Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Science the Shit Out of Exposition

Matt Damon stars in Ridley Scott's THE MARTIAN, adapted by Drew Goddard from the novel by Andy Weir
THE MARTIAN began life as a serialized novel by software engineer Andy Weir, uploaded to his personal website chapter by chapter in 2009. Dense with heavily researched science, the work quickly attracted other science geeks whose feedback helped tighten its scientific accuracy through crowd fact-checking. Even so, Weir knew hard science alone would not make for an interesting story, so he gave The Martian a gripping Apollo 13-meets-Cast Away plot and infused his main character with a winning, smart-alecky personality.

Fans demanded a downloadable version of the full manuscript, so the author made a Kindle version available on Amazon for just 99 cents (at the time). That edition is said to have sold over 35,000 copies in three months, outpacing free downloads on Weir’s website and catching the attention of a literary agent. A traditional publishing deal soon followed. A movie sale came just four days later, changing the programmer's life overnight.

Screenwriter Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, World War Z, Lost) said at a recent Q&A that the key to adapting the book was its first four words: “I’m pretty much fucked.”
Screenwriter DREW GODDARD (The Martian)
This is how astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) sums up his situation when he finds himself stranded on Mars. It’s also pretty much how the story’s structure operates. The protagonist is stuck on a planet with no breathable air and only enough food to last a few months. His situation is always dire. Every time he overcomes one obstacle, he faces a new problem he must solve. He’s always “fucked,” but only “pretty much,” because he has the heroic quality of scientific ingenuity to clear his hurdles. Thus each scene of the screenplay advances the survivalist one small step, while pushing him back one giant leap, sending him right back to pretty-much-fucked status.

The biggest challenge the screenwriter faced, however, was how to deliver a spaceship full of the hard sci-tech exposition that made the book a “love letter to science” in a medium built upon visuals and emotion for a mass audience that mostly doesn’t have a master’s degree in physics from MIT. Fortunately, the novel’s tone already solved that problem.

The epistolary novel is mostly a series of Watney’s first-person mission log entries. The narrative voice strikes a balance between scientific authenticity and a more relatable regular-guy sarcasm. The film turns the logs into video logs, avoiding traditional voiceover by giving Damon someone to talk to and essentially making us the invisible “Wilson” of the picture.
"In the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option: I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this." - Mark Watney, The Martian
For every expository line necessary for us to understand the next plot point, Goddard took care to have it delivered in way, or followed up with a reaction, that carried some element of humor. For example, after explaining precisely how, in one instance, the math leaves him pretty much fucked, Watney remarks, “So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

This line hides the key to getting away with exposition in dialogue in those situations where a dry info dump is absolutely necessary. The science itself is the exposition. The act of twisting it from a noun to a verb and then using that to further twist the shit out of a common expression turns the entire “lecture” into a memorable laugh, aiding our comprehension and retention of that shit-strained science. When it comes to exposition, a good joke is like the proverbial spoonful of sugar. Goddard applied this technique so effectively throughout the exposition-heavy screenplay that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has mistakenly nominated this dramatic adventure film in its comedy category.

SCREENWRITING TIP: Challenge your hero, show him rising to the challenge, then throw a new obstacle at him. Rinse and repeat.

SCREENWRITING TIP: When it comes to important but dry and boring exposition, a good joke can work like the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
The Martian by Andy Weir

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Where to Find Free Story Ideas

Stuck for a story idea for your next screenplay? So are the studios. It seems all they make these days are sequels and remakes of tried-and-tested properties that have proven track records.

The good news is, you can too! While you may not have the rights to spec a screenplay out of the Marvel Universe, nothing prevents you from dusting off an old classic that’s in the public domain and throwing it into contemporary times where modern teen moviegoers can relate to it.
Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz urging us to party with the Haiti-ans 20 years ago in CLUELESS, a contemporary re-telling of Jane Austen's "Emma"
Twenty years ago today, Fast Times at Ridgemont High director Amy Heckerling scored a hit with her modern retelling of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma. Clueless raked in $56 million at the box office ($105 million in today’s money), spawning a TV and YA-book series and launching the careers of its talented young cast (Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Sisto, Breckin Meyer).

Here are five other hit modernizations of classic stories:

Ryan Philippe and Selma Blair in CRUEL INTENTIONS, a modernization of DANGEROUS LIAISONS
The 18th century French novel Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, about seduction and revenge, was updated in 1999 by writer-director Roger Kumble to this kinky drama set among the privileged teens of a Manhattan prep school. The movie, which, like Clueless (spoiler alert), featured hints of incest between step-siblings, starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Philippe, Reese Witherspoon (playing a virgin while hiding a baby bump in real life), and Selma Blair. An attempt to spin it off into a TV series was repackaged as two direct-to-video sequels.

Emma Stone adorns her wardrobe with an updated Scarlet Letter in EASY A, a latter-day send-up of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century novel, The Scarlet Letter, of 17th century adultery, was spun on its head by 21st-century screenwriter/playwright Bert V. Royal as Emma Stone’s Olive Penderghast becomes the most popular girl in school when she embraces false rumors of her promiscuity by branding her wardrobe with Hester Prynne’s letter of shame. The $8 million film brought in $58 million domestically and earned Stone her first Golden Globe nomination for her first starring role.

Freddie Prinze Jr. makes over Rachel Leigh Cook in 1999's popular Pygmalion-like teen rom-com, SHE'S ALL THAT
The classic 1913 George Bernard Shaw makeover play Pygmalion (also the source material for My Fair Lady) got the modernization treatment from R. Lee Flemming Jr.’s 1999 teen rom-com with BMOC Freddie Prinze Jr. challenged to transform dorky Rachel Leigh Cook into Prom Queen material in six weeks. M. Night Shyamalan is said to have done a Pygmalion to the script before it went into production. The Weinstein Company is rumored to be developing a remake.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Heath Ledger, Larisa Oleynik, and Julia Stiles star in 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, a re-imagining of Shakespere's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Fifty years after being parodied in Cole Porter’s Tony award winning musical Kiss Me, Kate, Shakespeare’s 400-year-old story The Taming of the Shrew landed in a modern American high school with Heath Ledger as a contemporary Petruchio vying for a date with shrewish Julia Stiles. From a spec screenplay by first-timers Karen McCullah & Kristen Smith, who would go on to update the Bard again, turning his Twelfth Night into 2006’s She’s the Man. In 2009, 10 Things became a short-lived TV series on ABC Family.

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood star as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria in WEST SIDE STORY, an modern homage to William Shakespeare's ROMEO & JULIET
Jerome Robbins transported Shakespeare’s warring Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet’s 16th century Verona to modern-day New York and set it to music (by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents). The Broadway production danced away with two Tony awards (and four more nominations), while the 1961 film adaptation, scripted by Ernest Lehman, captured ten Academy Awards, making it one of the most celebrated screen accomplishments of all time.

As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew, by entertainment journalist Jen Chaney
The 20th anniversary of Clueless has been commemorated with entertainment journalist Jen Chaney’s new behind-the-scenes book, As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Best Way to Improve Your Screenwriting

A magic pill that will improve your screenwriting.
What if I told you there’s a magic pill guaranteed to improve your screenwriting? There is, and it's actually a lot more enjoyable than taking a pill, unless you're really into pill popping.

It’s called reading other people’s screenplays. Professional or amateur. I promise if you read enough of them, your own screenplays will magically start getting better. Here’s how.

First, join a writers group. When you’re starting out, reading another amateur writer’s work is the easiest way to see the mistakes that you are making, because we all make them. Too much dialogue. Telling, not showing.

Join a Writers Group
Here’s the cure: When you notice yourself getting bored reading someone else’s overly detailed scene description, you’ll understand how readers feel about your own overly detailed scene descriptions, and you won’t want to put them through that anymore. It’s a lesson that’s more valuable than the actual notes you’ll get from the rest of the group on your work.

Of course, it helps to read good scripts, too. Fortunately, the internet is crawling with screenplays for almost all of your favorite produced movies. (Just be careful not to waste your time with fan-generated transcripts, which will have as much value to you as a “novelization” of an original script.)
Drew's Script-O-Rama is one of the many websites where you can find screenplays of produced movies.
Seeing a movie on the screen is a lot different from seeing it on the page. Find the screenplays for some of your favorite movies -- preferably recent ones, because frankly, seeing how Billy Wilder wrote a classic in 1950 will not help you sell a screenplay in the 21st century.

