Following a traditional playbook, the movies contending for the best picture Oscar sometimes attempt to justify their worth through an appeal to historical importance. But this year, things have taken a more personal turn, with stories that come from the heart.
In Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” for example, the director’s intimate connection to the story of his childhood in a suburb of Mexico City, told through the eyes of his family’s maid, is palpable in every frame. “A Star Is Born” adapts an old, familiar Hollywood property, but director Bradley Cooper has said he mined “the deepest parts of myself” to tell a story about fame, addiction and broken relationships.
Other films are passion projects for their directors: Barry Jenkins has long wanted to bring James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” to the screen, while Adam McKay continues his incisive social commentary with “Vice,” examining Dick Cheney’s rise to power.
“BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s historical drama about Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer in Colorado who infiltrates a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, was based on Stallworth’s own memoir.
But according to Kevin Willmott, who collaborated on the screenplay with Lee, David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel, “Unfortunately, I think this was very personal for both of us. There are just so many connections to what’s happening right now. Both [Spike and I] have fought against racism our entire lives, and it’s become an increasingly bigger problem in the last couple years.”
In writing the script, Willmott drew upon not just present-day parallels, but also family history. “My father was a light-skinned black man, and there were times when he had to pass, when he would go out to western Kansas to work on construction jobs,” Willmott says. “He told me stories where, to stay in the hotel, you had to be white, so his white [colleagues] would say to the hotel clerk, ‘he’s not black, he’s Indian,’ or ‘he’s Italian.’ And so [while writing] the film, I thought about my father, who was passed by others because of the inconvenience of segregation and discrimination.”
“BlacKkKlansman” features a memorable performance by Topher Grace as a young David Duke, who was grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and later traded robes for business suits to move into politics. Willmott not only knew Duke as a reprehensible public figure, but he also received correspondence from him.
“I was president of the student body at Marymount College in Salina, Kan., in 1980,” Willmott says. “David Duke was head of the NAAWP, the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People. You can’t make this stuff up. [He sent me] a form letter. He was trying to get speaking gigs at universities and colleges. When we were writing the David Duke character, I remembered the letter. Shortly after he wrote me that letter, he was elected as a state representative in Louisiana.”
Letters also played a role in the inception of “Green Book,” which screenwriter Nick Vallelonga based on the experiences of his father, Tony, who drove the black concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a concert tour through the Jim Crow South in the early ’60s. Though Vallelonga had grown up hearing his dad’s stories about the experience, he didn’t seriously consider making a movie until his mother brought him all the letters that his father had written her from the road.
“I remember when Dr. Shirley came over for Christmas Eve,” Vallelonga says, referring to a moment that’s dramatized at the end of Peter Farrelly’s film. “And then during the course of that year, my dad brought me up to Dr. Shirley’s apartment above Carnegie Hall, which was quite amazing, like Dorothy walking from black and white into color. He had a throne, and floor-to-ceiling windows, grand pianos, chandeliers, all these artifacts, and he sat me on the throne as he played piano for me. I remember being a little child, hearing the stories from my father, and then as an adult I thought ‘Wow, this would make a great movie,’ and really getting serious speaking to him about it.
“As an adult, I started really questioning him,” Vallelonga says. “And then he started telling me more details and [so] I started tape recording his stories. And eventually when it got more serious, he said, ‘well, if you really want to do this, you have to talk to Dr. Shirley, and get his side of the story and his permission to do it.’ And that’s what I did.”
Vallelonga says Shirley’s memories mostly tracked with those of his father, though he provided a unique additional perspective. As a doctor of psychology, Shirley said he treated Vallelonga Sr. as a kind of case study in human behavior.
Shirley also asked the son not to make a film of the story until he had died, and Vallelonga respected his wishes.
“He’s from another era, and he was a very private person. He was in control of his public persona, and maybe there were things he didn’t want revealed. It was very clear to me what he wanted and what he didn’t want, and his permission to me was to make the story about his time with my dad, but not much else about him.”
In turning the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong into the screenplay for Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” Josh Singer consulted with the surviving Armstrong family, including his two sons. “This guy’s an American icon who nobody knows,” Singer says. “Trying to get at who he really was, we couldn’t have done it without them. They were our first audience.”
On paper, “First Man” might not look like a textbook “personal” film, and Singer didn’t have any firsthand deep-space experience. But he doesn’t see the moon landing as the core of the Armstrong story.
“To me, this is a film about grief and parenthood,” Singer says. Neil and Janet Armstrong lost their daughter, Karen, to a brain tumor when she was 2½ years old. “I have a good friend of the family who passed away when he was 35. I’ll never forget the way his parents looked, and thinking, ‘oh, that’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you.’ And now that I have a 2½-year-old, all of my fears about life, 99% of them are about his well-being.”
Singer says he drew upon a quote that a mentor shared with him after his father died. In a letter that Samuel Beckett sent to theater director Alan Schneider, he said, “in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading, there is more sorrow.” “To me, that’s what the whole movie’s about,” Singer says.
Even the year’s biggest movie, one based on an extremely popular comic book series, is viewed by its creators as a personal film. “Black Panther” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole says the film represents the fulfillment of a wish from his own childhood.
“I’m an only child and I played make-believe a lot,” he says. “I would change all the names. So instead of Batman, it would be Blackman. And instead of James Bond, he was James Black. My Superman had a black costume. I would pretend and I just changed them all. They had the same characteristics and did the same things, but I made them into my image.”
Though Cole came up through the Marvel Studios writers program, he stresses that he was never a comic-book reader. The writers program “was my first introduction to it,” he says, and specifically to the Christopher Priest run of “Black Panther.” But he didn’t need to know the source text to know what he wanted to see onscreen. “I grew up loving heroes and anti-heroes and watching movies and cartoons and I just always wanted to see one that looked like me.”