Oscar’s hidden writing categories: Hyphenates vs. scripters

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Writer

Whether a writer like Quentin Tarantino or David O. Russell helms their own scripts or there’s a division of labor, a la Spielberg/Kushner and Bigelow/Boal, the resulting pictures tend to show traits more often identified with the director — even if that director is trying to break new ground.

That was the case with David Magee’s blending of the ecclesiastical and the fantastical in “Life of Pi,” Ang Lee’s latest plunge into the unknown; John Gatins’ harrowing take on substance abuse in Robert Zemeckis’ uncharacteristically dark “Flight”; and Tony Kushner’s dialogue-intensive script for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

“(Spielberg) really likes to do things that are scary for him,” Kushner says. “I admire that, especially when you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t have a lot to prove right now. He keeps pushing at the boundaries of what he’s done.”

Spielberg — who told Variety he “had always been compelled by not just (Lincoln’s) deeds but his process” — chose to focus on Lincoln’s determination to pass the 13th Amendment. “He was just immediately drawn to that,” Kushner tells Variety. “He never said, ‘Make it less talky’ or ‘We can’t deal with this or that complexity of the politics,’ which meant that he was committed to a fight in the House of Representatives.”

The result is akin to a chamber piece compared to the kind of epics usually associated with Spielberg. But even given the duality of the title character — both demystifying and ennobling, at once a shrewd political operator and a folksy raconteur — Spielberg’s essential humanity shines through. “I think Steven is a profoundly decent person,” says Kushner, who describes the director as a kindred spirit. “Steven has his own take on the human spirit and I do mine, but we also share a great deal.”

Russell adapted “Silver Linings” from Matthew Quick’s novel, but the result is very much of a piece with the original screenplays — think “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster” — that established his rep. All these films deal with interweaving yet disparate family dynamics that threaten to unravel, if not implode, at any moment.

“The whole film is under a pressure cooker of everyone tip-toeing around their various agendas,” says Russell of “Silver Linings”. “What I’m trying to achieve is something that has a great deal of energy and emotion and authenticity.”

The most volatile character, Bradley Cooper’s bipolar Pat — not unlike Christian Bale’s crack-head older brother in Russell’s “The Fighter” — lies at the center of the story. “You need a time bomb, for me, to really get people’s attention,” says Russell.

And yet at the end of the day, there are no judgments and no villains — but a lot of heart. “That’s really important to me that you (as the viewer) embrace the (character’s) point of view,” says Russell. “That was something I learned with Christian Bale as well on ‘The Fighter,’ because Christian Bale was always arguing from the point of view of his character. … You can learn a lot about humanity from doing that. And as a writer that’s very useful.”

For Roman Coppola, who co-wrote “Moonrise Kingdom” with director Wes Anderson, there’s no escaping Anderson’s distinctive voice, which can be deadpan in its humor and remarkably concerned with visual detail. “The style is sort of like Wes’ handwriting,” Coppola explains.

“Your handwriting is formed by who you are, it’s formed by your family, it’s formed by your culture you grew up in. In Wes’ case, style is a thing in his handwriting where he doesn’t have a lot of control over it, and frankly he doesn’t think about it. And I really value that. A distinctive voice in arts is what we celebrate and value. And Wes’ is really built in. It’s not discussed, it’s just there.”

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

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

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