Strongest scripts come from dives into unknown

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On the surface, the behind-the-scenes intrigues of a corporate law firm hardly seem cinematic enough to justify a screenplay. But when "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) writer-director Tony Gilroy started digging around while researching 1997's "The Devil's Advocate," he was hooked.

"You have these rooms where 30 or 40 people show up and work all night long, typing all the paperwork; and (outside the office) they are sculptors and dancers and actors," he recalls. "I hadn't seen this before. And you are always looking for stuff you haven't seen before -- that is unique and familiar at the same time."

Blending the unique and the familiar is a challenge for any writer, and certainly was behind many scripts in contention for this year's original screenplay Oscar. But each writer had to combine the unique and familiar in radically different ways: John Carney drew on a world familiar to him, that of musicians, to tell a universal tale of a romance that might have been in Fox Searchlight's "Once"; Paul Haggis

penetrated the distant world of soldiers affected by the war in Iraq to convey his tale of a father trying to understand his son in Warner Independent's "In the Valley of Elah"; and Diablo Cody made the problems of an unusual teenage girl coping with an unwanted pregnancy believable in Fox Searchlight's "Juno."

In achieving this blend of the unique and familiar, many writers have stretched the boundaries of what audiences will accept, sometimes challenging them to find the familiar in the most unfamiliar things of all.

Nowhere is that more the case than with Nancy Oliver, the writer of MGM's "Lars and the Real Girl," the story of a lonely young man who falls in love with a life-size doll. Oliver learned about the doll when she came across Abyss Creations -- an actual company that makes such dolls, based in San Marcos, Calif. -- while working for a company that she won't name, before joining the staff of HBO's "Six Feet Under." She adds that she is precluded from talking about it because of a confidentiality agreement she signed.

More than the real doll, however, she was drawn to the notion of recreating "the Pygmalion myth, in contemporary terms -- my take on it." That lifted her story from being an exploration of a perversion to being relatable and real.

Oliver acknowledges that the absurdity of her tale might have alienated some audiences. That absurdity, she says, "was something that I wanted to vibrate in the script; I wanted people to be not sure, I wanted that level of discomfort. It is interesting to see how angry it makes some people. They are angry that they are asked to suspend their disbelief -- that their ideas of reality seem to be challenged in some way."

Carney in many ways wanted to do the opposite when he conceived of "Once": to root a traditionally absurd form in reality as he knew it. He wanted to take his familiar world and put it into an unfamiliar setting.

"The brief in my head was to try and write a musical that was naturalistic and would dispense with the need for suspension of disbelief," he says. "I was very interested in doing something that, while being a musical in practice, looks much more like a concert film or visual album -- like a little mood piece. You didn't realize you were watching songs till you left the cinema."

Carney drew on his own life and his knowledge of blue-collar and immigrant Dublin. He wanted the songs to feel believable coming from these characters.

Writing a musical, of course, involved a different process than writing an original script. For one thing, it meant a collaboration with a composer -- in this case Glen Hansard, who also stars in the lead role and in whose band Carney once played.

"I would write bullet points, with the description of the tone of the song, and Glen would go off and go through his back catalog or show me songs he was working on and play me a song, and that would inspire me to develop this or that aspect of the relationship. It was an organic process between the two of us."

Contrary to some reports, the screenplay was not inspired by Hansard's life, nor was it modeled on his relationship with the musician-actress who co-stars with him, Marketa Irglova -- they were just friends when the movie was made, Carney says. "I already had the story in mind, completely and utterly," he says.

But working with Hansard gave him the freedom to be elliptical in the screenplay. "I wrote a 60-page script," he explains. "The principle was: a song is worth four pages of dialogue."

Tamara Jenkins had no such luck when she wrote the first draft of her Fox Searchlight dramedy "The Savages," about a man suffering from Alzheimer's and the grown children who have to figure out how to deal with him. Her initial draft came in at 215 pages.

The subject was something she knew well because she had had to deal with her own father's dementia. "I was 35 (when it happened), which is young," she says. "The movie is not an exact memoir of my own experience, but I am writing about something I know about."

In addition to her father, she drew on her three brothers, all academics, to help her understand one of her lead characters, a professor played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And she even drew on her husband, screenwriter Jim Taylor (2004's "Sideways"), as an inspiration for the Hoffman character -- particularly in a scene where he hangs from a device suspended from a door after injuring his neck.

