner of a NY Film Critics screenplay award and nominated for Golden Globes and CCMA honors, this is a rare comedy that could break through against its super serious competition.
The King’s Speech – David Seidler: Seidler, who had stuttering problems of his own as a kid, has been waiting 35 years to tell the story of the friendship between King George VI of England and his Australian speech coach, Lionel Logue. It’s been the longest journey of any screenwriter this year, but this WGA nominated writing veteran (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) is suddenly an “overnight” success and an Oscar frontrunner.
Made In Dagenham – William Ivory: A feel-good period piece about a group of feisty female factory workers fighting for equal pay in late 1960s England, Ivory’s deft combination of pathos, humor, and determination would make this an instant contender. But box office has been spotty, and its main chance at Oscar recognition would appear to be in the hands of the writers branch who are often known for championing the little guy – or in this case gal.
Please Give – Nicole Holofcener: This spring comedy was one of the first 2010 films to elicit any awards talk when it was released in April but its memory has faded a bit and another offbeat family comedy The Kids Are All Right may have stolen its thunder. Still, Holofcener’s quirky dialogue and amusing and flawed characters are highly entertaining and could pull a (major) surprise.
Somewhere – Sofia Coppola: This European-style minimalist exercise may be an acquired taste but don’t count out Coppola who won here for her only other original screenplay, Lost In Translation, in 2003. The Grand Prize winner at the Venice Film Festival, this story of a LA actor adrift and trying to forge a relationship with his young daughter actually could strike a few chords and win a few votes from other writers who may see someone they know in this.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
127 Hours – Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy: Adapting Aron Ralston’s book about his 5-day ordeal trapped “between a rock and a hard place” in a canyon he only escaped by cutting off his own arm, would seem to be impossible. Director Boyle had a vision and conquered 2 drafts before bringing in his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire writer Beaufoy to do clean up. Somehow, they managed to turn this one-man show into a compelling movie and so far have landed Golden Globe and CCMA nominations for this ‘farewell to arm’ tale of man vs. nature with Oscar recognition a good bet at this point.
Fair Game – Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth: This riveting political thriller won top reviews in Cannes but failed to ignite the box office in its November opening stateside. Still, the screenplay crackles as the Butterworth brothers took both books by Valerie Plame and husband Joe Wilson to tell the tale of Plame’s massive CIA identity leak and the ensuing nightmare it caused. Longshot.
The Ghost Writer – Robert Harris, Roman Polanski: With Polanski’s aid, novelist Harris took a crack at his own book about a hired writer helping to craft the memoirs of a shady former British Prime Minister. With Hitchcockian twists and turns, the pair wrote a screenplay dealing with the craft of writing among many other things that should have great appeal in this category and may well win a nomination despite the threat of being forgotten due to its early 2010 release date.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg: Despite its Foreign Language and Swedish origins, this first of Stieg Larsson book adaptations (followed by The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) represent perhaps one of the highest profile and most prodigious contenders in the category this year. Writers branch members in their Oscar voting are often receptive to foreign films so this one has a genuine shot of making the grade.
How To Train Your Dragon – William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders: Taking Cressida Cowell’s stirring kids book and giving it heart, humor, and action, this writing team could find themselves competing against another toon, Toy Story 3. Writers have never been shy about acknowledging the scribe talents behind animated features in recent years and this one should be no exception. But it would mean seeing two toons going head to head here for the first time.
Love And Other Drugs – Ed Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Charles Randolph: Jamie Reidy’s book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman proved to be perfect source material to get Zwick off the historical epic beat and back to romantic comedy basics. An underperformer at the box office, this sexy romp is a long shot but showed there’s still life in the genre.
Rabbit Hole – David Lindsay-Abaire: Broadway hit play movie adaptations were once a mainstay of Hollywood studio filmmaking and this category, but now they are few and far between. Rabbit Hole is the only one on my list this year as Lindsay-Abaire gave the cinematic treatment to his own Pulitzer Prize and Tony-nominated play about a married couple struggling with the death of their 4-year-old son. Using humor and irony, he makes it seem far less bleak than it sounds, and, as a writer getting to bring his theatrical work to a wider audience, could win praise from his peers as well.
Shutter Island – Laeta Kalogidis: Dennis Lehane’s novels Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone have proved strong fodder for filmmakers, and so it should come as no shock that this one became director Martin Scorsese’s biggest box office hit. Getting the atmospherics of a creepy mental institution and emotional undercurrents just right, Kalogidis’ adaptation was chilling and the kind of material that usually wins nominations except it seems few people seem to remember the Febuary release came out this year.
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin: Despite many Emmys for his TV work on shows like The West Wing plus Golden Globe nods for screenplays like An American President, A Few Good Men, and Charlie Wilson’s War, Sorkin has surprisingly never been Oscar nominated. But that is definitely going to change this year with his front-running screenplay adaptation of The Social Network, a tale of the Machiavellian machinations behind the founding of Facebook that has been compared to everything from Shakespeare to Citizen Kane.
The Town – Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard, Peter Craig: As he did in his feature directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, Affleck (and his co-writers) have turned to another story set near his hometown of Boston. Based on Chuck Hogan’s Prince Of Thieves, this crime tale weaves big action and strong drama around a gang of bank robbers who go for one last job and get in over their heads. Lest we forget, Affleck is already an Oscar-winning writer (he and Matt Damon won for their Good Will Hunting in 1997) and he could be back again this year.
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt (story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich): Arndt won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 but has changed gears to deliver the penultimate adventures of Woody, Buzz, and the gang in a 2nd sequel that defied all expectations and topped its predecessors critically and commercially. The first Toy Story was nominated as an original script in 1995 but now is deemed an adaptation for this installment. No toon has ever won for its writing but there’s always a first time — and TS3 could surprise.
True Grit – Joel Coen and Ethan Coen: Some thought the Coen Brothers’ Oscar winner No Country For Old Men was a western, but they rightly disagreed. No question this remake based on Charles Portis’ novel is a remake and has won rave reviews. That’s no easy task considering the 1969 version is beloved and won John Wayne an Oscar. The Coens focus on dialogue, and critics have called it a dazzling adaptation. With two writing Oscars already to add to their impressive total of four each, no need to guess their peers will be nominating them again – and again.
The Way Back – Keith R. Clarke, Peter Weir: This epic tale of survival freely adapted from Slavomir Rawicz’s controversial The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom is a towering directorial achievement for Weir who has also provided a powerful and literate screenplay with Clarke, co-writer and originator of the project. Its relatively low profile and small end of year release may mean not enough voters will see it in time, though.
Winter’s Bone – Anne Rosellini, Debra Granik: This pair grabbed the 2010 Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting award for this backwoods story of a young girl’s determination to track down her father. Granik directed in the same spare style she writes, adapting novelist Daniel Woodrell’s poetic dialogue to within an inch of its life. With widespread praise and lots of early awards attention, this is a likely pick to make the final five here.