Thursday, February 13, 2014

Best Screenplay Nominee: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS nominated for Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
LOGLINE - The captain of an American cargo ship struggles to stay alive and protect his crew when his vessel is boarded by Somali pirates and held for ransom.

WHO WROTE IT - The film is based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who wrote about the events in his book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. The hijacking occurred over five days in April, 2009. The book, co-authored by Stephan Talty, was published by Hyperion the following April and optioned by Columbia Pictures.
The real Captain Richard Phillips
Captain Richard Phillips
The open writing assignment for the screenplay went to Billy Ray, whose feature writing credits include Flightplan, State of Play, and The Hunger Games. After being turned down for meetings 21 times about his original screenplay Shattered Glass, Ray finally convinced Lionsgate to make that his directorial debut, which he followed up in 2007 with Breach.
Academy Award nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS)
Billy Ray

This Billy Ray is not the father of Miley Cyrus. He is the son of a literary agent whose stellar client roster included Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People), Paul Brickman (Risky Business), and Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon). Ray’s first sale, at the age of 19, was a Jetsons episode.

He recommends aspiring screenwriters study the following five screenplays to learn structure: Broadcast News, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Rocky, and The Wizard of Oz.

THE HERO'S JOURNEY - Captain Phillips has a classically delineated hero and villain, but Ray’s script does a couple things with them that make it stand out.

First, he makes the bad guy sympathetic, to a degree, because he knows a big, bad meanie isn’t as dramatic as a dilemma. Ray makes sure we see first-hand the desperation that motivates the pirate to seize Phillips’ ship. It’s wrong, but it’s business, and a necessary line of work, from the pirate’s point of view, for his own survival.

The story is true, but other writers might not have chosen to research and include the pirate’s side of the story. Understanding how important the pirate's mission is to him makes us fear more for the hero because we know the bad guy can’t and won’t back down. Without this insight, he would be a cardboard villain.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS starring Tom Hanks (center) and Barkhad Abdi (left)
Ray’s second major achievement was overcoming the “passive” protagonist problem. Like Solomon Northrup's dependence on Brad Pitt to regain his freedom in 12 Years a Slave, or one of the main villains literally showing up on the heroine's doorstep in Winter's Bone saying, "We're going to fix your problem for you," Ray's hero literally has his hands tied for the second half of the movie and has to wait for the U.S. Navy to swoop in and rescue him.

That's not what they teach in screenwriting school.

It helps to have the World’s Most Likable Actor in the lead role, and there is one beat where the hero actively tries to escape, but other writers would have been tempted to have him participate even more in his own salvation. Instead, Ray lets Phillips be the heroic leader in the first half of the movie, nearly negotiating a peaceful retreat, then, after a game-changing midpoint, shows his courage through his ability to stay calm and not try to become Rambo.

WILL IT WIN - Here at ScripTipps, Captain Phillips is our favorite of the ten nominated screenplays. But what are its chances for nabbing some Oscar gold on the big night?

In our January 13 predictions, we expected the script to be ignored altogether in favor of August: Osage County. Luckily, that didn’t happen, but Tom Hanks, who seemed like a shoe-in for Best Actor, was left stranded in the ocean with Robert Redford.

The film picked up a respectable total of 6 nods, placing it in a three-way tie for fourth place with Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club. The captain's citations include Best Picture and a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor shout-out for Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate.
Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass with co-stars Barkhad Abdi and Tom Hanks
The script didn’t make the cut at all in the Golden Globes’ only screenplay category that pits adaptations against originals. (The win went to Her.) Captain Phillips lost in all four of the Globes categories it was nominated in and was also shut out of all six of its Critics’ Choice nominations, including Adapted Screenplay. It’s still up for nine BAFTA awards (to be announced February 16), including Best Adapted Screenplay.

The most prominent award that’s gone to Phillips so far is the WGA Adapted Screenplay prize. However, 12 Years a Slave, the front-runner for Best Picture, which beat out Ray for the Critics’ Choice and USC Scripter awards, wasn’t eligible in the WGA contest. And the WGA had also elected Ray to its board of directors in 2011.

Captain Phillips is also nominated for Best Screenplay Based on or Inspired by a True Story in our own inaugural Platinum Brad Screenplay Awards. You can vote in this and 15 other screenwriting categories by clicking here.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FIRST-TIME OSCAR-NOMINATED SCREENWRITER - Billy Ray has numerous high-profile projects in various stages of development, including a rewrite of a Frank Sinatra biopic for Martin Scorsese, a reboot of Universal’s Mummy franchise, and an HBO series based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.

Tricks of the Trade: The Dialogue video interview with Billy Ray
Examiner Red Carpet Interview with Billy Ray at Captain Phillips NYFF Premiere
Film Independent: How to Take the Terror Out of Writing

This is Part 6 of our 10-part series of profiles on this year's Oscar-nominated screenplays.

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