Basic instinct

Reacting from the gut, scribes reward emotional truth and innovation

When WGA members pored over the list of 187 movies that qualified for the guild’s feature awards, what criteria did they use to select just 10 noms? Lofty dramatic principles? Mythological paradigms?

Apparently not. They relied on a finely tuned instrument employed by moviegoers the world over: the gut.

“I either respond passionately to something and love it or I don’t,” says Philippa Boyens, a nominee as co-writer of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” with Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson.

“I ask myself: did it affect me?” says Jim Sheridan, a nominee for “In America,” written with daughters Naomi and Kirsten. “I don’t go to a movie like a critic, thinking, ‘Is it interesting? Is it different than all the others?’ I don’t care if it’s different. If it’s a new take on something I’ve seen before and it moves me, I love it as much as the original or even more.”

But professional screenwriters are moved by different stimuli than the hordes of adolescents that pack megaplexes. Instead of explosions or CGI monsters, they crave moments of quiet desperation, subtle gestures that serve as a window into the human psyche, the small triumphs and failures, the myriad ambivalent acts that make up the fabric of our daily lives. They might vote for sweeping epics like “The Lord of the Rings” or “Cold Mountain,” but even those films focus on fragile individuals buffeted by larger forces.

“The movies that win WGA nominations tend to be independents, not the blockbusters in which there’s a whammy every 10 minutes and each one was written by a different writer,” says Stephen Schiff, who adapted “The Deep End of the Ocean” (1999).

Most take the process very seriously. Ron Bass scrutinized the list with obsessive care. “First I check off everything that I liked a lot. That’s maybe 20 films. Then I start crossing off the ones I liked a little less.”

They know the awards are imperfect instruments for calibrating artistic value. “The studios now send out screenplays for their candidates,” says Ron Shelton, writer-director of “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992) and “Cobb” (1994). “I wonder how many people read them. I’ll bet almost none. I don’t have time. So one is judging screenplays based on how they were interpreted by the movie’s director. That would be like judging a musical composition based on how a particular orchestra plays it. It’s an inexact science and that’s why awards are silly in the long run.”

But deadly serious in the short run, especially if your film is nominated. “If ‘In America’ won the WGA’s award for best original screenplay, (it would indicate) we’d have a chance with the Oscar as well,” says Sheridan.

An Oscar translates into a fat infusion of cash at the box office, currency an independent filmmaker like Sheridan depends on to make his next movie. “It’s going to be a close vote, whoever wins it,” he says, fretfully. “It’s an amazing year.”

Which made casting his WGA ballot a living hell. Oh sure, most nominees take the high road with the press, praising the competition. Sheridan would love to pull that off, but he can’t manage it.

“Deep down we’re all in survival mode. You go to the other films and you start to enjoy yourself, but then you think: ‘Oh, my God, this is really good!’ That’s the truth of it. Some of the films really affected me this year.”

Which ones? The question causes Sheridan to squirm. “I’d really rather not say.”

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