For the last seven years I’ve had the privilege of assessing the major releases of the year and their odds of Oscar nominations for Script Magazine, and I’m delighted to continue the tradition here at ScriptMag.com.
This year’s race in the Oscar nominations is tighter than they’ve been in a decade, not only in terms of the nominees (there was an amazing number of accomplished screenplays in 2012). It is seriously tough to predict 2012’s ultimate winners. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to do all of the above before this cavalcade is through. As we go along, I will be passing along some horse’s mouth/horse sense comments from the many screenwriters I had the pleasure of speaking with, in the course of a really memorable, perhaps even watershed year. So here goes.
Best Adapted Screenplay
By Tom Stoppard, based on the Tolstoy novel. A lot of attention, pro and con, has been paid to Joe Wright’s directorial conceit of setting the interior scenes in Moscow and St. Petersburg in a dilapidated, but working nineteenth century theater. I personally think the choice of the stage environment led to some marvelous effects, though others have found it half-baked or downright irrelevant. Be all that as it may, Stoppard has brilliantly distilled the book into a two-hour film, giving more focus to the Levin/Kitty subplot – arguably the most personal and thematically meaningful element of the novel -- than most if not all previous cinema adaptations. It’s probably important to note that the screenplay was completed before the theatre notion was brought forward, and was unchanged thereafter.
Odds of nomination: 6-1. Divided opinions on the picture, and on Keira Knightley’s performance, tend to blur Stoppard’s notable accomplishments.
By Chris Terrio, based on the article “Escape from Tehran” by Joshuah Bearman. The true-life rescue – as stage managed by Hollywood players and the CIA – of six staffers during the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
First Person: Terrio says that the trickiest thing about adapting Bearman’s journalism into a fully fleshed-out screenplay was the tone. “I originally thought it would be a full-out comedy,” but when Affleck became attached the actor/helmer helped him conceive of the audacious blend of satire and thriller that has made Argo one of the fall’s most must-see offerings. The screenwriter reports that he and Affleck began their work with the press conference sequence – arguably the broadest and funniest scene in the picture – on the theory that “if we could find the balance there, we’d be all right.” As it turned out, they were indeed all right. 3-2 odds; and nomination or not, Terrio has instantly vaulted into A-list screenwriter status.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
By Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, from her stage play “Juicy and Delicious.” Arguably the year’s most original feature, its visual richness and texture are most unusual, especially for an adaptation from the stage. Like Winter’s Bone,a couple of years ago, Beasts made some noise in early festivals and stayed in circulation throughout the year, and those are the kind of legs that usually result in at least a nomination. Members of the Actors Branch, in particular, are crazy for it, and the Writers Branch will likely be impressed at how Zeitlin and Alibar did so much with so few material resources. Maybe it won’t get anything but a writing nod, but that at least seems a safe bet at 3-2.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
By Ol Parker, based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach. UK retirees get a new lease on life in a makeshift Jaipur old folks’ residence.
First Person: Three chapters into reading Moggach’s book, Parker says, “I knew it was going to be a very, very free adaptation.” Though he was excited to write a romantic comedy for an older generation, “none of the characters in the film bear any relation to the ones in the book. Tom Wilkinson’s character isn’t in the novel at all.” A major challenge was the ensemble nature of the cast. “If you’re going to write an ensemble, then each of them is going to have less time on screen, by definition. So you’ve got to make sure you give them all something to do… It becomes a little bit like a jigsaw, you’re trying to show different facets of things – the sex life and so on, without descending into cliché.”
The picture cost next to nothing and made a fortune, which never hurts an indie’s chances in the writing categories. Moreover, much of the Academy is skewed on the 50+ side and that demographic seemed particularly receptive to the script’s themes of golden years self-sufficiency and sexuality. 4-1.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
By Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. It has racked up heaps of money in its first month of release, but the reviews suggest that this may have been one visit to Middle-Earth too many. Maybe only upon the release of film #3 in 2014 will it be clear whether the decision to break up the Lord of the Rings prequel into another trilogy made artistic (as opposed to sheerly commercial) sense. But at this juncture, the industry doesn’t seem at all persuaded. We say 7-1.
By William Nicholson, from the Boublil/Schönberg/Kretzmer/Fenton smash musical by way of Victor Hugo.
First Person: Nicholson’s respect for the source material didn’t blind him to what he calls “some crucial beats that were not in the show, which we added.” He cites “a crucial one in the barricades sequence. Javert [Russell Crowe] is captured, and he’s given to Valjean [Hugh Jackman] to execute. Javert says, ‘Go on, do it, I’ve always known all you wanted to do was kill,’ and Valjean replies, ‘No, you don’t understand, you never have; I don’t want to kill you’ – and he cuts his cords and says, ‘Just go,’ setting him free in an astonishing act of magnanimity. Subsequently their roles are reversed, when Javert captures Valjean as he emerges from the sewers. At that point, I said, ‘We need the reverse version of that first scene. We now need Javert to hold the gun to Valjean’s head. He realizes his chance to kill him. And doesn’t.” The parallel gesture, he explains, brings out that “Javert cannot not do what Valjean has done for him – let him live – and it drives him mad.” Fans of the musical will agree that this seemingly minor revision strengthens the familiar staging.
Les Mis is doing well at the box office, and in spite of really mixed reviews is probably a lock to be nominated for Best Picture. But despite Nicholson’s ingenious bolstering of the original musical’s shaky underpinnings, we spot it as only a 7-1 contender for a writing nod. There are just too many, more obviously difficult adaptations under consideration this year.
Life of Pi
By David Magee, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel about a young boy trapped in a lifeboat, after a storm and sinking at sea, with a man-eating Bengal tiger and not much else. Tech branches are likely to flip for the unique, jaw-dropping advances in 3-D and the CGI animal behavior that director Ang Lee and his prodigious team have wrought. But some industryites profess dissatisfaction with the modern day wraparound narrative, and the story’s frankly metaphysical yet ambiguous underpinnings. Even though Magee arguably cracked a novel most had written off as unfilmable, his chances of being recognized for same are probably only in the neighborhood of 5-1.
By Tony Kushner, based in part on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Rumor has it that Kushner’s acclaimed script is based on only about six pages of Goodwin’s tome, but evidently it was the right six pages.
First Person: For an epic motion picture, language is incredibly important in Lincoln, and Kushner explains why: “Language is incredibly important in politics, and in law, and this is a film about a legislative process, a governmental process, and politics. So language really counts… Words are going to be really important. Legislators and politicians build whole societies out of words. And of course it’s the nineteenth century, so I had a lot of fun because I could write very dense and complicated language; people spoke it more easily back then. And I’m happy that people find it fun to listen to, and enjoy hearing quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible. Because Lincoln did that.”
Focusing less on the rivalry among Lincoln’s cabinet members than the political and ideological struggles leading up to universal abolition of slavery, Kushner’s script sets the stakes high early on, and creates a seemingly insuperable number of obstacles in the path of passing the Thirteenth Amendment. The depth and breadth of the screenwriter’s additional research can be felt in virtually every frame of Spielberg’s massively intelligent and respectful epic, but frankly, everyone expected Kushner’s Lincoln to be thoughtful, literate and pointed. And of course history gave him great roles to fill out. But the fact that the picture is also so damned exciting was the big surprise, and there seems to be general agreement on Kushner’s contribution to its impact.There’s no way work this notable will be ignored. No way on earth. Even money.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
By Stephen Chbosky, based on his acclaimed young adult novel about a troubled high schooler and his coming to terms with family, friends, and adolescence.
