'Roma', 'Green Book' and More Screenwriters Talk Oscar Contenders' Journey From Script to Screen

7:00 AM 2/11/2019

by Craig Tomashoff

The minds behind original and adapted screenplays for films such as 'The Favourite,' 'Vice,' 'First Reformed,' 'If Beale Street Could Talk' and more also discuss how their process changed in crafting their latest works.

Roma_Green Book_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix; Patti Perret/Universal

As it turns out, not all screenplays are created equally. Some are written in a matter of weeks, others over the course of years. Some are meticulously researched in advance, others are written spontaneously. Some are completely the product of deep personal introspection, others are offered up for review at cocktail parties. We spoke to the writers whose scripts were nominated for 2019 Academy Awards to learn what different approaches they took that set their current films apart from their previous work.

  • 'Green Book'

    "Usually when I'm writing, I'll sit in a room with whomever I'm working with and bat it all out. This time, though, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie and I got together for two or three weeks to put down how the story should go and what point of view to tell it from. But then I went off to work on a TV show and they went to do a first draft. When they came back a month later, I thought that was too fast, so I took it for about six weeks to write on my own. Then we got back together for a final two or three weeks to argue over whether we needed to add this or that. I also remember vividly another unusual thing: There was one Saturday around 10 p.m., when I'd finished a nice pass on the script. My wife had six or eight friends over, and they were having cocktails and smoking cigarettes. I said, 'I think I have a draft,' and they said, 'Can we look at it?' They read until about midnight. Then we stayed up till 4 in the morning, with them giving me notes. I still remember people saying, 'You're going to get an Oscar nomination for this.'"

  • 'The Favourite'

    "What was different about the script was it was a long development over a long distance. I was in Sydney, and [director] Yorgos [Lanthimos] was in London, so we did notes on Skype. Every now and again, we'd meet in London or Rome and spend time physically together. We had Deborah Davis' script that we took some history from, and we decided early on we wanted to be as free as we could with it. I find some history films get bogged down in detail, and when Yorgos and I first spoke about it, we both wanted it to be a different kind of period film — not polite, more freewheeling and contemporary and, most importantly, funny. The hardest part was making the third act work. Also bringing three protagonists' stories together into one or two tight, compelling and satisfying moments took a while to get right."

  • 'First Reformed'

    "For 45 years, I had resisted writing a spiritual film. I wrote a book of transcendental aesthetics, but those were not the films I choose to write or direct. Three years ago, after speaking with Pawel Pawlikowski about Ida, I realized it was time for me to write the script I had so long avoided. Once I made that intellectual decision, the floodgates of four decades of film study and filmmaking opened up. I rewatched films of this type I had admired, and a narrative formed. What surprised me most was that although my reference points were 50 years old, the script seemed of this very moment. I was also surprised how the poltergeist of my first script, [Taxi Driver's] Travis Bickle, came to visit me in this enterprise."

  • 'BlacKkKlansman'

    “Spike (Lee, the film’s co-writer and director) and I are both ‘70s guys so we really researched that period and tried to pick up on what David Duke was doing at the time, trying to go mainstream, and what black activists were doing. That’s one of the most amazing things about the film, that so much of it is true. However, there’s not much of a third act in in Ron Stallworth’s book (which the film is based on) in terms of Ron and the police stopping the (KKK) attack. They actually did a pretty good job of that in real life. So we had to come up with a climax based on all the things we had been exploring in the film. I am always, like most writers, trying to be loyal to the true story you’re telling as much as possible. I have real respect for what happened. If I can make what really happened work, I’ll do that. However, one of the lessons from writing this movie is that you can’t be afraid to take liberties, to take the realities of your story and turn them into a satisfying climax for the movie but remains in the spirit of what actually happened.”

  • 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

    “This was a unique writing experience for me because James Baldwin (whose book the movie is based on) was such an interior writer. That was his whole thing, writing about the life within. That’s a specifically difficult thing to translate to cinema, which is about sounds and images. Baldwin writes some of the best narration known to man, so my challenge was to not overly rely on this man’s extremely persuasive voice and accomplish the same thing through these actors. I didn’t want to rely purely on narration to share the characters’ inner voices. One of the most iconic moments in the film, I think, is when Sharon (Regina King) goes to Puerto Rico and silently looks at herself the mirror. In Baldwin’s book, she has a shawl and a hat. We made it just a shawl but then Regina said the clearest way to express the metaphor we wanted was through her wearing a wig instead. I thought, ‘Let’s follow this.’ We didn’t even need to have any sort of voiceover to convey what we were trying to say there. Ultimately, some of the most moving moments in the entire film were also the quietest ones.”

  • 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

    “This was the second screenplay I’d ever written, and my first based on a true life story. The story grabbed me from the minute I read (Lee Israel’s) memoir that the movie is based on. I knew I had to research the various authors that Lee was forging letters from because I needed to use more of their writing, to really study their voices so that part of the film didn’t really stick out as false. I also began really thinking about what her romantic life was like in that time period as a gay woman. As a 47-year-old gay male, I know there was no model of courtship for us back then so I draw from my own experiences to write about Lee (Melissa McCarthy), just putting it in a different context. I also spent a lot of time thinking about Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and what he was going through, the notion that he’s getting on in years and has to do whatever he has to to get by… When people ask what’s new about this movie I say that it’s the representation of gay people. Audiences come out of the theater and say, ‘Wait a minute! That was about two gay people.’ It’s treated so matter-of-factly, which was always my subversive intent.”

  • 'A Star Is Born'

    “This one was different for me because it was a rewrite. I’m usually loath to do that. I’ve done rewrites before but with this one, I was given pretty free rein to make it my own while also making it viable for Bradley (Cooper, the film’s director, co-writer and star) and the studio. I’m also more used to writing set pieces and monologues, but this film didn’t lend itself to that. So, this time, I tried writing dialogue that felt more improvisational. When Bradley asked me to come on board, I was a bit conflicted because of what I ordinarily felt I’m better at writing, but working with him certainly freed me up. We were conferring every day, texting scenes to each other. I learned a lot from working with him on this film. His first-person look at things, for instance. It turned out that his idea of intimacy was quite right for this project. I could say the main thing I learned from the process of working with him was that I can still be vital and vibrant as a writer at 73. I still have some things to say.”

  • 'Roma'

    "This was a project unlike any other project I've done. It was a process of months for me to explore my memories and write them down before starting the screenplay. I allowed them to flow freely. However, I wanted to challenge my usual process. I wanted the writing to be completely free for me so when I sat down to do it, I finished the screenplay in three weeks. I didn't have to stop and second-guess anything. The interesting thing, too, is that most of what you see on the screen was there on the page. I didn't revise [the script]. Usually I go through several drafts and do several rewrites. This time, I didn't want that process to taint the purity coming directly from my memories."

  • 'Vice'

    "The most challenging thing about writing this compared to other things I've done is that it was research-heavy. And the research never really stopped. It ran all the way through the editing of the movie. We even had our own journalist out there doing off-the-record interviews. It was a friend who is a screenwriter and also a journalist, a pavement-pounding type of guy. We used those interviews to help with the details in the script but also to make sure we didn't make mistakes. We learned so many little things, like the fact that Dick Cheney does all the cooking and shopping and how much of an influence Lynne Cheney is in his life. I think I'm a different writer now, having done this movie. To have the chance to get to address giant movements that are happening, this giant unwinding that's happening in America, to get involved in any part of that and comment on that is a rare opportunity. I've never had a movie people either loved or hated so much."

    This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.