Oscars: 10 Nominated Scribes on How They Wrote Their Most Memorable Scenes

8:00 AM 2/1/2016

by THR Staff

A novelist scraps her own words for the screen, and other surprising tales behind the films competing in the screenplay categories (both adapted and original).

'The Big Short' (left) and 'Room'
'The Big Short' (left) and 'Room'
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures; George Kraychyk/A24
  1. 1

    Alex Garland

    'Ex Machina,' Original Screenplay

    'Ex Machina,' Courtesy of A24 Films

    "In the last few years, I've become increasingly fascinated by arti­ficial intelligence, and in particular our escalating fear of it," Garland has written of his concept for the film, which he also directed. "It seemed to me that our increasingly holistic relationship with technology and abstract clouds of information was compounding this fear and perhaps edging it into paranoia. Ex Machina tells the story of a young male coder in a tech company who is given the job of assessing the level of consciousness in a female-presenting robot called Ava. He's bewitched, gives up the day job and starts making plans to elope." In this scene, the young coder's boss reveals what his task will be.


    NATHAN: Do you know what the Turing Test is?

    CALEB: Yeah. I know what the Turing Test is. It's where a human interacts with a computer. … Are you telling me you're building an AI?

    NATHAN: (shakes his head) I've already built one.

  2. 2

    Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

    'Straight Outta Compton,' Original Screenplay

    Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

    "The scene in the 'parking lot in the middle of nowhere,' where Dre receives the news of his brother Tyree's death, is the first time that reality brings the guys crashing back to earth, after riding so high on their first national tour," Herman and Berloff told THR in a joint email. "It's at this point that their bond of brotherhood is cemented: They are now one another's closest family. It's this bond that carries them through, even when circumstances and ani­mosities drive them apart. It's a simple scene, but it's so wonderfully performed and makes the audience really love the guys. The visual of their arms wrapped around each other is so moving — we get choked up every time."


    DRE: He shoulda been out here with me. If he was out here — it never woulda happened ...

    REN: Or it could've happened in another way. Can't blame yourself, Dre. ... Life has to end for all of us, but love don't. Feel me? Tyree is always gonna be with you. No matter what. (Eazy moves closer. Slowly, he places a hand on Dre's head. Rubs it. It's a bit startling — Eazy's not one for tenderness. But it's clear he feels Dre's pain.)

    EAZY: Gonna be aiight, Dre. ... We with you.

    ● Story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff

  3. 3

    Matt Charman

    'Bridge of Spies,' Original Screenplay

    Courtesy of DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    "The relationship between Donovan and Abel fas­cinated me, and this exchange between them was a moment I was dying to write. It's here that Abel reveals a hint of himself for the first time, dropping his guard enough to show not only his admi­ration for Donovan but a concern for him, too. It's the start of a kind of Cold War bromance."


    ABEL: You know, standing there like that, you remind me of a man who used to come to our house when I was young ...

    DONOVAN: And I remind you of him?

    ABEL: This one time, when I was the age of your son, our house was overrun — by partisan border guards. Dozens of them. My father was beaten. My mother was beaten. And this man, my father's friend — he was beaten. And I watched this man. Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. So they hit him harder. Still, he got back to his feet. I think because of this they stopped the beating. They let him live. Stoikey Muzhik, I remember them saying. Stoikey Muzhik. That sort of means, like, uh, Standing Man. (beat) Standing Man.

    ● Written with Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

  4. 4

    Pete Docter

    'Inside Out,' Original Screenplay

    Courtesy of Disney•Pixar

    "When we came up with this concept, I was thrilled. If we did it right, Bing Bong's noble sacrifice would be emotional. However, our first stab didn't contain Bing Bong's goodbye line. Instead, he completed a goofy dance step. But the moment never really played. We had a joke earlier, where Bing Bong referred to all the places he and the kid had been in his rocket: the jungle, the mountains, Ohio. They even had plans to go to the moon but had never made it. What if we used this joke as a setup for Bing Bong's goodbye line? He'd never been able to take her to the moon; it was now up to Joy [Amy Poehler]. A classic case of paying off a setup that we didn't recognize as a setup. Sure enough, the line worked. When we recorded Richard Kind, the voice of Bing Bong, he didn't make it through the first take without tears."


    JOY: Bing Bong? Bing Bong!

    BING BONG: Ya, ha ha! You made it! Ha ha! Go! Go save Riley! Take her to the moon for me. OK? (He waves as the last of him vanishes into the air.)

