Writers on Writers
Award-winning authors, playwrights, and songwriters pen their take on scripts in the original and adapted screenplay categories.
Award-winning authors, playwrights, and songwriters pen their take on scripts in the original and adapted screenplay categories.
Written by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Like most people, I spend Monday to Friday being polite and responsible. So when I go to the movies on Friday night, I want to watch people being as rude and reckless as possible. On that score, “The Favourite” delivers — taking the most respectable film genre — the costume drama — and making it dirty, disreputable and fun. But underneath its wit and beauty, director Yorgos Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara deliver a bracingly caustic study of love, ambition and the corrosive effects of inherited wealth and dynastic power. Set three centuries ago, “The Favourite” speaks to our times like few other films this year.
Michael Arndt is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Little Miss Sunshine.” He also penned the screenplays for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Toy Story 3.”
Written by Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga
“Green Book” has been described as a “feel good” movie — a description that is not always encouraging. But in this instance the film really does have that effect — and for all the best reasons. With a convincingly real screenplay (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly) and a brilliant cast (sensitively directed by Farrelly), it manages to address major historical and sociological issues while remaining at heart a film about friendship and family, about discovery and about the human ability to learn and to change — which is all the more exciting in that it is based upon a true story.
I was further delighted to discover very quickly that this is also a “sounds good” film! Music plays a significant role in the story itself and the soundtrack is extraordinary. It is rare for films about a prodigious musical talent to be truly convincing but the performances by the “Don Shirley trio” as they occur in the film entirely justify their rapturous reception and make the fact that Dr. Shirley’s devoted fans in real life included both Stravinsky and Duke Ellington thoroughly credible. And the rest of the music in the film is impeccably chosen (I heard Sonny Boy Williamson, Aretha, Chubby Checker and The Clovers and many more great tracks I did not recognize) and perfectly integrated into the elegant and evocative score by Kris Bowers. It is perhaps worth noting that just as Dr. Shirley was compelled to address the iniquitous racism of that era (and as we are compelled to consider how much has changed — and how much has NOT) there is, in a way, a musical parallel. The world of classical music looked down on pop music and even on jazz (despite its complexity and technical demands) with an unremitting snootiness which has only abated in the last decade or so. Even though Don Shirley was perhaps forced to invent his own musical world (one which integrated these various genres) by racist and commercial pressures, the result was original, brilliant and way ahead of its time — and this is reflected in the film. Where else could we hear the pianistic genius of Chopin and Little Richard or the compositions of Debussy and Professor Longhair treated with equal respect?
I confess I knew nothing about Dr. Shirley, his story or his music before I saw this film — but I am thrilled by the discovery.
And yes; I feel good!
Peter Asher is a British guitarist, singer, manager and record producer. He came to prominence in the 1960s as a member of the pop music vocal duo Peter and Gordon before going on to a successful career as a manager and record producer.
Written by Peter Hedges
In the opening sequence of Peter Hedges’ “Ben Is Back,” Ben’s much younger siblings are at church, rehearsing for a Christmas chorale, dressed as an angel and sheep, respectively. Their mother, Holly, is helpful, smiling and laughing. This is as close to a warm holiday movie that it gets. The sheep goes “baa,” and the angel is adorable, and both are at risk, because oldest son Ben, played with aching grace by Lucas Hedges (the filmmaker’s son, who, full disclosure, was in my NBC miniseries “The Slap” in 2015), a recovering drug addict, shows up unexpectedly on a 24-hour pass from his sober living facility. The older members of his family — mom, stepdad and sister — know that only terrible things can happen, as they have every time he’s returned from multiple stints in rehabs and hospitals. The past is referred to and never explained, making us unwelcome voyeurs, piecing together the history of Ben’s decline. We hear a reminder of a prior visit, when Ben was found with a needle in his arm, unconscious on the staircase. Despite prayerful assurances, Ben’s demons of Christmases past tag along, nearly drowning his family in a day. Trying everything to save him, Julia Roberts’ eyes alone convey the awfulness at hand. Ben’s stepdad (Courtney Vance Jr., in an understated elegant turn), drowning in his patience and barely suppressed anxiety, hovers and argues for sending Ben straight back to sober living. He reminds Holly that if Ben were black, he’d be in prison by now. Under the surface of the film swirls a roiling sea of a social order right out of Dickens.
There is a reservoir of pain embedded deep within all addicts. Sometimes it starts as a synaptic grain of sand; a small childhood fear, opening pathways to a catastrophic future. Perhaps some lives are saved through private acts of courage by those closest to the afflicted, and even then, this close to the abyss, it’s almost pure luck. Peter Hedges has always explored how our rituals are liferafts, but often they leak and people drown. He has never shied from “The Actual Awful” as I like to call it. This, his most assured and sparest film, masterfully charts the helplessness that hovers ghostlike around addicts and their families. It is stark and filled with the hope that a mother’s love can save a life when all hope is lost. Peter Hedges makes me reconsider my long-held position that directing, for a natural born writer, is a demotion.
Jon Robin Baitz is an American playwright, screenwriter and television producer. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, as well as a Guggenheim, American Academy of Arts and Letters and National Endowment for
the Arts Fellow.
Written by Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga
My wife, Pamela, and I just finished watching “Green Book” and although I don’t usually do this, I am compelled to drop this note to thank the filmmakers for having made this film for us all to see. I knew Don Shirley, and, in fact, had an office across the street from his at Carnegie Hall, and I experienced much of what he did at the same time. This movie is accurate, it is true, and it’s a wonderful movie that everyone should see.
