Small originals & big adaptations top noms

This article was updated at 8:57 p.m.

Original scripts: Small. Adapted scripts: Big.

At least that’s the thinking of the Writers Guild, which tapped five arthouse faves for the original script race, while four out of the five adapted screenplay nominations went to big-budget pics from the majors.

Nominees in the original category were Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges and Guljit Bindra for Fox Searchlight’s “Bend It Like Beckham”; Steven Knight, Miramax’s “Dirty Pretty Things”; Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan, Fox Searchlight’s “In America”; Sofia Coppola, Focus Features’ “Lost in Translation”; and Tom McCarthy, Miramax’s “The Station Agent.”

Nominees in the adapted category are Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman for Fine Line’s “American Splendor”; Anthony Minghella, Miramax’s “Cold Mountain”; Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”; Brian Helgeland, Warner’s “Mystic River”; and Gary Ross, Universal’s “Seabiscuit.”

The discrepancy in the two categories shows up in the box office of the films. The five original contenders have a combined domestic gross of $87 million (led by “Translation” at $33.7 million). In contrast, the adapted candidates have grossed $576 million (led by “Return of the King,” $330 million).

“I can’t believe we’re on the list with those other big pictures,” said Pulcini of “Splendor.” Added spouse Springer Berman, “The nomination feels very much like the equivalent of Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland file clerk who somehow manages to get noticed.”

Winners will be announced Feb. 21 at the WGA’s 56th annual awards gala at the Century Plaza.

Rookies dominated: 10 of the 17 nominated writers are receiving their first WGA nom. Helgeland is the only nominee who’s previously won a WGA trophy, sharing the adapted screenplay award (and the Oscar) with Curtis Hanson for “L.A. Confidential” in 1998.

Jim Sheridan previously received WGA noms for “In the Name of the Father” and “My Left Foot”; Minghella received WGA noms for “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “The English Patient” (and won the director Oscar for the latter). Walsh, Boyens and Jackson took a 2002 nom for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”; Ross previously drew WGA noms for “Big” and “Dave.”

The noms for Sofia Coppola and Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan marked the first time that daughters of WGA nominees have also been nominated.

Among the titles shut out by WGA voters were “21 Grams,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Love Actually” and “The Last Samurai” in the original category and “The House of Sand and Fog,” “Big Fish” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring” in the adapted category.

The WGA West and producers of “Last Samurai” were sued recently over the guild’s refusal to arbitrate a member’s claim of a writing credit on the film.

In addition, the WGA had excluded several critical favorites from ballots due to their nonsignatory status, including “Finding Nemo,” “Thirteen” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

A Fox spokeswoman said “Master” wasn’t eligible because writers Peter Weir and John Collee aren’t WGA members.

It’s not unusual for several key contenders to be excluded as nonsignatory. Last year’s exclusions included “Roger Dodger,” “Y tu mama tambien,” “Ice Age,” “Lilo & Stitch” and “Talk to Her,” which won the Oscar for original screenplay.

In all, 110 films were eligible in the original category and 78 in adapted, having met the qualification of being written under a WGA contract or that of a WGA foreign affiliate.

Like all kudos at this time of year, WGA noms — voted on by the 12,000 guild members — are tracked as an indicator of sentiment among the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Oscar noms are voted on by the 403 members of the Acad’s writers branch).

WGA winners in the original screenplay category have matched Oscar choices in 11 years over the past 21; the WGA adapted screenplay award has matched the Oscar winner in 14 years during the same period.

Wide-open contest

Thursday’s announcements come amid a fairly wide-open contest so far.

“In America” and “Cold Mountain” won awards from the National Board of Review; “American Splendor” took the top award from the National Society of Film Critics while “In America” did so from the Broadcast Film Critics; “Lost in Translation” has racked up victories from Chicago and Toronto critics; “The Station Agent” won the Waldo Salt and Audience Awards at Sundance last year; and “Mystic River” and “Seabiscuit” tied in the USC Scripter award, announced Thursday.

The WGA noms also featured four films that avoided the fall-winter release crunch: “Bend It Like Beckham,” released in March; “Seabiscuit” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” both released in July; and “American Splendor,” opened in August.

“We didn’t think we’d still be in the running alongside such great films,” said Chadha, who also directed and produced “Bend It Like Beckham.” “I’m just over the moon, since writers are such a tough crowd.”

Emotional, nostalgic

Ross, who’s also up for a DGA nom for “Seabiscuit,” said: “I think the story stays with people because it’s very emotional and I think writers know how hard that is. The fact that it’s been remembered for this long is almost the most gratifying thing because you really want your movies to last.”

Knight, who received the news while in a car during a London rainstorm, said he’s surprised by the lingering appeal of “Dirty Pretty Things,” an exploration of life among London immigrants.

“I’ve been in a sort of permanent state of shock over the reaction to it,” he added. “I think writers appreciate how it’s driven by dialogue and explores characters by the way they speak, since English is not their first language.”

Boyens of “Return of the King,” who’s in Los Angeles for the Golden Globes, said she was particularly pleased over the endorsement of the fantasy genre. “I’m deeply appreciative that our peers got what we were trying to do in telling this complicated story.”

Jim Sheridan said he was especially enthused over sharing the nom with his daughters for “In America,” an autobiographical account of their immigrant experiences. “It was very humbling that they basically eliminated my character from the screenplay and focused on things that were important to them like their friends at the school playground and what was in the refrigerator,” he added.

Old-fashioned take

Helgeland said WGA voters were likely attracted by the straight-ahead approach taken by “Mystic River.” “It’s kind of old-fashioned without gimmicks, which you don’t see much of anymore.”

Helgeland also stressed that acclaim should be shared with director Clint Eastwood and Dennis Lehane, who penned the novel. “I would not be here without them,” he added. “The director’s really the one who gets you there. Clint’s the one driving the bus.”

McCarthy gave credit to the thesps in “Station Agent,” pointing to the three surprise SAG noms last week. “They really connected to the material, so we were able to let the film play out at its own pace and slow it down enough to get these really intimate moments.”

Pulcini said he believes part of the appeal of “American Splendor” stems from its offbeat structure: “It’s not pure comedy or pure drama or even pure narrative.”

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