Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Best Screenplay Nominee: PHILOMENA

PHILOMENA nominated for Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
LOGLINE - A journalist helps a woman search for the child that was stolen from her by nuns fifty years ago.

WHO WROTE IT - British comic Steve Coogan is best known in the UK as Alan Partridge, a fake talk-show host often compared to Stephen Colbert and co-created by Coogan with fellow future Oscar-nominated screenwriters Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) and Patrick Marber (Notes on a Scandal).

Alan Partridge, alter ego of Academy Award nominated screenwriter Steve Coogan

Although less known in the US, Coogan has appeared in such Hollywood hits as Tropic Thunder, both Night at the Museum movies, and as the voice of Silas Ramsbottom in Despicable Me 2, as well as indie darlings 24 Hour Party People, Hamlet 2, Ruby Sparks, and the aforementioned Oscar-nominated In the Loop.

The source material, the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search by Martin Sixsmith, was published in 2009. Sixsmith was a BBC correspondent, a novelist, and an advisor on In the Loop. In 2004, he was approached by a stranger at a party who asked him to help a friend’s mother solve a fifty-year-old mystery.

He spent the next five years helping the feisty, old Irishwoman track down her lost son. His book shared the deepest secrets of Lee’s youth and reconstructed the life of the child she never got to see grow up.

Martin Sixsmith, Philomena Lee, Steve Coogan
(l-r) Author Martin Sixsmith, Philomena Lee, screenwriter Steve Coogan
Coogan spotted an article by Sixsmith in The Guardian about the events detailed in the book and quickly optioned it. Primarily interested in the journey the author had taken in researching the book, Coogan developed a screenplay with Jeff Pope that inserted Sixsmith into the story, then cast himself as the detective-like journalist opposite Dame Judi Dench.

Coogan is one of thirteen screenwriters last year who starred in the films they wrote or co-wrote, including Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, also nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for Before Midnight.

Jeff Pope, Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Screenwriters Jeff Pope (l) and Steve Coogan (r) with Judi Dench
AN ODD COUPLE HITS THE ROAD - Though nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, Philomena is not a straight adaptation at all. Its credited source material is mostly about what Sixsmith found out regarding Philomena’s son’s life in America, while the film is about how he found it. Sixsmith barely mentions himself in the pages of his book, but describes the film as “the story behind the book.”

Coogan was attracted to the incongruity of the cynical Sixsmith going on a journey of discovery with this woman who appeared carefree in the face of deep personal tragedy. He saw a way to tackle a serious subject with humor and put his two characters on the road together, not unlike Best Original Screenplay nominee Nebraska, even though Sixsmith and Lee never traveled to America together during their real life search.

The co-protagonists have opposing world views -- he’s secular, she retains her faith to this day -- and each has a complete arc without either having a phony revelation that transforms them.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in PHILOMENA

Despite their differences, the two main characters are not each other’s antagonist. The villain is the “obstructive Catholic church,” as Sixsmith describes it, personified in Sister Hildegarde (who, in reality, had died before their search began). The movie almost plays as a direct sequel to 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters.

The film’s villain appears as an obstructive force only in the first and third acts. The second act journey that makes up the bulk of the film has an external goal -- finding Philomena’s son -- that completely changes after a surprising midpoint catapults the story into a new direction.

WILL IT WIN - Philomena has many of the elements Oscar voters respond to: Controversial subject matter (bringing to light a little-known scandal kept tightly under wraps by the Catholic church), LGBT themes, and Judi Dench.

With four total nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Dench), it’s The Weinstein Company’s most nominated film. Known as an aggressive Oscar campaigner who steered voters away from Fargo in favor of The English Patient and pushed a win on Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, The Hollywood Reporter expects Harvey Weinstein to pull out all the stops.

PHILOMENA director Stephen Frears has two BAFTA awards
PHILOMENA director Stephen Frears
The film has plenty of Oscar pedigree. Its director, Stephen Frears, missed the cut this year, but has been nominated twice before, for The Grifters and The Queen, and his 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons, won 3 statuettes, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Christopher Hampton. Three of his other films (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things, and My Beautiful Laundrette) were also nominated for their screenplays, so the Academy seems to like his script choices a lot.

Dench, who won in 1999 for Shakespeare in Love, is on her seventh nomination, while composer Alexandre Desplat is up for his sixth at-bat in eight years with no wins.

Philomena seems destined to take home the gold for something, and it just might be its screenplay, which placed first at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice, and USC Scripter Award, and two ScripTipps Platinum Brad Screenplay Awards (Best Screenplay Based on a True Story and Best Screenplay Written or Co-Written by the Film’s Lead Actor).

READ THE SCREENPLAY - The Oscar-nominated Philomena screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope can be downloaded directly from The Weinstein Company’s website. (Click here for the PDF.) The final shooting draft is 118 pages, while the finished film clocks in at around 95 minutes.

This is Part 2 of our 10-part series of profiles on this year's Oscar-nominated screenplays.

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