Oscar’s hidden writing categories: Big-Canvas vs. intimate tales

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Writer

A movie’s scope is initially determined by the screenwriter, who has to decide whether to examine the world through a wide-angle lens or a microscope’s eyepiece; whether to spread the narrative across an enormous canvas, or etch it onto a delicate cameo.

“Moonrise Kingdom” co-author Roman Coppola says, “There’s a DNA of a movie that happens when you first conceive it.” If so, will the primary aim be to map an entire genome, or simply to identify and analyze one individual strand?

This year’s contenders divide pretty evenly between “Themes Writ Large” and “Lives Writ Small.” Half are largely concerned with the flow of titanic events — slavery’s horrific stain in “Django Unchained” and its slow death in “Lincoln”; policy execution in “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty”; mythmaking metaphysics in “Life of Pi” — whereas the likes of “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Silver Linings Playbook” are about getting up close and deeply personal.

John Gatins’ “Flight” even pulls off a neat switcheroo by staging the biggest, scariest plane crash ever filmed, then almost immediately fixating on its coked-up pilot’s bloodshot eyes and never pulling back. You come for the carnage and stay for the Cassavetes.

Helmer Bob Zemeckis, Gatins says, “loved the challenge of it: putting that sequence in the first act, and then inviting people through a smaller door and having them swirl the drain of this guy’s personal life.”

The “Moonrise” writing process admitted no talk about grand meanings, Coppola says, but began with a simple image of a boy in a canoe escaping from Scouting, and the desire to craft an intimate tale of love that’s young, yet full and true.

From there the talk got “very practical,” Coppola says. “We’d ask ‘What happens next? What does she say to him?,’ not ‘What theme are we trying to express in this scene?’ ” As such, the measuring stick for the scribes’ choices could only be gut feeling: “You use your antennae, your intuition to say what feels right.”

Other nominees’ intuition took them deep into characters’ thoughts. In “Amour” we observe an inscrutable wife’s deterioration over the shoulder of her anguished husband, a tactic inverted in “Beasts,” where the dying man’s face reveals the pain while his surviving daughter maintains the deadpan. In both cases, the screenplay’s insistence on subtle, multifaceted characters is the force behind the punch.

By contrast, a thematically oriented script can sacrifice personal nuance. “Django” pulls off the most horrifying depiction of slavery ever committed to film, in large measure by forging its characters as vivid types — Implacable Avenger; Satanic Slaveowner; Perfidious Race Traitor — where shades of gray would only soften the impact. (Interestingly the sole nuanced role, Christoph Waltz’s cagey King Shultz, ended up claiming the pic’s sole acting nom.)

2012’s two most Oscar-nominated pics negotiate a fine line between spectacle and intimacy. The engine of “Lincoln” is the clash not of individuals, but of mighty groups shaping a new nation: congressmen and soldiers, negotiators and White House staff, all sporting similar muttonchops and dark suits across the board. Yet Tony Kushner’s sharply drawn characterizations yielded 15% of the year’s 20 thesping nominees, proving big ideas and vast scope needn’t be the enemies of precise acting.

For his part, when “Life of Pi” adapter David Magee has been asked what kinds of movies he’d like to make, “I swear I’ve always said I’m interested in people’s lives and issues, set against a large backdrop.”

With its spectacularly expressive 3D effects and one-of-a-kind shipwreck sequence, combined with an unrelenting focus on its castaways’ faces and their day-to-day struggle, “Pi” becomes “one boy’s personal journey, yet you feel the presence of a larger spiritual quest as something more magnificent. The studio trusted (Ang Lee) to make a big film with a very small story.” n

Big-Canvas Screenplay
Intimate-Tale Screenplay
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Written by Michael Haneke
‘Django Unchained’
Written by Quentin Tarantino
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
‘Life of Pi’
Screenplay by David Magee
Written by John Gatins
Screenplay by Tony Kushner
‘Moonrise Kingdom’
Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
‘Zero Dark Thirty’
Written by Mark Boal
‘Silver Linings Playbook’
Screenplay by David O. Russell

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Writer
Studio vs. Indie | Hyphenates vs. scripters | Big-Canvas vs. intimate tales

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