More than that, she says, "The nursing home in the movie is based on a nursing home in my neighborhood. I was passing this nursing home every day, and I became preoccupied by this place. A lot of attendants would have their breaks outside, and they would have these Caribbean accents, and I would study them and this building. That became the movie."

Only later, when she took this mass of material that was so familiar to her but so alien to many others, did she seek to find the kernel that would communicate to an audience: a brother and sister, forced to look after the father who hasn't properly looked after them.

In some ways, she says, it was a mirror image of one of the great masterworks of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 "Tokyo Story," which tells a similar story but from the older people's point of view.

"It encouraged my writing because I realized that my screenplay was like looking at the same subject matter through the other side of the telescope," she says.

Justin Zackham's Warner Bros. dramedy "The Bucket List" couldn't be further removed from "Tokyo Story," even though it also centers on an old couple. But in this case, they are a couple of friends, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who have more in common with "The Odd Couple."

Like Jenkins, Zackham drew on something in his own life to create his story.

"I'd been to NYU film school and graduated, then came out here (to Los Angeles)," he explains. "I dicked around for a number of years and got to the point where I was so disgusted by myself, I wrote a list called 'Justin's List of Things to do Before I Kick the Bucket.' I put it on a bulletin board and managed to do a few things. And then one day, a year later, I had the idea that a bucket list could make an interesting film."

That universally appealing theme -- creating a woulda-coulda-shoulda list of the things we wish we'd done -- allowed him to find a way into a world most people hope never to know, that of two men with cancer.

Steven Knight stumbled on a world few of us know at all when he entered a Russian restaurant in London and became fascinated with its owner, a suave Eastern European mafioso. That was the genesis for his drama for Focus Features, "Eastern Promises," the story of a young woman who stumbles upon a diary containing evidence against the Russian mob.

"I had met someone who is that (mob boss, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl), but who was even more extraordinary than I dared to make him in the film," the British writer explains. "He read Pushkin, but he was functioning in two different worlds" -- the other being a criminal one.

As he started to develop the project, "I spent some time with the Russian desk (of Scotland Yard), an underfunded group of disgruntled police officers. This was a few years ago, before it became a fashionable issue like it is now. They felt they were a small band of very poorly financed, poorly prepared people, going against a group of people who were very sophisticated, very well-financed, and there was not a lot they could do. I then went to New York and met some people in the FBI who deal with that, and I had this sense that there was no way into the Russian world, that the whole thing was run by closed families."

That led Knight to ask the question that would eventually shape his story: "What if someone did that? What if someone wanted to go undercover -- and, in doing that, discovers that he fits in almost too well?"

A man who fits in too well -- only to find that he doesn't fit in at all -- was, of course, the subject of Gilroy's "Michael Clayton."

To find out about such an unfamiliar setting, "I began to talk to attorneys, trying to fish around," he recalls. "I talked to an attorney who told me about the concept of a bad document. A bad document is one that hasn't been placed in discovery, that is a killer to your case. Then I had the concept of a creative person, an actor or writer or sculptor, working in the document room and coming across something -- that was one approach."

At this early stage, he says, all ideas "are equally valid. It is the one you commit to that becomes important. It is all about the one that you keep committing to."

The idea he did commit to was that of a "fixer," the man who specializes in solving problems, even if it means muddying his soul to do so. Gilroy realized his notion was exciting, that of "a legal movie where I don't ever go into a courtroom, where I deal with the underbelly of these firms in a how-to kind of way. But once I had that character, then I was in trouble, because there were a million ways to go. There was a period of time when ... I thought, 'I should do this as a TV series, not a feature.'"

Soon, he says, "It was running all over the place. It actually got out of hand." He lost sight of what would make a story that would interest audiences and couldn't even get a grip on say, a time frame for the story.

"I had been working on and off for way too long -- and that is an essential, basic thing that I should have been able to answer immediately. I didn't know if it was three months or three weeks. I said, 'At the end of this week I am either going to know how long it takes place over, or walk away.'"

Two days later, the lightbulb moment occurred. "I said, 'This takes place over four days.' (Once I) put a boundary on it, I wrote the outline in a week. And that has remained the basic script."

Nevertheless, the world he inhabited for so long still fascinates him. "I was struck by how different (the big law firms) were in reality than the romantic idea that has been represented over the years," he says. "They all had that front of the house that was familiar, but there was this whole other life going on in the dining room and the kitchen."
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