At the movies, this was the year of smart scripts

by Gene Seymour

Newsday (MCT)

15 February 2008


The writers’ strike is over, but the irony remains: At the same time the standoff between producers and scriptwriters was stretching into weeks and months, theaters all over the country were screening examples of how writing for the movies was at one of its infrequent, but clearly identifiable peaks.

For confirmation, look to this year’s Academy Award-nominated scripts for both best original screenplay (“Juno,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Michael Clayton,” “Ratatouille,” “The Savages”) and best adapted screenplay (“Atonement,” “Away From Her,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood”). These 10 worthy competitors are practically irradiated with skilled-to-masterly narrative control and dialogue that’s almost musical in both timing and resonance.

Not long ago, critics were lamenting how, despite the wealth of acting talent throughout the movie business, there seemed so few scripts around that were worthy of it. There can be, for example, the Oscar-winning Helen Mirren of the intelligently scripted “The Queen,” but then there could also exist the Helen Mirren of the previous year, taking part in “Shadowboxer,” whose script was, putting it mildly, less well-thought-out. And yes, Julia Roberts gets to do an “Erin Brockovich” or a “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” But then, there’s always stuff like “The Mexican.”

Last year, however, Roberts was able to take advantage of a juicy script by Aaron Sorkin for “Charlie Wilson’s War” - which didn’t even make the cut for Academy Awards consideration, so stiff was the competition among the smart movie set.

Neither did these: “Gone Baby Gone,” “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Zodiac,” “Knocked Up,” “Into the Wild,” “The Namesake,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Superbad,” “Eastern Promises,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “I’m Not There,” “Great World of Sound” and “Rescue Dawn.” All of which drew persuasive, sometimes impassioned praise from critics and audiences on behalf of their scripts.

So how do these things happen? Does talent or inspiration peak collectively at random? Do studios horde the good stuff and wait for the right astrological alignment to propel these screenplays into production?

Nothing as scientific as that. “The studios are the corn flakes box,” says Terry George, 55, who wrote such movies as “In the Name of the Father” (1993) and “Hotel Rwanda” (2004). “They’re now the package, and what’s inside doesn’t matter as long as it moves off the shelves. The independents are where good stories are being told. Look at the two front-runners for best adapted screenplay: `No Country for Old Men’ and `There Will Be Blood.’ They both have these weird endings that don’t conform to whatever the studios believe the audiences want. That they’re getting such attention right now gives hope to all of us who want to make good movies.”

Andrew Bergman, 63, a novelist and screenwriter for such comedies as “Blazing Saddles” (1974), “The In-Laws” (1979) and “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992), agrees that this year’s Oscar-nominated scripts are an especially fine yield.

“If you notice,” he says, “all of them except `Ratatouille’ are independent or foreign-made. That tells you where the major studios are in terms of putting out a movie like `Lars and the Real Girl,’ which I thought had an unbelievable script. Maybe you could have made that back in the `70s when movie studios were still movie studios. But now they’re divisions of multinational corporations where you have to make bigger profits here and overseas. To do that, they have to be risk-averse. And you can’t make good movies without taking risks.”

So, will a banner year produce another rush of good scriptwriting? History shows the more plentiful years of good movies are rarer than average-to-mediocre years.

Industry pundits predict that the writers’ strike’s most immediate impact will be the lack of on-set rewriting during production of films made during the strike - and that audiences will notice the lack of polish over the next year or two.

George also worries that the poor box-office performance of movies related to such post-9/11 issues as terrorism and Iraq will mean “no one will give us a dime on movies with political topics,” which provide reliably fertile ground for compelling storytelling.

Nevertheless, the quality of this year’s Oscar-nominated movies gives him reasons to believe. “Good movies still get made, even with the profit ratio of the blockbusters that demand nothing more of you than your money. And with technology changing and access to movies widening, there’ll be even more ways for writers like me to tell stories without being hampered by studios.”

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