The few people who appear to be objecting to the film’s depiction of the time and the man are dead wrong, and, if the basis of their resentment stems from it having been written and/or directed by someone who isn’t African-American, I disagree with them even more. There are many perspectives from which to tell the same story and all can be true.
I personally thank the filmmakers for having told this important story from a very different lens, one no less compelling than any other.
So again, I say to the filmmakers, thank you, and congratulations.
Harry Belafonte is one of the most successful Jamaican-American pop stars in history. He has also starred in several films, such as Otto Preminger’s musical “Carmen Jones,” “Island in the Sun” and Robert Wise’s “Odds Against Tomorrow.” Belafonte has won three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy Award and a Tony.
Written by Boots Riley
Before I saw Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” I watched a trailer for Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” This was during the summer, as BAM was advertising its film series on black superheroes. I hadn’t thought of Sweetback as a superhero. A superhero was someone in costume who speaks the truth and uses their power to save people, and while Sweetback remained unflappable during an increasingly absurd (and at times, psycho-sexual) journey through a version of California that I’d never seen but instinctively recognized, I’m not sure if Sweetback was a superhero. He was definitely cool, though.
Of course, “Sorry to Bother You’s” Cassius Green could be described in many of the same ways. Riley places Cassius in a carnival of late-stage capitalism armed only with the power to imagine that he can thrive in a world that has been built on profiting from the harm and humiliation of men like himself. The result is a wild and contradictorily hilarious journey that must be absurd to hold so much truth; a film as damning of contemporary America without Riley’s incisive silliness would be unbearable. Cassius is a superhero, and cool. White Voice isn’t his superpower, but it is his costume; it hides his identity, not for protection or to help him save others, but as the foundation of his origin story. Cassius is only able to truly understand injustice once he has donned his auditory mask to see how differently the elite are treated.
Every single time that Cassius Green spoke in his White Voice, it blew my mind. It forced me to laugh and cringe and think as the sight gag became a metaphorical muffle, a symbolic choking of black men trying to survive our white-supremacist society. It’s a baadassssss joke. White Voice is the kind of effect that movies are made for, where the experience of looking at one thing and hearing another adds up to a disjuncture with a power greater than what is spoken or what is seen.
Jackie Sibblies Drury is a playwright based in Brooklyn. Her plays include “Fairview” and “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.”
Written by Julian Schnabel and Jean-Claude Carriere
A few minutes into “At Eternity’s Gate,” Vincent van Gogh — Willem Dafoe, the only logical choice [to play van Gogh] — bursts into a clapboard studio he’s set up in the French countryside. The wind rattles the doors and windows and we can feel the dark room’s cold solitude. Van Gogh takes off his dirt-encrusted boots and tosses them on the floor. He’s struck by inspiration and pulls out a blank canvas. He begins painting the shoes, and for minute or so, Julian Schnabel shows the rendering emerge in what is easily one of the most accurate depictions of painting ever put on film. Van Gogh’s muscular drawing style, his impasto application of oil — it’s all wholly convincing here and puts the viewer viscerally in the room and in the moment. We get to feel both the chill of the landscape at sunset and the ecstasy of fevered creation.
Schnabel knows what he’s doing here, because he’s the same kind of painter van Gogh was — bold and instinctual and theatrical. But the rest of “At Eternity’s Gate” is something far more muted. It’s quieter than “Before Night Falls,” more meditative than “Basquiat.” It’s a serious and yearning movie about a lonely man slowly descending into madness, and in every particular it’s a film only Schnabel could have made. He takes van Gogh out of the gift shops and mythology and places him back into physical space — as a wide-eyed mortal with sunburned skin and calloused hands who saw the world’s colors as they were.
Dave Eggers is the author of “The Circle,” “The Monk of Mokha” and “Heroes of the Frontier.”
Written by Tamara Jenkins
Tamara Jenkins is a realist: her films tell stories without pretense, affectation or the need to pretty things up to make them more palatable. Jenkins deals with our primal selves, refusing to allow either her audience or her characters to engage in denial. There’s a saying that goes, “life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans” — in Jenkins’ films, life is what happens between moments of crisis. “Private Life” explores a middle-age marriage through the prism of fertility and reproduction. Reproduction, not meaning sex, but the strange, by-any-means-necessary, business of creating or otherwise securing a child that operates in whispers and message boards like a secret economy. Jenkins’ characters come to us, upended and vulnerable. She brings us directly into the moments that no one wants their friends or family to see. This exposing of the intimate, the unseen, is what Jenkins as a writer and director delights in. Set in NYC, “Private Life” is perfectly pitched and reminds us of both the lack of privacy in the mid-life reproductive arena. In all of her work, I am reminded that Jenkins is an artist, a woman whose work while often comedic is primarily dramatic and demanding. Jenkins joyously insists we pay attention to this unbridled female voice. Jenkins’ work echoes the sensibility that so many of us feel — the desire to be known, seen, accepted as is. Humane while brutally honest, Tamara Jenkins celebrates the absurdity of every-day life. There is great heart to all that she does — call it love.
A.M. Homes is an American writer bestknown for her controversial novels and unusual short stories, namely her novel “The End of Alice,” which depicts a convicted child molester and murderer. Homes’ memoir “The Mistress’s Daughter” was published in 2007 and her most recent novel, “May We Be Forgiven,” was published by Viking Books in 2012. The novel won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013.
