Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Five Exceptional Screenplays On Modern American Presidential Elections

2016 GOP nominee for president Donald Trump, Julianne Moore as 2008 GOP nominee for vice president Governor Sarah Palin in RECOUNT, John Travolta as fictional Democratic nominee for president Governor Jack Stanton in PRIMARY COLORS, George Clooney as fictional Democratic nominee for president Governor Mike Morris in THE IDES OF MARCH, 2016 Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton
For an election cycle that’s been playing like a reality TV show, one might be wondering if there’s a movie in this unprecedentedly nasty fight for the White House. What would be the best way to tell that story? Will Danny Strong be the one to tell it? What message would a movie inspired by 2016 want us to take away from a reenactment of all the crazy Trumpiness? To help figure it out, let’s examine five recent portrayals of our national octennial nightmares, including two behind-the-scenes peeks of campaigns dealing with sex scandals (one cynical, one optimistic), one analysis of what really matters to the everyman voter, one examination of how our votes are counted, and one indictment of how a vice presidential candidate can totally derail a campaign.

Adrian Lester with John Travolta as a Clintonian southern governor running for the Democratic nomination for President in the 1998 Mike Nichols film PRIMARY COLORS written by Elaine May.
PRIMARY COLORS (1998), a fictionalized account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 primary campaign, was based on a novel first published anonymously, later revealed to have been authored by journalist Joe Klein, who had covered the campaign for Newsweek. Comedian Elaine May wrote the screenplay, earning her her second Academy Award nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category (following her work on Heaven Can Wait twenty years earlier). The film was directed by May’s former comedy partner, Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl).

Like The Great Gatsby and The Shawshank Redemption, Primary Colors splits the protagonist and main character into two separate roles. Here the protagonist is the Clintonian southern governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta), but his story is told through the eyes of his reluctant Stephanopoulos-like campaign manager Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the film’s idealistic main character. Jack’s primary concern is to win the election, which is the story’s external goal. Henry, on the other hand, is the one who goes on a journey related to the film’s thematic goal: to find out whether idealism is worth preserving at the cost of moral sacrifice. While Henry has an active role in the campaign, he is a passive narrator in regards to the plot, leaving Jack to be an impact character who changes those around him, including Henry and the audience. Going on the journey with Henry instead of the womanizing candidate allows us to better understand why we might root for this unsympathetic protagonist.

All the Vice President's Men: Kevin Spacey, as Ron Klain, leads the fight to recount Florida votes in the 2000 election in RECOUNT (2008), written by Danny Strong.
RECOUNT (2008) retells the inside story of the stranger-than-fiction events of 2000 that kept America in suspense for 36 days after Election Day. Empire co-creator and former actor Danny Strong (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls) researched his first produced screenplay, with guidance from the Sydney Pollack, primarily through four out of over twenty books on the Florida recount efforts as well as through in-person interviews with at least one person who had been in the room for almost every scene he chose to depict. Strong’s teleplay for the HBO movie, directed by Jay Roach, won a WGA award and was nominated for an Emmy.

The candidates, Texas governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, are shown only from behind, and in only a few scenes, since the story really belongs to the Gore campaign’s General Counsel Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), who led the fight on the ground in Florida. The script bounces back and forth between the hero’s strategy sessions and those of his adversary, Bush Sr.’s former Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), giving both sides equal weight; Klain comes off as the protagonist because his prior ousting from Gore’s good graces gives him a personal arc and the other team’s lead in the initial counts paint Klain as the underdog. Events unfold in the manner of a thriller, with a roller-coaster of triumphs followed by setbacks, again and again. This gives us the sense of two warring sides even though the opponents never meet face-to-face until they shake hands and walk away in the film’s dénouement. Also worthy of study is the way Strong condenses and distills 36 days worth of convoluted legal maneuvering, esoteric technical details, and the philosophical nuance of legality versus fairness, into a two hour movie that dramatizes the whole mess while at the same time making it entertaining and easily digestible.

Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper tailor their final presidential debate for the one voter who will cast the tie-breaking vote in SWING VOTE (2008), written by Joshua Michael Stern and Jason Richman.
SWING VOTE (2008), also recalling the squeaker of 2000, takes the high concept approach, asking what would happen if the presidential election were so close that it all came down to one person. Joshua Michael Stern, creator of Graves, a new political comedy on Epix, directed the film and co-wrote it with his friend Jason Richman (Lucky 7). As with any high concept movie, the premise is no more plausible than a mother and daughter magically switching bodies. Just go with the magic “fortune cookie” of a voting machine breaking down, thereby giving our everyman hero ten days to re-cast the deciding vote, and enjoy the sharp political satire enmeshed in the sentimental father-daughter story.

Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is the clear protagonist in that he goes on a journey that transforms him from apathetic citizen to someone who learns to take his civic responsibilities seriously. However, the main story goal, to get him to vote (and to get him to vote for a specific candidate), belongs to three other characters: his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), who drives the story, and the two candidates -- the conservative incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the liberal outsider (Dennis Hopper). The candidates, along with their respective campaign managers, traverse a parallel arc, each tailoring his campaign to one single voter by comically flip-flopping, each eventually rediscovering his own moral center. The script deftly weaves Bud’s A-story and the candidates’ B-stories with two C-stories involving a local reporter hoping to graduate to the national stage while striving to maintain her integrity (echoing the theme of the candidates’ arcs), and a surprisingly dark revelation about Molly’s absent mother that makes the young girl finally appreciate her father, dysfunctional though their relationship may be. Added to all that is the barest hint of a pair of love interests for the two lead characters, yet the movie never feels overstuffed, nor the narrative structure muddled. Every character earns the redemption they find in the Capra-esque ending that argues for sane, issues-based political deliberation over this year’s focus on deleted emails, election rigging, and small-handed pussy-grabbing.