Pick a movie you own on DVD and have watched more than a few times. Try writing out one of its scenes as if the final cut was actually from a movie you're writing that still exists only in your head. How would you translate that vision on paper? How does that compare with the way the writer wrote it? Study that screenplay. What’s the page count? How long are the scenes? What’s the largest block of dialogue? Are the scene descriptions bogged down in details about set decoration or blocking, or do they help you flow effortlessly through the script?

Now try reading screenplays for films you haven’t seen. Try it with the next movie in your Netflix queue that you can find the screenplay for. Read it before you watch it. How does the finished film match up with how you envisioned the scenes? Did the actors interpret lines differently than you thought they would? Notice any scenes missing? Try to figure out why before listening to the filmmaker’s commentary.

StoryBoard Development Group meets monthly at 20th Century Fox to analyze screenplays of moives in current release.
Like a magic pill, the tips offered here won’t help unless you actually swallow them. If you find yourself spending more time downloading a library of PDFs than actually reading them, you can remedy that by joining a screenwriters discussion group that forces you to read and analyze one script a month for a produced film in current release instead of reading and critiquing its members’ screenplays.
StoryBoard Screenplay Development Group, Since 1981
One such group, in existence since 1981, is the StoryBoard Development Group, which meets the second Monday of the month on the studio lot at 20th Century Fox. So far in 2015, this excellent group has dissected the Academy Award-winning adapted screenplay The Imitation Game, Oscar nominated scripts Nightcrawler and Whiplash, Cameron Crowe’s latest, Aloha, Sundance favorite Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and more, with such outstanding guest moderators as two-time Emmy winner Erik Bork and Dirty Harry screenwriter Wendell Wellman. Visit StoryBoardDG.com for information on how to join the fun.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on January 25, 2010.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

2015 Oscar-nominated screenwriters Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Anthony McCarten (Theory of Everything), Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawlers), Graham Moore (Imitation Game), E. Max Frye (Foxcatcher), Alex Dinelaris (Birdman), Jason Hall (American Sniper)

Of the five scripts nominated for Best Original Screenplay, four were written or co-written by their director and four are for films also nominated for Best Director, while only three are nominated for Best Picture. Four of the writers are also previous Oscar nominees, though none has previously won. That is likely to change this year.

Only one of these scripts is based on a true story, while another was inspired by various works of fiction and non-fiction by a popular Austrian author. Three of the entries are by writing teams (or were rewritten by a second writer), whereas all of the scripts in the adapted category have only one credited screenwriter.

Two of the contenders here are among the most unique film projects in recent years, one having been filmed a few weeks a year over a twelve-year period, the other shot in thirty days but designed to look like one continuous shot for its entire running time. Birdman and  Boyhood are the frontrunners in the Best Picture and Director heats, where they are likely to split the wins. But are their creative triumphs due solely to their unusual filmmaking styles, or are they based on outstanding screenwriting as well?

Here is a closer look at all five nominated screenplays...

BIRDMAN written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, nominated for Best Original Screenplay Academy Award
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (director), Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo

If the purpose of the Academy Awards is to legitimize the artistic merit of filmmaking, then it's no wonder Oscar voters have taken to this tale of an aging movie star who sets out to prove he can act on the legitimate stage. A real actor's movie, Birdman is not surprisingly the only film this year with three acting nominations. A remarkable technical achievement as well, the Academy has bestowed upon it a total of nine nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography (by last year's winner, from Gravity), sound mixing, and sound editing, putting it in a first-place tie for the most nods this year.

Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu burst onto the scene in 2000 with Amores Perros, winning the Critic's Prize at Cannes and securing an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category. He followed that with 21 Grams and was nominated again in 2007 for directing Babel. That film also scored a screenplay nod for Guillermo Arriaga, the screenwriter of all three acclaimed films. After that, the team split up when Iñárritu banned Arriaga from attending Babel's Cannes premiere, publicly dismissing the writer's contributions as an author of the film.

Birdman is Iñárritu's attempt to lighten up after what has been labeled his "death trilogy." Though nominated in the comedy categories at the Golden Globes, the end result is still firmly on the darker side of black humor. The screenplay, written with a team of three other collaborators, has won more than a dozen awards, including a Globe, and was nominated for a BAFTA, but was not eligible for a WGA award, which went to its closest competitor, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the only film in this category to outgross Birdman.

BOYHOOD written and directed by Richard Linklater, nominated for Best Original Screenplay Academy Award
Written and directed by Richard Linklater

Slightly favored to beat Birdman for Best Picture, Boyhood has a total of six nominations, putting it in a fourth-place tie with American Sniper for most shout-outs overall. Patricia Arquette has been winning prizes almost everywhere for her supporting role, including the Golden Globes, SAG, and BAFTA awards, and is expected to take home an Oscar as well. The film has captured top prizes at the Globes and BAFTA, and has cleaned up with over 140 other awards, but the script, while nominated at the Globes, BAFTA, and the WGA, has only claimed three writing prizes. Boyhood is also up for five Independent Spirit Awards the night before the Oscars, but not for its writing.

The screenplay's poor showing is most likely due to the false perception that the film is unscripted. While certainly the scenes from the later years of this twelve-year project remained unwritten when the cameras started rolling in the early years, each sequence was fully scripted before it was shot. In that sense, the screenplay developed more like a TV series with just one episode per year. The fact that it all came together so beautifully makes it even more of a special achievement. In contrast, Interstellar, which was shot with one completed screenplay, felt more like two or three stories jammed together with really loud glue trying to keep them in place.

Boyhood has the second-lowest gross of all Best Picture nominees (ahead of Whiplash) and the second-lowest for the five original screenplays cited (ahead of Foxcatcher). Its other Oscar at-bats include Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actor. The film's writer-director, Richard Linklater, was previously nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category for co-writing the two Before sequels, Before Midnight and Before Sunset. His other credits include Dazed & Confused, School of Rock (soon to be adapted as a TV series on Nickelodeon), and the 2005 Bad News Bears remake.

Foxcatcher written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, nominated for Best Orignal Screenplay Academy Award
Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

This is the first Academy Award nomination for screenwriter E. Max Frye, who began his career with the acclaimed Jonathan Demme comedy Something Wild. At a recent Q&A panel with seven of this year's Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Frye indicated that he had very little to do with the final draft or production of Foxcatcher, making it the only one of the ten nominated scripts in both categories to have another writer hired to rewrite the original scribe's work.

The new writer, Dan Futterman, was previously nominated for writing Capote, his only other feature writing credit (making him two for two), also for Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller. The July 1, 2008 draft of Foxcatcher credits Miller, along with Frey and Futterman, for the story, but ultimately that credit did not make it to the screen, making Foxcatcher the only nominated original script this year whose director does not have a writing credit. As a consolation, Miller is the only director nominated this year for a film that was not nominated for Best Picture.

Foxcatcher is also the only nominated original script this year based on a true story. While it is not credited on screen as being based on any source material, the film's only surviving subject, Mark Schultz, has promoted his book, Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold, as the basis for the film. Shortly before the Oscar nominations were announced, Schultz engaged in a Twitter tirade denouncing the movie and threatening to end Miller's career, only to later apologize and call the film a "miracle."

Tied with Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, and Interstellar at five nominations, Foxcatcher is one of two nominated original screenplays not in the Best Picture race. Its lead actor and Mark Ruffalo in the supporting category are both up for gongs, as is the creator of Steve Carell's prosthetic nose. The movie scored the lowest box office gross in the original screenplay category and its only other writing nomination comes from the WGA, so expect the script to be an also-ran at the Oscars.

The Grand Budapest Hotel written and directed by Wes Anderson, nominated for Best Original Screenplay Academy Award
Written by Wes Anderson (director) and Hugo Guinness (co-story)

Said to be partly inspired by a novel, novella, and autobiography from Austrian author Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel is tied with Birdman for the lead in the most-nominations game with nine, including Best Picture, Best Director, editing, cinematography, production design, makeup, and score, but is one of only two original script nominees with no acting kudos despite its stellar cast (boasting three former winners and 11 former nominees, including current hopeful Edward Norton running again for Birdman).