Written by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods
I must have been 11 or 12. My mother and I had just finished watching an episode of “77 Sunset Strip” where there was almost no dialogue (“The Silent Caper,” written by co-star Roger Smith). It caused me to ask mom what movies had been like when she was just a little girl, before talkies. She thought about it and said, “Almost all show. Hardly any tell.”
That memory recurred when I saw “A Quiet Place,” and again when I read the screenplay (credited to Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and writer-director-star John Krasinski). The movie is economical, running only 91 minutes. The screenplay is INCREDIBLY economical, just 83 pages long. But it’s DENSE. What I noticed first when I flipped through it is that it looks more like a short novel than a screenplay. The writers must have worn out the 2 key on their Final Draft documents; that’s the one you press when you want to write action. Meanwhile, the 5 key — the one for dialogue — must’ve gathered dust.
It’s not surprising that most modern theaters boast about their sound systems — Dolby, DTS, THX — because most movies are now all about talk and sound (my wife refuses to go see films in what she calls the “stuff blowing up” genre). The images are still there, of course, but I’d argue that most movies fail to utilize the full power of the human eye. “A Quiet Place” does exactly that. Like the short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” it’s a visual poem. When sound DOES occur in “A Quiet Place,” it feels like a dash of cold water in the face.
Three things from the screenplay can stand for everything this movie does well: sand paths for the characters to walk on, sliding barn doors wrapped in foam to keep them from rumbling and a snack display in the grocery store where the family goes for supplies. That’s the one I liked best. It filled me with the delight only well-executed movies can deliver. All the candy bars are gone, you see, but the bags of potato chips remain.
Because they crunch.
They make noise.
Stephen King’s books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have
been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television series and comic books.
Written by Adam McKay
“Vice” is a harrowing film, in part because it’s also immensely entertaining. Adam McKay’s screenplay maintains an excruciating balance between control and outrage, between artistic and analytical discipline and immediate, urgent anger. The serious threat that outrage poses to coherence and compassion is familiar to everyone trying to find solid footing these days, and “Vice” perfectly captures the difficulty of our current moment — it understands the paramount importance of remaining calm, thinking cogently and retaining humanity while being consumed with fury. McKay makes that refusal to surrender either clarity or rage the structural principle of “Vice”; it’s propelled by the desire to understand and explain. His work here reminds us that there’s immense pleasure and joy to be had in encountering a rigorous and confident theory of how the dots connect, and in engaging with a filmmaker possessed by a confident faith in meaning.
“Vice” is McKay’s dissection of modern conservatism as it slouched through Reagan and the Bushes toward the kleptocratic, anti-democratic catastrophe of the Trump administration. It’s an attempt to wrangle complex history into a feature film without falsification or simplification. There’s no ignoring its intellectual seriousness or its scrupulous ambition to be thorough. The film delivers a hailstorm of historical and political specifics that, if not encyclopedic, comes thrillingly close.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Vice” is that its aesthetic daring and insistence on the importance of understanding serve its profoundly dramatic heart. In beautifully sharp, spare scenes, McKay’s script exposes moral failure rather than announces it, revealing the terror and pain of characters who have constructed their lives to obliterate self-awareness. Its protagonists, Dick and Lynne Cheney, are fully comprehended even as they’re being justly condemned; what they’ve done is monstrous, but in this script, they’re not monsters, which makes them more frightening and appalling than any monsters could be. It’s exciting, surprising, funny and very moving.
Tony Kushner received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play “Angels in America.” He also wrote the screenplay for Mike Nichols’ film version of “Angels in America,” as well as for Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and “Lincoln.”
Written by Jane Anderson (screenplay) and Meg Wolitzer (based on the novel by)
Film projects have the tendency to either come together very quickly, or, more often than not, die long, agonizing deaths. And sometimes, miraculously, when presumed dead, they are resurrected, and at the perfect zeitgeist moment. There’s an apt Yiddish word for this phenomenon: beshert, something that was meant to be, destiny, an alignment of stars. Such is the case of “The Wife.”
Meg Wolitzer’s tasty novel about marriage and fame came out in 2003, and Jane Anderson’s marvelous screen adaptation was written not long after. There were some false starts to a hoped-for film version over the years, followed by stasis. In the meantime, something in our culture cracked, perhaps in reaction to the ultimate glass ceiling failing to be shattered. The age-old conversation about women and men, their relationship to one another and to work took on a new sense of urgency. Unbeknownst to its creators, “The Wife’s” moment had come.
Anderson has had a distinguished career creating portraits of indomitable women dealing with the patriarchy in ways that at times are ferociously funny (Wanda Holloway in the enduring “Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom”) or sometimes just plain ferocious (Olive Kitteridge in the eponymous miniseries). New to this gallery is Joan Castleman, the largely smiling and silent great woman behind the purported great man (about to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature), who when finally moved to break that silence emits a primal scream.
In musical theater, there is “the 11 o’clock number,” in which, typically, the leading lady gets to tear loose (“Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy” being the prime example). Anderson has crafted such a moment in “The Wife,” providing Glenn Close (and her formidable sparring partner Jonathan Pryce as The Husband) with a showstopper of a scene. After a head-clearing walk in the brisk Stockholm night, Joan returns to the hotel suite where Joe waits. The trigger for the confrontation, in which all pretext of subtext is shattered, is the discovery of an object: a walnut, the testicular symbol of Joe’s maleness and inconstancy. The scene, a veritable Albee playlet, in which rage, recrimination and, finally, tenderness, unfold before our eyes, is a microcosm of a decades-long marriage in a breathtaking few minutes.
