There's no blueprint for how to get it right — just ask the men behind “Rush,” “Nebraska,” “12 Years a Slave,” “All Is Lost,” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
This story appeared in OscarWrap: Director/Best Picture/Screenplay/Animation.
What was it that Leo Tolstoy said? “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But what may be true about happy families is not so true about happy –which is to say, good — screenplays.
Even Leo would have to see that Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for last year’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” (the book from which that quote came) was good in a wildly different way from the S.N. Behrman/Clemence Dane/Salka Viertel screenplay for the 1935 Greta Garbo version.
Here are five good ones from 2013, and five different ways of getting there.
Peter Morgan, “Rush”
Morgan is accustomed to writing films about real people, and he likes them in pairs: Richard Nixon and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon,” Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen.” This year he went down that road again with Ron Howard’s “Rush,” which details the bitter rivalry between the tightly wound Austrian Formula One racing driver Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl) and his playboy British competitor James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). To hear Morgan tell it, it’s the relationship that matters.
“I would not have written about Niki Lauda if it weren’t for James Hunt,” he told TheWrap. “And it’s not about Formula One at all to me. It’s the deeper themes of Austria and England, those two kinds of masculinity, of life and death and approaches to that. It’s the same thing as those other movies. I would never have written about Richard Nixon if it weren’t for David Frost. I wasn’t interested in Tony Blair except in his relationship to the queen.”
And while he normally avoids getting to know his subjects — he and Frost had a difficult relationship, with the talk-show host hating his portrayal until the movie became a critical success — this time around Morgan spent “30 or 40 meals” talking to Lauda, whom he’d known socially for years. “I can honestly say, the writing of the part of Niki is the most accurate I’ve ever done,” he said. “It really is Niki. I could connect with his speech rhythms, partly because I had such access to them. And partly — and this is something that is worrying to me — I could channel him. If you gave me a subject, I could Niki it.”
Morgan said he tried to structure the entire screenplay like a single race, with Lauda and Hunt going head-to-head both on the track and in their personal lives. And he told Lauda, who once had hit on the woman who would later become Morgan’s wife, that the racing legend would probably have problems with his portrayal. “I said, ‘Here are the ground rules. You’re going to fucking hate what I write. You will only ever see the differences and not the similarities. It will be painful. But I guarantee you, if you allow us to do our job, you will be reappraised in a way that you’re not being reappraised now. It’s a painful journey to go on, but on balance I would go on it, because I can assure you that I don’t have bad intentions.'”
Morgan was surprised by the affection with which Lauda greeted the movie. “He’s objectionable throughout the film,” he said. “It defies every conceivable script note you could get from Hollywood executives: ‘Why is there someone not sympathetic? Who do I root for? Why should I like these guys?’”
Another problem: In the climactic race depicted in the movie, when Lauda returned to the track only six weeks after being seriously injured in a devastating crash and fire, he pulled out after a single lap rather than continue racing in unsafe conditions. A respectable finish would have given him a Hollywood-friendly Formula One championship, but the early pullout handed the title to Hunt and serves as the very definition of anticlimax.
“I said, ‘What the fuck were you doing?’” Morgan laughed. “‘I’m trying to write a climax to a Hollywood movie, and you pulled out after one lap.’ He said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t think assholes like you would come along thinking this stupid story would make a movie. Are we going to the Oscars?’
“‘I don’t think so, Niki. No one’s going to the Oscars with this movie. I’m just trying to write the screenplay.’
“‘Why? Are you shit? Should I be with someone else? Am I here with a loser? I’m not doing this unless 100 percent I’m going to the Oscars.’
“‘OK, Niki, we’re going to the Oscars.‘ “‘So can I go and get myself a tuxedo?’
“‘Yes. Get yourself a tuxedo, Niki. We’re going to the Oscars.’”
Bob Nelson, “Nebraska”
Step 1: Nelson, a TV comedy writer and performer who lived in Seattle, had just finished a 10-year run in the sketch comedy show “Almost Live.” Out of what he said was “fear and desperation,” he decided to write a film script. “A friend of mine who wrote for ‘King of the Hill’ told me that people in TV get tired of reading spec ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ scripts — and if you have a movie script, they like that,” Nelson told TheWrap.
He’d already thought of his main character: an old man who travels to a sweepstakes office in Nebraska, convinced that the letter he received guarantees him the $1 million prize. “I had heard about that happening in real life, that those offices would have people travel across the country, sometimes with dementia. That kind of stuck in my mind. What if you have a parent like that, what do you do? At some point, if it’s not too far, maybe you just take them and get it over with.”
