How to Nail That Perfect Scene
Six scribes behind some of this year's Oscar contenders -- from intense dramas to a raucous comedy to a provocative foreign-language entry -- reveal their thinking behind critical script pages (even when the movie is silent).
ORIGINAL: Margin Call
In his financial thriller Margin Call, which he began writing in fall 2008, before the full devastation of the financial collapse was clear, writer-director J.C. Chandor hit upon a structure he compares to "an old submarine movie. You trap these characters and an inherent tension comes from that." The son of a stockbroker, he had researched Wall Street and knew he was dealing with a subject that had global implications. But at the same time, as a first-time feature director, he knew he'd be working with a limited budget. So he built his screenplay around one fateful night during which the executives at a powerful investment bank come to the frightening realization that they are underwater and must move quickly to divest themselves of toxic assets.
Two-thirds of the way through the night, after all hell breaks loose at a board meeting, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), the firm's CEO, sits down with Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), one of the senior traders. Although Ben Kingsley, who had to withdraw for scheduling reasons, originally was to have played the CEO, Chandor didn't alter any of the dialogue to fit Irons when he stepped in to play the part. However, a visa mix-up caused the actor to miss two days of what had been planned as a five-day shoot. When Irons finally arrived on set, Chandor says, there consequently was "a sense of controlled panic," which fed perfectly into the scene. Also contributing to its subtext was the fact that Spacey and Irons, though they had never appeared onscreen together, had known each other for years, just as, Chandor imagined, their characters had a long association.
As the two men face off -- the writer likens Irons' character to a shark who must keep moving, while Spacey's is more conflicted -- "they become the center of the moral questioning," Chandor says.
Irons' Tuld accuses Spacey's Sam of being soft. Sam shoots back with, "F-- you soft, you're panicking." Tuld, with the kind of ferocious authority that is Irons' forte, replies, "If you're the first one out the door, Sam, it's not called panicking."
"Really, that is the key line of the movie for me," says Chandor. "If you're the first one out the door, it's not called panicking. If you're in a theater and it catches on fire and you're the first one to see the smoke, what are you going to do? That basically creates plausable deniability for everyone in the movie, and deniability is one of the human crutches that got us into this mess." -- Gregg Kilday
ADAPTED: The Ides of March
George Clooney, Grant Heslov & Beau Willimon
When he wrote Farragut North, the play on which The Ides of March is based, Beau Willimon didn't include the character of Governor Morris. "My aim was to focus on the behind-the-scenes players," says Willimon. "They represented the unseen nuts and bolts behind the polished steel veneer of the candidate's public persona."
In adapting the play into a film, he and his co-screenwriters, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, chose to make Governor Morris more central to the plot. "In the play, Molly [played by Evan Rachel Wood in the film] had a dalliance with Paul [Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film]. In the movie, we shifted her affair to Morris [Clooney]. This culminates in the kitchen scene near the end of the film when Stephen [Ryan Gosling] threatens to unravel Morris' public image by exposing his private indiscretions.
"The kitchen scene was challenging because it had to work on a lot of levels. It's the linchpin of the final act, the scene where Stephen finally crosses the line from youthful idealism to ruthless ambition. You have to taste Stephen's lust for power and shiver at Morris' cold hypocrisy. You have to believe that Stephen is capable of outmaneuvering and intimidating an experienced and skilled politician. And you want the scene -- which is dialogue driven -- to have the adrenaline of a gun-slinging thriller climax … without the guns.
"Simplicity was the answer: A literal back room, blades within reach but never used, dark shadows and harsh light -- all of which set the stage for a fierce battle between two razor-sharp minds. And of course it helped to have a pair of titans like Ryan Gosling and George Clooney do the squaring off. My hat is off to George and Grant for my favorite line of the scene: 'You can start a war, you can lie, you can cheat, you can bankrupt the country. But you can't f-- the interns. They'll get you for that.' " -- Jay A. Fernandez
ADAPTED: The Descendants
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
At the end of The Descendants' first act, George Clooney's Matt King is forced to tell his somewhat estranged, angry teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) that he has to take her comatose mother off life support. The excruciating moment propels the emotional heft of the remainder of the story about how the family copes with that loss.
But the scene as originally written and adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel was structured in a much more conventional manner. "The moment where Alexandra slips underwater and cries is actually an 'action' that was added in a later draft of the screenplay," says Jim Rash, who co-wrote the script with Nat Faxon and director Alexander Payne. "In earlier passes, much more was made of this scene where Matt is revealing to Alexandra that her mother is going to die. Matt attempted to console her as she fought back tears."
The way the scene ultimately developed, as an underwater emotional outburst, not only turned it into a showcase moment for actress Woodley but it also sent a much more profound signal of the distance the central family has to traverse to find any kind of closeness.
"As always, less is more," Rash says of the version that ended up onscreen. "The simple act of Alexandra avoiding her father and having this private moment under-water spoke louder than any lines that were originally on the page." -- J.A.F.
ORIGINAL: The Artist
How to Introduce moviegoers to the idea that they are about to watch a silent movie, an art form that disappeared more than 80 years ago? That was the challenge facing Michel Hazanavicius when he sat down to write The Artist.
He had already done plenty of research to familiarize himself with silent-movie conventions. He had hung out at the Cinematheque Francaise, watching nearly 100 movies from the era and surrounded himself with classic film scores. But his eureka moment came when he hit upon an opening image: a man screaming -- silently.
The Artist, Hazanavicius decided, should begin with a movie-within-a-movie, an old-time adventure film in which his hero George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is starring. He's playing a character who is being tortured, and the first title card the audience reads says, "I'm not telling, I won't talk," a jokey sign of what's to come. As the final moments of the movie-within-the-movie play out, the camera cuts to the 1927 audience applauding, establishing time and place. And then it moves backstage, where George is waiting in the wings to take a bow. He's introduced, quite literally, as the man behind the screen. "The opening sequence looks very simple and natural," says the writer, "but this is all a trick, moving from one side of the screen to the other." – G.K.
Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo started writing their Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids script in 2006 and didn't stop when Paul Feig began directing it in 2010. "Before each scene, we'd hand Paul these huge packets with every version of the scene we'd ever written," says Mumolo. "As the camera rolled, we'd reach up and stick Post-its on his beautiful suit with alternate lines. Constantly. He'd quietly pull them off his shoulder, read them and pull out what he thought was the nugget." Many scenes came and went, including multiple finales involving an Indian credit-bureau collector, a hunt for the lost bride, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), a flat tire and a lady's corpse in a water tower played for laughs.
"The real big change was in the poisoning scene," says Mumolo. "Originally, Annie [Wiig] had a fantasy sequence in the dress shop. She finds this very affordable dress, and she has this fantasy where she runs into the forest and sees Christian Bale chopping wood, then combing her hair on a bearskin rug. She's awoken abruptly by Helen [Rose Byrne], who says, 'We decided on this other $800 dress.' "
This scene dramatized poor Annie's rivalry with rich Helen, her rival as the bride's best friend. But it failed to give the bride a good enough reason to remove Annie as maid of honor. "If you tweak it wrong, it's like, 'Oh, Lillian's an asshole.' Judd [Apatow, Bridesmaids producer] said, 'She needs to make a bigger mistake here, and you have to take a bigger chance.' He also said, 'No! You'll never get Christian Bale to do this.' "
So they wrote a scene where Annie gets the bridesmaids food poisoned instead. "We were terrified, but it's better. She's driving the action. The other thing was just happening to her. The point of the scene is not to be gross or raunchy," says Mumolo. "It's to have something horrific that Annie caused and how each character handles the humiliation. Girls are more about trying to pretend it's not happening. You're constantly trying to save face and be a lady. At these types of events it's all about being organized and who's the ultimate lady. Also who's got the strongest friendship." Or stomach. -- Tim Appelo
FOREIGN FILM: Bullhead
Micheal R. Roskam
First-time belgian writer-director Michael R. Roskam's Bullhead, inspired by the 1995 murder of an inspector investigating gangsters who injected cattle with growth hormones, is the surprise Oscar nominee for foreign-language film. "The cops found the killers because of tires they found on a stolen car," says Roskam. In the script, two gangsters hire mechanics to get rid of the car, but they sell the tires to the brother of the hero, so the cops suspect him. "I modified reality so the tires would connect the innocent hero to the murder. Which allowed the mechanics to be like R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars, being the comic relief and leading to the hero's downfall." On set he rewrote a scene in which the mechanics find a bullet hole in the car, realize they're implicated in murder, then open the present the gangsters left for them, a hunk of freshly slaughtered beef. "The actor, Erico Salamone, told me the French word for 'bullet hole' was a synonym for 'asshole.' So we have one guy say, 'A hole!' and the other replies, 'Yeah, two assholes' -- he thinks he's referring to the two gangsters. 'No, a bullet hole!' It's in the tradition of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, wise guys talking fast and being funny in their seriousness." – T.A.
FEINBERG FORECAST: THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg ranks the contenders as he sees them
in the screenwriting races
- The Descendants: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
- Moneyball: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin
- Hugo: John Logan
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan
- The Ides of March: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
- Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen
- The Artist: Michel Hazanavicius
- Bridesmaids: Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig
- Margin Call: J.C. Chandor
- A Separation: Asghar Farhadi
2012 WRITERS GUILD AWARDS: The WGA West holds its awards Feb. 19 at Hollywood Palladium, while the WGA East meets at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York.
- Laurel Award for Screen: Eric Roth
- Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television: Marshall Herskovitz & Edward Zwick
- Paul Selvin Award: Tate Taylor
- Morgan Cox Award: Patric Verrone
- Herb Sargent Award for Comedy Excellence: Judd Apatow
- Ian McClellan Hunter Award: Claire Labine