Donald Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Dinner With Friends” and was a finalist twice before for “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories.” His screenplay, “The End of the Tour,” was nominated for Film Independent Spirit and UCLA Scripter awards. His new play, “Long Lost,” premieres Off Broadway in the spring. Margulies has taught playwriting to Yale undergrads for 28 years.
Written by Alfonso Cuaron
As someone who has sought to tell the story of domestic workers for 20 years — their dreams, struggles and contributions — I know how challenging it can be. The invisibility of the women who care and clean in our homes is deeply rooted in our culture, and despite the undeniable importance of the work, we rarely see or acknowledge it, let alone value it.
Domestic workers hold a sacred place in our lives. They are there when we come into the world, they shape who we become and they are with us as we prepare to leave this world. They are both proximate to our most intimate needs and at the bottom of a world shaped by power, privilege and hierarchies of human value.
“Roma” is the story we never knew
we needed. Through Cuaron’s writing, we come to understand that through seeing Cleo and the family’s relationship to her, we see humanity itself. It reminds us that each of us seeks to give and receive love, each of us feels alone at times, especially when we endure heartbreak, and
that we bear witness in spoken and unspoken ways.
“Roma” challenges us to see ourselves and the human experience through Cleo’s eyes, and when we do, we find human interdependence in its purest form. I have always believed that the art of great story-
telling could one day deliver us the language to unlock a new story about domestic work, and the relationships in our homes that make everything else possible. And now I know it to be true.
Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the co-director of Caring Across Generations. She is an award-winning organizer, author and social innovator, and a leading voice in future of work and family care solutions. Ai-jen is a 2014 MacArthur “genius” Fellow. She is author of “The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.”
Written by Anthony McCarten (screenplay) and Peter Morgan (story by)
As a musician and artist performing for nearly four decades now, both as the lead guitarist for Guns N’ Roses and for Velvet Revolver, I found “Bohemian Rhapsody” to be interesting, entertaining and ultimately very satisfying. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (with a story by Peter Morgan) created a film that flowed really well and wasn’t too cliche, as most rock ’n’ roll docu-dramas usually are. The film doesn’t try to be too sensational. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has both heart and also sincerity going for it. In both the story and the casting, “Bohemian Rhapsody” feels genuine. There is a definite human element conveyed that translates to the audience through the entire story. I’m not familiar with any of Rami Malek’s previous work. Nor have I ever met Freddie Mercury. However, I have seen countless videos of Mercury and Queen, and I thought Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury was amazingly believable.
Slash is a British-American musician and songwriter. He is the lead guitarist of the American hard rock band Guns N’ Roses which has been nominated for three Grammys, eight American Music Awards (of which they won four) and four Billboard Music Awards (of which they won one). Slash also was the lead guitarist of the band Velvet Revolver.
Written by Daniel Stiepleman
I don’t hold myself as a movie critic; indeed my taste is often rather low brow.
What I can do is tell you whether a biopic about the Supreme Court is relatively accurate. I say relatively because everyone understands that my beat is not exactly a laugh riot, and to make it interesting, you have to take a bit of dramatic license.
That said, I have seen a lot of Supreme Court movies and TV shows that are ridiculously, even foolishly, inaccurate. In one that I recall, a Supreme Court law clerk was dating another clerk only to find out that she was trans. Talk about eye-rollingly silly. In another, the petitioner — the person bringing the appeal — was sitting at counsel table in the Supreme Court and was asked questions by the justices.
That brings me to the subject of “On the Basis of Sex,” the movie about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg many decades before she was “The Notorious RBG.”
The movie focuses on her first gender discrimination case, brought on behalf of Charles Moritz, a Colorado salesman who tried to claim a tax deduction for the care for his 89-year-old mother [when he was on the road]. The IRS disallowed it because the Internal Revenue Code said only women could claim such a deduction, or widowed or divorced men. Moritz didn’t qualify because he had never been married, and Ginsburg, along with her tax-lawyer husband, Marty, challenged the law in court.
The script, written by RBG’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, does a pretty good job threading the needle between reality and drama. Indeed, Stiepleman did such a good job that I, who have known and covered RBG for many decades, had to call him to find out if certain things were true.
In our phone conversation, Stiepleman confessed that his heart was in his throat when the justice reviewed the script. She began on page one by objecting to the portrayal of her walking up the steps at Harvard Law School, wearing heels. She never wore heels then, she insisted. They argued; he won.
“If she objects to that,” he thought to himself, “my God, what is she going to say about the dramatic high point of the film, where she argues the Moritz case in the Court of Appeals.”
But Ginsburg had no objection to that scene, where she is portrayed as uncertain, scared, and mentally paralyzed.
I couldn’t find the actual transcript or tape of the argument, so I asked Stiepleman if the portrayal is accurate. “Of course not,” he replied. “Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life.”
So why didn’t the justice object? Her answer: “Oh, everyone knows that you have to make it dramatic.”
What is true, Stiepleman told me, is that when Marty Ginsburg opened the argument to deal with tax questions, the judges didn’t want him to sit down. Incredibly, they kept trying to get him to answer questions that she was meant to deal with, about the constitution.
Nina Totenberg is NPR’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR’s critically acclaimed news magazines “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition.”
Written by Bo Burnham
“Eighth Grade” begins with Kayla, our protagonist, recording her YouTube blog and our hearts break as she alternates between life coaching truisms and signing off with an upbeat “Gucci!” goodbye.
