Indies, tyro categorical nominees dominate

As studios rely more on adapting novels, comicbooks and plays, the original screenplay category has been increasingly dominated by indies. This year is no different, with four independents and one studio pic — an animated one, no less — making Oscar’s final cut.

The raves began early for “Lost in Translation,” which boasts a naturalistic style that puts appealing characters before plot. “It’s still hard for me to describe,” says scribe-helmer Sofia Coppola. “It was very hard to pitch.

“It was important for me to work with a low budget to make the film any way I wanted,” she notes.

Family relationships were a popular subject, pervading “In America,” “The Barbarian Invasions” and “Finding Nemo.”

Jim Sheridan, who wrote “In America” with his daughters, Kirsten and Naomi, says the film had to go the indie route. “I dragged it to all the studios and had meetings where they said, ‘The family is not fighting enough and there’s not enough conflict.’ But when you have a story that’s like life, it’s hard to find those problems. The changes that occur inside you are invisible.”

Remember when . . . 1995
The bullet wasn’t magic for Woody Allen and his script for “Bullets Over Broadway,” written with Douglas McGrath. Allen, at this point an eight-time nominee and two-time winner, lost to the powerhouse originality of “Pulp Fiction,” by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary.

It was “Pulp’s” sole win at a ceremony dominated by “Forrest Gump.”

Also making the cut for the first time were Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, whose “Heavenly Creatures” gave them their first real taste of Oscar mania and helped launch the career of “Titanic” thesp Kate Winslet.

Richard Curtis broke through for the first of his successful and quirky English comedies, “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

And the conclusion to Krzystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy, “Red,” got him and co-writer Krzystof Piesiewicz into the game.

Sheridan came to Manhattan to shoot the autobiographical film just weeks after the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001. “Can you imagine what the temptation was like, standing there with a story about grief after 9/11 and I still hadn’t shot Manhattan?” he recalls.

That serious tone is also reflected in “The Barbarian Invasions.” “Artists feel things before the general population,” says writer-director Denys Arcand. “We’re the caged canary in the coal mine. That’s why people should take movies and books and plays seriously. If you listen to a playwright, they will tell you where we’re going.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the more triumphant (and kid oriented) “Finding Nemo,” by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds.

Stanton says he tries to forget that he’s writing for animation. “The reality is you never think of the movie as animated — you’re thinking of it as a real story with real characters,” he says. “The main effort regardless is really just trying to discover who your characters are.”

Filling the fifth slot was unusual suspect Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”). He began the project as a novel but ended up switching to screenplay form for the story about London’s hidden immigrant underclass.

“If you look at Charles Dickens, for example, who was writing at a time when London was at its most powerful and the British empire was at its peak, he was writing about how awful things were for the ordinary people,” he says. “But there was so much humor, character and observation there. I think it’s the duty of writer not to just say isn’t it awful, but to say that humanity survives and humanity persists.”

Oscar Pedigree

Denys Arcand may be a newcomer to this category, but his films “Jesus of Montreal” and “Decline of the American Empire” earned Oscar noms in the foreign-language category. That means Arcand is not an unknown quantity to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Given that two original foreign-language scripts were nominated last year, and Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her” won, there’s precedent for Arcand to triumph.

Steven Knight is a newcomer, with “Dirty Pretty Things” being his first screenplay. A U.K. TV writer and novelist, his thriller was widely admired and in a genre the Acad has previously been open to honoring.

Of the “Finding Nemo” writers, Andrew Stanton has the most Oscar cred, having been nominated in this category for “Toy Story” in 1996. A later writing nom for “Shrek” in adapted screenplay shows the Acad likes the big, popular CGI toons and that could have “Nemo” finding Oscar.

Sofia Coppola’s noms this year are her first, though her father is well-known to the Acad, with three writing trophies and two additional writing noms. First-time noms have often won this category (including the elder Coppola) and it’s easy to see the much lauded script for “Lost in Translation” combined with a sterling pedigree earning Sofia the gold.

Jim Sheridan is another writer well-known to Oscar, having noms for “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father.” The director’s autobiographical script for “In America,” written with his daughters, features the sentiment, seriousness and uplifting qualities that the Acad has rewarded in the past.

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