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[AWARD SHOWS] Screenwriting Originals Showing Up

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  • madchinaman
    No need to adapt Powerful original screenplays are plentiful this Oscar season. Why has it taken so long? By Jay A. Fernandez, Special to The Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 13, 2006
      No need to adapt
      Powerful original screenplays are plentiful this Oscar season. Why
      has it taken so long?
      By Jay A. Fernandez, Special to The Times

      To paraphrase Three 6 Mafia: It's hard out here for an original
      screenplay. What with all the great literary works, graphic novels
      and biographies (plus the occasional epic fantasy trilogy) begging to
      be translated to the big screen, the adapted screenplay Oscar
      nominees have hogged all the glory in recent years. But 2006 -- with
      all due respect to the newly triumphant Democrats -- may become known
      as the Year of the Original Comeback.

      Though the potential adapted contenders look as robust as ever this
      year, screenwriters have also fielded a strapping squad of powerful,
      idiosyncratic original screenplays that collectively seem to
      represent the culmination of the post-9/11 creative incubation
      period. There's just more heaviness to them -- screenwriters have
      fashioned stories that are deeply felt and personal but that also
      resonate with national and global moods.

      "In this moment, it would be very hard to make a movie that wasn't
      acutely aware of the chaos and complexities of people sharing the
      same geographical space but not the same spiritual space, the same
      privileges, the same ideals, the same languages," says writer-
      director Anthony Minghella, who's just written his first original
      screenplay, "Breaking and Entering," in 15 years and who has won
      Oscar nods for adapting the novels "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The
      English Patient."

      "That's the urgency of our time," Minghella says, "and any writer
      who's starting from a blank page is inevitably going to be
      contemplating this."

      It's not just the extremely literal tragedies depicted in Paul
      Greengrass' and Andrea Berloff's elegiac scripts for "United 93"
      and "World Trade Center" that carry this extra weight. In both
      dramatic and comedic ways, "Babel" (Guillermo Arriaga), "Little Miss
      Sunshine" (Michael Arndt), "Volver" (Pedro Almodóvar), "The Pursuit
      of Happyness" (Steven Conrad), "Bobby" (Emilio Estevez), "The Queen"
      (Peter Morgan), "Stranger Than Fiction" (Zach Helm) and "Catch a
      Fire" (Shawn Slovo) -- Oscar contenders all -- roil with enough loss,
      anguish, outrage, dislocation, desperation and isolation to sound
      like an early U2 song. (You may notice something else consistent
      about these original screenplays: Each has a single credited writer.)

      "If there's a passing fashion for this, I'm delighted," says Morgan,
      who's also likely to get an adapted nomination this year for "The
      Last King of Scotland," co-scripted with Jeremy Brock. "I like to
      think it's a return to '70s-style filmmaking. In the last two or
      three years there's been a real explosion of filmmakers making more
      adult, sophisticated, intelligent stuff."

      Arndt adds that screenplays are acting more like novels. "It's very
      heartening to see films that make the effort to go out and understand
      how the world actually works," he says. "That's always been the
      mission of novels. As a medium, screenplays are less conducive to
      that sort of exploration of the broader world. I think it's great now
      that screenwriters in the post-9/11 era are ambitious enough to want
      to go out into the world and describe it in a way that a novelist

      The recent malaise in original screenplays can be partially
      attributed to a Hollywood system obsessed with creating marketable
      products, often by turning to preexisting material -- magazine
      articles, plays, video games, novels, old TV shows, nonfiction books,
      other films -- for inspiration.

      "Scripts don't get movies made," says Christopher McQuarrie, who won
      the best original screenplay in 1995 for "The Usual Suspects." "What
      makes a movie now is a package, a brand, a remake or some preexisting
      material. A graphic novel that has sold 30,000 copies is considered
      more bankable than a well-written story no one's heard of before. The
      strong showing of adaptations might have its roots in [this]. With
      more adaptations, you'll have a bigger pool from which to draw the
      five 'best.' "

      Arndt points out that the weight accorded novels or other
      prepublished material just goes with the territory. "It's pretty
      depressing for people who are trying to write directly for the
      screen," he says, "because anyone can buy the rights to a book, and
      you immediately have more prestige or credibility than you do with an
      original screenplay."

      "If you were to write 'Brokeback Mountain' as an original script," he
      adds, "you would have a harder time getting people to take it

      It's an odd dynamic for these writers, most of whom prefer to write
      originals. "A lot of writers think that they have a gallon of ink,
      and every writer is afraid he's going to run out of that gallon of
      ink," says Arriaga, who has turned down many offers to adapt books
      and remakes. "Of course, I'm very scared that it will happen to me.
      So if I only have one gallon of ink I'd prefer to write things that I
      really believe in. I'd never hesitate to write an original, because
      it's the only thing I know how to do."
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