Maybe they’re feeling prickly about notes and rewrites.
For whatever reason, this year the Writers Branch snubbed big-budget studio films for Academy Award nomination — even the prestige pics that used to be an Oscar staple.
Instead, voters nommed ensemble pieces and idiosyncratic scripts with a strong voice. Three of the five scripts are at least mostly in foreign languages, and four of five resonate with contemporary politics.
“Letters From Iwo Jima,” by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, tells the story of the World War II battle from the Japanese point of view. Its characters are honorable men doomed by their leaders to fight a hopeless war.
Oscar winner Haggis, who penned companion film “Flags of Our Fathers,” guided newcomer Yamashita through development.
“I got notes from the executives and other people that we wanted to make sure we didn’t offend the Japanese government and the descendents (of Iwo Jima),” Yamashita says, adding that Haggis “said not to worry about that, just work on writing a good story.”
“Babel” is the only one of the five that directly touches on current events, specifically American immigration policy and the war on terror, but writer Guillermo Arriaga had been thinking about some of its storylines for decades.
“I always try to choose a word to lead me; this time it was ‘miscommunication,'” says Arriaga. “The lack of communication was the idea that led me through the screenplay. I try to tell the story, and then comes the concept. It’s a process of discovery.”
Peter Morgan’s “The Queen” shows the British monarchy threatened for not being more responsive to the people, and Morgan has lamented that the same held true of England’s entry into Iraq. Yet it has hit a nerve more for its humanizing portrait of Elizabeth II.
The queen’s reticence meant Morgan had little from real life to work with. “There’s absolutely nothing of what I wrote that can be substantiated,” he says. “What I wrote was a drama of the imagination.”
“Pan’s Labyrinth” has an anti-authoritarian message. Writer Guillermo del Toro’s unique blend of realism and fairy-tale stories favors disobedience in the face of oppression.
It’s a project del Toro had worked on for years, but the characters still surprised him as he wrote the script. He’d planned to kill off the resistance fighter Mercedes in the scene where she’s tortured by the film’s main villain. Instead, he says, “I could not kill her. It was not just a matter of dramaturgy or structure, she simply was so strong that she almost willed herself to live. I can’t put it any other way.”
Finally, “Little Miss Sunshine,” though not overtly political, also favors the underdog. “These self-absorbed, myopic individuals see their dreams crumble,” says writer Michael Arndt, “but through this experience they learn to be more selfless and forgiving of each other in a very functional way.”
If Arndt’s voice comes through strongly in the pic, it may be because he and others worked hard to protect his script from “changes for change’s sake” — something his peers in the Academy know about all too well.