And the Best Screenplay Goes To: An Excerpt from Dr. Linda Seger's New Book

Posted by Linda Seger on

What makes an Academy Award-nominated script? As I wrote my newest book on three Academy Award-nominated films - Sideways, Shakespeare in Love, and Crash - I wondered if it would be possible to find patterns that seemed to be true for most of these films. I wondered if it would it be possible for a writer to analyze the patterns we see in Academy Award-nominated films, in order to learn to write up to the level of a great script. As I looked at the many films nominated over the past twenty years, I began to see some patterns that had not been quite so obvious at the beginning.

Most great films have reached a high level of both art and craft. The art of the film could be defined by its originality. Is it different than most of what we've seen before, or is it derivative, predictable, superficial, and unoriginal? The run-of-the-mill derivative film doesn't make it to the finals, and often doesn't even make it commercially at the box office.

Originality comes, partly, through the writer's ability to express his or her artistic voice. The artistic voice can be defined as the specific point-of-view and style that distinguishes one writer from another. We would never mistake a Woody Allen film for one written and directed by the Coen Brothers. A Robert Altman film would never be mistaken for a film by James L. Brooks. Sometimes the artistic voice is expressed through the types of stories or characters in the films. Altman's characters are quirky and often strange. The Coen Brothers use black humor and satiric humor in their stories. Woody Allen has a psychological, New York slant to his stories, and James L. Brooks looks deeply, with humor, into human situations and human problems.

Most great writers peer deeply into their own lives to find rich material and insights. Akiva Goldsman won the Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind, although he has been known as a screenwriter of action films such as Batman and Robin, Lost in Space, The Client, and more recently Poseidon and The DaVinci Code. What made him capable of writing this difficult and complex story? His mother was one of the foremost authorities on childhood autism and Akiva grew up in a group home with many emotionally disturbed children. As a result, he gained insights into how mental illness worked from an early age. Tom Schulman won the Academy Award for Dead Poets Society, after writing a number of derivative scripts. He looked deeply into his own experiences with great teachers, and with poetry, to write a script about creativity versus conformity.

Most great films are also well-crafted. Writers have studied and learned how to work with structure, sometimes working with the principles of the three-act structure in unusual ways, as Quentin Tarantino did with Pulp Fiction, a film with a beginning-middle-end, but which presents the story by changing the order of the telling to a beginning-end-middle. Memento tells its story backwards, while preserving a three-act structure chronologically and in reverse. Crash shows how many stories can be interwoven together, creating a film based on subplots, rather than any one plotline. Traffic, Syriana, and Babel also play with structure in original and unusual ways to convey their stories.

Award-winning writers know their art and their craft. But there are other elements that seem to be true for Academy Award-nominated films.

On the surface, it often seems that the big, expensive, elaborate films with scope and big panoramas win the Academy Award, such as Gone with the Wind, Titanic, Out of Africa, Lord of the Rings, and The English Patient. Yet, for every big expensive film that won, we can see a number of others that weren't even nominated, in spite of great marketing campaigns - Pearl Harbor, Troy, Alexander the Great.

Sometimes it seems that all that is needed is a Best Selling book or a popular play as the basis for a great film. Yet, for every Driving Miss Daisy or Chicago, there's A Chorus Line, and for every Million Dollar Baby, there's a Bonfire of the Vanities.

To find what makes a great film, we have to look more deeply. Most Academy Award-nominated films are significant. They have something meaningful to say. They give us insights into humanity, shed light on the human condition, help us understand the problems and struggles that are common to all of us, and, in most cases, show the hope and the possibilities for resolution.

Some of these films deal with important social issues, looking at an issue that is destructive to our society and causes human suffering. Norma Rae looked at life in a factory and the desire to unionize. Erin Brockovich examined water pollution and how it affected the health of a community. Mississippi Burning, A Soldier's Story, and Crash examined racism. Good Night, and Good Luck told the story about the integrity of one reporter who confronted the witch hunt of Joseph McCarthy. The Insider took a deep look at the deceptions of the tobacco industry, and The Cider House Rules and Vera Drake took on the difficult subject of abortion.

Some films looked at political issues, usually where one of the players in the story was a corrupt or oppressive or unjust government. Many of these films are set against a war, which presents the greatest conflict and the highest life-and-death stakes. These include World War I (Joyeux Noel), World War II, (Schindler's List, The Pianist, Saving Private Ryan, Hope and Glory, Life is Beautiful, The Thin Red Line, Letters from Iwo Jima), The Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, The Killing Fields).

Some deal with other wars, other political problems, other corrupt governmental policies, such as Dances with Wolves, The Official Story, Gladiator, Missing, A Few Good Men, Hotel Rwanda, and Munich.

In all these cases, these films are not just about the corrupt policy, but put a human face on the problem. While the film is examining, in depth, the problem itself, it also examines the courage and commitment needed by the protagonist to overcome the problem. We care about the protagonist who is caught up in a difficult moral or ethical dilemma which may seem that it's better left alone. We are brought into their struggle, their decisions, and the consequences. The films bring up important questions and powerful themes about the human cost of war, (Joyeux Noel), about power and the misuse of power, (Born on the 4th of July), about the worth of one human life (Saving Private Ryan), about the effects of war (Letters from Iwo Jima), about the ambiguity of Goodness (Schindler's List).

Some films are significant because they explore psychological problems such as the wounds, the battles, and the inner problems that many people face and have to overcome. These might include a tragic event in childhood (Mystic River), the cycle of violence and how it affects those who participate in it (A History of Violence), about obsession and egotism (Capote), about the problems the creative person confronts (Dead Poets Society, Shakespeare in Love, Amadeus) about psychological conditions that threaten to debilitate a person (As Good as it Gets, A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting) or simply a crisis of meaning (Jerry McGuire, American Beauty).

Some films look at historical events and find a new approach to them. JFK looked more deeply into the conspiracy theory about his assassination. Titanic explored issues of classism on a ship where the poor were trapped below and the arrogant wealthy were above. The Mission, The Last Emperor, Gangs of New York and The Queen looked at historical events while adding human insights to the big picture.

Besides being about important events, which forms a pattern for most of Academy Award nominated films, some are highly stylized, and stand out because of their originality of style. The satiric slant of O Brother Where Art Thou? The humorous and tender look at the Holocaust in Life is Beautiful. The dark, film noir style of L.A. Confidential. The fantasy overtones of Chocolat and Amelie. The clever sweetness of the talking animals in Babe.

Most Academy Award nominated films are realistic. Most are dramas and epics. Occasionally a film is nominated in a genre that rarely gets critical recognition. Fatal Attraction is a psychological thriller. Witness, The Fugitive and The Departed are detective stories. Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo and Shrek are animated children's films. Silence of the Lambs contains horror elements. Moonstruck, Tootsie and As Good as it Gets are comedies - although with deeper meanings than many comedies. Lord of the Rings and E.T. are sci-fi. The Sixth Sense deals with the supernatural.

What do we find true about all of these?

* In each case, the genre is raised to a higher level through deep and dimensional characterizations, unusual stories, and sometimes a new spin on an idea that we've seen before.
* Each film puts a human face on the story, no matter whether the events are big (Schindler's List) or small (In the Bedroom).
* The films humanize and dimensionalize the main character. There are no perfect people here.
* Many of the writers already knew a great deal about the subject matter and loved the subject matter before writing about it, yet the scripts still needed vast amounts of research to make them ring true. (Out of Africa, Sideways, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind).
* Most of these help us understand, more deeply, the human condition, so the film helps us reflect on our own lives.
* Many of the films are transformational stories, showing hope, and the possibility of overcoming problems and moving toward resolution.

Why did I choose these three particular scripts? All of them are quite different, and present different problems that the writer had to encounter. With each, I felt there was much to learn. With each script, I asked a specific question that guided me in analyzing the script. For Sideways, I asked, "How can a writer take a simple subject - about two guys going to the wine country to taste some wine - and make it fascinating enough to hold our attention and deep enough to win an Academy Award?" Although we often think that an award-winning script has to be big and bold, with big stars and special effects, Sideways proved otherwise.

Shakespeare In Love was an obvious choice for me. As an English and theatre major in college and graduate school, I always loved Shakespeare. I have seen many performed, and took at least three Shakespeare classes in college and graduate school, approaching the plays from the viewpoint of English literature, dramatic literature, and the theological and philosophical themes. It was natural for me to love Shakespeare In Love. I am charmed by it, and intrigued by its ability to make a period piece so contemporary. I am emotionally involved with the yearning of Viola, the passion of Will, and what the film has to tell us about the creative process, about writer's block, about love, and even about Hollywood. The insider jokes are delightful. The insights are profound.

While analyzing Shakespeare In Love, I asked the question: "How does a writer make a period piece contemporary?"

Crash was of great interest to me because of my background in theology and sociology. I enjoy films that carry a strong theme and tell us something about the society we live in. Although many of them get too preachy and too talky, Crash is an exception. I found the structure unusual and workable, the intersection of the various plotlines extremely well crafted, and the theme insightful, even profound. Having lived in Los Angeles for twenty-five years, through the film, I was able to see this world through a different perspective. The movie led me to examine some of my own attitudes, and try to understand more about how we learn these attitudes and why these attitudes are so deeply ingrained in us. Yet, it also offers the hope of transformation.

With Crash, I asked the question: "How does a writer explore a theme through action, story and character, rather than talking about the theme through long speeches?"

Although there were many other issues to explore in these scripts, I allowed this central question to lead me, hoping it would also help writers resolve challenging script problems.

In each case, I wanted to present some challenges that every writer who writes more than a few scripts may encounter. Then, my goal was also to analyze the basic script elements of Structure and Story Development, Theme, and Character to see how these other elements achieved their brilliance as well.

And, I always hope that the reader will enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it. In all my books, I hope the questions about each film and the analysis will ignite the writer's own creativity by being in the presence of great art.

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