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Oscar-contending writers not new to the film biz

Scratch a freshman, find a scribe who's paid their dues

They’re new, but they’re far from green.

This year’s “freshman class” of writers in Oscar contention — which includes Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Andrea Berloff (“World Trade Center”), Zach Helm (“Stranger Than Fiction”) and Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking”) — had diverse showbiz resumes before production started on their screenplays.

Arndt quit his job as an assistant to Matthew Broderick to write the script. The film, under the direction of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, became the darling of the 2006 Sundance fest.

“Fox Searchlight is being very aggressive, which is very flattering to me,” says Arndt, whose “Little Miss Sunshine” was five bumpy years in the making.

He is self-deprecating as he discusses the project’s travails, but when pressed, a little confidence seeps out. “People always liked the script,” he says. “So I always felt that if a good job was done in translating the script to the screen that people would like it.” Like it in a best picture kind of way? “Honestly,” he laughs, “I’m just glad the film got made.”

Berloff, a Cornell-trained actress who segued to screenwriting as a way to avoid doing “Mexican beer commercials,” found herself with the task of scripting the story of two of the few survivors to be pulled alive from the rubble of the Twin Towers.

She had written shorts, but it was to be her first produced feature script.

“It was preposterous,” she says. “I was truly overwhelmed by both the personal responsibility I had to the families and the responsibility to the world at large about what kind of movie we need about 9/11.”

Good reviews and a vigorous campaign by Paramount notwithstanding, Berloff doesn’t entertain thoughts of Oscar. “I have way too much humility to believe that I would be on anybody’s short list.”

Helm, on the other hand, had plenty of experience writing, doctoring and pitching scripts — but no produced screenplays — before his Pirandellian “Stranger Than Fiction.”

“I had an ostensible and apparent career,” he muses. “It was a little rough, but this was the one that finally broke through.” The process also allowed Helm’s first screenplay, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” to earn a greenlight as the writer’s directorial debut.

Jason Reitman scored a double debut with “Thank You for Smoking,” his first produced feature as screenwriter and director. It was a project he pursued for six years, since reading the book as a teenager.

After directing shorts and commercials, he and his agent found the project “dying a slow death in development” at Mel Gibson’s Icon. Reitman pitched a film “so cheap and small that it would never have to apologize for itself,” he says, then wrote the first act on spec. That got him attached, but it was still years before the film was made.

Of being in contention, he says, “It is an affirmation of my choice to stay patient these last years and make the film that meant most to me.”

“God willing,” says Reitman, “I’ll be speaking to you next year on how I beat the sophomore slump.”