Whether TV vets or tyros, first-time screenwriters show savvy that belies their inexperience
Oscar has a way of falling in love with first-time scripters, including Chris Terrio (“Argo”), Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Diablo Cody (“Juno”), Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”) and Geoffrey Fletcher (“Precious”).
But those “freshmen” are sometimes showbiz veterans. That’s certainly true of “Don Jon” writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The thesp drew on his acting experience to pen the script.
“I wasn’t sitting looking at a computer writing,” Gordon-Levitt says. “I was up on my feet acting. When I would get the scene to a version that I like then I would go back to the keyboard and write it down. My writing process was not dissimilar from my acting process. I was basically doing the same thing except a few steps earlier.”
Cormac McCarthy, on the other hand, is a veteran novelist but “The Counselor” is his first screenplay. The script and picture have polarized critics, including two at Variety: Peter Debruge described McCarthy’s screenwriting as “obtuse” and a clear departure from his “comfort zone of terse, no-nonsense novels,” but Scott Foundas found the author’s wordplay “rich, rhythmic (and) clearly the product of someone in love with language and everything it can both conceal and reveal.”
For Bob Nelson 2003 was a very good year. Not only did Bona Fide Prods.’ Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa option his first screenplay, “Nebraska,” but Alexander Payne also also decided to direct the pic — though it wound up taking 10 years for the film to open.
Prior to penning “Nebraska,” Nelson had only written jokes and five-minutes-and-under sketches for television. “I never thought anyone would actually make (‘Nebraska’),” Nelson says. “I was just writing it for the fun of it and to have (a) writing sample for Hollywood.”
But when he finally sat down to pen a two-hour screenplay, the scribe knew it would involve a learning curve.
“It took me about a year in total to write the script,” Nelson says. “I wrote 20 quick pages and realized I didn’t know what I was doing, so that’s when I had to educate myself for a few months. Then I re-wrote it about 50 times before I put it out there.”
Payne was so impressed with the script he decided to make it his first film based on another writer’s original screenplay. That said, the two-time Oscar-winning scribe made tweaks to the screenplay.“Some of the big changes Alexander made to the script (involved) the (Grant) brothers,” Nelson says. “I had (Forte’s) character work in a generic cubicle and his brother was an insurance salesman. Alexander had the idea to put (Forte) in job where there is no advancement and give his brother what would be a celebrity job in Billings, Montana.
That created this tension between the two of them. In that way it gave the brothers a dramatic arc so later on in the film they also have their bonding moment.”
TV scribe Kelly Marcel didn’t know anything about “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers three years ago when producer Alison Owen showed her Sue Smith’s birth-to-death life story of the author. After reading Smith’s script, Marcel decided to focus on the moment in Travers’ life when Walt Disney was struggling to secure the movie rights to “Mary Poppins.” The result was the backstage tale “Saving Mr. Banks,” which landed on the 2011 Black List.
“Making the Black List was incredibly important in the process of getting the film made because it exposed the script to everyone in town,” Marcel says. Marcel had access to 39 hours of audio recordings of Travers speaking with the “Poppins” songwriters and screenwriters, but used “artistic license” when it came to writing her dialogue.
“If you listen to the tapes, she is very difficult to listen to,” Marcel says. “Travers’ real voice is different from the voice we use in the script.”
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack relied more heavily on taped conversations with Texas electrician-turned-AIDS activist Ron Woodroof while penning “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Borten, a tyro scripter (Wallack has several prior features), interviewed Woodroof before his death in 1992. He says, “Melisa and I went through all 25 hours of interviews. Some of the dialogue is pulled directly from the (those recordings).”
While Wallack admits that it was “difficult” to fictionalize real-life events, Borten says at the end of the day, “We were trying to show (Woodroof’s story) in the most interesting and dramatic light, which is always a challenge for any biopic.”
“Fruitvale Station” writer-director Ryan Coogler, whose previous credits were all shorts, combined real-life events with fictional sequences to depict the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life. In-between being invited to attend the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab and attending, Coogler was able to sit down with Grant’s family to discuss the 22-year-old who was killed by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009.
Coogler says the fresh perspective on the man and the crime made his time at the Lab that much more “informative.” He cut out characters and combined others. He wrote a fictional scene that involves Grant tending to a stray dog injured in a hit-and-run.
“We see all the other characters (in the film) react to random violence, but we don’t see (Oscar’s) reaction because (the random violence) happens to him,” Coogler says. “So I thought that it was important to include the (dog) scene.”
Danny Strong, who has written Washington-insider stories for HBO, also took artistic license when transforming longtime White House butler Eugene Allen into the fictionalized Cecil Gaines for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
“It was the most difficult (project) I’ve ever worked on as a writer,” Strong says of the story, which spans over 90 years and several administrations. “I wasn’t trying to re-create word for word what exactly happened. I was trying to do a compelling dramatization that has integrity and represented the truth of what happened,” Strong says. “It’s certainly a dramatization, but one that is truthful and accurate but not exact.” Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” inspired the film, but according to Strong it “did not necessarily feel like a blueprint for a movie.”
“Cecil Gaines is a composite character inspired by many people I interviewed and memoirs I read,” Strong explains.
Destin Daniel Cretton used his own experience working at a group home for adolescents as the blueprint for his film “Short Term 12.” Based on his 2009 Sundance-winning short, “12” focuses on young worker at a temporary shelter for adolescents, whose friendship with a new resident re-opens wounds from her past.
Cretton won the Nicholls Screenwriting Fellowship for the script in 2010 but when it came time to shoot, the scribe rewrote it.
“I chopped out a decent amount of the script in order to simplify (it),” Cretton says. “I got rid of things that were trying too hard and pushing too much. It was all about really focusing the theme and simplifying. I was always trying to figure out how little I could get away with throughout the entire writing, shooting and editing process. Audiences are way smarter than people expect.”