    ● Written with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley

    ● Story by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen

  5. 5

    Josh Singer

    'Spotlight,' Original Screenplay

    'Spotlight,' Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

    "I wrote the beginning of the interchange. The 'guy leans on a guy' line is about deference, about com­plicity, about failing to stand up. What I think makes the interchange work, though, is the Conley line that comes after, where he ignores Robby and just keeps pushing. After all, this is Boston. Where is Robby going to go? Tom [McCarthy] added that Conley line in a subsequent draft, and I think it makes the whole exchange less movie-ish. It's more real and stronger."


    ROBBY: This is how it happens, isn't it, Pete?

    PETER CONLEY: What's that?

    ROBBY: A guy leans on a guy and suddenly the whole town just looks the other way.

    PETER CONLEY: Robby, look. Marty Baron is just trying to make his mark. He'll be here for a couple years and he's gonna move on. Just like he did in New York and Miami. Where you gonna go?

    ● Written with Tom McCarthy

  6. 6

    Charles Randolph

    'The Big Short,' Adapted Screenplay

    'The Big Short,' Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    "Scenes in nonfiction generally don't have a lot of dialogue. And, given the complexity of the finance world, scenes in the film necessarily contained information drawn from various parts of the book, or other sources entirely. The main thing was to find an idea you could build a scene around. That's why this section in Lewis' book became a scene in the Front Point office with Mark Baum (played by Steve Carell) and Vinny (Jeremy Strong), Danny (Rafe Spall) and Porter (Hamish Linklater)."


    From Lewis' book: "The problem with someone who is transparently self-interested is that the extent of his self-interest is never clear. Danny simply mistrusted Lippman at first sight. 'F—ing Lippman,' he called him, as in, 'F—ing Lippman never looks you in the eye when he talks to you. It bothers the shit out of me.' … To Danny and Vinny, Greg Lippman was the walking embodiment of the bond market, which is to say he was put on this earth to screw the customer."


    VINNY: Why don't you hate this guy? He's everything you taught us not to trust.

    MARK: I can't hate him. He's so transparent in his sleaziness I kind of respect him. Would I buy a car from him? No way. Is he right about the mortgage market? Let's find out.

    Based on The Big Short by Michael Lewis

  7. 7

    Phyllis Nagy

    'Carol,' Adapted Screenplay

    "For me, this is the pivotal scene — the pivotal moment — in the narrative. If a viewer does not empathize with Carol, if there is not a recognition that her decision is inevitable — the only one she can make that renders her, and Rindy, ultimately healthy and whole — then all is lost."


    In the book, Carol and Therese meet at the bar in the Ritz Tower and Therese asks Carol if she's seen her daughter, Rindy. Carol tells Therese that she agreed to give her ex-husband Harge primary custody rather than live by his rules. "Even if it did mean they'd lock Rindy away from me as if I were an ogre," she says.


    This revelation from the book now appears in the scene at the divorce lawyer's office, during which Carol and Harge discuss custody of Rindy.

    CAROL: I'm no martyr. I have no clue ... what's best for me. But I do know ... I feel, I feel it in my bones ... what's best for my daughter. … I want visits with her, Harge. I don't care if they're supervised. But they need to be regular. … There was a time ... I would have locked myself away — done most anything ... just to keep Rindy with me. But ... what use am I to her ... to us ... living against ... my own grain? Rindy deserves — joy. How do I give her that not knowing what it means ... myself. That's the deal. Take it or leave it. I can't — I won't negotiate. If you ... leave it, we go to court and it gets ugly. We're not ugly people, Harge.

    Based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

  8. 8

    Nick Hornby

    'Brooklyn,' Adapted Screenplay

    Fox Searchlight Pictures

    "John Crowley and I didn’t think we could maintain the distance that Toibin’s brilliant, spare novel inserts between reader and character. We were confident that cinema audiences would fall in love with Eilis, as played by the extraordinary Saoirse Ronan, and would find her defeat in this scene, and the subsequent agony of her journey back to the U.S., too unsatisfying after all their emotional investment. The line 'My name is Eilis Fiorello,' a simple enough statement of fact, at least gave Eilis dignity and a satisfying sense of control, even though the choice between Ireland and the U.S. has effectively been removed by the older woman’s malice. We fiddled around with Eilis’s answer to her own rhetorical question – “What were you planning to do, Miss Kelly” - for a while, though. The structure of Toibin’s story is so delicate that most of my attempts to attribute motive felt crude and over-explicit; the line we eventually arrived at, “Perhaps it was enough for you to know that you could ruin me,” seemed in the end to contain all the pointless envy of small minds in a small town. 

    And re-thinking the scene gave us another benefit: we could extend the story to encompass Eilis’s arrival back in New York without making it feel as though we were tacking on a happy ending. We couldn’t have asked our audience to believe that Eilis had a shot at happiness back in Brooklyn unless she had walked out of Miss Kelly’s front parlour with some self-respect, and a sense that her life wasn’t over. It was risky, meddling with the tone of material that’s both so delicate and so beloved; I am relieved that the book’s many fans have not, so far at least, wanted to lynch me."