We watch as Kayla struggles to answer life’s “Who Am I?” questions, but she can’t separate being herself from how she wants to be seen by others. From studying makeup tutorials and posing for happy selfies she doesn’t feel, she lives the tension of “being” yourself when you’re constantly told how to look, act and be. To be a teen finding one’s way in today’s curated world of social media means every rite of passage is a two-way mirror.
“Eighth Grade” also shows the quiet acts of bravery required to get through middle school. When Kayla is invited to a pool party with this Instagram message, “hi so my mom told me to invite you to my thing tomorrow so this is me doing that,” she goes. Imagine being consumed with self-consciousness and then going to a party knowing the host doesn’t want you, the guests know it and you have to wear a bathing suit? And… you still walk up to the door, smile and hope for the best.
It’s understandable to roll our eyes at teen angst. It’s all so ridiculous. That is until we acknowledge how social media makes us all like Kayla. We obsess on curating our perfect relationships, social lives and accomplishments. Whether we like it or not, Kayla’s insecurities mirror our own.
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the New York Times best-selling book “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence.” The book was the basis of the 2004 film “Mean Girls.”
Written by Matt Bai (screenplay and based on the book by) and Jay Carson and Jason Reitman (screenplay)
Thanks to the screenplay, “The Front Runner” is not a cartoon. While Gary Hart, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 1988 dominates the screen, the press is really the main character. As powerfully written by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and director Jason Reitman, and based on Bai’s 2014 book, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” Hart appears as a thoughtful U.S. senator with a few Grand Canyon-size blind spots.
The press pack becomes a tsunami-like force that overpowers Hart and his handlers. The movie portrays the Hart campaign as a watershed moment, a moment when reporters became character cops, empowered to expose private behavior — if they believed it revealed the candidates’ true character. Starting with Hart, the insider Boys on the Bus Press pack, who were often too close to candidates but at least got to know them, was often replaced by shouted questions.
The screenplay is rendered more powerful because it does not sketch a cartoon. It dares show ambiguity. Hart did lie about his affair with Donna Rice. He was arrogant, and naïve. Members of his staff are shown feigning sympathy for Rice, whose life is exploding, when they really want to throw her to the wolves to rescue Hart. Nor does the press only wear dark hats in this movie. In several well-written scenes, we watch journalists struggle with the moral complexity of how much privacy a public figure is allowed. If a candidate is cheating on his wife, does the public have a right to know? What if he lies about it? Does power strip a candidate of his privacy?
As “The Front Runner” ends, a dejected Hart turns to his wounded wife and says, “Let’s go home.” Hart, warts and all, is pictured as an extraordinarily capable senator whose departure from public life left a void. The press is pictured as too preoccupied with the moment, with scoops, GOTCHA headlines and unmindful, as Hart eloquently predicts when he bows out of the race, that civil democracy will be its victim.
Ken Auletta has written “Annals of Communications” columns and profiles for the New Yorker magazine since 1992. He is the author of 12 books, including five national bestsellers: “Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way”; “Greed and Glory on Wall Street: The Fall of The House of Lehman”; “The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Super Highway”; “World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies”; and “Googled, The End of the World as We Know It.”
Written by David Magee (screenplay and story) and Rob Marshall, John DeLuca (story by) and P.L. Travers (based on the stories by)
I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about “Mary Poppins Returns.” As one of the hoards of people who obsessed over the first film as a child, I didn’t particularly WANT her to change or to be reimagined; I wanted her to stay exactly as she was when I knew her and loved her the most. But this is exactly the problem that I am bumping into more and more as I get older: I am becoming rigid, I am becoming cynical. I am becoming a … *gasp*… GROWNUP. It’s awful.
And it’s exactly the reason I imagine this utterly unique creature was conjured up in the first place.
So, as I watched my favorite nanny make her familiar aerial entrance, as I heard her impart those same wonderful lessons, I encountered the perfectly timed superpower of this character for the second time in my life: For two hours, I remembered magic.
I was swept away on an adventure that was both familiar and completely original. Here was Mary Poppins returning after many years to again tend to the Banks children, now grown up with a new set of problems and children of their own. From beautifully scripted scene into tenderly composed song, into a hand-drawn animation sequence, into raucous dance numbers, into delicious and unexpected cameos; it was abundantly clear that such care was taken in building the written world, both musically and with dialogue, to create something timeless. David Magee went to great lengths to honor the legacy while reminding us to dream anew. Most importantly, his story teaches new audiences the same delicious lessons I remember learning: to play, to imagine, to sing, to be curious. To never ever get stuck, because we never ever are.
I heard the outstanding Emily Blunt speak about why she loves the character of Mary Poppins — she said it’s not because she carries magic with her, but that she DISCOVERS magic in everything. It’s already there, it just needs to be paid attention to. David’s writing pays loving attention to the magic at the heart of this story. And isn’t that the thing that’s the hardest to hold on to as we grow up? To remember to believe in unbelievable things?
That magic is not only possible but inevitable?
Thank you, Miss Poppins. I’ve missed you.
Sara Bareilles first achieved mainstream critical praise in 2007 with her widely successful hit “Love Song,” which reached No. 1 in 22 countries around the world from her debut album “Little Voice.” Since then, Sara has gone on to receive six Grammy nominations throughout her career, which include song of the year and female pop vocal performance for “Love Song” and one album of the year for her highly acclaimed third studio album, “The Blessed Unrest.” Her book, “Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song,” was released in fall 2015 by Simon & Schuster and is a New York Times bestseller. Making her Broadway debut Sara composed the music and lyrics for “Waitress,” for which she received her first Tony Award nomination for score.
