Editor’s Note: Our daily Oscar countdown turns to the original screenplays. We’ll be featuring each feature film category until the ceremony on February 28.
Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, with original story by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen)
Spotlight (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy)
Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, with story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff)
Trivia: This is the first time the Coen brothers have been nominated for a film they did not direct. Three of the nominees are for films based on true events, the most of any year in this category in the last 30 years.
The best screenplay categories at the Oscars have had a funny history. Whilst considered one of the big five, (the others being best picture, director, actor, actress), winning either best original or adapted screenplay doesn’t seem to hold the same prestige as some of its sister categories. Whether this is a fault of audience or screenwriters themselves is up for debate. On the one hand audience attention is naturally drawn to actors, or for the more nerdy filmgoers perhaps the director, rather than the writer. Yet screenwriters themselves, with a few exceptions, like to remain generally anonymous.
It is also harder to separate screenplays from their films. Whereas it is easier to pick out a technical category, such as costumes or special effects, from the rest of a film it is much harder when it comes to scripts. Regardless there is of course an art form to screenwriting and this year there is both excellent breadth and depth to the nominees. There are scripts about honour and spies, artificial intelligence, mental health and teenagehood, child abuse and even a music biopic.
The runaway favourite when the nominations were announced was Spotlight. Co-written by Josh Singer, who is best known for his work on television like The West Wing, and the film’s director Tom McCarthy, it floated around on the black list of best unmade scripts before securing financing. With McCarthy’s previous nomination for his work on Pixar’s Up and Singer’s long television writing career Spotlight has experience to back it up. Above all else it’s a well-written film, the dialogue natural, gentle, the sort of writing that lets the story unfold itself. With McCarthy in charge as writer-director the film also stays true to the script.
Another serious dramatic contender is Bridge of Spies written by British writer Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers. Whilst on the surface the script is something of a simple spy thriller the Spielberg directed piece, which was released late last year, was really an exploration of themes of honour, justice and loyalty. It’s another good script, exciting, intriguing and shows off the best of British writing talent. Charman has another film under his belt but is best known for his theatre work, making him another first time nominee. With the Coen Brothers hands on there as well Bridge of Spies is in a neat position but it’s unlikely it’ll win when it comes up against the others.
Inside Out is perhaps the most interesting nominee on the list. Although Pixar generally deliver very high quality Inside Out was a special surprise when it came out, exploring themes of mental health and the problems of growing up, teenagehood and moving homes in a starkly adult way. It was popular amongst both kids and adults and showed some very inventive, clever writing-especially the scenes that explored the protagonist’s head as she navigated her life. Whilst it’s unlikely to win Pete Docter can add another Oscar nomination to his impressive list of six.
Straight Outta Compton the music biopic of N.W.A was released in the summer, miles away from the awards corridor of January and February, yet managed to bag a nomination for its script. Some critics of the Oscars have argued it should have been nominated for more. For a film about a rap group making an album the screenplay is brilliantly exciting. Whilst the rock and roll, or should it be rap, lifestyles of the group involved make for interesting writing it’s the politics and personalities involved in the group that helped garner its nomination. Straight Outta Compton, like Inside Out also has four individual nominees adding to the large list of original screenplay nominees this year.
The final original script up for an Oscar is Ex Machina. Alex Garland is already a well known British writer, first coming to prominence with his novel The Beach which was later adapted into a film by Danny Boyle with Leonardo DiCaprio. Unlike a number of the other nominees however Garland is not new to screenwriting with 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go amongst his credits. Garland also directed Ex Machina which became something of an unexpected critical hit with its artificial intelligence theme. If Ex Machina did win it would be an unexpected but impressive win. Unfortunately Garland didn’t win at the BAFTAs at home so things don’t look promising for the Oscars in America. All the same Ex Machina would be an excellent upset win, bagging an Oscar not just for a sci-fit film but a well respected British writer as well.
Beyond the nominees themselves this is a good year for the original screenplay category. Whilst the Oscars have become controversial in 2016 because of issues of race and a lack of independent nominees the screenwriting section has made progress. Whilst the Coen brothers, Pete Docter and Tom McCarthy have all been nominated for Oscars before the other ten nominees under original screenplay this year are all first timers. This is also the most women nominated in the original screenplay category in years.
Interesting, and in some cases, rude omissions for original screenplay this year included two former winners. Charlie Kaufman, the weird and wonderful philosophical writer, won in 2005 for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but received no writing nod for Anomalisa. Quentin Tarantino meanwhile has won two Oscars for penning Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained. But he got no personal nomination for The Hateful Eight. Woody Allen, who has been nominated for original screenplay more than anyone else in Oscar history, also missed out on a nomination this year. In many ways this is good with fresh blood, at least in screenwriting terms, getting noticed. The nominees for best original screenplay this year represent a good selection of writers and stories.
When the nominations for the Oscars were released Spotlight seemed like the sure bet winner. Now things have become less certain but the win for Spotlight at the BAFTAs is a good sign for its two co-writers. I would still place money on Spotlight taking it home on the night but there’s still a possibility for a surprise upset.