2014’s Academy-nominated scribes were thrown daunting curves by their source material. Yet all would likely second “The Theory of Everything” writer Anthony McCarten when he says, “The challenges were part of the appeal.”
Jane and Stephen Hawking’s battle with his neuro-muscular disease, McCarten felt, represents “a love story where one-half of it can’t move and barely talks.” Moreover, that love story must also incorporate the momentous central questions of the physicist’s career. “To do otherwise would be like telling the Muhammad Ali story without entering the boxing ring.”
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In a scene presenting the scientist’s work to a stranger, “Jane has to become his intermediary and voice. And she’s been obliged to learn how to explain his science in terms she can understand, which means terms a general audience can understand.” Her quaint discourse teaches us a lot about this interdependent marriage, not to mention quantum physics.
Graham Moore similarly intended “The Imitation Game” to dramatize Alan Turing’s ideas fairly. But big thoughts can be brutal on the fly. “I didn’t want the characters to jabber in mumbo-jumbo in ways the audience couldn’t understand.”
At the same time, Turing’s World War II codebreaking work “needed to feel like a thriller to the audience, because it felt like a thriller to Alan … literally living in this real-life spy novel.”
Both challenges could be met by emphasizing the stakes.
Says Moore: “These were highly passionate men engaged in the most important work of their lives. Their conversations could be a little bit esoteric, because the audience understands their passions.”
An equally vexing query energized “American Sniper” screenwriter Jason Hall: “Who was Chris Kyle?”
“Just back from war, you could feel it on him in a real visceral way,” says Hall. “It had taken a part of his humanity.” But Kyle’s memoir, Hall says, “explained the warrior mentality but not the man.”
Kyle’s widow, Taya, reported a withering of his heart and patience after four overseas deployments, and the battlefield’s camaraderie and structured daily routines seemed to bear significant blame.
Explains Hall, “When these guys come back, they don’t have the same sense of purpose. … They search for meaning. Chris didn’t find meaning until he began working with other veterans.”
Hall thereby found his spine: “the story of all soldiers and their struggle. Chris’ heroism was exemplified not only in battle, but in his return and finding his way home.”
For Paul Thomas Anderson, his crazy-quilt source “Inherent Vice” was no less perilous than a great-man biography.
Anderson’s producing partner JoAnne Sellar says, “The biggest challenge was finding a way to take 400 pages and reduce them to 120-plus script pages. … There was a glut of wonderful things on every page.”
Placing the Thomas Pynchon work on a cookbook stand and extracting its dialogue “became his path in finding his way through the labyrinth. … Once he started doing that, it became clear to him quite quickly what should remain and what should go.”
In addition, Sellar says, through all the tale’s sprawling, wigged-out wackiness, Anderson kept sight of the humanity in “a story about a guy who is searching for his ex-girlfriend. He kept coming back to that.”
Hall best defines all these scribes’ ultimate goal: “finding the truth.”