    The climactic scene in the novel, a confrontation between Eilis and the poisonous Miss Kelly, in which Miss Kelly reveals that she knows all about Eilis' marriage, is very short; Eilis' response is simply, "Is that all you have to say, Miss Kelly?" She walks out of the shop destroyed and leaves for America the next day.


    MISS KELLY: Oh, you can't fool me, Miss Lacey. Although I'm not sure that's your name any longer, is it? ...

    EILIS: (quietly) I'd forgotten.

    MISS KELLY: (snorting disbelief) You'd forgotten! What a thing for —

    EILIS: I'd forgotten what this town is like. What were you planning to do, Miss Kelly? Keep me away from Jim? Stop me from going back to America? Perhaps you didn't even know. Perhaps it was enough for you to know that you could ruin me. (She stands up.) My name is Eilis Fiorello.

    Based on Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

  9. 9

    Drew Goddard

    'The Martian,' Adapted Screenplay

    Aidan Monaghan/Twentieth Century Fox

    "One of my favorite aspects of screenwriting is that mistakes can often lead to your best moments. I had been struggling with a scene toward the end of the film, and it kept feeling flat. I finally showed the scene to Andy Weir, and he caught a technical mistake I made: I had used the word 'fast' to describe space travel, and a physicist would never use that word. A lightbulb went off in my head. 'Let's put that mistake in the movie.' It's one of my favorite scenes. And it's all because I screwed up."


    In the book, when NASA reveals a risky plan to rescue Mark, he responds, "You're sending me to space in a convertible."

    The full book passage follows: 

    [08:41] MAV: You f---ing kidding me?

    [09:55] HOUSTON: Admittedly, these are very invasive modifications, but they have to be done…

    [09:09] MAV: You’re sending me to space in a convertible.

    [09:24] HOUSTON: There will be a Hab canvas covering the holes. It will provide enough aerodynamics in Mars’s atmosphere.

    [09:38] MAV: So it’s a ragtop. Much better. 


    MARK: I know what they’re doing. I know what they’re doing. They keep repeating “accelerate faster than any man in the history of space travel” like this is a good thing, like this’ll distract me from how insane their plan is. Oh really? I get to be the fastest man in the history of space travel? You’re launching me into space in a convertible. No no, it’s worse, because I don’t have any controls. You’re launching me into space in a tin can. And, by the way, physicists don’t even use words like “fast” when describing acceleration, so they’re only doing it in hopes I won’t raise any objections because I like the way “fastest man in the history of space travel” sounds. Well, you know what?  I do like it. I do like the way it sounds. Okay, fine. Let’s do this.

    Based on The Martian by Andy Weir


  10. 10

    Emma Donoghue

    'Room,' Adapted Screenplay

    Courtesy of George Kraychyk/A24

    "I find it an interesting example of how everything can change in the adaptation process and yet the kernel of emotional truth remains. In the book – as Jack says about living in Room itself – there’s time for everything; Ma and Jack have so many leisurely conversations that I could afford to make their tone quite offhand, much of the time, and yet their love story is quite clear. A screenplay has to be much more economical, and yet it shouldn’t spell everything out too clearly either. I needed a moment in which Ma would beg Jack’s forgiveness for her breakdown and abandonment of him, and Jack would grant it, but without sentimentality and without saying anything more elaborate than a five-year-old would. 

    The concept of being a "good enough" mother, which Ma raises in the TV interview to try to establish a middle ground between what she finds the unbearable poles of Saint Mother and Bad Mother, is one I’ve been attached to ever since I was a child. My mother (fresh from psychology classes as part of her retraining as a School Guidance Counselor once I, her eighth child, was in school) told me about D.W. Winnicott’s theory that – put in simplest terms – a "good enough" mother is actually more helpful to a child than an idealized one in teaching him/her how to come to terms with an imperfect world. 

    So basically I harvested two words ("good enough") from the book’s long TV interview scene, and built a new scene around them for Jack and Ma. A scene which, in the film, I find powerful out of all proportion to its length, mostly because of the acting: Jacob Tremblay delivers his line very plainly, with the pragmatic acceptance of any small child, and in response Brie Larson tilts from guilt and misery to healing laughter."


    There's a scene in the novel where Ma is interviewed on a talk show and is resistant to the idea that she's seen as a "beacon of hope" by viewers. "All I did was I survived, and I did a pretty good job of raising Jack. A good enough job …," she says. "All this reverential — I'm not a saint."


    MA: I'm not a good enough Ma.

    JACK: But you're Ma.

    MA: I am. (She puts her arm around him.)

    Based on Room by Emma Donoghue