Oscars: 'Get Out,' 'Shape of Water' and More Writers Reveal On-Set Tweaks That Transformed Their Movies

8:00 AM 2/19/2018

by Craig Tomashoff

Adapted and original screenplay nominees share how the words they put on the page were brought to life during production (thanks to some talented actors).

The Shape of Water, Get Out and Lady Bird - Split - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox (Shape), Universal Pictures (Get), A24 (Lady)

  • 'The Big Sick'

    Original screenplay

    Gordon: "At one point, our script had a long stretch of time where Kumail and Emily's parents were just dealing with hospital stuff. As much as that's the truth of a situation like they were dealing with, we also figured it might be nice to get out of the hospital and into the world. The problem was that didn't happen in reality. Nobody thinks "Let's go out to dinner" when a family member is in the hospital so we crafted a scene where Emily's parents watched Kumail do standup. It was important for Kumail to bond with them in Emily's apartment but we didn't realize it would be as sweet as it was having them do it in public, where they have to be united because they're the only three people there who have a family member in a coma in the hospital. We had a hard time creating that scene so we really leaned on our actors to make sure it felt believable. Ray [Romano] and Holly [Hunter] helped the scene do so many things. Not only do you get to see Holly warming to Kumail — which was very important — you also get to see how tense and upset they all are yet aren't showing it. Once we crafted and filmed it, we finally realized how lovely and magical the scene was. When actors come in and inhabit your characters, they have their own gut check system of what works for them and for the film. Why would we as writers ever turn down this amazing expertise and insight?"

  • 'Call Me by Your Name'

    Adapted screenplay

    "There's a scene at the very end of the film, after Elio [Timothee Chalamet] has his phone conversation with Oliver [Armie Hammer], who says he's going to get married. In the script, I had him return to decorating a Christmas tree and lighting those little candles you put on if you're not afraid your house burn will burn down. His face was up in the branches as he was doing the lighting and you see him begin to weep a bit. He is choking up as the meaning and the significance of what Oliver just told him really takes over. That was to have been the final image. The wonderful thing that changed in shooting the film was him now looking into the fire in the fireplace. One of the reasons it changed was because the dinner became a Hanukkah rather than Christmas dinner, so there was no tree to decorate. And it was kind of a logical developmental after the day's events for him to look into the fire, which was the same kind of an image as the tree to show. Many thoughts can be imagined as you see him looking into the fire. It was definitely thought out by the director, Luca [Guadagnino] and was a wonderful and brilliant addition to the film."

  • 'The Disaster Artist'

    Adapted screenplay

    Weber: "A particular scene that came to life for us when we didn't know how it would turn out was actually shot the first day on set, when Tommy [James Franco] shows up and gives this pep talk to his cast and crew. I think that despite what we put on paper, our hope was that Tommy would seem like more than just a mysterious clown. We'd see he was a guy with real hopes and dreams. We didn't really know how that would come across until we saw the scene happen and how James brought some real heart to it.

    Neustadter: "We wanted [Tommy] to come across as a real person and not be a caricature but there's only so much we can do on the page to protect that. We were fortunate to have James and Dave [Franco, who played Greg] inhabiting characters so brilliantly that you could feel the humanity and gravitas. These are real guys and you need to show them a lot of empathy and pathos if you want the audience to do that too. Watching James read any line of ours was so impressive, we couldn't even have imagined how well it was going to go bringing our script to life."

    Weber: "That's why the first scene of the movie was so crucial and why it was so exciting to see how it came out that day. With the construction of the movie, Greg has to hitch his wagon to Tommy for half the film so everyone else also goes along for the ride. Greg can't be the only one who falls under Tommy's spell. We put down the foundation and then it's up to the directors and actors to make it their own and from that first day, we knew everyone saw the movie the same way we did."

  • 'Get Out'

    Original screenplay

    "Right after the dinner sequence, we go up to Rose's [Allison Williams] bedroom. We don't know it yet, but she is this master manipulator. Originally, that scene was more basic than what it became. I had Chris [Daniel Kaluuya] going off on the fact that his fears were realized having seen the racist dynamic in her family. Rose basically told him, 'It's hard and they made ignorant comments but stay here and be with me and I love you.' The first time I saw the scene in rehearsal, though, as an audience member, I realized I was onto Rose. People would say, 'Why is she doing that?' I knew Rose had to manipulate Chris and the audience, so I rewrote the scene as though she is going through her awakening to racism and is the one popping off about leaving. Chris became the one saying, 'Look, it's cool.' The subtext is, 'I can take this kind of racism.' That switch had a really profound effect on how we view these characters, most importantly Rose. She gets our trust, so the rewrite was absolutely essential. It was a total victory. That switch right there might have been the difference in allowing us to have this conversation now. If 80 percent of the people knew at that point Rose was in on what was happening, as opposed to 20 percent who maybe just figured it out, the movie fails in what it's trying to do. That's why my feeling is you should never stop making the movie until it is out of your hands."

  • 'Lady Bird'

    Original screenplay

    "There is a scene in the film between Jenna Walton [Odeya Rush] and Lady Bird [Saoirse Ronan] where they discuss college plans — Lady Bird expresses her desire to leave Sacramento, and Jenna doesn't share her feeling at all. Originally I wanted the scene to happen in a mall. My cinematographer, Sam Levy, and I had spoken about how there are all these different locations in the film that function as 'places of worship.' The church is obviously such a place, but a theater can have the same effect, or a school. All these different gods we have reverence for. I felt that the mall was an echoing of this, a kind of church of capitalism. I had found a mall that had very Gothic-cathedral architecture and I thought it was perfect. However, shooting in a mall is a bit of a nightmare. It's expensive, it is difficult to control background, and you have to deal with a lot of logos and trademarks. So we were trying to figure out what else would feel right and echo what was going on in the scene, and we were scouting Jenna's house, and we realized we could put the scene in the pool. I lobbied hard to have underwater housing for the camera, because to me it was thematically linked to what was happening in the movie. I wanted to see the character submerged and surfacing. It ended up cutting into the film beautifully, and it was more inspired than the original idea."

  • 'Logan'

    Adapted screenplay

    Mangold: "I wanted this to be a road picture that moved from the southern part of the U.S. to Canada at the end. One of the things that evolved from that was that the character of Laura/X-23 [Dafne Keen] was raised south of the border where this corporation was making cloned mutants. We wanted to avoid making her this precocious smartass child, and one of the first adjustments Scott [Frank] made was for her to be mute. Then, at the moment she did open up, naturally she would speak Spanish. When it came time to shoot the pickup truck scene, where she speaks for the first time and ends up chewing Logan [Hugh Jackman] out and beating him up, what we wrote took a leap. Dafne had been working on the movie almost every day for a long time, not saying a word and dying to express herself. We got to this scene and a torrent of words poured out. And she added a lot, at one point even saying, 'You never listen to me. You never look at me. You're not kind to me.' In one of the takes she even called him some four-letter words in Spanish. Watching her do all this was kind of a revelation for me. I will never forget this moment standing on the street outside of the truck listening with my earpiece and realizing, 'We did it!' After a few takes, I turned to the crew and suddenly it was like everyone got the movie and saw the potential in it."

  • 'Molly's Game'

    Adapted screenplay

    "Molly [Jessica Chastain] and Charlie [Idris Elba] have five scenes that take place in Charlie's office. Each scene is between seven and nine pages long. The first time those scenes got better than what I'd imagined was when I cast Jessica and Idris. The second time was when we rehearsed, the third time was when we shot and the fourth time was in editing. As a screenwriter, I don't write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed. Jessica and Idris are brilliant and the scenes became brighter, funnier, deeper and more nuanced with each take. Add in the work of our cinematographer, Charlotte Christensen, who was able to put us inside the heads of both characters, and our editors, Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer, and those scenes, which are the heart of the movie, became better than anything I could have done on my own."

  • 'Mudbound'

    Adapted screenplay

    Williams: "One of the things you learn when adapting a book is that you can leave questions lingering in a book but in a film, you want resolution. So there's the first sequence in the film that's not in the book, to answer the question I had about what happened to Jamie [Garrett Hedlund] that made him throw out his entire belief system. Ronsel [Jason Mitchell] asks Jamie, 'Why are you being so nice to me?' Jamie's response is, 'You look like you need it,' but Ronsel sees through that. Then Jamie launches into his story about how he made a promise to God. We see that he was flying home during the war, his co-pilot dead and he's looking death in the eyes. Out of nowhere, the Tuskegee airmen save him. One buzzes and salutes him and that's what sets him on his personal journey. Dee crushed that scene using very little sound. I know they made extra production contortions to accommodate that scene, but seeing how it played out was movie magic."

    Rees: "I wrote the scene where Ronsel leaves for war to be about the community gathering around and saying farewell. It was demonstrating how this impacted that family in particular. However, I realized when we shot it that it was about their expectations, that they had no hope and he was carrying all this hope on his back. That realization came about as I was blocking the scene. I realized that it became very important for everyone to put their hands on Ronsel. They were realizing it might be the last time they touched him, that they couldn't protect him where he was going."

  • 'The Shape of Water'

    Original screenplay

    "The last five years of my life have been very difficult for many reasons, and this is a very personal film for me. I needed to write this monologue [between Sally Hawkins' Elisa and Richard Jenkins' Giles] to say everything that I feel love is or should be. It's a monologue that heals me. There's not a time I've seen that scene and I haven't cried. When we started rehearsing, that was the scene Sally and Richard wanted to rehearse on their own. Richard came up with this beautiful gesture, where he grabs Sally's hands as if to say, 'Stop talking!' I kept the gesture in the movie, but on the day we shot the scene, I did something completely different from what we agreed upon. I asked Sally to hit Richard as he looks at his watch. She didn't tell Richard and he was taken completely off-guard. If affected him even in other takes. He became vulnerable, going from pleading to angry in the space of one dialogue line. That just shows how actors make scenes come alive by omitting or shifting or doing something surprising that doesn't come from you as the writer. That slap would never have been written. It came out of the energy of the first couple takes and those rehearsals, after which I felt Richard would be surprised."

  • 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

    Original screenplay

    "There's a scene with Frances [McDormand] and Woody [Harrelson] in the police station, where he's interrogating her and she's being very stoic and tough and single-minded. At the end of that scene, Woody coughs blood in her face and the whole scene changes. I love how it plays out because it shows their humanity in a split second. The film is all about two people going to war with each other, and in one second becomes about two frail, damaged human beings. The tricky thing was having makeup blood go into Frances' face and have her react on camera over and over again because of cleanup time and getting it exactly right each time for continuity. We had to repeat that moment a few times, and it just wasn't quite working. We decided to just place the blood on Frances. You never actually see it hit in her face but the speed of the cut makes it seem like it sprays on her face. That meant she could react a bunch of times and we didn't have to worry about continuity. She could just concentrate on Woody and focus more on her humanity coming at that moment. You can worry about those little things almost too much, and I'm so glad we found that solution. That scene, especially in my mind at the script stage, was a fun moment showing off the best of both characters' wit and toughness. However, only when we made it so the actors were able to bring everything they could to it did I realize it was the heart of the film. It was all about humanity and forgiveness."