Step 2: While working on a new show for “Almost Live” alumnus Bill Nye the Science Guy, Nelson met a TV producer from Los Angeles. “She read my script, and she said, ‘I know a guy named Ron Yerxa, and he and his partner Albert Berger produced the movie “Election.” If you want, I’ll introduce you.’ I looked up their credits, and it looked like they were trying to make stories about real people and real life,” said Nelson of the duo, who went on to produce “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Little Children” and “Ruby Sparks.” “So I said sure. She got it to them, and they optioned it.”
Step 3: Yerxa and Berger gave the script to Alexander Payne, not thinking that he would direct it himself. “They got the idea to send it to Alexander just to say, ‘Do you know any young Midwest directors who might be interested in this?’” Nelson said. “And he wrote them back and said, ‘I would be.’”
Step 4: Payne sat on the script for almost a decade, doing an uncredited rewrite and waiting for the right time. “He did a lot of work on the first act,” said Nelson. “He took two scenes that I had at the end and combined them in a way that’s brilliant. But for the most part, if you look at it, it’s almost the story that I laid out, and the characters I laid out. And the changes that he made, I’m really happy about.”
Step 5: Bruce Dern landed the lead role, Payne made the movie, the critics raved, Dern won the best-actor prize at Cannes, early box- office returns were good and everybody was happy. “I’ve been told for 10 years now that it never happens like that,” admitted Nelson. “And people tell me I’ll never have it again, so I’m trying to enjoy it.”
John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”
Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” didn’t begin life as the adaptation of an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who’d been abducted and sold into slavery. It began as an original script — but when McQueen and writer Ridley weren’t happy with what they were coming up with, McQueen’s wife found Northrup’s work.
“Nothing was really working until she found the book,” Ridley told TheWrap. “It was a unique artifact in the sense that it was someone who endured it and could write directly about it. And someone who had a very interesting perspective on the duality of it, because he had freedom and then had it taken from him. That immediacy really carries through in the source material. You read that book, and you think, How did this ever fall out of the American canon? Why is this not taught in schools? Why does every kid not know about this, let alone a person like me, who assumes himself to be educated?”
The book is filled with harrowing, painful moments but is also written in a restrained, formal style designed to appeal to the audience of its day. Ridley had to find a way to make the story immediate and tangible, while retaining its central character’s quiet dignity.
“I knew going in that if I could find a way to really translate that power on to the page, other people were going to hold on to what was there and not try to fit it into a release schedule or a concept of what was going to sell,” he said. “Steve is that kind of guy. He goes for it and he does not flinch, whether it is a painful moment, a beautiful moment, a very small moment or a large moment. He was very exacting in terms of what he wanted in the story, but I never had to worry about the next writer coming in.”
A writer whose past films ranged from David O. Russell's “Three Kings” to the broad comedy “Undercover Brother” to his upcoming Jimi Hendrix movie “All Is by My Side,” Ridley now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having his film pitted against the likes of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” in awards talk. “That’s the narrative and the velocity of awards season,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that happens, and it is definitely happening with these movies.
“I do think it’s odd and unfortunate to hear people try to pit Chiwetel Ejiofor [from “12 Years”] against Idris Elba [“Mandela”] or Michael B. Jordan [“Fruitvale”]. But I’m glad there are five or six individuals who are getting support, and five or six movies that are up for it. And that’s all we really need to worry about. The talent is there, and now we’re going to see who works that behind- the-scenes, man-behind-the-curtain magic to make it happen, you know?
“People ask, ‘Are you surprised there are awards-quality films out there?’ No, I’m not surprised. The ability has always been there. To me, the big deal — and I mean this kidding, but sincerely — is that we people of color need to get more big-budget pieces of crap along with everybody else. That’s when we’ve overcome. When they say, ‘Well, we’ve got $200 million to waste on something nobody’s really gonna remember — why don’t you go make one of those?’ That’s when we’ll know we’re starting to get into a groove.”
Steve Conrad, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
Typically, adapting a literary classic involves lots of cutting. A writer needs to figure out what to include — but also, and at times more crucially, what to cut out, knowing that every lost character or scene will lead to cries of outrage from fans for whom the original material should remain inviolate.
But that was hardly the task that Conrad faced with “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The 1939 James Thurber story from which the film takes its name (as did the Danny Kaye film in 1947) is all of three pages long, with a lead character whose entire action consists of daydreaming while going to the store with his wife.
By the time Conrad came on board, a number of others had tried without getting the film off the ground. The project had reportedly been through directors Ron Howard, Chuck Russell, Steven Spielberg, Mark Waters and Gore Verbinski; stars Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen, and writers Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, Peter Tolan, Richard LaGravenese and Jay Kogen. “You could feel that pressure,” Conrad told TheWrap. “We were at the end of the line, developmentally. You could tell there weren’t going to be any other attempts.”