Anderson was previously nominated twice for his original screenplays Moonrise Kingdom just two years ago and The Royal Tenenbaums eleven years before that. His film Fantastic Mr. Fox was also nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2010. Budapest is the highest grossing film in the original screenplay contest, having taken in $59 million, and the third-highest grossing among the eight Best Picture nominees (behind two adaptations: American Sniper and The Imitation Game).

The screenplay won the WGA award, where Birdman was not eligible. The movie also beat Birdman for Best Comedy at the Golden Globes, but lost the writing Globe to Birdman. However, Budapest won five BAFTA awards, including Best Screenplay, but lost the Producers Guild's top prize to Birdman.

While Best Picture is expected to go to either Birdman or Boyhood, clearly the top contenders in the writing category are Birdman and Budapest. Traditionally, Oscar liked to heap acclaim onto one film in as many categories as it could to justify naming it the "best" of the year. Lately that has changed. In five of the last ten years, the Best Picture winner lost either the director or writing trophy. The scales seem to be tipping a little bit in favor of a Budapest upset in the screenwriting category this year.

NIGHTCRAWLER written and directed by Dan Gilroy, nominated for Best Original Screenplay Academy Award
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy

This is the only script nominated in either writing category that failed to secure a single other nomination. The dark, Taxi Driver-like antihero thriller is the only more-or-less traditionally structured narrative in this group and is one of only two of these five original scripts, along with Foxcatcher, not competing for Best Picture.

The gritty noir, which tells the compelling story of a crime journalist who blurs the line between observer and participant, was nominated for four BAFTA awards, including Best Screenplay, and five Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Screenplay and Best First Feature. It's the only Spirit-nominated script to be nominated for an Oscar in any category at all this  year and was also nominated for a WGA award.

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy makes his directorial debut with Nightcrawler, co-starring his wife of 23 years, Rene Russo. His previous writing credits include Freejack, Reel Steel, and The Bourne Legacy, the latter co-written with his brother, Tony Gilroy, who directed that film and was nominated for Oscars in 2008 for writing and directing Michael Clayton. Nightcrawler is Dan's first Oscar nomination. Win, lose, or draw, he is next set to tackle adapting Stan Lee's Annihilator for the big screen.

ScripTipps Projection: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Listen to Jeff Goldsmith's Q&A podcast with seven of this year's Oscar nominated screenwriters at theqandapodcast.com.

See also: Analysis of Nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay

Friday, February 13, 2015

Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay

2015 Oscar-nominated screenwriters Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Anthony McCarten (Theory of Everything), Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawlers), Graham Moore (Imitation Game), E. Max Frye (Foxcatcher), Alex Dinelaris (Birdman), Jason Hall (American Sniper)

Of the five scripts nominated for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, four are for films also nominated for Best Picture, three have Lead Actor nominations (the other three acting categories each has one performance from an Adapted Screenplay nominee), and only one has a nod for its director.

Three of the films in this category are based on true stories (two from memoirs, only one about a person who is still alive). Two of those are period pieces about British scientists, while two center around wars. Only two of the five are by writer-directors, and only one is by a writer who has been nominated previously. All of the nominated writers are white males, and all five films follow a single protagonist, also a white male; only Whiplash has a definitive, personified antagonist.

And here's how the nominees land...

American Sniper written by Jason Hall, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award
Written by Jason Hall
Based on American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Navy SEAL Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice (memoir)

The wild card in all its races, Sniper's strong showing seemed to surprise Oscar watchers and box office analysts alike. It's one of only five films nominated in any category to have earned more than $250 million, with the other four (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, The Hobbit, and The LEGO Movie) relegated to tech categories (makeup, visual effects, and sound editing) and best song.

Like The Hurt Locker six years ago, Sniper profiles an American military hero's combat in the Iraq War. Like the Iran-set Argo just two years ago, the first reaction to Sniper's six nominations was over the snub to its movie-star director. Locker and Argo both went on to become the big winners of their respective Oscar nights, taking home trophies not only for their screenplays, but also for Best Picture.

Sniper has drummed up the most controversy of the five nominees, getting more people talking about it, which may also boost its chances for an upset on the big night. The film's other nods are for its lead actor Bradley Cooper, editing, sound mixing, sound editing, and Best Picture, while the script was also nominated for BAFTA and WGA awards.