Ryan Gosling runs a presidential campaign backstage in THE IDES OF MARCH (2011), written by Beau Willimon, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov.
THE IDES OF MARCH (2011) is loosely based on the 2008 play Farragut North by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, which was drawn from his experiences working on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Director George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov optioned the property before the play was produced and wrote their version without ever seeing the play. They added thriller elements to the plot and drew additional inspiration from Clooney’s father’s failed 2004 congressional campaign as well as the documentary The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Their script was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Like Primary Colors, The Ides of March follows a whiz-kid campaign manager, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), on a quest to get a Democratic governor, Mike Morris (Clooney), his party’s nomination for president. Also as in the earlier film, there is a sex scandal and a death in the third act, and both movies deal thematically with the necessity for politics to corrupt the soul. However, March is a much darker story and does not split the protagonist and main character; it’s not the story of how Morris gets the nomination (he doesn’t even appear on stage in the original play). Instead, we follow Stephen on his active path to destruction and the film is entirely about testing how far he will go to win.
Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) chooses Alaska governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election in HBO's RECOUNT (2012), written by Danny Strong.

GAME CHANGE (2012), another HBO film, reunites the Recount writer-director team of Danny Strong and Jay Roach. While the source book by journalistsJohn Heilemann and Mark Halperin, compiled primarily from unsourced “deep background” reporting, encompassed the 2008 campaign cycle in its entirety, the election of the nation’s first African-American president is barely a footnote -- Obama is only seen in archival footage -- in the adaptation that focuses entirely on the game-changing selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as the Republican nominee for Vice President. Strong and Roach each won an Emmy for their work on the movie, which also took home three Golden Globe awards and three other Emmys.

The film opens and closes with a framing device: Political strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) looks back on his role in the 2008 Republican campaign and wonders whether he would push for putting Palin on the GOP ticket if he had to do it all over again. Like the other movies on this list, our guide is not one of the candidates, but a powerful behind-the-scenes character. Schmidt’s arc charts his intermittent successes in taming the shrew along with his growing frustrations as he loses control of the monster he’s created. The first act also sets up the real candidate, “maverick” senator John McCain (Ed Harris), as the underdog (he’s way behind in the polls) who, again like the idealists in the movies mentioned above, doesn’t want to play dirty or compromise his principles. By the third act, he will give in to temptation and follow a dark path, only to have to be reminded of what he really stands for. But the central character is Palin herself, a naïf thrust into the story so gung ho to win the White House that she ultimately forgets her fight is supposed to be for someone else’s benefit. One of the unique challenges of the script is to recreate a character and events that were heavily parodied in pop culture only a few years before. Palin’s greatest quips and gaffes pop up as touchstones more to remind us where they fell in the timeline than for just having fun reenacting them; the main storyline is first and foremost concerned with telling the backstage goings-on to help us better decipher the meaning of what we were collectively experiencing at the time. The drama is also not without a few eerie predictions on where the “reality show” nature of Palin’s popularity would lead us in 2016.

Vote for Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite as your favorite election-themed screenplay, or cast your vote for a write-in.
Now it's your turn. Vote for your favorite election-themed screenplay in the comments. Is it one of the above, or might it be The Best Man (1964), The Candidate (1972), Bob Roberts (1992), Speechless (1994), Wag the Dog (1997), Bulworth (1998), Election (1998), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Man of the Year (2006), Milk (2008), Our Brand Is Crisis (2015), The Purge: Election Year (2016), or a write-in? Your vote is guaranteed to count for absolutely nothing.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

T.M.I. in Scene Description

EXT. BANK - DAY - The FRAME is full of cop faces.
"The FRAME is full of cop faces [...] The fact is they love their work, which is criminals. There is a peculiar delight in ferreting out the criminal impulse in everybody, and a matching fury in punishing it -- which is the action of repressing their own strongly developed criminal unconscious. These are tense, funny, violent, and rigidly controlled men."
If that paragraph of scene description, which doesn't at all describe the image above of the scene that was ultimately shot, bored you, that's because screenplays are not supposed to be novels.

Scripts should read fast. Only include what is absolutely necessary in scene descriptions. Don't describe things that can't be seen or heard. How do you film cops "repressing their own strongly developed criminal unconscious"? How do the actors play that?

You may have heard these rules before. But guess what? The verbose description of a simple establishing shot above comes straight out of an Academy Award winning original screenplay by a writer who would go on to become the president of both the Writers Guild of America, West, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

That doesn't make it good screenwriting. However, there are times when a little literary flourish can help get the point across. For example:
Up In The Air starring George Clooney, screenplay adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Glorious close-up of Ryan's PLATINUM CARD sliding through the AUTOMATED MACHINE. Were it any sexier, we'd hear a moan. Maybe we even do.
This line of description breaks about half a dozen "rules" of screenwriting, depending on which screenwriting book is your bible: Don't mention camera angles, never use CAPS for anything other than the first appearance of a character's name, don't use "we" to refer to what the audience hears or sees, etc. But most egregiously, rules sticklers would say there is no way to film "Were it any sexier, we'd hear a moan."

And still the paragraph -- from the 2009 Oscar-nominated script Up In The Air -- sure paints a clear picture of exactly what the writer was trying to convey. The writer happened to also be the director in this case, but almost any director would have reached essentially the same result, including the feeling the writer was going for, based on that description.

Here's an example from the critically acclaimed 2010 drama The Kids Are All Right, also Oscar-nominated for its screenplay. This bit of scene description appears between the dialogue of two teenage girls discussing boys:
The Kids Are All Right by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
JONI: Just cause you're like a 24 hour drive-thru doesn't mean I have to be.
This is their running schtick. Joni calls Sasha a tramp. Sasha calls Joni a prude. They love it.
You can't film that description. But without it some readers might assume -- from the actual scripted dialogue -- that these two best friends despise each other. Unless the writer had resorted to the even more verboten: parentheticals! Or on-the-nose dialogue.

