Family Ties Breed Conflict, Drama in Screenplay Contenders ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ ‘Little Women,’ ‘Parasite’ and Others

First still from the set of
Twentieth Century Fox Film

“The ties that bind” have long provided a rich well of inspiration for storytellers to draw from, but in 2019, family–born of blood or built from scratch—is the backbone of almost all of the year’s Oscar-nominated screenplays. Some of them, like Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” reinforce and celebrate the essential need for those homegrown support systems. Others, like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” pay tribute to the nourishing bonds of friendship that sustain individuals in times of personal crisis or doubt. And still others, like Rian Johnson’s wickedly clever “Knives Out,” gleefully uncover the fault lines that divide family members during tragedies ostensibly meant to bring them together. Starting from a blank page or previously existing material, working in comedy or searing drama, these screenplays transform identifiable relationships into unforgettable stories, and then elevate those stories to universal truths.

Sam Mendes’ and Krysty Wilson-Cairns script for the war epic “1917,” for example, began with a collection of stories from Mendes’ grandfather, a WWI veteran, and developed into a riveting fictional story about two soldiers’ determination to deliver a message that might save 1600 of their countrymen, including one of their brothers. “The very first time we sat down and talked about it, it was about duty and honor and sacrifice,” Wilson-Cairns tells Variety. “But what it’s really about is what lengths would you go to save someone you love. And the nature of the family you choose is in that as well–the lengths you go to protect them, to save them, or to honor their last wishes. And that to me was something really profound, and I felt, really universal.”

Taika Waititi’s WWII-set “Jojo Rabbit” was billed by Fox Searchlight as an “anti-hate satire,” examining and ridiculing the misguided prejudices of a young German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who desperately idolizes his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi). The filmmaker says it took him almost until shooting began to realize how important little Jojo’s relationship was to his mother Rosie (Best Supporting Actress nominee Scarlett Johansson) as a juxtaposition to der Fuhrer’s, and to that of the young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) seeking refuge in the walls of his home. “I thought we were ignoring the adult world and just looking through the eyes of this kid – this boy and this girl,” Waititi says. “But the more I looked at the story and what affected Jojo, I felt that actually it’s a story about mothers as well–and about the sacrifices this particular mother makes in a time when the world was losing its mind.”

“That became a new focus even with the editing to make sure that I try and give this some weight as well because she is such an important character to him.”

Working from Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women,” a semi-autobiographical tribute to the author’s own complicated family, Greta Gerwig had well-defined dramatic foundation to build from for her portrait of headstrong Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) and her loving but often competitive siblings. But Gerwig insists that staying true to the source material meant emphasizing the cracks in the novel’s sororal relationships to ensure that the audience believed their bonds would emerge stronger after each conflict than before. “I always felt that you’ll never believe the love if you don’t believe the conflict,” Gerwig says. “And I wanted the stakes of the conflict to be high, that they don’t just love each other and that’s inevitable but that it’s earned.”

“What they have together is hard-won, especially as adults,” she continues, “because they’ve gone through so much together and allowing themselves to separate into their own lives. So retaining that sense of closeness from childhood was the thing we were trying to develop so that it didn’t feel inevitable that everything would be okay.”

In Rian Johnson’s murder mystery “Knives Out,” the Thrombey family is even more populous than the Marches in Alcott’s novel. But in the wake of the death of patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a fight for their inheritance escalates simmering conflicts and exposes the true, often unflattering nature of each member’s character. “As much as the murder mystery tricks come from my love of Agatha Christie, the other thing that her books always do extraordinarily well is building very often around the family or some form of tight-knit social structure, a little microcosm of society,” Johnson explains. “And having grown up in a big family–which I guess I should note is nothing like the family in ‘Knives Out’–there are family politics or power structures, and that’s something that’s just endlessly interesting to explore.

“It was about creating a broad spectrum and a balance and kind of showing how this situation where their inheritance is threatened echoes down through all of those strata,” he adds. “And the way we make this feel like a real family is to reveal to the audience the different layers of who these people are through how they feel about each other.”

Bong Joon-Ho’s extraordinary “Parasite,” perhaps not unlike “Knives Out,” delights in preying on expectations not only of the characters seen on screen but the types they represent, as it explores an economic divide between haves and have-nots. The thrice-nominated Korean writer-director (for Picture, Director and Original Screenplay) says he juggled the responsibilities of making the action on screen feel tangible and real while testing the audience’s sympathies for the poverty-stricken Kim family as they con their counterparts, the Parks. “I wanted the characters to not feel abstract or conceptual but feel like actual people we can see around us, and the film to feel more physical and specific,” he explains.

“I believe audiences are always more forgiving and compassionate towards characters that struggle to earn a livelihood,” he adds. “It doesn’t feel like this family is committing crimes with malice and guilt but simply pulling a cheery prank to make a living, so I think the structure lends itself to the audience identifying with the Kim family. You even end up rooting for their success. I think that’s the dangerous but fun appeal of cinema.”

Compared to wildly eclectic nominees like “Jojo Rabbit,” “The Irishman,” “Joker,” “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” “Parasite,” and “The Two Popes,” “Marriage Story” seems like comparatively straightforward, even mundane subject matter – the tale of a tough divorce between an actress (Johansson, nominated for Best Actress) and a theatre director (Best Actor nominee Adam Driver). But the filmmaker says a broad spectrum of genres influenced and enhanced the dramatic shifts in his film. “I uncovered many hidden genres in the material as I was working on it – screwball comedy, thriller, horror, musical, and the triumph of the human spirit–that kind of movie about people who are put in a seemingly impossible situation that was driving them apart and find a way to not only retain their humanity, but maybe actually grow as people themselves.”

“That’s a pretty classic movie tradition and story tradition, and that was also really what the story was,” he says. “How could these two people ever bridge this gap? And they do, because they have to, because they love their child and love each other. It’s about two people who are good, well-meaning, imperfect people who are put in a really tough situation. So it’s still about family ultimately, and about marriage – that’s why I called it what I did. And that was the reason to make it.”