We need to talk about money

Eye on the Oscars: The Writer - Original Screenplay

Signs of hard times and tension between rich and not-so-rich are everywhere in this year’s original screenplay nominees — even in the pics that look frothy.

“Margin Call” dissects the single-minded greed that propelled Wall Street — and America — into the financial crisis of 2008. The protagonist of “Bridesmaids” is a talented baker who’s struggling to keep her head above water after her business failed in the ensuing depression, and finds a certifiable member of “the 1%” coming after the one great thing she has left in her life: her relationship with her best friend. In “A Separation,” two Iranian couples, one better off and one poor, are brought into conflict when the poorer woman takes a job that compromises her principles because her family needs money.

Gil Pender, the successful screenwriter at the center of “Midnight in Paris,” longs to escape the materialism and turmoil of 21st century Los Angeles, and finds refuge in the Lost Generation Paris of the 1920s. Even the dashing silent movie star of “The Artist” is displaced by advancing technology — the advent of talking pictures.

“Margin Call” writer-director J.C. Chandor says he saw his friends get sucked into the machinery of big finance and be spit out of it along the way. In his script, though, he tried not to condemn the bankers too harshly. “These aren’t, in my opinion, sociopaths in most cases that we’re dealing with here.” Aside from the Bernie Madoffs of the world, he says, “The rest of these people got caught up in the gears of this thing, and greed took over.” For many of these people, like the characters in his movie, their lives became a competition and money they only measuring stick. That’s why Penn Badgley’s character is so important to the picture, says Chandor. “He’s the one who tells the audience how much each of them makes and that’s really important information for the audience to know because that’s what these people have become obsessed with.” Worse, he notes, “We all to a lesser extent caught the same bug.”

Perhaps one of the people who caught that materialism virus is Annie, the sad-sack protagonist of “Bridesmaids” played by co-writer Kristen Wiig. Annie is a gifted baker and cake decorator whose bakery has failed amidst the bust. Wiig says Helen, the rich woman played by Rose Byrne, is “that person that you think you want to be, that person on the outside that looks like they have everything.” Co-writer Annie Mumolo says that by contrast, the struggling Annie “doesn’t quite have all the things that give you, I don’t know, points in society. So it’s her comparing herself to other people in society who seemingly do.”

The long-gestating script didn’t originally include that idea that Annie’s bakery failed during bad times, says Wiig. “We had struggled a little bit with what Annie’s story was.” She and Mumolo wanted their heroine to be ambitious, but not successful. “I think with the economic times it just seemed a good way to make what happened to her not her fault,” says Wiig. With the economic crash, their character suddenly made more sense.

“The Artist” may seem far removed from Wall Street and the current hard times, but writer-director Michel Hazanavicius wanted to tell “a human story” with his silent-style picture. “His world is changing,” says Hazanavicius “and I thought that something so quick like the arrival of the talkies for a silent big star was a metaphor for what could happen to each of us, everyone. And I think it’s a a very modern problem.

“The world is changing so fast now that we all have to adapt ourselves. I think the arrival of the talkies was really a good metaphor because it touched powerful people, not only the middle class.” In the end, protagonist George Valentin does reinvent himself, but only after hitting a bottom that nearly costs his life.

Gil Pender, the screenwriter hero of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” seems to have all those things. He’s making enough money that his fiancee can seriously ponder buying a $27,000 pair of chairs. But having bought into the dream of avarice — and acquired the avaricious fiancee to fit it — he is unfulfilled. He wants to give up his lucrative career to move to Paris and write novels.

The linchpin of the story is Gil’s escape to 1920s Paris, a time that had the excitement and romance of great artists struggling to create great art, instead of the movie business doing, well, whatever the movie business does nowadays. That aspect of escape is key for writer-helmer Woody Allen. “I’ve never felt reality was my friend,” he told Variety in a recent interview.

For a man who has made a living with comedy for so long, Allen is quite pessimistic by nature. “I don’t see any satisfactory answers to the human condition, which consists primarily of suffering,” he says. “There’s joy from children, joy from a loved one, joy in sexual relations, joy when I’m playing music, but the joy things are always transient. The grim things are eternal, are there all the time, don’t change and they’re always there. And they’re ultimately, they’re the things that triumph.”

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is all about those “grim things,” and it parts the curtain on an Iran that is no stranger to the dislocations and tensions people face everywhere in the world. The middle-class couple at the heart of the drama, Nader and Simin, are struggling with their marriage, caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s and trying to find the best future for their teenage daughter. That brings them into conflict with a poorer couple, Razieh and Hodjat.

“Although the conflict between two families coming from different social classes seems to come from financial issues, but more than that it’s a result of cultural difference,” says Farhadi, the pic’s writer-director.

“Culturally speaking, this doesn’t mean that these two classes are completely apart. They have a lot in common, but in some matters, there are some differences as well.”

While the people in many countries are divided into high- and low-income classes, Farhadi says, “In some countries, this division is not just economic, and issues such as tendency toward modernism or toward traditions and roots complicate this division even more.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Writer
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