Joshua Stecker is a freelance entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles. His bylines include The Hollywood Reporter and Death & Taxes Magazine. Stecker is the former west coast/web editor of Script Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @joshuastecker.
For only the second time in its 29-year history, Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners witnessed scenes from their winning screenplays come to life on stage in front of a live audience.
Last week, members of the industry and the public gathered in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to salute the 2014 Nicholl Fellowship winners and watch as actors Jack O'Connell (Unbroken), Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption), Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) and Tessa Thompson (Selma) read a scene Readers Theatre-style from each screenplay.
This year's Nicholl Fellowship winners were Sam Baron (The Science of Love and Laughter), Alisha Brophy and Scott Miles (United States of Fuckin' Awesome), Melissa Iqbal (The Death Engine) and Sallie West (Moonflower).
According to Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, this year's competition received 7,511 entries from all over the world. Each winner receives $35,000 and are expected to complete a new feature script during their year-long fellowship.
During his opening remarks, the night's director, Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment, Albert Nobbs), reiterated a lesson he learned early in life: "There is nothing better than something well-written." And he implored the new crop of Nicholl Fellows to "remember the spirit in which your scripts were written." Adding, "Stay artists, I beg you."
For Sallie West, writer of Moonflower (the first script she ever wrote), finding herself on the Goldwyn stage with a Nicholl Fellowship is "a Cinderella story."
"The writing experience was maddening, challenging and fun," says the former technical manual writer who used her downtime after being laid off to write the script. "I studied the template of how a screenplay is written and filled in my story."
Moonflower is a romantic drama that tells the love story of a woman who bestows a handmade cello to a Scotsman as each reside on opposite sides of the ocean.
West was presented her Fellowship by Hollywood legend Eva Marie Saint, who described her screenplay as "beautifully written with vibrant, rich characters." Adding, "I was so moved, I could see the movie as I read it."
When asked why she decided to enter her first-ever screenplay into a competition such as the Nicholl Fellowship, West said, "I was trying to get feedback and I was told one of the ways to do so is to enter contests."
Sam Baron's journey of crafting The Science of Love and Laughter was an extremely personal one. "The story is very personal to me and had lots of emotions I wanted to explore," he told Script.
Baron's screenplay focuses on a neuroscientist who is trapped in a challenging marriage and finally decides to leave his wife only to discover that she has cancer.
"They say 'write what you know,' and this is something I really cared about," says the UK writer who got his start making YouTube videos. While accepting his Fellowship from Ava DuVernay (director of the upcoming Selma), Baron dedicated the Fellowship to his late grandmother and mother, who's been in cancer remission for five years.
Another Brit, Melissa Iqbal, author of The Death Engine, told Script before the ceremony that she "wasn't even going to enter her screenplay into the competition, but her friends said she should."
The Death Engine is a science-fiction tale that tackles the conflict between eternal life and the relief of death.
Iqbal got her start in production in the UK, but said, "As soon as I started writing, things started to happen."
She was presented her Fellowship by Destin Cretton, a 2010 Nicholl Fellow and writer of Short Term 12, who called her script "sobering and provocative."
Breaking the drama streak, Alisha Brophy, co-writer (with Scott Miles) of United States of Fuckin' Awesome, described their script as "The Hangover meets Drunk History" that finds the Founding Fathers in a pickle after losing the Declaration of Independence during a night of drunken debauchery.
The pair wrote the script through video chatting, since Brophy lives in Los Angeles and Miles lives in Austin, Texas. The duo both say it's a fruitful way to work and recommend it to writing teams.
"I can get her instant reaction [to dialog] as if we were in the same room," explained Miles.
The duo were presented their Fellowship by screenwriter Kirsten Smith (10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde), who noted how rare it is for a broad R-rated comedy to get such high praise from a competition like the Nicholl Fellowship.
"[Their script] dares to make our Founding Fathers boozy, bawdy and horny," Smith said of their screenplay. "And if these characters can make history, then so can we."
This is only the second year the Academy has done the live read and offered free tickets to the public for the event. The live readings were met with universal praise from the audience, with United States of Fuckin' Awesome being the notable standout since it was the only comedy (not to mention, the scene included a buck naked Ben Franklin in a brothel, read with great aplomb by Clancy Brown). Judging by the attendance and the attention the event garnered, expect the live readings to become a permanent part of the Academy's Nicholl Fellowships awards ceremony for the foreseeable future.
Watch the live reading of United States of Fuckin' Awesome below:
Watch each winners' acceptance speech below:
Alisha Brophy and Scott Miles: