The stories of '08 as imagined for the screen
Screenwriters nominated for Oscar and WGA awards this season crafted a diverse group of stories, many of which mirrored true events.
The activism in “Milk” raised discussions of both Proposition 8 and Barack Obama’s grassroots campaign, while “Slumdog Millionaire” uncannily arrived on the brink of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
No film, of course, dealt directly with incidents from last year. When asked to choose 2008 events they’d most like to turn into a screenplay, most nominees say they would jump at the chance.
For “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, a WGA and Oscar nominee, the meteoric rise of Sarah Palin provides an ideal movie scenario. “I’m always down for politics as humor,” Black says. “I’m also interested in great characters.”
Black isn’t the only nommed screenwriter to see the narrative value of Palin’s story. Tom McCarthy, whose screenplay for “The Visitor” landed him a WGA nom, sees the plight of Palin’s future stepson, Levi Johnston, as the main focus. “This young man gets his girlfriend pregnant and ends up on the Republican platform at the National Convention,” McCarthy reflects. “This 17-year-old kid from Alaska standing on the stage — there’s a dark comedy in there somewhere. He was like a deer in headlights.”
Black suggests such a movie could fit both peculiar characters into the plot. “Levi Johnston would be the B story,” he says. “It would be like dueling narratives.”
Palin and her extended family don’t represent the only 2008 political story worthy of dramatization for the screen. “I’d want to adapt the great relationship drama of our time, Bill and Hillary Clinton,” says Eric Roth, an Oscar and WGA nominee for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Pressed to elaborate on how he might tell the story, Roth remains coy. “That’s a nice teaser,” he says. “Anything else is gilding a lily, as they say.”
“Slumdog” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, nommed by both orgs, sees the potential for an expose on the 2008 primaries. “I suspect there were some very interesting conversations going on that would be nice in a movie,” he says. “What people were saying behind the scenes and what they were saying on camera were fantastically different.”
Beaufoy insists he would take the focus off the celebrities of the scenario, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in favor of a closer look at their clandestine strategists. “You might not even see those two,” he says. “It would be all about the background people.”
“Frozen River” writer-director Courtney Hunt, nominated for a screenplay Oscar, selects an event that took place far beyond U.S. borders: the assassination of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, which occurred in December 2007 but reverberated around the globe for months.
“There are so many questions that story brings up in my mind,” Hunt says. “Why wasn’t she more protected? In her case, where a woman is in a position of leadership, the choices she made were so interesting that I would be completely game for unraveling them.”
Hunt, whose film focused almost exclusively on female characters, points out the way Bhutto’s gender influenced international perception of the story. “People got right into her human frailty,” she says. “With women, it’s a lot easier to delve into their psycho-history and all their flaws.”
John Patrick Shanley, whose “Doubt” screenplay is double nommed, chooses another international story from late 2007 that carried over into 2008, albeit one with greater comic resonance: When untamed monkeys attacked the deputy mayor of New Delhi in October 2007, resulting in his death, many people pushed to hire India’s unemployed youth to sterilize the monkeys and prevent further simian harassment.
“I avidly followed the story’s every turn,” Shanley says with a chuckle. “I read it aloud to the cast of ‘Doubt’ when we were in rehearsal.” The screenwriter claimes it actually helped the actors understand his 1960s-era plot, which takes place at a strict Catholic school. “It opened up a big discussion about trying to keep certain natural elements out of the school,” he says, “and what a losing battle that was going to be.”
“Wall-E” writer-director Andrew Stanton, an Oscar nominee, chooses a similar animal-centric event. It took place in his hometown of Rockport, Mass. “These wild turkeys actually chased down a mailman,” he says. “It makes my mind reel.”
Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles; Hudson Theater at the Millennium Broadway Hotel, NYC.
Host: Neil Patrick Harris