First Person: “I came up with the title 21 years ago when I was a senior in college,” Chbosky reports, “and I remember saying ‘That’s a good movie title.’ A few years later, after thinking about it for a long time, I wrote the book, but I always thought that it would someday be a movie. Though it took me 10 years to be finally ready to adapt it.” During that decade, he says, he gained the requisite emotional distance from the material, as well as figuring out how it should be transformed for the screen. “As anyone knows, to translate an internal first-person narrative into a third-person objective film with the same emotional impact and sense of intimacy is tricky.” The key, he says, was applying “emotional discipline and restraint. For example, Charlie reveals on page 2 of the book that his best friend Michael committed suicide. Which is fine for the book. But if I did the same thing on screen it would become ‘the suicide movie,’ so I had to find the restraint and discipline to find the perfect place to drop in this very important information.” A kitchen scene with Sam, an older female student, offered the opportunity. “If the audience realizes this young man has been harboring these feelings and this very sad piece of information for 20 minutes, then we’re going to feel sorry for him, number one. Number two, there are cynics in the world who will ask, ‘Why would a bunch of seniors befriend this freshman?’ Well, if Charlie reveals this to Sam, who’s a really lovely person, then this would motivate her to take him under her wing.”
Chbosky’s adaptation is replete with savvy touches like this one, and the overall sense of smartness he brings to the wildly overexposed coming-of-age genre is likely a major reason that his film became, along with Beasts of the Southern Wild, one of 2012’s “little movies that could.” Academy members report falling in love with Perks through their screeners; and those who have also read the book are quite properly astonished at Chbosky’s willingness to attack his own material from such a different, and more cinematic, perspective. He has a real shot at a nomination here. Call it 5-2.
By Ronald Harwood, based on his stage play in which four old-time opera stars, relegated to an assisted living facility, decide to go out swinging by performing their famous Act III quartet from Rigoletto before residents and guests.
First Person: The Oscar-winning writer of The Pianist has taken his plays to the screen before, in The Dresser and Taking Sides, and he’s convinced that “the absolute key” to the process is totally transforming the stage work for the alternative medium. “Of course you’re going to use words or lines that you’re attached to, but in the end it’s a new work.” This time around, the ending in particular involved a major alteration. Onstage, the four protagonists conspire to lip synch their famous recording of the Verdi in front of the gala audience. “Which in a film is nonsensical, when you come to think of it,” Harwood expostulates. “In a film, everything is dubbed anyway!” The revised ending in the movie is naturalistic, and raises the stakes for the characters in a more suspenseful and satisfying way. The film medium also allowed Harwood to “deepen the relationships,” so that even though the play is a four-hander while the movie features dozens of aged residents, “one gets to know [the central characters] better.” It’s a neat piece of work with some magnificent acting, but it could be that the classical music milieu is somewhat alienating to a modern audience such that it’s not easy to get wrapped up in their problems. Attention must always be paid when Harwood writes for the screen, but this time out the odds of nomination are laid at 6-1.
By Ben Lewin, based on a personal memoir of the late Mark O’Brien, the writer (profiled in the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary short Breathing Lessons) who battled polio and the depleting sands of the hourglass to experience physical love with a sex surrogate and tell everyone about it, candidly and movingly.
First Person: “I hit on the story while surfing the Internet; I had no agenda to tell this particular sort of story. It was just the surprise of reading it, and I guess within minutes of reading it, after I composed myself from the emotional impact, I decided this would be my next project… It was so compact in its form. Really, most of it is two people in a room, which in most cases amounts to a boring movie, but not in this case. I think the simple, powerful, really different emotions you see in this story are amplified by the people performing them.” There was an even more practical reason to take on this tale: “We felt we could do it without getting anyone’s permission. We wouldn’t need to shop it around to ‘the usual suspects’ who would as usual say no. We wouldn’t have to move mountains to make it.” The awards buzz for John Hawkes and (especially) Helen Hunt in the two major roles has if anything grown over time, which means that more Academy members will move The Sessions up in their DVD queue; that, in turn, bodes extremely well for Lewin’s writing getting recognized. The screenplay is exceptionally skillful at 3-1.
Silver Linings Playbook
By David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick. Russell’s ongoing preoccupation with complex family dynamics, which took a quantum leap forward with The Fighter two years ago, hits a career high as he moves into the romantic comedy genre with confidence and finesse. Quick’s novel is much, much darker than the vision of the Solitano family that comes through in the movie, but Russell has kept just enough of the anger and angst to raise rom-com to a fresh new level. Even money.
This is 40
By Judd Apatow, based on characters from Knocked Up. Can a screenplay be based on characters? Guess so. Anyway, the Paul Rudd/Leslie Mann starrer has gotten rather rhapsodic reviews, and that can make a huge difference to a comedy’s award chances. To hear them talk, Apatow’s fellow writers have been looking for an opportunity to grant the comedic mega-entrepreneur some recognition, but Bridesmaids lacked aesthetic weight and Funny People just wasn’t enough admired. But This Is 40, with its serious marriage vs. career and parent vs. child themes, has a lot more going for it than mere bellylaughs. Moreover, a goodly number of Academy members are going through the same growing pains as Pete and Debbie, so the picture may have a high empathy factor in its favor. All of that suggests a writing nomination could be within reach, and so we’d say the odds are 3-1 in its favor.
Best Original Screenplay
By Michael Haneke. An elderly man nurses his wife through a series of debilitating strokes as a little of her – but none of their love – disappears every day. Happy Holidays from Sony Classics. This grim and demanding, but surprisingly lighthearted in places, chronicle of final days is the undisputed arthouse smash of the year, a likely lock for Best Foreign Film that may even end up on the Best Picture list as well.
First Person: The theme is stated succinctly and beautifully by co-star Emmanuelle Riva when she considers Amour in light of her first international success in 1959: “This was a chance for me to have lived – I say, lived – in two films: at age 30, Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais, and at age 84, Amour by Michael Haneke. The impossible love; and love in its fulfillment.” That simple eloquence is emblematic of the movie’s effect. Only a last minute rush to some piece of domestic fare or another will keep it from a writing nod. Calling it 3-2 is probably too conservative.
By Nicholas Jarecki. A Wall Street wheeler dealer (Richard Gere) runs into more than he can easily broker when he’s at the wheel for his mistress’s death and gets involved in some hefty books-juggling. An entertaining showcase for the actor with some juicy scenes and some singular implausibilities, the picture is hoping to grab the slot 2011’s Margin Call occupied, though the field is more crowded this year. We’ll say 5-1.
By Quentin Tarantino. This was the real question mark in the first half of awards season, but when it was finally unveiled in all its profane, shocking, visually beautiful glory, out-basterding Inglourious Basterds, its place in the roster of five writing nominees was assured. The controversy over its violence, in the shadow of the Newtown, CT massacre, is unlikely to affect the screenplay’s chances; if anything, Tarantino’s bloody representation of the antebellum South should gain admiration for bringing today’s gun control issues into starker relief. The nominators, remember, are writers themselves, and they know an audacious piece of work when they see it. Even money.
End of Watch
By David Ayer. A terrific police procedural, all the more distinctive for never getting predictable or “Hollywood” in how the narrative of the central buddy cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) plays out. Underseen and underrated, Ayer’s accomplishment will likely be left to future filmgoers to discover and appreciate. 9-1 odds for a nod this year.
By John Gatins. The Academy has certainly bestowed kudos on cinematic treatments of addiction in the past. But such laurels have tended to land on the shoulders of the actors and actresses who do the suffering (and redeeming), rather than on those of the writers who lay the groundwork for believability and manage to avoid cliché. So it may go this year with Flight, for which Denzel Washington is as assured of a nomination as Gatins – who has crafted one of the more interesting addiction-to-recovery yarns in many years – may be left out in the cold. 4-1.
Hyde Park on Hudson
By Richard Nelson. FDR and his domestic accomplishments take a back seat to his illicit love life in this perhaps too-obvious follow-up to The King’s Speech. Nelson isn’t widely known, though to many he’s one of the most gifted American dramatists working today; this feels like something of a finger exercise for him. A nomination seems an 8-1 long shot.
