MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Originality Matters: Considering the Best Original Screenplays of the Year

Published under Oscar Outsider.

Spoiler Warning: This column contains heavy spoilers for the films The Wrestler, Happy-Go-Lucky, Burn After Reading, The Visitor and Frozen River.

What elements set apart a few screenplays out of all those produced each year from the rest of the pack as we head into Oscar season? All scripts have certain ingredients in common: characters to whom something (hopefully) interesting happens, a plot that drives things forward, dialogue that serves a dramatic purpose of moving things along or revealing more about each character that helps us understand their actions and motivations. In a great screenplay, though, the alchemy through which all those elements come together happens in an almost magical way (though of course it’s really much more elbow grease, talent and hard work, not magic wands, that make it happen), providing the director unique base ingredients that, when mixed with a solid cast and great production design, cinematography and editing, result in an exceptional meal of a film.

A great original screenplay has characters we can relate to, or at least understand, characters who, while they might just be ordinary people like ourselves, are so well-drawn that they’re memorable in some unique way. It conveys most of its information through showing us things, not telling us through clunky expository dialogue. It draws us into the story and makes us care about these people and what’s happening to them. It moves us in some way — whether it makes us laugh, or cry, or fear what’s going to happen next. Great stories might teach us something, but more often than not they just entertain or intrigue us, carrying us away for two or so hours away from our own troubles and into the trials and travails of these fictional people who we come to care about to some extent during our time with them.

I’ve already taken a closer look at several of the adaptations in contention for Best Adapted Screenplay, so I thought it would be a good time to look at the contenders in the Best Original Screenplay category that I feel most strongly about. Here are the five I’d like to see have a shot at Oscar gold; interestingly enough, all but one, The Wrestler, were both written and directed by the same person; perhaps all those would-be screenwriters submitting scripts to big studios and hoping to hit it big enough to get out of their day jobs should take notice.

Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler

The best movies often come from the simplest of ideas written and executed exceptionally well. The Wrestler is one such film. Start with a concept that’s not already been overdone — an aging wrestler struggling to deal with his fame fading into obsolescence — and then build on that by adding a parallel character of a stripper who’s also past her prime, dealing with similar issues, and you turn what could have been a hokey tribute to professional wrestling into a fascinatingly structured tale of two characters who’ve spent their careers selling their bodies who are at a loss for what to do once their bodies no longer serve those roles.

Screenwriter Robert D.Siegel and director Darren Aronofsky took this core idea and made a compelling film out of it, and it’s largely the fairly ballsy decision to make Pam (Marisa Tomei) a stripper that makes the film work so well overall. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) has spent his adult life exploiting his body through wrestling; he was once a popular wrestling star, a hero to boys and men, and Siegel sets this up beautifully through the film’s opening that tells us all we need to know about Randy’s history as a wrestler without resorting to big flashback scenes of the glory days. Randy knew and liked who he was in his persona as “The Ram,” and he was good at what he did. Now in his early 50s, Randy’s floundering. He lives in a crappy trailer and can’t even afford the rent on that consistently enough to keep from getting locked out by the landlord. He continues to wrestle, in small community halls rather than big arenas, and we peek behind the scenes at the camaraderie of the wrestlers working out with each other in advance what techniques they’ll each use to make the show exciting for their fans.

Then Siegel sets up the mirrored relationship with Cassidy/Pam that drives the emotional core of the story. Pam, like Randy, is fighting the realities of aging past her prime for her chosen occupation, stripping. She’s still up on stage, exposing her body and herself for the kind of men who like to sit in darkened rooms watching women they don’t know reveal their bodies for dollar bills; we feel her shame and pain as she tries to convince a pack of rowdy younger guys that she’s not “too old” to lap dance for them even as they mock her. Later in the film, Siegel shows us the other side of Pam — the responsible mother, the nice girl who just wants to buy a condo in a nicer neighborhood for her kid. We see Pam stripped bare of her stage makeup and stripper clothes, and suddenly she’s revealed more nakedly and vulnerably to us and to Randy than in any scene where she strips off her clothes on stage. She’s taking a risk in revealing herself to Randy as something more than a stripper, crossing a line with a customer she doesn’t usually cross, and we see her hesitation and fear in doing so.

Siegel sets up the major arc for Randy with equal care, giving Randy a health crisis that threatens his wrestling career, forcing him to ponder a future behind the deli counter. In one of the best scenes in the film, we see the “backstage” of the store as Randy prepares to make his way to the deli counter wearing a name tag that says “Robin.” We see the walk to the front from Randy’s perspective; he’s walked from backstage to the wrestling ring countless times in his career, pumping himself up with the frenzy of the fans, and we see how he’s psyching himself up for this new role, hearing the roar of the crowd in his head … and then hear the roar abruptly disappear as he pushes through the barrier to the front of the store, into the harsh fluorescent lights of the reality his life has become.

Still, for a while Randy makes the best of it, trying to have fun at the deli counter, bantering with customers — until it starts to be too much. He sees the meat slicer, offering both the drama he craves and a way down the other, more dangerous path, and we know before it happens what Randy, who’s made a living off of hurting his body in superficial ways for the vicarious pleasure of crowds, is going to do. We cringe, anticipating what’s going to happen next. It’s a perfectly constructed scene, one of those rare movie moments that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

As Randy is dealing with the crisis in his work life, Siegel also tosses another conflict his way in the form of a long-estranged relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). The scenes between Randy and his daughter are smaller, but still fraught with tension. We don’t need to know everything about their history to understand that Randy has let his daughter down repeatedly and isolated himself from her through his own actions, and we sense that he’s likely to do it again. We, like her, want very much for that not to be the case; we want to believe that this time, Randy will get it right. And the easy way out would have been to give Randy a happy ending, and have him and Pam get together, and all live together with her son and his daughter, but Siegel chooses to take the harder, darker path that makes the movie’s final act remarkably impactful. The Wrestler will, I hope, get other accolades for Aronofsky for his excellent direction, for Rourke for his lead performance, and Tomei for her supporting performance, but I hope very much that it will also get recognized for the original and well-crafted script that’s the film’s heart.

Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky

Another film that starts with a simple premise and takes it somewhere unexpected, Happy-Go-Lucky, penned and directed by Mike Leigh, is a deceptively light film about Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a primary school teacher with a sunny heart, that’s much deeper beneath the surface than it appears on a first glance. Leigh is well-known for working improvisationally with his cast for six months before shooting, developing the characters and story, but his humanistic touch is evident throughout his work; as a sculptor works with raw material to find the work of art within, so Leigh crafts his films the the raw material his actors provide.

By adding the character of Scott (Eddie Marsan), the uptight driving instructor, to the mix, Leigh creates conflict through human interaction rather than contrived situations, and even the set-up for Poppy’s introduction to Scott happens through logical circumstance: Poppy’s beloved bike gets stolen and she finally decides, at the age of 30, to learn to drive. Leigh sets up Scott as the perfect antithesis of Poppy, but doesn’t reveal all of Scott’s craziness at once; like Poppy, we first see Scott as just tense and controlling around the driving lessons, but bit by bit he unveils the Poppy-Scott conflict that’s going to largely drive Poppy’s character arc. Happy-Go-Lucky, like all Leigh’s work, is far more well-thought than the simplicity its structure and method indicates; Leigh understands human nature and the ways in which we conceal our flaws and underlying motivations, both from others and ourselves, and he draws these elements out of his characters with careful precision.

We, like Poppy, see Scott go off on an irrational, ranting tangent; just as we’re trying to sort through the whys and wherefores of that, Poppy hits the nail on the head with a moment of clarity, asking Scott, “Were you bullied as a child?” And where a lesser writer would have used that moment of revelation to give Scott a big, moving scene wherein he reveals the torments of being an outsider in British primary school as a boy, Leigh trusts his actor to reveal that Poppy has hit the nail on the head by the smallest of reactions — a clenched jaw, a tightness of face and shoulders — that says everything we need to know without a big expository scene. Leigh mirrors Poppy’s interactions with Scott with a situation that comes up at the school where she teaches; a student is bullying other kids, and Poppy recognizes, as many people might not, that the boy is acting out for a reason; she sets out to find out what’s going on with the help of her boss and a social worker who connects with both the boy and Poppy, which in turn sets up the social worker as a love interest for Poppy, who’s previously been content to be free and single.

Later in the film, there’s a scene that feels almost like an interlude thrust into the middle of the story flow: Poppy is wandering around and finds herself in a deserted part of town where she encounters a crazy homeless guy. A lot of women finding themselves in that situation might look around and think, “Oh hell, I need to get out of here now,” but Poppy approaches the man and tries to talk to him. He babbles at her incoherently while she nods her head understandingly. “Isn’t it just?” she commiserates, seeking a way to connect on a human level with him. But finally, Poppy does look around and realize the situation she’s put herself in; she has a moment of awareness of the darker side of things, and gets herself out of there.

One of my favorite parts of the movie, though, comes when Poppy, her flatmate Zoe and her younger sister go to visit her other sister, who is pregnant and living in the suburbs. There’s great tension throughout this whole bit: tension among the three sisters that indicates a history of individual differences that have led to previous conflicts (again, without Leigh feeling the need to weigh the film down with expository details), and tension between the sister and her husband, as he wants to play and have fun with their guests while his wife reins him in, that hints at an ongoing conflict of freedom and responsibility between the pair a lot of couples on the verge of adding a baby to their family will recognize. There’s a great argument between Poppy and her sister where the sister is going off on how Poppy, who’s older than her, should be “settled” by now, on the mortgage ladder, with a relationship and perhaps her own baby. “I just want you to be happy,” she says. But Poppy replies that she is happy, and details all the many things that she loves about her life: her freedom, her best friend and flatmate, the fun she has just as she is. “You don’t have to rub it in,” the sister replies, broken. Leigh understands that misery loves company; Poppy’s sister serves, in a way, as a mirror for those audience members who find Poppy’s incessant cheeriness grating — perhaps we’re annoyed by Poppy because she represents something we’ve long since lost in ourselves.

A story like Happy-Go-Lucky requires a delicate balance. Poppy is so cheerful and effervescent as to border on irritating, but Leigh knows just when to rein things in, or when to toss a pinch of darkness into the mix to give Poppy conflicts to deal with that challenge her positive worldview. At the same time, he resists the temptation to turn things dark and gloomy, beating our heroine into submission to prove that the world is really a terrible place filled with unhappiness and sorrow. The penultimate conflict with Scott near the end of the film shocks us as it shocks Poppy, making her realize that Scott is far too broken for her to fix, and that helping a small boy overcome a bad situation is a very different proposition from fixing a man whose self-esteem and worldview were shattered long ago. Poppy has to let Scott go and acknowledge that she cannot heal this man, but Leigh lets us know that she’s not entirely happy about that choice, and that her interactions with Scott have threatened to burst Poppy’s bubble of happiness, through a well-crafted scene that mirrors the film’s opening, showing us Poppy viewing the world through very different eyes than when we first met her.

As we edge nearer to Oscar noms, Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t looking to be quite as much in the game as I’d hoped it would be at this point. I’d love to see Hawkins and Marsan get recognized for their performances, and Leigh deserves an Oscar nod for his direction as well, but I hope he’ll also get a nod for his script, which is one of the most original and engaging of the year.

(Continue To Page Two)

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon