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  • Were Screenwriters Dissed at This Year’s Oscars?

    March 3rd, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    Since last night’s Oscars ceremony, there has been a lot of chatter by writers (both pro and amateur) on social media that screenwriters were all but forgotten in the telecast and in the winner’s speeches. I even got an email this morning from a client wondering why those responsible for the stories aren’t being appreciated by Hollywood anymore.

    In response to this, I have two answers.

    First – while Robert De Niro’s somewhat insulting and stereotypical introduction to the Best Screenplay Oscar didn’t help, I don’t think writers WERE forgotten from the telecast. They received their Oscars like everyone else in every other category. They weren’t dismissed any more than production designers or editors were. Screenwriters are hardly ever the FOCUS of the Oscars – it’s a night based around the actors, directors and films themselves. If it wasn’t for the WGA, the Screenplay awards would probably be given out at the Creative Arts Ceremony.

    That being said, my second point is that the lack of mention of the writing and writers from the winners last night I think illuminated something painfully obvious in the films nominated…the writing wasn’t THAT great.

    Sometimes it’s the powerful words on the page that elicit fantastic performances from actors. And sometimes, it’s the fantastic and powerful performances from the actors that bring the words on the page to life. And in 2013, I dare say it was the latter that occurred.

    Looking at the projects that won big last night, Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club specifically, these were not movies driven by story or script. These were not films driven by powerful dialogue. These were films driven by powerful performances and technical achievement. In Dallas, let’s be honest – it wasn’t the words McConaughey or Leto said that made that movie special – it was the WAY they said them and their immersion in their roles. And that’s not due to the writer.

    In Gravity’s case, it was a film driven by the DIRECTOR’S vision and technical handling of the material and how that skill created a movie-going experience unlike any other. But no one thought Gravity had a very strong story or script.

    American Hustle went home empty handed (which was fine by me) and its biggest criticism was that while the PERFORMANCES were great, and the world was original, the actual story and plot wasn’t very strong. It had style and voice, but not much substance. It had a few powerful scenes, but it was Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that made those words shine.

    The Wolf of Wall Street was a much loved movie with some great dialogue and memorable scenes and performances. In fact, it probably has the most quotable lines of any nominated film. But with more F-bombs than any other film in history, an often muddy theme, and a story that seemed to end three different times in its 3-hour plus running time, the script was seen as overwritten and could have been tighter.

    In Blue Jasmine, because of all the negative media attention Woody Allen has been receiving, people wanted to play it safe and just focus on Cate Blanchett’s masterful delivery of the words and emotional turns instead of the writing itself.

    Then there’s 12 Years a Slave. It won for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay but because of the drama behind the scenes, writer John Ridley and Director Steve McQueen didn’t even mention each other in their speeches. There are sometimes a lot of politics in screenwriting. John Ridley has a history of writing scripts that get completely rewritten and then arbitrating for credit, which brings up another major point for why screenwriters perhaps aren’t being as well-respected anymore.

    Every script is rewritten. A lot. Sometimes by many different writers (or producers or executives or directors or actors) to the point where the original script is barely recognizable and the original writer getting credit often isn’t the one who wrote the best lines. And because Hollywood knows this, they have stopped celebrating the writer the way they used to.

    It’s not that ANYONE can just write a great script. But it often takes a village to create one these days. The only projects that get made with only the single original writer working on the script are ones where the writer is also the director, producer or star. So how do you celebrate a screenwriter who only wrote maybe 50% of a script while everyone else gets nothing (but a paycheck) for their efforts?

    In addition to this, the majority of films produced and released these days are based on already existing properties (books, comics, TV shows, etc.) that get adapted by a team of writers. I’m not saying it’s easier to adapt than write an original project – it’s a very different and equally important skill – but when the spine of the story, the characters and even some of the dialogue is already written, which writer do you celebrate?

    Two of the best written scripts of the year (in my opinion) – Her and Philomena – were films that weren’t going to win the big prize and didn’t make as much money as some of the others so they didn’t get the attention they deserved. I’m thrilled that Her won – it deserved to. Of all the scripts, it had perhaps the most insightful dialogue and the most memorable, quotable lines. But for most of the other memorable lines of 2013, you’d have to look outside the 9 nominated films.

