Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine. Paul Brownfield is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.
Chris Terrio | Argo
Chris Terrio had a trove of primary and secondary material to consult in writing the screenplay for Argo, most notably the memoir Master of Disguise, by former CIA agent Tony Mendez, and Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 article in Wired magazine based on declassified documents about the remarkable clandestine Iran hostage-rescue caper.
But this hardly gave Terrio a blueprint for a screenplay that deftly blends Hollywood satire with a historical international crisis. Terrio says his biggest fear was that the Hollywood scenes of the Argo screenplay would slide the movie too far into show-business farce.
However, a passage in Mendez’s book gave him license to go there in one case. “In Tony’s book,” Terrio says, “there’s a passage in it where Tony’s describing being with (makeup artist) John Chambers and figuring out that they’re going to call the fake movie Argo. And then it describes how that title both comes from a joke—which literally was a joke that Chambers and Tony used to make, which is the ‘Ah, go fuck yourself’ joke—but also that it has these mythological connotations to it, which Chambers and Mendez were aware of and chose. I feel that somewhere in that passage is the root of the tone of the film, which in some sense was a harder thing to get at than the particular narrative.”
In getting to that narrative, Terrio arrived at the idea of creating a staged reading of Argo for the Hollywood press. “You have all these people sitting around in these ridiculous costumes and yet you have the great mythological intonations of, ‘Our world has changed.’ It’s a nudge and a wink, but there’s also something earnestly mythological about it. Plus, you have the slightly spitballing point of view of Chambers and Tony and Lester Siegel in the room watching this, and you’re trying to evoke the geopolitical world that they’re operating in, plus the human drama of both the houseguests and the hostages.”—Paul Brownfield
Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin | Beasts of the Southern Wild
Playwright Alibar and first-time director Zeitlin call it the Elysian Fields scene—the moment in the third act of the screenplay when Hushpuppy leaves behind Wink, her dying father, and seeks out her mother, whom she believes works on a kind of floating stripper barge in the Gulf.
Juicy and Delicious, the one-act play on which Beasts is based, was not set in the Bathtub of the Louisiana bayou but the rural South (in the play the character Hushpuppy is a boy). “What happened in the play,” Zeitlin says, “was that Hushpuppy sort of wandered into the road and hitched a ride from this mythical truck driver that was driving down the highway, and he brought her to this diner and this woman, who wasn’t supposed to be the mother at all and just kind of gave a cooking lesson.”
The cook carried over in the movie, in just as big a way. “As we worked on the adaptation, people would look at the script and say, ‘Where is the logical plot justification for Hushpuppy to leave her father who’s the center of this story and go to a place that we’ve never heard of before in the script and have this bizarre experience?’ ” Zeitlin says. “That doesn’t really fit into what you think of as your instigating moment of the third act, or whatever you hear in screenplay school. But one of the things that I loved so much about Lucy’s play is that it never operated on a narrative plot logic, it operated on an emotional logic.”
In the play, Alibar wanted the emotional possibility that the cook could be Hushpuppy’s mother. “If it wasn’t, I wanted Hushpuppy to be hoping that it was,” she says. “I think the dialogue was pretty similar, if not exactly the same. Benh and I went back and forth a lot with the tough love aspect of it.”
“That monologue is actually a really good example of how the text from the play was revised into the movie because I remember very specifically me and Lucy taking that speech to (actress Jovan Hathaway) and working with her on reshaping the language to fit her accent,” Zeitlin says. “In the end there is a collaboration between me, Lucy, and Jovan, sort of revising this speech that the waitress made in the play. It’s more Jovan, it’s more Louisiana, but the ideas in it and the substance of it are very much the same.”—Paul Brownfield
Tony Kushner | Lincoln
Early in the process of what would become his screenplay Lincoln, Kushner came to a scene on page 716 in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. It was a description of Lincoln riding across a battlefield, the gory, horrific ravages of war at his feet. “I got to that scene,” Kushner says, “and I wrote in my notebook and then emailed Steven: ‘This has to be in the movie.’ ”
Lincoln’s grim ride is followed by his conference with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on the piazza of a house in Petersberg. Kushner found no historical record of their conversation, “so I felt like that’s kind of cool. I can have them talk about what I’d liked them to have talked about, as long as I can defend what they say to one another, and I think I can.”
As such, Kushner chose to leave Lincoln puzzling over what he had just seen on the battlefield while in a quieter place. “Lincoln saw a couple of battles outside of Washington, but they were fairly small skirmishes,” Kushner says. “He saw this one battle that was unfolding that was kind of a charge by (Confederate Gen.) Jubal Early’s troops in July of 1864 that was repelled. He went to meet Grant in Petersburg the morning after this really ugly battle, which was the end of Lee’s 10-month siege. He rode across the battlefield, which was strewn with bodies, and it was the first time he’d ever seen the immediate aftermath of a battle with nothing really cleaned up. And the description by one of the men that accompanied him, of Lincoln sort of visibly aging on the horse as he rode across the battlefield, moved me enormously.”
The scene also gets to the heart of the sacrifices necessary to maintain the union. “One of the paradoxes of Abraham Lincoln,” Kushner says, “was that he was not a guy who took war lightly. And Grant, whom he trusted as he trusted no one else, developed a new kind of warfare that was incredibly bloody and horrible, and it is what what won the war, but at a human cost that no one had ever seen before. Lincoln suffered this very deeply, and I felt like this was a great moment to show that.”—Paul Brownfield
David Magee | Life of Pi
In the novel Life of Pi, there is a scene in which Pi’s father illustrates to his boys that animals are dangerous by feeding a live goat to one of the tigers in the family zoo. Though that sequence did not make it into his adaptation, Magee says it became the inspiration for how to pinpoint a key moment in the film’s early dramatic structure—namely, the first time Pi meets Richard Parker, the tiger with whom he will later be adrift at sea.
“It’s handled very differently in the book and used to different effect, and it goes to the heart of what we were trying to accomplish in the adaptation,” Magee says. “In the book, a different tiger is fed the goat. It’s an incident that Pi recalls from his childhood, where the father takes the two boys in, and just to remind them how dangerous animals are, he demonstrates by feeding a goat to a tiger. And then he goes on in a somewhat comical scene to explain why every animal is dangerous in some way or the other, going from the tiger to the antelope who could spear you with his horns, to the turtle that snaps at you, and he works all the way down to a guinea pig. Pi thinks the guinea pig is a problem, too, and (the father) says, ‘No, the guinea pig is fine.’ So it’s meant as a comical scene and a reflection more on how animals are not adapted to life with humans. One of the challenges that we had in adapting the story was finding an evolution to Pi’s character, so that he was not just an infant traveling out on the waters with a tiger, having faith in God and having no reason to question why all of this was happening to him. It works beautifully for the novel because he could reflect on all sorts of aspects of spirituality in a bunch of episodes. But we needed to create an emotional narrative for that journey. And so very early on, Ang (Lee) and I talked about the possibility of turning this scene into the moment of his disillusionment as a child, the moment where he sees through some of the mythologies of childhood.”—Paul Brownfield
David O. Russell | Silver Linings Playbook
A book’s narrative has all the time in the world to lay out its plot points, but what was key for David O. Russell in adapting Matthew Quick’s novel Silver Linings Playbook was “creating a dramatic engine in the screenplay that propels the story into third act.” One of his key changes from book to script revolved around Pat Jr.’s discovery that his ex-wife Nikki never wrote him a letter—a gesture that he initially perceives as an opportunity to makeup. In the screenplay, Pat Jr. deduces on his own that Tiffany wrote the Nikki letter, while in the novel, Tiffany makes the big reveal to him. Russell deconstructs his reasons for making the change:
“In the book, he’s a completely delusional person who has lived in an institution for four years. God bless those people, but I don’t know them. I know from my own life, the one we portrayed was my son. I wanted to talk about that guy who is the whole motivation for this picture. He has a manner about him in the book that is different. I decided (along with Bradley Cooper) that he was a lucid guy who, like many bipolar people, when they’re not on their medication, they distort things and go into unrealistic expectations.”
“Pat Jr. learns about Tiffany writing the Nikki letters very late in the book. Tiffany hasn’t exchanged the letter yet. She holds it out until after the dance. So it was a big structural decision in the film to make the dance the climax of the movie and to make the letters the currency of their relationship and the barter at the heart of their intimacy.”
“The curtain opens on the third act where Tiffany and the parents are plotting to lie to Pat Jr. while he figures out on the porch the truth behind Nikki’s letter. You have to build your pressure into the canister of the movie. Not only is Pat Jr. getting the news that Nikki isn’t available, but he’s also realizing he’s been lied to. That’s humiliating to him. The shame can alone trigger a bipolar episode. In fact, he’s created the conditions where people have to tiptoe around him.”
“It all makes sense, the secrecy of the dance and the letters. There are so many people trying to help and supervise people like Pat Jr., that the dignity of their privacy and the dignity of them making decisions without telling anyone becomes extremely valuable to them. In fact, it’s the most important human dignity. So that was a decision we made—for Pat Jr. to figure out for himself (that Tiffany wrote the letters). He doesn’t tell anyone—not the audience or the characters—what he’s going to do. It’s a moment that he turns a corner and starts to own his own life.” —Anthony D’Alessandro