By Sergio G. Sanchez. It’s in the original category because it’s not “based on material previously published or produced,” as they say. But Sanchez’s thrilling narrative of how a five-member family survived the unspeakable tsunami catastrophe of 2004 is solidly grounded in field research and consultation with the Alvarez Belons, who lived it all.
First Person: Numerous conversations, especially with Maria and Lucas (the mother and oldest son, whose adventure is the main one on which the movie focuses), revealed many useful details which allowed the filmmakers to root the story in emotional authenticity. “Going to Lucas and asking, ‘How was the moment when you were reunited with your brothers?,’ and having him reply ‘It’s very simple to explain: It was the happiest moment in my life’ – that tells you what you want the audience to feel. Not just the anguish, but also the moments of overwhelming joy these people went through there.” When Maria (Naomi Watts) and Lucas (Tom Holland) stop to rescue a small boy, Sanchez felt he had to include it. “It was the most heroic thing that she did, and it had nothing to do with their survival, but everything to do with keeping their dignity, and what it means to be a human being.” The Impossible is a strikingly affecting experience, though its almost documentary realism may blind some to how carefully Sanchez constructed the script for filmmaker J.A. Bayona, so its odds of nomination must be reckoned in the neighborhood of 5-1.
By Rian Johnson. This time-travel thriller’s financial success has made Johnson a very hot property, and he likely has one or more award contenders in his future. This particular story has all the high-concept cleverness of such nominated flicks as Memento and The Usual Suspects, but is widely perceived to lack a certain amount of their thematic heft. So we’ll say: 7-1, while guessing that of all the long shots profiled in this piece, Looper might be the least surprising addition to the final five.
By Paul Thomas Anderson. Certainly the most divisive picture, and screenplay, of the year. All the pre-release hubbub about the auteur’s interest in exploring – and maybe exposing – the career of L. Ron Hubbard was quickly forgotten once the movie saw the light of day, and critics fought over the strangeness of the set pieces (that race in the desert??), the ambivalence of the central character relationships, and the murky themes. The loose anti-structure of There Will Be Blood was a surprise after the tight, logical Boogie Nights, but having seen Blood any serious moviegoer should have been ready to accept the weirdly asymmetrical narrative of The Master. Anyhow, the Daniel Day-Lewis Oscar-winning vehicle was nominated and so will this script be. Even money.
Middle of Nowhere
By Ava DuVernay. A registered nurse looks back in sorrow and forward in determination when her husband, for whom she dropped out of med school when he was imprisoned, is about to be released. No one would be happier than your correspondent if the Academy were to add a nomination to the lengthy list of indie awards and nods this moody, understated picture has already garnered. But like Pariah last year, its mojo was working full tilt for a while this award season, and then seems to have slowed. 10-1 odds from here, alas.
By Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola. Confession: I’m pretty blind to the appeal of Anderson’s oeuvre. It’s too twee, too predigested, and just too smug for my taste. Moreover, for the life of me I can’t see much difference between this one and all of Anderson’s others. (The one exception I found was the charming Fantastic Mr. Fox, whose narrative strength I credit to its adaptation from a solidly structured source.) Still, almost everyone else seems to find Moonrise a cut above the rest, Anderson’s “masterpiece”; so his first nod since The Royal Tanenbaums (not a favorite, I admit) seems virtually assured. Oh, well. 3-2.
Not Fade Away
By David Chase. A young Jersey boy starts a rock band in the 60s. A grittier, darker That Thing You Do!, it’s the long-awaited feature debut of the creator of The Sopranos.