    And that’s the litmus test for truly great, memorable writing – how many lines become part of the zeitgeist. How many withstand the test of time. Try to list your 10 favorite lines from films last year. Could you even name 10 quotable lines from the 9 nominated films? I’m willing to bet you can’t. But let’s try…

    “I’m doing this from the feet up.”

    “Falling in love is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

    “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

    “I hate space.”

    “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.”

    “Sell me this pen.”

    “You have my money taped to your tits. Technically, you do work for me.”

    “I’m the Captain now.”

    “I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.”

    “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”

    Whew…10.  

    No offense but do ANY of those lines have the resonance of “You can’t handle the truth!” or “I ate his liver with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti” or “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” or “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” or “They’re called boobs, Ed.” I don’t think so.  The lines from HER are the closest for me to being iconic.

    You want projects with truly deep, powerful writing where the screenwriter is celebrated, then watch the Independent Spirit Awards. Or attend the Nicholls Fellowship Winners Ceremony.

    You want Hollywood to celebrate screenwriters more, then they need to produce more ORIGINAL scripts written by FEWER writers. Until then, we’re all just cogs in the system and cogs don’t get celebrated. They just keep cogging away.

  • Why Her ?

    January 4th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    2013 was an excellent year for movies – perhaps the best in quite a few years. And there are many films that I would be very content with winning the Oscar. But for me, the best movie of the year is Her. And no one is more shocked about that than I am.

    I went in doubting the hype. I’m not a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan and Spike Jonze is the kind of manic eccentric genius that sometimes doesn’t translate to a relatable cohesive story. And considering his writing credits include the Jackass movies and Where the Wild Things Are and his directing credits include Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and dozens of music videos, who could guess that he’d write the next great American love story.

    The best compliment I could give Her is that it makes me never want to write again because I don’t think I could ever write something as good that works on so many levels. It is a touching, amazingly relevant, powerful and complete love story that engrosses you more than most love stories where there are TWO people present on screen. It is beautifully crafted, beautifully acted and thematically impactful. It’s a love story for the ages, and the age that hasn’t come yet.

    And I realized there are some specific reasons why this movie works so well.

    1.    It creates an interesting, expansive world but only explores one tiny piece of it. There are so many lovely nuances to this futuristic Los Angeles setting. The green screen backgrounds shows how much LA has changed in the near future, with its endless glittering lights and cell towers pinging like shooting stars. Every single person is engaged in a schizophrenic-like experience talking to their own ear pieces and personal OS systems as they walk down the street completely oblivious that anyone else exists. The sharp, ultra-functional, ultra-modern, color-infused world of the apartments and offices underline the isolation that seems to exist between its residents. There are friendships and dates and social interaction, but the closest relationship people seem to have in this world is with their tech gadgets.

    Other nuances like how email is read and categorized, how fast technology works and is able to absorb and grow and adapt, how people get around, etc. only further help flesh out the world.  Jonze clearly knew every little aspect of his near-future landscape before he wrote this script and was able to pick and choose which ones would highlight his theme and story and characters in genius ways.  There are probably tons of other aspects of this world that could have been explored, but limiting it to what is directly connected to the love story makes it all the more intriguing. When writers know how to create a truly intriguing world that is special yet relatable, different yet plausible, and that world matches the story that is occurring within it, it’s a winning combination.

    Many of the scripts I’ve read lately have these expansive futuristic/dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds, but they aren’t really necessary to the story – the writers are just hoping that their “awesome” worlds will mask what’s lacking in the narrative. Jonze chose a time and world that complimented the story in perfect fashion and made it feel MORE believable and viable instead of just distracting us from it. Jonze created a big world but made it feel small, while creating a small story and making it feel big. That’s one of the keys to successful world building.

    2.   Timing. Is there a more relevant love story right now than that between man and technology? It’s the right story at the right time. The themes and societal questions raised and explored of what makes for a genuine relationship, what defines a happy couple, what makes for true love, and what constitutes an acceptable love dynamic in society is done so in beautiful ways. At a time when gay marriage is a hot button issue, Jonze takes the concept two steps further and makes relationships with OS’s (Operating Systems) the next issue to be tackled. It’s talked about and accepted by many in this story – but it’s still not the thing everyone is comfortable with. It’s still somewhat taboo and embarrassing for Phoenix’s character. There’s still that unsure “Ohhh…umm…okay” reaction when people hear about this relationship.