On the other hand, even the pros can overdo their descriptions. The following excerpts are from the 132 page first draft of the George Clooney flop The American by 28 Weeks Later screenwriter Rowan Joffe (son of twice Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffe).
The American starring George Clooney, screenplay adapted by Rowan Joffe
JACK completes his morning exercises then showers and dresses. His manner is precise and methodical. Only a man who has lived alone for many years can live like this.
Live like what? Exercising, showering and dressing? What does that even mean? Only single men exercise, shower and dress? Really? And are we really going to see Jack do all these things? That's a montage!
He hums as he cooks: Opera arias. And Johnny Cash.
Is he humming a mash-up? Or is this supposed to be two separate scenes? Or is it one long scene where he finishes humming an aria then segues to Johnny Cash?
If we were to see her in the Corso Federico II, we would think she was a secretary out shopping, a tourist taking in the sights, a middle class daughter of middle class parents making her way through business college or language school.
Sure. And if we were to see her with a fish tail, we'd think she was a mermaid. What's that got to do with the story?
The WAITER pours a thumbful of wine. It is pale red in colour and frizzante. At CLARA's insistence, JACK tastes it. It is dry and has a tar-like aftertaste.
And just what does a tar-like aftertaste look like on the screen?
JACK has driven to the remotest phone box he can find: not far from the entrance to one of the region's four national parks.
If we don't see the other three of region's four national parks, why do we need to know about them?

The script also contains a six-line paragraph describing the intricate details of a fountain with a 2-1/4mm diameter pipe made of bronze. I thought for sure the movie's Maguffin would at some point be hidden in this structure after so much time was spent describing it, but, alas, it is never referenced again. Nor is another character's son, who appears only once, while his father is on the phone. He has no lines but is nonetheless exhaustively biographied as being 14-years-old with Down's Syndrome and eating ice cream that his father is wiping from his mouth with a handkerchief. Good to know.
Shitty motel from IDENTITY by Michael Cooney
Perhaps the best example of how to tighten up scene descriptions comes from a booklet entitled Spec Format Guide. This example of what not to do is presumably not from a produced screenplay:
A sagging double-bed with a cigarette-burned bedspread stands against the far wall. The ancient wallpaper is faded and peeling. The threadbare carpet is badly discolored with stains the origins of which are best left unsaid. A disquieting breeze blows through the dingy window, causing the tattered curtains to flutter ghost-like in the gloom.
Here's how the guide suggests a good screenwriter would describe this same scene:
Works for me.

In case you're wondering, the Oscar-winning script quoted at the beginning of this article was Dog Day Afternoon. The shot, as so eloquently described, does not appear in the movie. Neither does this superfluous stage direction:
The Commissioner's hand lingers on Moretti's -- they are fond of each other, these men, linked in a relationship of a lifetime of shared experience, of attitudes, of maleness -- an accumulation of years of jokes about being late for dinner, of women waiting and women panting with desire, men secure in the bastion of their roles.
Too much information. Way too much.

ScripTipps TIP: Don't include extraneous information in scene description that can't be filmed and is not useful to the reader or actors.

ScripTipps: TIP: Contrary to the general rule, scene description IS allowed to add context to what is seen and heard.

ScripTipps TIP: It's okay to use scene description to help the reader understand the subtext of a scene.

ScripTipps TIP: Scene description can incorporate language that suggests intended tone and pace for the scene.

ScripTipps TIP: Use scene description to suggest an image or convey how an image should make us feel.

ScripTipps TIP: When writing scene description, don't describe the scene, describe the experience of watching the movie.

ScripTipps TIP: Scene description can comment on character in ways that help actors convey an idea nonverbally.

ScripTipps TIP: Verbose, literary scene descriptions in a screenplay slow down the read in a counter-productive way.

ScripTipps TIP: Don't use scene description to provide physical details of a set or location. That's the production designer's job.

ScripTipps TIP: Sometimes, just one word of scene description could be all it takes to get the point across.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on August 16, 2010.)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

I Was Never The Same Again After That Voiceover

Christina Ricci as Dedee Truitt, narrator of Don Roos's THE OPPOSITE OF SEX.
“If you’re one of those people who don’t like movies where some person you can’t see talks the whole time and covers up all the holes in the plot and at the end says, ‘I was never the same again after that summer,’ or whatever, like it was so deep they can’t stand it, then you’re out of luck. Things get very complicated here very quick. And my guess is you’re not gonna be up to it without me talking.”

Those are the first words in The Opposite Of Sex. In case you haven’t heard, voiceover narration is considered a no-no for new writers. Why? Because, as Dedee Truitt (Christina Ricci) tells us in the above quote, it’s a cliché and even audiences know it’s a way for lazy screenwriters to cheat. Writer/director Don Roos brilliantly got around that by making his narrator aware of the problem and having her explain to us, in voiceover, exactly why she doesn’t give a shit.

Movies from Clueless to Limitless have proven the use of voiceover (VO) does not make you less of a screenwriter. How else would the hacks who wrote Juno, American Beauty, and The Descendants end up with shiny gold statuettes from the motion picture academy on their mantles? But before deciding whether to add narration to your script, it's best to understand the different ways VO is used in movies.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, narrated by Freeman's character, Red.
By far, VO is used most often and most effectively in screenplays adapted from novels that were written in first person. This allows the movie to retain the book’s original tone, often using chunks of the book’s prose verbatim. It’s handy for that literary “inner dialogue” we don’t normally have the luxury of using in screenwriting.  In such adaptations, VO is typically used throughout the entire movie and is particularly effective when the narrator is a character with a distinct voice. Classic examples include Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shawshank Redemption.

In most other cases, VO tends to be used heavily in the first act to help set up the backstory, becomes less frequent or dropped altogether in Act 2, then comes back at the very end of the movie to express the movie’s theme. At the end of Eve’s Bayou, for example, adult Eve says, “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain.” American Beauty is another theme-driven bookend example. In many cases, these bookends are narrated by adult versions of a young character, such as in Chocolat and Stand By Me (also both adapted from first-person novels).

If the narrator is a supporting character (Frances, The Shawshank Redemption), the VO usually doesn’t start until that character first appears on screen. Otherwise, VO is normally introduced as soon as possible to establish its presence.
Peter Falk narrates THE PRINCESS BRIDE to Fred Savage.
A common narrative technique is to start with a character telling a story to another character, then transitioning into the story being told, thus allowing the narration to continue as needed in VO. Examples: Big Fish, The Princess Bride, The War Of The Roses, Amadeus. This technique cross-cuts between an A-story (the story being told) and a B-story (the telling of the story). Old Rose (Gloria Stuart) tells the story of Titanic in this fashion, but it’s interesting to note that a number of VO passages and present-day sequences that were written and shot for the second half of the movie ended up on the cutting room floor because they broke the momentum of the ship sinking.

Occasionally, the A-story catches up with the B-story, which then takes over without narration. In Forrest Gump, Forrest sits at a bus stop telling his life story to a succession of strangers until he reaches the point where he tells them why he’s at the bus stop. (In this case, the VO does return later for a montage, no longer having a logical explanation of who Forrest is talking to. Oops.)

A variation of the story-within-the-movie voiceover is when a character turns to us and narrates on-screen, breaking the fourth wall, as in two recent financial comedies, The Wolf of Wall Street and the Oscar winning screenplay The Big Short. Jack, the otherwise “unnamed” narrator/protagonist of Fight Club, does this too when he’s explaining reel changeover marks; the fact that Tyler breaks the fourth wall with him in this scene should tell us something.
Hayden Christensen plays unreliable narrator Stephen Glass in Billy Ray's SHATTERED GLASS.
A special kind of narrator is the unreliable narrator (though this term is not used exclusively for voiceover narration -- Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense is an unreliable point-of-view protagonist who does not narrate in VO). In Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass, the narration comes from a lecture being given to a classroom full of students, but when we learn the narrator is a big, fat liar, we also learn that classroom is empty and its students existed only in his mind.

The narrator can also be dead, as in Sunset Blvd., American Beauty and The Lovely Bones. Note that in all three of these, they tell us their fate up front.

Sometimes, as in The Opposite Of Sex, VO is directed to the audience, self-aware that it is part of a movie. (“This part where I take the gun is like, duh, important. If you’re smart, you’ll remember it.”) Another example: American Beauty (“Look at me jerking off while I listen to country music. Funny thing is, this is the high point of my day.”) This tends to be used for comedic effect.

Then, of course, there’s 1940s film noir, virtually definable by its stylized use of VO by the hard boiled detective, which is unique to the genre and not used much anymore, unless deliberately trying to evoke that particular mood, as in Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Christopher Nolan’s Memento also played around with this a little.

Also archaic in film today is the omniscient third-person narrator who is not a character in the story, as in biblical epics like The Ten Commandments, or the newsreels in Citizen Kane. Save this for History Channel documentaries. Although less bombastically godlike, Little Children used a detached, third-person narration that killed this otherwise very good 2006 film for many viewers.
One reason VO gets a bad rap is its frequent use as a Band-Aid to fix problems after the fact. A scene or whole subplot may end up getting cut, leaving a plot hole that needs to be filled in. That’s easier to do in movies where the audience is already used to listening to a narrator. In other cases, the same type of fix is regularly achieved by looping a new line of dialogue into a shot where the actor’s lips happen to not be visible (an over-the-shoulder shot on another actor, for instance).

But try to add VO in post-production to an entire movie for which it was never originally planned and it may backfire. Ridley Scott, for example, was infamously, and controversially, forced to add narration to Blade Runner when his initial cut proved too confusing for test audiences. Fans of the cult dystopian thriller would ultimately reject Harrison Ford’s studio-imposed VO when Scott released various director’s cuts without it decades later.

Although voiceover is easy to keep rewriting as needed after principal photography has wrapped, if used at all it is generally most successful when it is planned ahead of time and chosen for a reason other than being lazy about how to get across some exposition. Understanding the different ways VO is used well will serve screenwriters better than just listening to the fictionalized version of screenwriter Robert McKee advising, in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, “...and God help you if you use voiceover in your work, my friends.”

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on January 11, 2010. For more on effective use of voiceover in screenwriting, see ScripTipps: The Descendants, ScripTipps: The Fault in Our Stars, and ScripTipps: Waitress.)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Flipping Your Characters to the Same Page

Has this ever happened to you? Someone behaves in some unexpected way toward you. You can't imagine why, so you make up an answer that you project onto them. Later, you find out the real reason was something you never would have guessed.

As human beings, we are all guilty of seeing life primarily from our own point of view. We sometimes forget to apply empathy to figure out other people. As writers, we need to understand the motivations of all our characters, not just our hero. Otherwise, we end up with supporting characters who seem to exist merely as a convenient way to give the main character a reason to react the way we want him to.

It's okay if the protagonist doesn't understand where another character is coming from. It's lazy if the writer doesn't. Don't let your characters be too "on the same page." Give each one of them a complete life with believable, distinct motivations informed by their experiences outside the scenes they are in.

Rob Reiner's overlooked 2010 gem Flipped is the perfect illustration of how to do this. The script (by Reiner and Castle Rock co-founder Andrew Scheinman) was built around a narrative structure that constantly reminds us there are two sides to every story. Take the first scene for example:
When second-grader Bryce Loski moves to town, the little girl across the street aggressively tries to help him and his dad unload the truck. The father can tell Bryce needs help getting away from this bundle of cooties who can't take a hint, so he sends his son inside to help his mother. But the girl follows him. In trying to get away from her, their hands accidentally clasp. Bryce is now holding hands -- with a girl! Then his mother comes outside and the distraction gives him his chance to let go. He runs and hides behind his mom.
Cut to Scene 2. It's the exact same scene, but this time from the girl's point of view:
When the new boy moves in across the street, second-grader Juli Baker goes over to help him and his dad unload the truck, just to be neighborly. The boy's father sends him inside to help his mother. Juli can tell the boy doesn't want to leave, so she chases after to him to see if he wants to play before he gets trapped inside. The next thing she knows, he's holding her hand and looking into her eyes. Then the boy's mother comes out and the boy gets embarrassed. But Juli knows the boy has feelings for him. He's just too shy to show them. Boys are like that.
See what they did there? The same scene. The boy and the girl are literally on the same page -- in the screenplay --  but they arrived there along completely different paths. Each character has his or her own unique thought process and never truly understands what's going on in the other character's head. They're left to draw their own conclusions. They're often dead wrong.