First Person: Chase worked on this filmscript off and on during the years of The Sopranos, and then when it was over, and so it seemed opportune to ask him: How do you know the script is done? When is it time to stop and show it to friends, co-workers, your kitchen cabinet?After a pause, he replied, “It’s a really interesting question. I think, for me, I reach stages where I’m played out on it. I feel like I’ve done it, and it seems like ‘yeah, it’s pretty good; and yet I know it’s got problems, but I can’t see them anymore. I can’t see the way clearly.’ So I try to get my (and that’s a good phrase) kitchen cabinet to read it and give me a little bit of guidance. You’ve just dug so deep into it, you’re too close to see it anymore. I mean, you’re working on it for four or five months and the very sight of it makes you vomit! You know you’ve got something – hopefully – but you’re not sure what should be focused on.” In the end, his movie is charming and quirky and not for every taste. (Though not quite so much any of those traits as Moonrise Kingdom.) Anyway, it screened too late in the year to get a great deal of traction in early critics’ polling, and initial reviews were too mixed to get much of a steamroller going. Nomination odds only 8-1, but I guarantee this is a movie (and a screenplay) sure to attract a coterie of fans and, just maybe, cult status in the future.
By John Krasinski and Matt Damon; story by Dave Eggers. A rep of Big Energy (Damon) locks horns with a hippie environmentalist (Krasinski) when he tries to bring natural gas wells and wealth to an ailing Pennsylvania hamlet.
First Person: “We knew we’d be pegged as ‘the anti-fracking movie,’” admits an earnest Damon, so “John and I went out of our way to not stack the deck one way or the other. We did a lot of research and got the main arguments of both sides in there.” Still, the film’s decided slant toward the simple, uncluttered life makes it difficult to see how a back-to-basics lifestyle could ever coexist with backyard drilling and potentially poisoned aquifers. Under the cool, considered eye of Good Will Hunting helmer Gus Van Sant, the story plays out about as gently and enjoyably as it could, with a neat (though to some, implausible) O. Henry twist along the way. The good will they’re hunting has been reflected in some but not all the early reviews, so 4-1 seems right.
By Zoe Kazan. Earlier in the year it looked to waltz into the slot that seems to be reserved for piquant indie seriocomedies like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. But this year Silver Linings Playbook has that slot cornered, and Ruby never quite achieved the prominence that was expected. Maybe because of an ending that was widely felt to be unsatisfying? Anyway, we’ll call it 8-1.
By Martin McDonagh. The legitimate theater’s foremost purveyor of shock (The Beauty Queen of Leenane; The Lieutenant of Inishmore) made a cinematic name for himself with the Oscar-winning short Six Shooter and the nominated In Bruges. This new multistar violent epic wasn’t seen as making the creative leap it promised, so despite some Tarantino-esque dialogue and situations, its odds are likely 5-1.
By Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee; story by Rich Moore, Johnston, and Jim Reardon. Your faithful correspondent would rank this as perhaps #2 or #3 of all the year’s screenplays. What a delightful mélange of familiar videogame characters, unique original characters, choice dialogue, and a complex but logical premise and execution! However, unless the words “Toy” and “Story” are in the title, an animated film’s script has very little chance to be named among the favored five. 4-1.
Zero Dark Thirty
By Mark Boal. Boded to be named Best Screenplay Based on Subpoenaed Material, this true-life follow-up to The Hurt Locker, by Oscar winner Boal, has won the respect if not the affection of most everyone who counts. Everybody, especially the Writers Branch, knows the backstory of how quickly Boal had to research the bin Laden SEAL mission in order to get Kathryn Bigelow’s epic procedural before the cameras in a way that would pass muster by military experts. That he was able, at the same time, to bring out so much moral and emotional ambiguity is an achievement no one will deny, least of all the Writers Branch. An even money bet for nomination.
So there you have it.
The nomination predictions from here:
Argo; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; and either The Sessions,The Perks of Being a Wallflower or This Is 40.
Amour; Django Unchained; The Master; Moonrise Kingdom; Zero Dark Thirty.
And the winners?
Wow. That’s a tough one. It’d likely be Lincoln vs. Playbook in the adapted category, whereas any of those five originals (not to mention a couple others we’ve considered above) could take home the bacon. I’ll go out on a very treacherous limb and say Tony Kushner and Mark Boal are most likely to add a statuette to their mantels on Feb. 24. But I refuse to count the others out. We’re in for some fun, sports fans.