This year’s first-time contenders in the Oscar race are a reminder of the old showbiz truism that overnight sensations are often years in the making.
Milk” scripter Dustin Lance Black grew up a closeted, gay Mormon in Texas. Later, in California, Black studied theater and learned about Harvey Milk. “An out gay man? I never heard of such a thing,” Black says. “Where I came from, you would at least be called names, and in the religion I was raised in, we were taught that if you’re gay you’re going to hell. Milk gave me a lot of hope that you could be honored and honest by being true to who you are.”
Black lobbied his agent and landed a writing gig on HBO’s Mormon fundamentalist soap opera “Big Love.” He simultaneously worked on the “Milk” spec script — for years — often traveling to get firsthand interviews. The passion project pushed forward when Gus Van Zandt and Sean Penn came onboard. “It’s a miracle,” Black says.
Justin Haythe had a screen credit before “Revolutionary Road,” 2004 pic “The Clearing,” and his debut novel “The Honeymoon” was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The Richard Yates novel “Revolutionary Road” has almost been adapted to film several times but only now have the stars aligned.
“I was approached to adapt it by the BBC and had been working for them on another project,” says Haythe. Then Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes and Leonardo DiCaprio became attached. “Once that happened, we were able to make the movie very, very quickly.”
Haythe believes an enormous amount of discipline is required to write an adaptation but feels an added responsibility adapting Yates. “You desperately want to do this great book justice.”
‘Rachel Getting Married’
Jenny Lumet comes from Hollywood royalty: Her father is Sidney Lumet and her grandmother is Lena Horne. Yet, “as a tiny girl, I always wanted to be Batman.” Eschewing the superhero route, she became an actress instead.
Soon, however, she realized her passion was to be a schoolteacher and parent. Lumet started a drama program at Manhattan Country School (where her son attends) and has been teaching there for eight years. “They always get pissed at me because I call it ‘the hippie school.'”
Lumet started thinking about writing after the birth of her first child. “Rachel Getting Married” is her fifth script, and the first one produced.
She showed the script to her dad. “He read it, and the one thing he said was, ‘You know, they always fuck you on your first deal.’ ”
Grant Nieporte started on Tim Allen’s “Home Improvement.” “I came up with bits for the ‘Tool Time’ segments.”
Nieporte went on to do a series of showrunner/writer’s assistant jobs because “when you have no money and no connections, you take any job you can get.” He eventually landed writing gigs on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and “8 Simple Rules.”
But Nieporte took writing classes, wrote several scripts and got “Seven Pounds” to production shingle Escape Artists because, he figured, “If they like Steve Conrad (‘The Pursuit of Happyness’), maybe they’ll like me.”
Life has come full circle and he is writing a movie for Allen. “Tim used to know me as ‘Buddy.’ … Now it’s like, ‘Hey Grant, I’d like to talk with you about your writing.'”
Nick Schenk sold the first script he ever wrote. “It went to Disney, and, not to date myself, but Katzenberg greenlit that thing, and when he went to DreamWorks it died that day. They had a director, and it was cast — the whole works.” TV gigs and specs scripts followed.
Schenk, a Minnesota native, grew up “endlessly fascinated with World War II” and surrounded with military vets like Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino). “I wrote ‘Gran Torino’ longhand in a bar in Minneapolis,” says Schenk. Another script he wrote at the same bar is in development.
He got “Gran Torino” to Double Nickel Entertainment via “an old drinking friend,” and then it made it into the hands of Eastwood. “It was all luck,” adds Schenk, “but I don’t think you can write and not be optimistic. … I was too stupid to quit.”
Robert Siegel, a former journalist, was editor-in-chief of the satirical newspaper the Onion for eight years. Now he’s being praised for writing gritty drama “The Wrestler.”
After the Onion, Siegel says, “I kind of just assumed I should write comedies that Adam McKay or Judd (Apatow) will hopefully direct one day, but they were bad scripts.”
So instead, he tapped into his two great loves: Scorsese and sports. “Half of my DVD collection is that ’70s auteur stuff,” he notes. Once he started writing movies in that genre, the inspiration flowed and Siegel found his voice.
“I don’t know if that will be my niche forever,” says Siegel, who adds it’s not an either/or proposition but a question of ratio. “It used to be 80% comedy, 20% darkness. Now it’s maybe 80% darkness, 20% comedy.”
J.Michael Straczynski started as a journalist, then worked almost nonstop as a television writer for two decades. His credits include “Babylon 5” and “Jeremiah.” “Changeling” is his first screenplay.
Straczynski wanted to write “Changeling” even though he never tackled movies before. “My process has always been: Do what scares you,” he explains. Straczynski has a history of conquering scary territory. He came from “really rough places” and a family that moved 20 times in 17 years who “considered writing to be a thing that you left to the guys with ivory-tower backgrounds and corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows.”
But suddenly, at age 55, Straczynski is an A-list screenwriter. “After ‘Changeling’ sold, everybody at the studios wanted to meet me. Most of them didn’t know I had a background in television; they didn’t know if I was 20 or 90, they didn’t know if it was my first script or my 200th script, and more important they didn’t care, in a good way. If the quality of your storytelling is there, the fairy tale still happens.”