Oscar-Nominated Writers Discuss ‘Respecting’ the Source Material

As the March 27 Oscar ceremony looms, conversation has centered on the Academy’s decision to downgrade eight categories, their Twitter contest for fan favorites and their double-standard vaccination for attendees.

In other words, while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences could be shining a spotlight on the nominees, they’re instead shining a spotlight on the Academy. It’s too bad. The nominees are worth discussing, especially the enormous talent in the adapted-screenplay race.

The contenders are Sian Heder, “CODA”; Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, “Drive My Car”; Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth, “Dune”; Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Lost Daughter”; and Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog.”

The writers and their scripts are to study in contrasts. Haruki Murakami’s short story “Drive My Car” needed expansion, while Frank Herbert’s epic “Dune” needed compression. “CODA” is based on a French screenplay, “La Famille Belier.” There are two novels in the mix: “Daughter” was written by the somewhat mysterious Elena Ferrante; Thomas Savage’s 1967 Western novel “Dog” was optioned several times, but the scripts never worked.

All writing is difficult. Asked if there is an extra responsibility to the original author, Hamaguchi tells Variety, “It wasn’t an ‘extra’ responsibility: I saw it as a responsibility that was proper. You have to respect the original work. If you fail to provide that respect, things will not go well. But the responsibility is always there. It should be there.”

Asked if he was concerned about Murakami’s reactions while writing the screenplay, Hamaguchi says, “I did care, but thought maybe I shouldn’t. My communication with Murakami was quite limited. I sent him my outline for the plot and he gave his OK from him. He said something like, ‘Feel free to work freely.’ Getting approval gave me confidence to move forward with my interpretation.”

“CODA’s” Heder says the French film was very different in tone from hers (and it employed hearing actors as the deaf parents). Philippe Rousselet and Patrick Wachsberger, two of the producers of “CODA,” teamed up to do a remake of “La famille Belier” at Lionsgate. Says Heder, “They were looking for a filmmaker to put their own stamp on the material, so I went in and pitched my vision of this family. Patrick and Philippe were very supportive and insistent that I make my own film, allowing me to diverge from the original while maintaining the beautiful emotional core of the premise.”

Helder adds: “I had spent a lot of time in Gloucester, Massachusetts, growing up and felt that the town and specifically the fishing community was a very cinematic place to set the story. I knew that by setting this in a place I knew so well from my childhood, I would be able to give this family and the film a texture that felt personal and lived in.”

She also realized that the standard way of writing a script “was absurd,” since ASL is a visual language. She did a lot of research and went over the script, line by line, with ASL experts Anne Tomasetti and Alexandria Wailes.

All five adapted-screenplay nominees include the director as a writer. Villeneuve awning Variety recently, “I tried to be as close as possible to the spirit of the book. I have added that Herbert’s novel was “our North Star” in making the film.

Spaihts adds, “As fans of the novel from boyhood, Denis and I were united in our reverence for ‘Dune’ as a book. But Denis came at the project with an intense drive toward a cinematic interpretation. He told me early on that his ideal ‘Dune’ would be a film without dialogue. This, about the talkiest novel in science-fiction! But his instincts from him were true. And going forward with that code — trying to do as much world-building as possible wordlessly, to explain nothing that images could not explain — was a critical part of achieving the film he eventually made.”

Campion is a triple nominee for “Dog,” as writer, director and a producer. In beginning to adapt the novel, she was “cautious,” since a film had been planned by Cornel Wilde in 1967, by Brut Productions in 1975 and by Randy Quaid in 1989, hoping to direct himself and brother Dennis in 1989.

Campion tells Variety: “I could see the clear challenges; how to manage Savage’s brilliant eye of God insights and observations into the minds of the characters, giving the reader a fantastic intimacy with each character, especially with the difficult-to-fathom Phil Burbank.

“I made some rules: Bronco Henry would not ‘appear’ in some fantastical CGI mist and there would be no backstory.

“I have been involved with a few adaptations and found it much trickier than scripting an original piece — the same kind of challenge, perhaps, as a complete renovation, as compared to creating a totally new building. For the adaptation to work, it cannot be merely faithful; it has to find itself fresh, it has to shine in a visual medium and to be taken to new places with the added intuition of another creative, me.”

“Lost Daughter” reps the first produced screenplay for Gyllenhaal, who comes by her talents genetically: Her father is a director and her mother is a screenwriter. She says both her parents supported her debut as a writer-director, though “When my mom read the novel, she said ‘This is a very difficult adaptation.’”

Says Gyllenhaal, “The process of taking a book and adapting it — it’s a similar muscle you use as an actor. As an actress, you take the text and ask ‘How am I going to do this in a way that isn’t literal?’ It’s a similar process as a writer: Why is this scene here? And how do I represent it so it isn’t literal?”

The writer-director had limited contact with Ferrante, but when the author saw the film, she wrote that Gyllenhaal “makes true cinema: She trusts the images… It’s a great job.”

Like Gyllenhaal, “Drive” co-scripter Oe is seeing his first produced screenplay. Hamaguchi tells Variety about another challenge for an adapter: Interior feelings expressed in fiction can’t be easily translated in film. Though Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya” provided one solution.

“The main characters, Kafuku and Misaki, don’t talk very much, but we need the audience to get a sense of what they’re feeling,” Hamagushi says. “’Uncle Vanya’ was mentioned in the short story, and I thought to expand this by having Kafuku say Vanya’s lines, as a way for the audience to understand his feelings about him.

“What appealed to me in the story,” Hamaguchi continues, “were the two main characters and their relationship. They speak few words, but once they open their hearts to each other, they’re honest and the emotions become clear.”

Hamaguchi sums up, “When you’re doing an original, there is nothing to confine you, you have freedom; that makes the process easier. When you’re working with an adaptation, you have characters and a world that’s already set up. Readers are familiar with the material and you can’t make them feel the same with a film.

“As they’re reading, their imagination is working; it’s hard to convert that to images that can match what’s already in their heads. And keeping it in the same spirit as the material, this requires a lot of sensitivity.”

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