Whether they’re depicting the dynamic of a single interpersonal relationship, recounting pivotal moments in history or conceiving new worlds beyond an audience’s wildest imaginations, screenwriters seek first and foremost to find the humanity in their subjects. But many of the scripts nominated for Academy Awards this year either extract that discovery from true events that are sometimes stranger than fiction, or project intimacy upon broader legends that have been handed down from one generation of its storytellers to the next. From “BlacKkKlansman” to “Vice,” “Green Book” to “A Star Is Born,” their authors built a foundation for their projects by combining myth and reality — sometimes deconstructing both in the process — to tap into something unique, honest, and most of all affecting to moviegoers.
After successfully tackling the 2007-08 financial crisis with “The Big Short,” writer-director Adam McKay turned to “Vice,” an unconventionally structured biopic exploring the life of former Veep Dick Cheney, one of modern politics’ most iconic and yet mysterious figures. In the process, McKay charted a road map of recent world history and laid bare the foundational American beliefs that his rise to power betrayed, or depending on how you look at it, perhaps tragically fulfilled.
“It’s actually kind of startling how idyllic the beginning of his story is, or within the American mythology it is,” McKay says. “I was struck by how in love he was with Lynne, what a love story it was, and the climb to success, how fast it was. It’s a pretty incredible story that tracks with kind of the American dream and how we view our country. And then it seems like it became more about power, influence, more about something darker.
“The whole movie I looked at as this kind of that transformation from that land of opportunity to America, land of power that we’re kind of living in right now. It’s all got a bit of a tragic hue to it, though maybe I’m partially naive to believe in the beginning part of that myth at all.”
Conversely for “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga reached back to a dark chapter in U.S. history for their story about two real-life individuals, classical pianist Don Shirley and bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, who forge an unlikely connection while driving through the still-divided American South of the early 1960s for a concert tour.
“The thing that got me was the hopefulness of it,” Farrelly says. “These guys, after starting on completely different ends of the spectrum, after this trip in a car together, found common ground and became friends.”
Feel-good racial reconciliation is a hard concept to swallow in 2018, but at the time of Shirley’s actual tour, it felt virtually impossible to achieve. Farrelly insisted on narrowing the film’s focus to emphasize their thoughts and feelings over historical events in order to showcase not only what they experienced together, but also how their dueling perspectives more specifically impacted one another.
“I thought it was hugely important to show Tony’s racism in the beginning of the movie. I also felt it was important and not just obligatory to show that Don Shirley was gay. I wanted to show how easy it is to change people. They grow and they learn and that was really important to me that we don’t bang people over the head with it, but we get our point across.”
Spike Lee offers a decidedly more incendiary portrait of race relations with “BlacKkKlansman,” a dramatization of black Colorado detective Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Writer Kevin Willmott, working with Lee, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, indicated that the events in Stallworth’s memoir were so compelling that they needed little embellishment.
“The iconic moments of his story are true,” Willmott says. “He was on the phone with the Klan and with David Duke. He did go undercover with Kwame Ture. He did bust those guys that were Klan members that were working for NORAD. So we all tried to really be as loyal to the facts as we could be.”
At the same time, Willmott says they injected into the film a secondary story about a corrupt cop who clashes with Stallworth to supply the film not just with contemporary relevance, but also a modest, desperately needed sense of triumph to counterbalance the racist atmosphere that persists even more openly today than it did 45 years ago.
“He’s that kind of cop that will shoot an unarmed person and probably get away with it,” Willmott says. “And the audience always applauds when he gets busted, because we’re showing what should happen in the police force and how they should weed out bad cops, but quite often that doesn’t happen. It’s kind of an example of what it was like back then and how it should be today.”
Meanwhile, even though “A Star Is Born” is a work of fiction, its legacy reaches back further than any of its fact-based competitors as the fourth iteration of what has become a timeless Hollywood love story. Despite his own anxieties about reimagining the iconic music drama, Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth worked with Will Fetters and co-screenwriter and director Bradley Cooper to breathe new life into a tale almost as old as the industry itself while staying true to its origins.
“I was actually a little bit afraid of it, because it had been done so many times,” Roth says. “But in concert with Bradley we got a script ready and thought eventually there’s a modern way to do this.
“He had a great sort of first-person look thing, so you felt like you were on the stage with the performers, and it had much more of an immediacy to it. And then there was the undeniable quality of the eternal love story and the tragic ending.”
In the film’s professional dialectic, much less romantic entanglement, between declining singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) and ingenue Ally (Lady Gaga), Roth says the biggest challenge was painting an emotionally honest portrait of a modern music career without betraying the iconography of the film’s real-life pop star.
“We wanted to show that she was potentially uncomfortable with being outside of her comfort zone, but Lady Gaga knows very well that world so it would be slightly unbelievable if she was not very good at it,” he says. “So it was an interesting mix of what you could do with the things that she knows how to do and she does quite well. She has that voice from God, this woman, and she’s just such an incredibly talented and great person.”
Talent, its manifestations and perhaps most crucially its various motivations, are at the heart of Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener’s adaptation of Lee Israel’s memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” an account of her stint as a forger of famous letters. Whitty said he was less interested in chronicling the crimes that scandalized a literary community than spotlighting the desperation that first drove her to imitate the voices of dead playwrights and authors.
“A lot of us have had those moments in our life where you have no money at all; what do you do then?” he said. “For me the point of entry was not the crime itself and not ever to scold her but to actually get the audience to understand how in her mind it was a victimless crime.”
That said, Whitty admits that he delighted in her adeptness as a plagiarist, not to mention as a “rascal.” “A rascal is just a devil with good intentions,” he says. “You don’t mean to create harm. She was trying to save her cat at first and then to pay her rent.”
But in spite of wanting to chronicle Israel’s infamous transgressions and her colorful, cantankerous relationship with Jack Hock, Whitty’s ultimate goal was the same as that of his fellow nominees: to focus on a handful of well-defined and special individuals in order to tell an intimate and relatable story.
“I thought, there’s a pocket for this somewhere in the zeitgeist. Here is a gay man and a lesbian as the two leads of the film and you’re not going to ever think about it as being odd, they’re never going to justify themselves. It’s just a film about two people in extreme circumstances, and this was a chance to tell a story like this, which comes along very rarely.”