This is the third feature screenwriting credit for Jason Hall, who had a recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not unlike co-star Danny Strong, who went on to win an Emmy and two WGA awards for writing HBO's political docudramas Game Change and Recount.

The Imitation Game written by Graham Moore, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award
Written by Graham Moore
Based on  Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (book)

The screenplay, which topped the 2011 Black List, tells the little-known secret history of how a nerdy British scientist helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II and pioneered the development of the modern digital computer but suffered severe and harsh punishment for being gay.

The Imitation Game is Graham Moore's feature screenwriting debut. His previous screenwriting credits include two shorts and an episode of the ABC Family sitcom 10 Things I Hate About You. Also a novelist, his 2010 literary debut, The Sherlockian, was a New York Times bestseller. He recently adapted The Devil in the White City for Warner Bros., with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to play America's first known serial killer, and is working on his second novel.

Going into the Oscars, the film has 8 nominations, more than any of its competitors in the adapted screenplay category and the third highest take overall. It's the only one of these five scripts also nominated for a Golden Globe, where originals and adaptations are not separated and Gone Girl was the only other adaptation cited. The film is the second-highest earner in its category and the only one of the five with a directing nod, and the script was also nominated for BAFTA and WGA awards and took home the USC Scripter award.

With no public backlash over controversial liberties that all historical dramas take with the truth (Turing and his team were never the ones to decide to let certain Allied ships get bombed, and none of them had a brother on those ships) -- meaning the script and its execution are so good that audiences are believing it all -- Moore seems to be the most likely adapter to take home a prize from the Oscars.

Learn more about Moore in his Crave Online interview.

Inherent Vice written by Paul Thomas Anderson, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson (director)
Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon.

The only nominated script this year adapted from a novel, the lone comedy in the category, and the only nominated adaptation not also nominated for Best Picture.

Paul Thomas Anderson's last four films (skipping Punch-Drunk Love) have earned 17 Oscar nominations, with only two wins. Seven of those nods were for acting, including Burt Reynolds (his only at-bat so far), Juliane Moore (her first), Tom Cruise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Vice star Joaquin Phoenix, and a win for Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, PTA's highest grosser. Vice is his second screenplay adaptation, and his third screenwriting nomination. He was previously lauded in the Adapted category for Blood (very loosely adapted from the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel Oil!) and competed in the Original race with Magnolia and Boogie Nights (which he first made as a short entitled The Dirk Diggler Story in 1988).

With only one other nomination, for Vice's costumes, and his weakest box office performance since his pre-Boogie Nights feature debut, Hard Eight, following last year's polarizing The Master, has Anderson's star started to fade? Look for PTA to be the least likely to take home the prize in this category this year.

The Theory of Everything written by Anthony McCarten, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award
Written by Anthony McCarten
Based on Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking (memoir)

The second entry focused on a famous mid-20th century British scientist, The Theory of Everything is the only one of the four true stories represented in this category whose subjects, Stephen and Jane Hawking, are still alive. The script follows the world-renowned physicist in standard biopic format, highlighting a gifted person's struggles with a crippling disease or disability in the tradition of such distinguished Oscar alumni as My Left Foot, Hilary and Jackie, Lorenzo's Oil, Ray, Shine, A Beautiful Mind, and The King's Speech, only the last two of which took home Oscars for their screenplays.

Kiwi playwright and novelist Anthony McCarten made his on-screen debut as a zombie in fellow Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson's Brain Dead. His previous screenwriting credits are all adaptations of his own novels or plays, and he directed two of those films. McCarten began writing his Hawking screenplay in 2004, on spec, working on it for eight years with Jane Hawking's cautious approval before finally convincing her to sell him the rights. He is also a producer on the film.

With SAG and BAFTA wins, the film's star, Eddie Redmayne, has the slight edge in a competitive Best Actor race. Theory is also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Score. The screenplay was ineligible for a WGA award, but that didn't stop 12 Years a Slave from winning in this category last year. On the other hand, McCarten nabbed a BAFTA in this category, which only has a 40% track record of matching Oscar over the last ten years.

Whiplash written by Damien Chazelle, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award
Written by Damien Chazelle (director)
Based on  his 2013 short film Whiplash.

