Oscars: 9 Writing Nominees on How Their Words Changed From Laptop to Big Screen

10:00 AM 2/6/2017

by Craig Tomashoff

The writers of such nominated films as 'La La Land,' 'Manchester by the Sea,' 'Arrival,' 'Hidden Figures' and more open up about lost scenes, character changes and the moments that "became so much more" than what they imagined.

'Hell or High Water,' 'Lion' and 'Arrival'
'Hell or High Water,' 'Lion' and 'Arrival'

  • Hell or High Water

    Taylor Sheridan

    Lorey Sebastian

    "The scene with Katy Mixon and Jeff Bridges in the diner, where the authorities want to confiscate a tip Katy got, became so much more than I ever pictured it being. That's largely because of the emotion Katy brought to the dynamic between her and Jeff. I saw her as an angrier character, more defiant. She brought it to another level, so it felt more like a mother protecting something for her kids. She added a layer of depth to the moment I hadn't expected. I admit, I'd be alarmed if a scene unfolded exactly as I expected it to. I like being overwhelmed by moments I hadn't thought of."

  • Hidden Figures

    Theodore Melfi (nominated with Allison Schroeder)

    Courtesy of Hopper Stone

    "The moment that turned out to be far different from what I thought it'd be was the scene in the bathroom between Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst. Our purpose in writing it was to show what happens when the bathrooms are desegregated. You've got a black woman and a white woman who have been at odds, meeting in that setting at NASA.

    What I hadn't expected was the line at the end of that scene, where Kirsten says, 'You know, Dorothy, despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all.' Then Octavia says, 'I know. I know you probably believe that.' I didn't realize how powerful that line was until the last take. We'd done it six times, and Octavia was playing it like she was one-upping Kirsten. For some reason, I said, 'I don't know … maybe she should forgive her with that line.' We saw her try that on the seventh take, and suddenly, we knew that was the moment we needed to show, because most racist and sexist people don't even know they are. I was jubilant. Octavia and Kirsten had tears in their eyes."

  • 20th Century Women

    Mike Mills

    "All along the way with my films, I'm kind of hoping for surprises. The best example in 20th Century Women is probably the scene at the end, where the actors are dancing in a hotel room. I'd scripted the scene so it'd be them just watching TV together. However, we'd all been dancing a lot during the rehearsal process. One time in the house they were just goofing around dancing arm in arm. How could I not put that in?

    I wasn't sure what I was going to do until everyone started coming into the room for that last scene. Greta Gerwig came in first, and I asked her, 'Which ending should I do, watching TV or dancing?' I wanted to do the dancing but was afraid it'd seem schmaltzy or sentimental or cheesy. Greta told me I had to do the dancing. I love that that's what we did."

  • La La Land

    Damien Chazelle


    "The scene I loved as a writer was one between Emma [Stone's] and Rosemarie [DeWitt's] characters in a diner. It happens at the top of the 'Fall' [section of the film], and it's basically a conversation about dreams and the choices you make to achieve those dreams. It's this wonderful moment of them bonding over their own sacrifices, or rather, their own realities. They are such talented and powerful actors, and it was amazing to see them really home in on the feelings of that scene. As a writer, it broke my heart to lose it. I just loved it, and even as a director, it was the last scene I cut."

  • Manchester by the Sea

    Kenneth Lonergan

    Courtesy of K Period Media

    "There were a couple of scenes I liked in the script but didn't shoot. One was a final flashback where Lee's [Casey Affleck] whole family goes whale watching, which would have been a very different movie from what you see now. But there was a weather problem that delayed shooting, and then it became impossible to get everyone back. I would have pressed for a reshoot if I felt the movie didn't work without it. I'd had that different ending in mind for a long time, but when we couldn't shoot it, I realized the ending we had seemed to be right on the money."

  • Arrival

    Eric Heisserer

    Paramount Pictures

    "I have occasional panic attacks in the middle of seeing movies I've written, where some voice in my head says, 'They're saying the words I wrote! I can't believe what I'm hearing because I just made those words up.' So I was surprised that after just the first few minutes of watching Arrival, I was able to relax and breathe easier because of the way Amy [Adams] made my words so much better, especially her character's reaction when a nurse takes her newborn daughter away.

    The line I'd written was, 'Come back to me.' Then, 15 years later, we see her say the same thing as her daughter is dying. She instantly seemed to wear this character like an old, comfortable sweater, I think because of her own experiences as a mother. I'd not had that particular experience before, where everything that happened on camera was so close to what I imagined, yet was also better."

  • Fences

    Constanza Romero Wilson (widow of posthumously nominated August Wilson)

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    "When Troy [Denzel Washington] finds out about his mistress' death, on the stage, that scene was in the backyard. Denzel [who directed the movie] moved it inside the house, but it worked, especially when Rose [Viola Davis] leaves. I wondered how Troy would speak to her. Denzel's decision was to have him open the window and do it, with a storm going on. Troy is being answered by the lightning. I'd go as far as to say it's as if he's being answered by the gods. I was stunned by that."

  • Moonlight

    Tarell Alvin McCraney (nominated with Barry Jenkins)

    Courtesy of David Bornfriend/A24

    "My play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was written during a time of uncertainty. I was 22, had lost my mother and was looking to see if I could pen some fading memories. [Director] Barry Jenkins preserved the intent of my scenes, particularly when Black [Trevante Rhodes] visits Paula [Naomie Harris] in rehab. That was based on the experience of visiting my mother while she received treatment.

    What I could not have foreseen was the characters' resolution to love each other regardless, their fierce ability to look past their history and still see love. Yet there was Naomie trembling apologetically while fumbling to ignite a cigarette, and the gentle and sturdy hand of Trevante helping when she cannot. Those actors and their amazing director found that gift for us."

  • Lion

    Luke Davies

    The Weinstein Company

    "A pivotal scene was when Nicole Kidman's character says to her adopted son, Saroo [Dev Patel], 'We could have had children. We chose you.' That scene touches on universal love. I'd never been touched by adoption, so I saw Lion as a mythic tale of reunification with a long-lost mother. I wasn't prepared for how emotionally submerged I'd get in the way Nicole delivered her dialogue. You can never picture how it'll turn out as you write. Then your script goes to an actor with a rich tapestry of life like Nicole. Her history of adopting children transformed what I'd written into the beautiful thing that art is supposed to be."