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

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

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.