    When a writer can tap into the zeitgeist – and what could be NEXT in the zeitgeist – in a way that examines an issue in a brilliant way without ever mentioning the issue, that shows true talent. The concept of the OS/Human relationship is discussed, but it’s more about the doubt the Human and the OS have in their own feelings than their worries about what the outside world thinks. It’s about being comfortable in your own love and your own mind and letting everything else go. And if that’s not an important and relevant message and theme to explore today, I don’t know what is.

    The beauty of the way Jonze explores this theme, however, is how he has elevated the genre and the discussion. Which brings us to…

    3.    It defines elevated storytelling. And that’s not easy to do with romance or romantic dramas. If you’ve ever seen a Nicholas Sparks novel brought to life on screen, they all have strong emotional hooks. They all have an internal dilemma and external conflict that rips the lovers apart only so they can find a way to come back together. But almost none of them feel realistic or relatable. His books explore life-threatening illnesses and death. They are female fantasies underlining the power of true love. None of them are overly intelligent or complex. They connect on an emotional level but that’s about it. The beauty of Her is that it connects on an emotional level AND a cerebral one. It makes you feel, it makes you cry, and it makes you think at the same time.

    Hollywood always says it wants ELEVATED material. This is a romantic drama on an elevated level. Elevated means there is something smarter and deeper about the story than the normal, down-the-middle boy meets girl story. And Her delivers on that in spades.

    4.    It tells a complete love story. It’s boy meets girl (ish), but in a whole new way. But the beauty of the structure of the story is that we really get to experience their whole relationship. I don’t want to give anything away about how the film ends, but every time you think the story can end, Spike Jonze finds a believable and relatable way to throw another plot twist into the mix that progress the arcs of both characters and raises the stakes. And they all feel like REAL twists that would plague any real-world human relationship which is what makes it feel so genuine.

    It doesn’t take much to believe that a person can fall in love with a voice on a computer. So once you swallow that premise, the rest is a rollercoaster ride of emotion from beginning to end that probably feels like a love story you’ve experienced.  Or maybe that’s just me. It uses all the tropes of romantic drama – loss, death, cheating, conflict, temptation, realization, growth, change, love and sex – but there’s only one physical person involved. It’s a focused story, but a complete story. And that’s what you should be trying to do with your scripts.

    5.     It gives its actors immense room to play, react, feel and emote. Movies don’t get made without stars these days, and to get stars you need characters that stand out and give them something to do.  A new situation or mindset for them to explore emotionally. And too many writers focus on the action of what the characters do in the scene and not enough on the REACTION the actors get to portray in their quiet or reflective moments. And all of the actors in this film have those moments and play them perfectly.

    Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams (who looks more like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich than the glam roles she usually plays), Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and especially Scarlett Johansson are all pitch perfect (and listen for the greatest voice over cameo ever by Kristen Wiig).

    The fact that Scarlett Johansson can’t be nominated for an Academy Award is a damn shame. Personally, I’ve never been a big Joaquin Phoenix fan. I find him intense and creepy to watch but not in a fun way (like Daniel Day Lewis). But the man knows how to genuinely emote on screen like very few others can. He’s so open and able to commit to the words, it’s powerful to watch. And I’m not sure if Scarlett was in the room or speaking to him through the ear piece or if it was all done in post, but you’d never know he was the only person in the room.

    Phoenix’s character has a simple enough backstory – a nasty divorce from the love of his life has left him somewhat of a recluse and emotionally crippled. It’s not a hugely original backstory. But when combined with the world created, it’s all you need. The OS Samantha, played by Johansson, has just as much (if not more) or a character arc than the human characters. It’s her character that grows and changes the most. As I said, it’s a complete love story told from both perspectives, even though we are only SEEING one on screen. Give huge credit to Scarlett for bringing a character to life that isn’t even alive and that we never see. If you can write characters like that, you will get a major actor attached to your script.

    6.    The dialogue will affect you. I don’t want to ruin anything, but I will leave you with two quotes that stand out.  “Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.” This line is brilliant not just because it’s accurate, but because the whole story is about a guy talking to an ear piece, which makes him look even crazier yet in this world it’s socially acceptable. And “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” It’s one of those lines that stay with you, that become part of the way you think. The script is full of these, and that kind of dialogue is what powerful films are made of.

    Hopefully I’ve convinced you to go see Her, but also to read the script and learn how to craft a story that deserves Oscar gold.

     

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