Written by Arash Amel (screenplay) and Marie Brenner (based on the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War”)
Early in “A Private War” Marie Colvin is smoking a cigarette in bed after rousing sex with her ex-husband. Out of nowhere she says she’d like to marry him again. He brushes aside the notion. But Colvin won’t let go. She wants more. “I’d like to try having a baby again.”
Bad idea, he says. “You’re not 35 years old anymore.”
With that scene laying bare Colvin’s most excruciating vulnerabilities, Arash Amel won my trust. He was not going to airbrush the story of this remarkable reporter into a wonder woman parable. Her fear that covering wars meant forfeiting the chance to have children is deep — I know because I was one of those women.
Yet Colvin in her disheveled beauty risks her life and sanity in brutal war zones knowing the price for her success will be different than that paid by her male colleagues.
Thank you Amel for letting us hear her voice writing her articles, hesitating, thinking, always with an almost religious belief in journalism’s responsibility to expose the inhumanity of war. She loses an eye in Sri Lanka reporting on children starving behind enemy lines. In Iraq she bluffs her way through a menacing roadblock to report on a mass grave, surrounded by wailing widows. She tells a younger colleague not to focus on the hardware of battle, which airplane dropped bombs on a village, but on the people who were hit.
Even though she wins top awards, she endlessly questions whether it is worth it, whether her articles make a difference in the real world. And when she leaves the battlefield, her private war continues with bouts of heavy drinking in London and daytime nightmares ignited by PTSD. Even among friends she is alone. Treatment in a clinic doesn’t stop her from returning to the battlefield. In Syria, soldiers of Bashar al-Assad target and kill her, breaking the rules of war that protect the neutrality of journalists. They were afraid of Colvin’s powerful reporting.
With journalists under attack around the globe and the American president denigrating reporters like Colvin as “enemies of the people,” Amel has written a script that resonates with a fierceness worthy of Colvin’s story.
Elizabeth Becker, an award-winning journalist for the New York Times and Washington Post, covered the Vietnam War and is the author of “When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution,” which includes her rare interview with Pol Pot.
Written by Nicole Holofcener (screenplay by) and Jeff Whitty (screenplay by) and Lee Israel (based on the memoir by)
Twenty-three years ago I moved to New York for a summer internship at Random House. For a gay word-nerd from Southern California, everything about that summer — the heatwaves, the free books, the queer-friendly literary community — told me I had finally found my place in the world. I ended up working at Random House for 20 years.
But always hovering in the dark margins of the publishing world were people like Lee Israel, a failed biographer who would turn to felony forgery to pay her rent and vet bills, and her grifter sidekick, Jack Hock, who sells a little coke to bleach his teeth. These were people fortune had stopped smiling upon, and I have to admit they frightened me. In their watery eyes I saw failure and drink; in the eyes of some of the gay men, disease. They represented something I didn’t want to believe: that any of us at any time can plunge from the tightrope of our lives.
When we meet Lee in Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s brilliant script she’s “around 50 and not trying very hard.” She’s just been fired from her copyediting job, her agent won’t return her calls, and she lives alone in a rent-controlled apartment with dead flies on the pillow and cat shit under the bed. Lee is a middle-age gay woman who will not, or cannot, bend to social norms, and now she’s paying dearly for it. She’s lost everything, except her individuality.
I love this script, and the movie it has become, because it treats Lee Israel, a woman so desperate she steals toilet paper from her agent’s powder room, as an epic hero worthy of her own biography. It puts us on the side of a character who, in real life, we might try to avoid. When a bookseller asks if she’s THE Lee Israel, Lee responds, “Oh, Jesus. Is there another?” Through wonderful writing, and Melissa McCarthy’s unforgettable performance, we find ourselves hoping Lee will triumph in her crimes. When she tells the judge at her sentencing she’s not really sorry, neither are we.
David Ebershoff was formerly a vice president and executive editor at Random House. His novels include “The Danish Girl,” which was adapted into a film that won Alicia Vikander an Oscar, and the No. 1 bestseller “The 19th Wife,” which was made into a telepic that has aired around the globe. For Keshet Studios he’s developing a series set on Ellis Island called “American Purgatory.”
Written by Barry Jenkins (screenplay) and James Baldwin (based on the novel by)
Fiction is the most interior narrative art form — the only one that allows us to crawl through the corridors of another person’s mind. Screen adaptations of novels must somehow deliver up that intimacy from outside, using image and dialogue. In his deeply intimate “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins laid visually bare the fears and desires of a boy who could not express them. Jenkins can coax more story from a human face than any filmmaker I’m aware of, and he specializes in realms of experience where language comes up short.
James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” would seem made for the contemporary screen. Intercutting past and present, it tells the story of Fonny and Tish, a young African-American couple in 1970s’ New York whose love is interrupted by Fonny’s arrest (by a corrupt cop) for a rape he didn’t commit. The disheartening timelessness of this scenario would not have surprised Baldwin, who predicted, with eerie accuracy, the debasing outcomes of institutionalized racism. Baldwin’s novel is about the collision of good fortune — of innocence — with injustice. But how does a narrator describe her own innocence: a state that, by definition, involves a luxuriant freedom from self-awareness? Tish tells her story in wise past tense, inviting the reader to partake of a state of mind she herself has cast off.
