WGA Awards Preview: Writing on the Wall

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The year began in the black hole of a 100-day writers strike, when scribes laid down pens and took on the studios with ink-stained fists raised high. Among more devastating effects, this meant the annual Writers Guild of America Awards had to be postponed and then downgraded, post-contract resolution, to a luncheon full of gratified but exhausted writers.

Not this year. With a resurgent crop of produced screenplays that displayed an impressive range of emotion, theme and insight, this year's awards season should pack a satisfying, if delayed, catharsis for the industry's wordsmiths.

The WGA Awards' credibility as an Oscar predictor has been growing every year. Since 2005, guild winners in both the original and adapted screenplay categories have gone on to snare Oscar gold: Diablo Cody ("Juno") and Joel & Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men") in 2008; Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine") and William Monahan ("The Departed") in 2007; Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco ("Crash") and Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana ("Brokeback Mountain") in 2006; and Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor ("Sideways") and Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") in 2005.

Following is a compendium of the most likely scripts to be lauded by the WGA (and, perhaps, the Academy) this year.



Original Screenplay

The original category will likely maintain its eclectic flavor, as everything from politics and police corruption to immigration, sobriety and existential despair buoys a crop of strong screenplays.

Thomas McCarthy, a character actor and writer-director, spun the indie gem "The Visitor" (Overture) into one of the goodwill hits of the year. A low-budget festival favorite about an older white man's experience with a pair of illegal African immigrants in New York City, "The Visitor" spoke to a compassion too often buried in a traumatized populace.

Two scripts are likely front-runners for their real-life bases and the firsthand research that went into capturing the flavor of cultural and historical milieus. Dustin Lance Black's "Milk" (Focus) script manages to be both an intimate and an epic portrait of murdered San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay candidate to hold public office and a catalyst of the gay rights movement.

J. Michael Straczynski's "Changeling" (Universal) takes a fascinating case of a mother's search for her young boy, missing and then "found" in 1920s Los Angeles, and wraps it in the corruption of the city's police and political machinery. While it certainly helps Straczynski's chances that Clint Eastwood directed (two of Eastwood's last four scribes have been nominated for WGA Awards), it's Straczynski's career arc from longtime TV scribe to sudden feature breakthrough that may earn him props from guild voters.

And then there's Woody Allen, who's stacked up 18 WGA screenplay nominations since 1966 and won four times. Though he's not been nominated by the WGA in 12 years, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (the Weinstein Co.) has been hailed as a return to form for a master of the comic-melancholic relationship genre.

While last year's original category featured three female writers, this year's lone lady scribe nominee may be Jenny Lumet. Her family wedding drama "Rachel Getting Married" (Sony Pictures Classics), is a searing expose of narcissistic public suffering and sisterly dynamics.

More admired than loved, perennial nominee Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (SPC), also his directorial debut, is an obvious choice for an original screenplay slot. And Andrew Stanton, who co-wrote "WALL-E" (Disney/Pixar) with Jim Reardon, is a multiple Oscar nominee who may be due his first WGA honor.

Robert D. Siegel's "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight), Nick Schenk's "Gran Torino" (Warner Bros.), Grant Nieporte's "Seven Pounds" (Sony) and Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" (Miramax) are all late-year contenders. Epic long shots include Baz Luhrmann, Ronald Harwood & Stuart Beattie for "Australia" (Fox).



Adapted Screenplay

Adapted screenplay is always a competitive category with a perpetual embarrassment of riches. This year is no exception, but there is a troika of award-winning writers carrying considerable heft into the end-of-year melee: Eric Roth, John Patrick Shanley and Peter Morgan.

Several writers have taken a run at adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount), including Robin Swicord, who retains story credit. But Roth, who won the WGA Award and the Oscar in 1995 for adapting "Forrest Gump," finally achieved a tone and scope that drew David Fincher, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett to the fantastical tale of a man born in old age who then ages backward.

Shanley adapted his own Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Doubt" (Miramax) into an allegorical drama featuring Meryl Streep as a nun and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an embattled priest. Shanley, who drew from his childhood experiences in a Bronx Catholic school, won the WGA Award and the Oscar in 1988 for his original script, "Moonstruck."

Morgan is one of the most in-demand writers in Hollywood, and his script for 2006's "The Queen" earned him noms at the WGAs and the Oscars. His "Frost/Nixon" (Universal) screenplay, adapted from his own popular play and directed by Ron Howard, tackles the historic television interviews between British talk show host David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon.

Other possibilities rich in literary source material are Justin Haythe's adaptation of Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage), David Hare's adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader" (TWC), Don McKellar's adaptation of Jose Saramago's "Blindness" (Miramax) and Nicholas Meyer's translation of Philip Roth's "Elegy" (Samuel Goldwyn).

Past WGA nominee Simon Beaufoy's script for festival favorite "Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) has been gathering strong momentum going into the awards, but the wild card may be a far more mainstream hit: brothers Jonathan & Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (Warners).



Documentary

The documentary screenplay award is still relatively new, only in its fifth year of inclusion at the WGA ceremony. Winners so far have been Alex Gibney for "Taxi to the Dark Side" in 2008 and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" in 2006, Amy Berg for "Deliver Us From Evil" in 2007, and Morgan Spurlock for "Super Size Me" in the year the award launched, 2005.

Most of this year's documentary scuttlebutt centered on the theological cage match between Bill Maher's "Religulous" (Lionsgate) and Kevin Miller & Ben Stein's "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" (Rocky Mountain Pictures). Bruce Burgess added his "Bloodline" (Cinema Libre Studio), an investigation into the possibility of the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, to the sacrilege stew.

A trio of documentaries covered iconic figures of the 1970s. Gibney returned with "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" (Magnolia Pictures); Joe Bini, P.G. Morgan & Marina Zenovich explored the arrest and self-exile of director Roman Polanski in "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" (HBO Documentary Films); and Steven Sebring's "Patti Smith: Dream of Life" (Palm Pictures) painted a portrait of the musician, artist and activist who first inspired a generation of musicians in the early punk scene. Also, Stefan Forbes' "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story" (InterPositive Media) dissected the seminal blues-playing, mudslinging Republican bad boy.

Additional contenders include Chris Bell's "Bigger Stronger Faster*" (HDNet), Nanette Burstein's Sundance favorite "American Teen" (Paramount Vantage), Patrick Creadon's "I.O.U.S.A." (Roadside Attractions), Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" (SPC) and Gonzalo Arijon's "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains" (Zeitgeist Films).
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