Conrad wrote a draft for Verbinski before the director left to do “The Lone Ranger,” purposely ignoring the previous attempts. “In order for the material to get reinvigorated, I thought it might be best served by a clean slate rather than a rewrite on any specific draft,” he said. His script attracted Ben Stiller, who agreed to star and then to direct — but under Stiller’s stewardship, Conrad went through multiple drafts over a three-year period.
“Part of the merit of the story is that it’s so concise,” he said. “The challenge seemed not to be turning that short story into a movie but trying to figure out what Thurber would say if he could say more.” Conrad and Stiller did away with the overbearing wife in Thurber’s “Mitty” and turned the quintessential daydreamer into a man of action, at least when circumstances force him to pursue a photograph destined for the cover of the final issue of “Life” magazine.
But Mitty wouldn’t be Mitty if he weren’t a dreamer. “The early part of the work was trying to figure out how to have active fantasies that didn’t distract you from the forward-moving progress that a decent story ought to have,” said Conrad. “The Mitty name has become an emblem of someone who daydreams, probably at the expense of living thoroughly or well. In the story, he imagined himself in the world of other men, being celebrated and cheered on by other guys. Ben and I felt like burying him in this world, and then having events allow him to really share this larger measure of himself, was the way to go.”
The trickiest part of the lengthy process, Conrad said, was balancing the fantasy sequences, most of them in the first half of the film, with a real life that becomes increasingly fantastical as it takes Mitty to Iceland and Afghanistan. “We experimented with how long the fantasies were,” he said. “We had drafts where the fantasies lasted as long as four minutes, where they kept compounding in size and scope. There’d be what you might call the Big Fantasy Draft, which really reached far and pushed them to be the calling card of the movie. And then we’d evaluate it and feel that something’s missing, and we’d start to want to get back to the story.
“Figuring out how much was the right amount was a process, but we had to get it right. There was no telling what would happen once we started shooting. I mean, we had Ben jumping into the North Sea and treading water while trying to direct a ship that was floating off.” He laughed. “I think it’s a good idea to work hard on the script before you do things like that.”
J.C. Chandor, “All Is Lost”
The screenplay started with a letter, written by J.C. Chandor in longhand on a train, while he was editing his first film, “Margin Call.” Only 15 sentences long and a little more than 100 words, it was in the voice of an elderly man saying goodbye to his loved ones, apologizing for unspecified failures and concluding, “I will miss you. I’m sorry.”
Chandor knew that the letter was to be from a man in a hopeless situation on a boat, though he later realized there was more to it than the musings of a half-formed character. “Looking back on it, I realized I was writing it for myself at that age — it was the letter I hoped I’d never write, the regrets I hope I never have,” he told TheWrap. The letter sat in Chandor’s notebook for four or five months — and then, just before he took “Margin Call” to the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, he forced himself to start writing the story of the man who wrote the letter.
He immediately wrote 15 or 20 pages about an unidentified lone sailor coping with an accident that has left his boat crippled and sinking in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The script contained no dialogue other than the letter, used as voiceover in the opening scene — just page after page of step-by-step descriptions of how “Our Man,” as the character came to be named, fought to survive. After 31 pages, Chandor was finished.
And that was “All Is Lost” — a minimalist script with one character, one setting and no talk. “That 31-page script was the only document we ever used,” Chandor said. “I showed it to my producers [“Margin Call” vets Anna Gerb and Neal Dodson], we showed it to Robert Redford, we used it to get Lionsgate and Roadside interested, and they sold all the foreign territories based just on those 31 pages. I think everyone read it and felt they were seeing the movie.” (One concession to the marketplace: The script has a less ambiguous ending, which Chandor admits he wrote to make investors feel more confident, even though he never planned to shoot it.)
As they created 450 to 500 storyboards from Chandor’s screenplay, the filmmakers realized that they had no idea how long the film would be; a dialogue-free screenplay means you can’t use the typical movie math that says one page of dialogue equals one minute of screen time. “We did worry about it, thinking, Are we making a 50-minute movie?” said Chandor. “But we had five- to 10-minute pages, and the original cut was three and a half hours long.”
In the end, he cut it down to as close to 90 minutes as he could, trying to recapture the feeling he got from the script. “A movie is such an absurd endeavor, with hundreds of people and millions of dollars,” he said. “But I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote this, and I had no idea if “Margin Call” was going to be a success and if anybody would hire me to do something as off the beaten path as this. So I just wrote it to see where it would take me — and two and a half years later, I’m thinking, how did I get here?”