Berry Jennings’ sublime adaptation of “Beale Street” frees the viewer from this paradox. We witness the innocence of Fonny and Tish in the simple beauty of their young, adoring faces. And we watch, by agonizing degrees (as they talk to each other through prison glass), as their trust in the world erodes, yielding to self-consciousness as each strains for cheery optimism that once came naturally. Jenkins’ writing and direction work in such symbiotic harmony that there’s no telling where one leaves off and the other begins. In realizing Baldwin’s story of endurance in the face of oppression, Jenkins has created an aching visual testament to what endurance costs, and the versions of themselves that survivors must leave behind.
Jennifer Egan’s novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Her most recent novel is “Manhattan Beach.”
Written by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (screenplay) and Richard Ford (novel)
The trick to adapting material, from my point of view, is somehow maintaining the integrity of everything you loved about the source material, the book, the play, the poem — while figuring out the secret as to why you, of all the people in the universe, should be the one adapting it. If you can do that, your artistry can work in harmony with the existing artistry to create something new. I’ve read “Wildlife” by Richard Ford and seen the film twice now. It just gets more clear that Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan wove their own secret into this movie and created that elusive something “new.” There is a deeply personal secret at work in this film that is intersecting and enriching Richard Ford’s book, but also bringing out the best in Paul and Zoe. Their lives as actors have given them a pitch perfect ear for dialogue and their love of literature roots the film in a respect for the original brilliance of Richard Ford. They created a world that simultaneously feels fresh, speaking to this exact moment we are living in, while making the character’s time period vibrant, true and alive. That is a major accomplishment. When you watch the film it feels rich and invites you to come inside and grow with it. What Paul and Zoe’s secret is — that something real and personal that drew them to the story — I don’t know. But it’s in the very architecture of the script and in every line the actors speak.
Ethan Hawke an actor, writer and director. He has been nominated for four Academy Awards and a Tony Award. Hawke has directed three feature films, three Off Broadway plays and a documentary. He has also written three novels.
Written by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott (screenplay) and Ron Stallworth (based on the book by)
“BlacKkKlansman” is a clever title and all, but I’d add “Or … Hey, Post-Racial White Folks, Your Black Friend Isn’t Exaggerating.”
It deserves two titles because it’s basically two scripts.
The first is a humorous and validating interpretation of “fa real, fa real” events from the life of Ron Stallworth, the first black cop to join the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s and who infiltrated the KKK. The nuanced depiction of Stallworth as a man experiencing dueling moral imperatives speaks to the experience of so many black people who want to believe in the law but are chronically underserved by it. POC recognize this and go, “Yup. ’Merica.”
The other script is louder for the folks in the back, full of overt parallels between the white-supremacist backlash following the civil-rights movement and that of today: the wink-wink of Ron asserting that America would never elect someone like David Duke president, Klansmen chanting “America first,” the final in-case-you-somehow-missed-the-point montage of the 2017 Klan rally in Charlottesville. The uninitiated following this script are like, “OMG, guys! Racism still exists!”
Yeah. We know. But we’re glad that Lee, Wilmott, Rabinowitz and Wachtel explained that shit so we can take a break.
Chisa Hutchinson is an NYC-based playwright who most recently wrote a radio drama for Audible and a revenge-horror play with crazy flying furniture for South Coast Rep. She also just shot her first feature, “The Subject,” based on her own play.
Written by Joe Robert Cole, Ryan Coogler (screenplay) and Stan Lee (based on the Marvel comics by) and Jack Kirby (based on the Marvel comics by)
Somewhere between the fifth or sixth time you see “Black Panther,” filmmaking’s past rears its ugly head, and you wonder what kind of movie this would have been 100 years ago. Quick answer: Wakandans would have been savages, lions would have been regal and noble, and a white guy in loincloth would have come caterwauling through the bush. Thirty years ago? Wakandans would still need saving, and a white guy with a safari hat and a wounded conscience would come moping through the bush. So when Black Panther came upon us with a swagger we haven’t seen since Barack Obama’s strut, it sent us, despite knowing it was coming, into an afro-tastic future shock. Movies have never been here before. Marvel has never been here before. Africa of course has. Djenne had plumbing back when Europeans thought night air caused plague, and Benin city had street lamps centuries before gaslight still hid Jack the Ripper.
So “Black Panther” is not just future, but also past and present, meaning it’s Africa the way Europeans have never been able to see it. But this is still a movie about superheroes, and when a super movie works you can watch it just for the pulse-pounding thrill. When black people all over the world lined up to see it in African regalia, they weren’t trying on culture for size. They were participating in unmitigated black joy. Many of us are still wondering how the hell this got made. Even the white savior when he arrived simply pointed and shot, leaving the thinking to the black woman.
And for all that, for all the pleasure of watching Marvel’s best-ever standalone film, “Black Panther’s” neatest trick was to give the best lines to the supporting cast. M’Baku’s “we will not have it.” Shuri’s “don’t scare me like that, colonizer.” Pretty much everything uttered by Killmonger, possibly the most irrefutable lines of dialogue ever said by a movie villain. By the end kingdom has been won, kingdom has been lost, kingdom has been won again. But that is a simplistic read of a celluloid miracle, a zap! pow! kind of film that managed to both kick ass and fill a void that millions of black people all over the world didn’t even know they had. The joy of seeing the wildest dream you’ve ever had of yourself play out right in front of you.
Marlon James is an author whose last novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” won the 2015 Man Booker Prize and was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Written by Josh Singer (screenplay) and James R. Hansen (based on the book by)
The threshold challenge for screenplays like “First Man” about true stories is that we all know is why. Why tell a story with an ending we already know and, in this case, with a famous line of dialogue that we already know — a line that can’t be rewritten, can’t be improved and can’t be topped by any other line in the script. Why? The answer has to be that the screenplay tells you what you don’t know about the story and what you don’t know grabs your heart and won’t let go.
Josh Singer’s “First Man” screenplay shows us what we didn’t know when we watched Neil Armstrong take that “giant leap for mankind” on TV. We’ve all seen video of Armstrong planting a flag on the moon, but we didn’t know what else he left there and why. We knew astronauts were quarantined after missions, but we didn’t know what that did to a husband and wife. On TV, the moon landing looked so smooth, so inevitable, but “First Man” shows us that Mission Control couldn’t control everything, that death was a fraction of a second away, that returning from the moon was not guaranteed and that Neil Armstrong always controlled his own fear but could never control his family’s fear.
The “First Man” screenplay takes us inside a story that went global on TV news and tells us the human story the news couldn’t tell. First Man lets us take a giant leap closer to understanding what it felt like to be the first man.
Lawrence O’Donnell hosts “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell.” A writer prior to entering politics and government, O’Donnell published the book “Deadly Force,” which was adapted as a CBS movie in 1986. He has written essays and articles for several publications including the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Born in Boston, O’Donnell is a graduate of Harvard College.
Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters (screenplay) and Moss Hart (based on the 1954 screenplay) and John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson (based on the 1976 screenplay) and William Wellman (based on the story by) and Robert Carson (based on the story by)
I’m such a sucker for a classic Hollywood Cinderella story — a talented nobody comes out of nowhere, opens her mouth and immediately becomes a star! — and considering how many versions of “A Star Is Born” have been made over the years, a lot of other people feel the same way. What’s always been so special about these films is their semi-autobiographical nature, the way they adapt to the personas of their megastar leading ladies. They aren’t just stories about the characters on the screen, they’re the stories of how Janet became Janet, Barbra became Barbra, Judy became Judy (and simultaneously, Norman Maine, poor Judy).
This year’s most recent incarnation, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is no exception. As Ally — did she even have a last name? — Gaga seems not so much to be playing a character as an alternate reality version of herself: a scrappy New York-adjacent Italian-American girl with a doting father, an undeniable voice, and a nose big enough to alienate unimaginatively shallow label executives everywhere, who is plucked from obscurity by an uber-heterosexual country alt-rocker (instead of left in the drag bar where she belongs, to morph into the pop-icon-as-performance-artist we know and love today). And she’s so great! So great! Who knew she could act like that? Or looked so normal and pleasant underneath all the hair and makeup and wardrobe?
But where Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” (which he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) really distinguishes itself is by giving equal shrift — and I genuinely can’t believe I’m about to type this — to its male lead, fading alcoholic rocker Jackson Maine (also played by Cooper). The film is shrewd and empathetic enough to know that in 2018, the story of a Svengali-like addict so threatened by his wife’s success he drinks himself to death is not going to play like a grand romance in 2018, and the screenplay is careful never to blame Jack’s problems on Ally, or to make us hate him for what is obviously an uncontrollable disease. When Jack’s jealousy arises, it’s played with gentle, self-aware humor; when he gives her hard-edged career advice it seems to come from a genuine place of protectiveness and personal regret. Ally’s success isn’t Jack’s problem; Jack is Jack’s problem, along with the expectations of being a certain kind of man, and the demands of the road, and all kinds of issues with fathers and sons that I don’t quite understand because men still have no ability to verbally communicate them. Toxic masculinity, the film reminds us, poisons its victims, but it also destroys its host. Not quite the message I expected to get from a female-centered melodrama that is also a musical, but you know what? I’ll take it.
Rachel Shukert is a writer and supervising producer on “GLOW.” She is also the author of the memoirs “Everything Is Going to Be Great” and “Have You No Shame?” and the novels “Love Me” and “Starstruck.”
Written by Luke Davies and Felix van Groeningen (screenplay) and David Sheff (based on the book “Beautiful Boy” by) and Nic Sheff (based on the book “Tweak” by)
“There are moments that I look at him, this kid that I raised who I thought that I knew inside and out, and I wonder who he is?”
With this line, at the start of Luke Davies and Felix van Groeningen’s beautifully, fearlessly authentic screenplay, the writers pull off a double coup they manage to sustain throughout. Consider: 20 million people over the age of 12 have used meth. Nearly a million are regular users. Broken families, death, heartbreak, ruin, rifling your baby brother’s piggy bank — it’s familiar turf. But out of the gate, the writers show us they’ve cracked the code that renders a universal story specific. And, what makes this a double coup, they make us care.
Two books have been combined to make the film: David Sheff’s incredibly moving “Beautiful Boy,” about having a meth addict son, and Nic Sheff’s spectacular, blistering “Tweak,” about being a meth addict.
There is little harder for a writer than being given genius source material. One wrong move, and you’re the guy who fucked up “War and Peace.” It’s as much burden as gift, and so it’s impossible not to respect Davies and van Groeningen’s accomplishment
At its best, screenwriting is empathy in motion. Setting it in motion is the craft. But empathy, that’s where heart comes in. By film’s end, the nuanced specifics of David and Nic’s tragedy — and redemption — have been rendered indelibly universal. The audience is not just weeping for the characters onscreen. They’re weeping for their own savage pasts — and for those who never made it back.
Jerry Stahl has written nine books, including the memoir “Permanent Midnight.”