The movie continues in this fashion, with each scene told first from Bryce's point of view, then repeated from Juli's. It's more than a gimmick. It's the film's way in to understanding misunderstandings.

Flipped screenwriters Andy Scheinman and Rob Reiner,
Flipped is Reiner's best movie since A Few Good Men. Many critics compared it to his 1986 coming of age classic Stand By Me because it's set in roughly the same period -- late 1950s to early 1960s, a deliberate choice by Reiner; the 2001 novel by Wendelin Van Draanen on which the movie is based is set in present day. But Flipped has more in common with Reiner's 1989 hit When Harry Met Sally..., for which he and writer Nora Ephron took great pains to give both lead characters equal weight, to draw each with the same emotional depth.

Flipped is a sweet story of puppy love, but it is also a good reminder for writers to put more thought into the complexities of human nature that arise whenever two distinct, thinking human beings interact. It's not a bad life lesson, either.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on September 13, 2010.)

Friday, April 15, 2016

What Do The Bad News Bears Want?

The Bad News Bears (1976) movie poster
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the release of The Bad News Bears, Rolling Stone listed nine reasons it’s the greatest baseball movie ever made. While the film is remembered mostly for a bunch of foul-mouthed little leaguers, the WGA award-winning screenplay by Bill Lancaster (The Thing) is an excellent example of a protagonist with a clearly defined arc.

When we first meet reluctant coach BUTTERMAKER (Walter Matthau), he’s only in it for the money. He may be there for the wrong reasons, but at least he's there. “None of the fathers have the time for it,” notes COUNCILMAN WHITEWOOD, the man paying him, who happens to be one of those too-busy fathers. “I think we’re doing a really fine thing,” he adds, as Buttermaker reminds him to sign the check.
Walter Matthau as reluctant Bad News Bears coach (1976)
Throughout the first act, Buttermaker would rather be working at his dead-end day job cleaning swimming pools than coaching a bunch of kids. He can’t be bothered to learn their names, he jokes about murdering one of them, he balks at having to get them uniforms, and he passes out on the mound the day before the opening game.

The baseball season begins, but the second act can’t start until Buttermaker decides to change his attitude. He watches dispassionately as his team gets clobbered. When he does start to show a little concern, one of the kids tells him to “get back to your beer.” Being told off by a ten-year-old hits him. He decides to forfeit the game, not because he’s quitting, but because he’s come up with a new strategy: Trying.
Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) enters the second act of THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) with a new strategy: Trying.
Buttermaker marches into the second act ready to reboot the gig. The first order of business is to talk one of the humiliated players off the ledge (of a tree). Next, when Whitewood decides to disband the team, Buttermaker refuses his severance check and talks the kids out of quitting.

He even puts down his beer long enough to try to convince AMANDA (Tatum O’Neal), a young girl he once taught to pitch when he was dating her mother, to join the team as a ringer. He fails to persuade her at first, but their relationship is the equivalent of the romantic B-story subplot that is often introduced at the beginning of the second act. Only here it’s a father(-figure)-daughter love story.
Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal share the father-daughter equivalent of the romantic B-story subplot in the second act of THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976)
The Bears lose their second game, but at least they finish it this time. A big improvement. Buttermaker succeeds in recruiting Amanda and, although the Bears still lose, she almost pitches a no-hitter. Things are definitely looking up. At the midpoint, they add juvenile delinquent KELLY LEAK (Jackie Earle Haley) to the lineup as another ringer. Leak gives them their first win, tranforming Buttermaker from a coach into a monster.

According to Wendell Wellman’s excellent book A Writer’s Roadmap, the first act of a screenplay represents the hero’s argument, the second act is his opponent’s argument, and the third is the author’s. We first meet ROY TURNER (Vic Morrow), the coach of the Bears’ primary competition, in the very second scene of the movie, when he tells Buttermaker, “We put on a highly competitive program here. It’s not us. It’s the boys. [They] want it that way.”

What the boys want will become the film’s central question. For Buttermaker, the answer, as shown in the first act, is “who cares?” When Whitewood wants to shut them down, Buttermaker asks, “What if the boys don’t want to quit,” to which the councilman replies, “That’s not important.” When the boys themselves vote to quit, Buttermaker asks if that’s what they really want. “I wanna play ball,” one of them responds. But Buttermaker tells Turner he wants to win the pennant.

Buttermaker’s want does not correspond with the boys’ want. This leads to serious trouble in the second half of the second act.

The Bears keep winning until they have just one more game they must win in order to challenge their enemies, Turner’s team, for the pennant. It’s so important to them, thinks our hero, that he must pull out all the stops. He barks orders at all the kids – “I give you an order, I expect you to follow it!” – and even blows up at Amanda when she tries to reconcile her father-figure with her mother – “Can’t you get it through your thick head I don’t want your company?” – proving that there is crying in baseball and destroying the “romantic” B-story subplot in the process.
Who says there's no crying in baseball? Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) makes his pitcher (Tatum O'Neal) cry before the big game in THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976)
Buttermaker has adopted his opponent’s argument: It’s all about winning; that’s what the kids want. He has become his enemy. Now the two teams and the two coaches will face each other in the final showdown of the season, also known as the third act.

In the playoffs, Buttermaker had secretly ordered Kelly, their best player, to cover for all the other fielders. The rest of the team felt left out, because, well, they wanted to play too. Just before the final game starts, the boys, who have been taking their frustrations out on Kelly, find out it was all the coach’s plan and ask him why.

“What do you mean, ‘Why?’ We’re in the championship, aren’t we? Well that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”

The game begins and it’s filled with violence on the field and shouting matches between the adult coaches and umpires. Is this what anybody wanted?

Again, Buttermaker erupts at his players: “Next time I tell you to do something, you goddamn do it or else you’re off the team! Don’t you want to beat those bastards?” He’s met with stares of hurt, confusion, and fear. After a long beat, he tells them to get back out there and “do the best you can.”

The hero has just seen the error of his ways, but his enemy has not. Turner smacks his pitcher, who happens to be his own son, in front of everyone for not obeying orders. The son retaliates by intentionally letting the Bears score a run, then walking off the field.

Our hero would have ended up experiencing a similarly ugly display on his side of the fence if he had not seen the light. Instead, he adopts the screenwriter’s argument that, “Everybody on my team gets a chance to play.” They actually have a shot at winning, but Buttermaker decides to put in the worst players because they haven’t played yet. And he knows they really want to. And he cares. Win or lose, he’s come a long way from the opening scene of the movie.
The top players are benched in the third act of THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) so that everyone gets a chance to play.
But his final action is questioned by the very man who put him in this position to begin with. Councilman Whitewood originally had to sue the league to make room for a team of misfits that included his son. On opening day he told the crowd, “What I want is to see every boy in America out on the baseball field playing the great game of baseball.” Now he only wants them to win, even if it means some of them don’t get to play. He orders Buttermaker to bench the bad players and put Amanda and Kelly back in. Buttermaker refuses and the rest is history.

In a very close game, the Bears lose. The filmmakers shot and tested an alternate version where the Bears won. With that ending, the film would have been saying that letting all the kids play is one thing, but they would not have been truly happy unless they won. In contrast, the original ending shows the losing team cheering and spraying each other with beer. They still care about winning and are upset that they lost, but their coach has gone on a journey that has clearly made them the happiest kids on the field.
The heroes lose the big game at the end of THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) but are still the happiest kids on the field.
The father-daughter subplot is repaired at the end as well. In the midst of celebrating their loss, Buttermaker and Amanda hint at a future together next season (though neither actor returned for the sequel).

ScripTipps TIP: The hero’s attitude shifts in each of a screenplay’s three acts.

ScripTipps TIP: The first act is the hero’s argument, the second is his opponent’s argument, the third is the writer’s argument.

ScripTipps TIP: Know what your characters want, and show how and why that want changes as their journey progresses.

ScripTipps TIP: The hero and the villain often have a lot in common. The villain is the undesirable version of the hero that the hero might become if he doesn’t learn anything on his journey.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Where to Learn to Write Biopics Like Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

The People vs. Larry Flynt, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Audio commentaries on DVDs allow us to sit down and watch a favorite movie with the film’s director or star as if they were in our living room telling us what went into each shot. Sometimes, they can be a virtual film school on a small silver platter. Too often, however, they are filled with two hours of back-patting and silly reminders that we shouldn’t be watching the movie for the first time with the commentary track on because it may contain spoilers.

Rarely is a screenwriter allowed to contribute to a yak track, unless he or she also happens to be the film’s director and/or star. One notable exception worth a listen is the Special Edition of Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), with scribes  SCOTT ALEXANDER & LARRY KARASZEWSKI on hand to guide us through their Golden Globe and WGA award winning screenplay as it plays out on the screen, scene by scene. The result is a master’s level class on how to write biopics from the guys who also brought us Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, and American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

What’s their secret to getting films greenlit with such oddball protagonists as the world’s worst movie director, an anti-humor comic performance artist, and a sleazy pornographer? Their scripts follow the same rules laid out in every screenwriting book on the market. As the film unspools, Scott & Larry point out the page 10 inciting incident -- Flynt starting his magazine -- followed by all the necessary plot points in all the expected places -- the hero is arrested on page 30, gets shot on page 60, and gets sued by Jerry Falwell on page 90.

“It’s Capra with porn,” a studio exec told them after their forty minute pitch. And before spending hundreds of dollars for two minutes with a junior executive at a “pitch fest,” be sure to listen to this track to find out what a professional Hollywood pitch really sounds like.
A page from the screenplay for THE PEOPLE vs. LARRY FLYNT by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
A page from the People vs. Larry Flynt screenplay.
Another interesting lesson the writers share is that page 30 always becomes page 20 because audiences are in a hurry to get to the second act. Exposition is expendable. Pay attention to how many deleted scenes on your favorite DVDs come from the first act of a movie.

We also get many great examples of why and how to composite characters and events in order to meet the demands of condensing a person’s life into two hours and three acts. Anyone who has ever complained about a factual inaccuracy in a movie like this (for instance, Edward Norton’s character was not gunned down with Flynt in real life) needs to listen to this commentary to understand why these “mistakes” make it all the way into the final cut. Ironically, the writers did such a convincing job fictionalizing elements of the story that Flynt’s own autobiography ended up inadvertently including things Scott & Larry had made up for the movie.
Courtney Love's screen test for The People vs. Larry Flynt
The film’s stars get a separate track of their own, on which Courtney Love offers such valuable insight as, “Jesus, I was so skinny!” and, “My boobs are in this quite a lot,” and “I can’t talk over [Edward] Norton’s acting cause he’s too good.” Great. Then what are we listening to you for?

To hear the writers’ more pertinent thoughts, look for the 2003 Special Edition DVD, the 2010 Special Edition DVD, or the Blu-ray. You can also hear them discuss their 2014 script, Big Eyes, on Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A podcast.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on March 23, 2009.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Journey Makes the Hero

My good friend, jazz critic Jonathan Widran, appeared on a podcast last week for a wide-ranging discussion that included a dash of politics. A liberal Democrat, Jonathan weighed in on Bernie Sanders’s recent surge in the polls, noting that, “Even if Hillary [Clinton] is ultimately the [Democratic party’s] nominee, it sharpens her in the debate. She has to be on her game. She has to fight for this. It’s not just like a coronation.”
Jonathan Widran, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders
l-r: Widran, Clinton, Sanders
What Jonathon is touching on is the crux of the hero’s journey. By losing the nomination to Barack Obama eight years ago, Hillary was forced to go on a journey, as Secretary of State, that made her a stronger candidate in 2016. Were it not for her opponent, she might have become president sooner, but a less experienced one. Now armed with sharper skills and fiercer determination, she’s ready to square off against Sanders, and then her real enemy, the as-yet-to-be-determined Republican candidate. A battle-scarred Hillary Clinton who survives these gauntlets would certainly be a better president than one who had a victory handed to her more easily.

This is classic storytelling. Things are never easy for our screen heroes. If they were, their movies would be boring. Screenplays are about characters facing and overcoming obstacles.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy learns she had the power to go home all the time. Glinda could have told her so right from the start, but apparently there’s no such thing as a good witch. Instead, she sends Dorothy on a journey to the Emerald City. The heroine learns about reason, compassion, and courage from a trio of new friends she meets along the way. But when she arrives at her destination, the wizard doesn’t solve her problems as promised. Instead, he sends her on a second journey to face and kill her sworn enemy.
Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ
With the Scarecrow on fire, Dorothy thinks fast to bravely save her friend by dowsing him with water. A single act of brains, heart, and courage that (Spoiler!) turns the villain into collateral damage. Now, when Glinda finally fesses up and tells Dorothy how to get home, she will return to Kansas stronger than the scared little nuisance we met in the opening scene.

In the 1978 film Superman, Lex Luthor understands this intrinsically when he revels in the ill-timed arrival of of his rival, saying, “To commit the crime of the century, one would naturally want to face the challenge of the century.” Luthor is the villain, but like all well-developed villains, he behaves as though he is the hero in his own story. But he applies the same principle to the movie’s real hero, presenting him with the challenge of keeping the West Coast from falling into the ocean while simultaneously preventing a disaster of similar scope on the opposite end of the country. Oh, and before he can perform either of those heroic acts, he must break free from the deadly chunk of Kryptonite chained to his neck—while underwater.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (1978): To commit the crime of the century, a man would just naturally want to face the challenge of the century."
Even with all those obstacles, the writers realized that Superman repairing a quake-damaged dam might look spectacular but lacked an emotionally satisfying conclusion to his arc. While already in production, they decided to (Spoiler!) kill Lois Lane, presenting the hero with his greatest challenge ever.
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)
Only the emotional devastation of losing the woman he loves can push him to disregard his father’s strictest law forbidding him to change human history. Now he emerges from his journey no longer the boy who was powerless to save his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, but instead the hero who has fulfilled Jor-El’s prophecy from the beginning of the movie: “The son becomes the father.”

The same is true if you’re writing a small indie movie. In Winter’s Bone, the hero, Ree Dolly, is ultimately handed the solution to her problem. As in The Wizard of Oz, the sisters could have saved her a lot of time and suffering by taking Ree to her father’s secret resting place up front. Instead, they force her on a journey. One by one, she tracks down and confronts her father’s associates, each one scarier than the last, until she stands face-to-face with the top dog. Only then, after navigating her version of the nine circles of hell, has she proven her perseverance and earned her enemy’s trust. Now when she’s given her prize, she is more prepared take on the hand she’s been dealt as the new head of her family.
Jennifer Lawrence (center) stars as Ree Dolly in WINTER'S BONE

ScripTipps TIP: Nothing ever comes easy to the hero.

ScripTipps TIP: The greater the challenge a hero faces, the more he deserves the reward.

ScripTipps TIP: Send your hero on a journey that prepares him to solve the problem that initially seemed hopeless.

ScripTipps TIP: A well-developed villain behaves as though he were the hero in his own story.

For a further deconstruction of the screenplays for Superman: The Movie and its sequel, with hundreds more screenwriting tips, read ScripTipps: Superman & Superman II.

Friday, January 22, 2016

REVIEW: Toxic Feedback

Every script is perfect until someone else reads it. It’s important to put your script in front of your peers to see what they say about it. Writers groups are a useful tool for that, but keep in mind that most of the other writers in your group haven't sold any screenplays either. In fact, you’re likely to learn more about how to improve your writing by seeing the mistakes in their screenplays than from the notes they give you on yours.

That's partly because most people don't know how to give useful feedback, or how to process the feedback they receive. Focusing equally on both sides of the equation, Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive by Joni Cole solves that problem. Although written with prose authors in mind, the book’s revelations also apply to screenwriting groups.
What does Cole mean by “toxic” feedback? If you tell a person they’re a bad driver, they probably won’t agonize about whether to turn in their driver’s license. But tell someone their writing just isn’t there yet and they may abandon the project you read, or even quit writing altogether. Writers care what people think of their writing. Providing feedback is very powerful.

Cole gives great examples of common types of criticism, followed by tips on how to turn negative feedback into teachable moments. But the bigger eye-opener of this book is the advice on interpreting feedback.

According to Cole, 14% of all feedback is dead-on. You know it in your gut the minute you hear it. You were probably thinking it subconsciously already and you just needed to hear it out loud.

Another 18% percent of the feedback you receive is “from another planet.” It could be because of the feedback provider’s personal bias; they insist on a happy boy-gets-girl ending even though the author’s clear intent was boy-gets-boy. Or they insist you follow some obscure formatting rule that you know is antiquated. These notes can be disregarded without another thought.

The remaining 68% fall somewhere in between. You'll consider each of these notes on a case-by-case basis, weigh them heavier if there was a consensus from the group, and make the decision whether to make the change or leave it alone.

It’s important to note that Cole’s theories leave you empowered with that decision. You’re the boss of your story, not the feedback provider. Try out the suggestions, but go with your gut about whether the change makes your script better or worse. Don’t simply go down the list and make every revision proposed to try to make everyone like it, because writing by committee won’t work.

And if you decide not to take a note, it doesn’t make you any more stubborn than the feedback provider who stubbornly holds that their notes were “right.”

Whether you give or receive, if you’re involved in the writing-feedback process, reading Toxic Feedback is highly recommended.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on June 25, 2012.)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

2016 Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees this morning for the 88th annual Academy Awards. Here's a look at their picks for their two screenwriting categories.


Logline: Four outsiders in the world of high finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of 2007 and bet everything they have against big banks in hopes of making a fortune.

Screenplay by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Ant-Man, SNL) and Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs), based on the book by Michael Lewis.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Director (McKay), Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Editing.

Logline: In 1952, a young Irish woman immigrates to Brooklyn and finds romance, but when a family emergency forces her to return to Ireland, she must choose between two lives and two homes.

Screenplay by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Wild), based on the novel by Colm Tóibín.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Saoirse Ronan). Hornby was previously nominated for adapting An Education (2009).

Logline: In 1952, a young Manhattan shopgirl stuck in an unhappy engagement begins an affair with a married woman going through a difficult divorce.

Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris), based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train). Directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).

Other nominations: Best Actress (Cate Blanchette), Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), Cinematography, Costumes, Score. Previously, Anthony Minghella was nominated in 1999 for adapting Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Logline: Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, on Mars.

Screenplay by Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Cabin in the Woods, World War Z), based on the self-published novel by Andy Weir.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Matt Damon), Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects. The space survival drama previously won two Golden Globes for Best Picture - Comedy or Musical, and Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical.

Logline: An abducted woman and her five-year-old son, fathered by her captor, escape and struggle to adjust to life outside the room in which they were held captive for seven years.

Screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her debut novel. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Brie Larson), Director.

SOURCE MATERIAL BREAKDOWN: This year, four of the five adapted screenplays nominated are based on novels. The fifth is based on a true story (sourced from a non-fiction book). Last year, three were true stories/non-fiction books, one was a novel, and one was actually an original screenplay but was considered adapted from a short film made as a demo to raise funds for the feature. In 2014, four of the adapted screenplays nominated were non-fiction, while the fifth nominee was a sequel (based on characters from its predecessors).

SURPRISING OMISSIONS: The writers branch failed to recognize TRUMBO, the true story of Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter in the late 1940s who was blacklisted but continued to write under pseudonyms and still managed to win two Academy Awards. Also missing from the list is surprising box office disappointment STEVE JOBS, one of the most uniquely structured biopics since I'm Not There (2007). Equally shocking is the snub for Ridley Scott (The Martian) in the directing category.


Logline: In 1960, a lawyer must negotiate the release of a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in exchange for a captive Soviet spy held by the U.S.

Screenplay by Matt Charman (Suite Française) and the Coen Brothers. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Production Design, Score, Sound Mixing. The Coens previously won twice for their screenplays Fargo (original) and No Country For Old Men (adapted).

Logline: When a young programmer is challenged to test a beautiful new android for self awareness, humanity is in danger of being overtaken by artificial intelligence.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later).

Other nominations: Best Visual Effects.

Logline: Inside the mind of a young girl, her emotions—Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness—must work together to find a way to help her cope with the trauma of moving to a new city and school.

Screenplay by Pete Docter (Toy Story 2), Meg LaFauve (The Good Dinosaur), Josh Cooley (Toy Story 4). Directed by Docter. Co-story and co-directed by Ronnie Del Carmen. Directed by Docter.

Other nominations: Best Animated Feature, for which it previously won the Golden Globe. Docter previously won in that same category for Up and was nominated for the screenplays for Up (shared with Tom McCarthy, his competition in this category this year), WALL-E, and Toy Story.

Logline: An elite team of investigative reporters uncovers a massive child molestation scandal and cover-up within Boston's Catholic Archdiocese.

Screenplay by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) & Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate). Directed by McCarthy.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams), Editing. McCarthy was previously nominated for his contribution to the screenplay Up, a nomination he shared with his competition this year, Peter Docter.

Logline: In the mid-1980s, a rap group from Compton achieves stardom and revolutionizes hip-hop culture with their music, but in-fighting over money tears the band apart.

Screenplay by Jonathan Herman (first produced credit), Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center). Story by Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge (first feature writing credit), Alan Wenkus (Private Resort).

Other nominations: None.

ANALYSIS: While true stories mostly took an unusual hiatus in the adapted category, three of the original screenplay honorees are based on real-life events, leaving room for only two original stories on the list.

SURPRISING OMISSIONS: After a winning streak in the category for his last two screenplays, Quentin Tarantino sits out this year not only in the screenplay race, but is also out of luck in Best Picture and Best Director, with THE HATEFUL EIGHT nabbing only three nominations (Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Best Cinematography, and Best Score). Also surprisingly sidelined in the directing race is Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies).

WGA COMPARISON: Three of the Oscar-nominated screenplays in each category were also nominated for WGA awards. The four that weren't (Brooklyn, Carol, Ex Machina, and Inside Out) were all ineligible for WGA awards. Instead, the WGA went with Sicario and Trainwreck (original) and Steve Jobs and Trumbo (adapted).

ADAPTATIONS VS. ORIGINALS: Overall, the Academy favored adaptations over movies based on original material written directly for the screen. Five and a half of the eight Best Picture nominations were for adaptations (The Reverenant's screenplay, which was not nominated, was credited as being based "in part" on a novel, which was also inspired by a true story). Four of the five films nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay were also nominated for Best Picture. The only two Best Picture nominees coming from original scripts also saw those original scripts nominated, both of which were based on true stories.

Which screenplays will, or should, win? Which should (or should not) have been nominated? Leave a comment.

The Academy Awards will be presented on February 28, 2016.