A young jazz drummer striving for greatness is pushed to his limits, Rocky-style, by a mentor who makes the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket seem like Gandhi.

Whiplash is the head-scratcher of this category. Damien Chazelle's original, feature-length spec script landed on the 2012 Black List. Unable to secure financing, he convinced J.K. Simmons to spend three days filming one scene from the script as a demo. That rehearsal footage was then released as a short at Sundance in 2013, where it won a jury prize, helping the feature film get made. The full-length 2014 version does not carry a "based on" credit and the WGA nominated it in its Original Screenplay category (as did BAFTA). The Academy, however, chose to treat it as an adaptation of the short.

Tied with The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, and Interstellar at five nominations, including Best Picture, the film is expected to walk away with a Supporting Actor win for Simmons, who has been collecting prizes all season, including the Golden Globe (the film's only Globe nod), BAFTA, and SAG awards. Also nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, but not for its screenplay, Whiplash, which has not had a wide release, is the lowest grosser in the Best Picture race and second-to-last of the adapted screenplay nominees, just ahead of Inherent Vice, the only other writer-director project in this category.

Oscar loves stories of artists struggling to achieve perfection (see Birdman), but voters may feel they are already rewarding the script's sparkling dialogue by putting a statuette in the hands of the actor whose mouth it came out of. The confusion over whether this really should be competing with three true stories and an acclaimed novel's adaptation may also hurt its chances here. This would be a dark horse if it wins.

ScripTipps' prediction: The Imitation Game

Listen to Jeff Goldsmith's Q&A podcast with seven of this year's Oscar nominated screenwriters at theqandapodcast.com.

See also: Analysis of Nominees for Best Original Screenplay

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Show, Don't Tell. Even on TV.

For its first several decades, television was often derided as “radio with pictures.” Whereas motion pictures began as a purely visual medium with no dialogue at all, the boob tube had built upon Marconi’s wireless audio contraption by adding images. “Viewing” habits evolved slowly. The earliest shows, which had begun on radio, were designed and structured non-visually. The viewer could almost always follow the action without looking at the screen.

As production budgets grew and television screens became bigger and wider, mimicking movie screens, TV gradually became cinematic. Today, the screenwriting adage “show, don’t tell” applies equally to both film and television.

Take a look at the now-classic teaser in Breaking Bad’s 2008 pilot, for example. Landscape shots establish the desert location. A pair of pants drifting in the breeze against a blue sky sets up the first in a series of questions that completely hooks the audience: Whose pants are those? This guy? Why isn’t he wearing his pants? Where is he driving to in such a hurry? Why is he wearing a gas mask? What’s with the bodies rolling around on the floor of the camper? Why does this everyman have a gun tucked into the waistband of his undies?

Bryan Cranston in the teaser of Breaking Bad's groundbreaking 2008 pilot, written by Vince Gilligan.

The only dialogue in the sequence comes when Walter White records a video for his family. As he himself says, it’s not a confession. The only exposition the dialogue gives us is his name, address, and his family’s names. The real purpose of the dialogue is to expose the protagonist’s emotional state of mind, to make us aware that his life is other than what we are seeing. Because what we see is what dictates the story here.

After the opening credits, we jump back three weeks and begin to learn about our hero’s “normal” life through more wordless visuals. The décor of his home, spelled out extensively in the script, tells us his socioeconomic status. We see him in bed with his wife, waking up before her to work out in a room that is clearly being converted into a nursery, signaling that they are expecting a new baby. Finally, we see a plaque on the wall showing that Walt is a Nobel laureate.

Not only have we learned a lot more about Walt through the visuals in this sequence, but the contradiction between the images here and in the teaser sets up a major conflict. With virtually no dialogue, we’re dying to know how in the world this respectable, middle-class family man became the crazed, gun-toting man we saw naked in the desert in the space of just three weeks.

ScripTipps: Breaking Bad by Angela Jorgensen deconstructs the groundbreaking pilot script by Vince Gilligan

Find dozens of useful tips to help make your screenwriting (for features or television) more compelling in ScripTipps: Breaking Bad, Angela Jorgensen’s in-depth, scene-by-scene deconstruction of Vince Gilligan’s groundbreaking pilot script for one of the most acclaimed shows of television’s new Golden Age.