For an awards ceremony that so often proceeds according to tradition and strict protocol, the Oscars leaves a lot rather nebulous. The line between being a Supporting Actor and a Leading often comes down to office politics. I don’t know many movie fans who can parse the difference between a Sound Mix and a Sound Edit. And what exactly makes something Best, anyway?
But the awards that have always been most befuddling to me are the ones for best writing, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. There are hundreds and hundreds of feature-length movies made each year, and it’s unlikely that many voters get around to watching half of them—let alone reading their scripts. The Internet is making screenplays more readily available, but new ones can still be tough to track down. And most people who aren’t screenwriters—or aspiring ones—aren’t terribly interested in reading them to begin with. In reality, most voters are likely gleaning quality of writing based off of the movies themselves: Which had the most impressive dialogue? The cleverest narratives? Any noticeable literary overtones? Woody Allen has both the most screenplay nominations (16) and the most victories (3), and his success isn’t just the product of longevity; his movies are writerly—whatever that even means.
The screen, of course, isn’t the best place for writing to be evaluated. Terrible movies are made out of great scripts, just as great movies are made out of half-baked ones. Often, even with excellent films, the juiciest bits of a script won’t even make the final cut. Most serious screenwriters want their scripts to stand on their own—to be pieces of art and entertainment that can be appreciated without the context of an accompanying film. A well-written screenplay is full of beautiful little phrasings, details that communicate something to the reader without being directly transferrable to the screen. To celebrate screenplays—the actual pages full of text—we read through this year’s Best Original Screenplay nominations (with the exception of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, which isn’t available) and pulled out some of the best exclusively on-the-page moments. (Watch out, there are spoilers!)
There’s a recurring joke about things being “symbolic” in Parasite. Director Bong Joon-ho and his co-writer Han Jin Won could’ve made another about foreshadowing. The Parasite script makes evident the purposefulness of each choice—be it the lack of photos of Ki-taek in the Kims’ home, or the way Da-song wields a fake ax when we first meet him. It’s full of subtle hints about what’s to come, some of which you wouldn’t pick up from the film itself. One of my favorite details is that Director Bong and Han Jin Won call a finger poke a “stab.” They’re directing the actor to poke violently, sure; but really, they’re leading an imagined reader along to the dramatic climax.
Knives Out's Character Development
Rian Johnson makes it look seamless in the finished film, but working a baseball roster’s worth of central characters into Knives Out was no simple feat. The extensive Thrombey family, their “help,” the local authorities, and Private Investigator Benoit Blanc all appear in the first act. For a reader with no visual references, it’s a lot of names. To hear Johnson talk about it, figuring out how to introduce all these people was a tougher mystery to crack than the whodunnit itself. Ultimately, Johnson made up for the lack of faces with killer character descriptors—concise, meaningful, and sometimes very funny (see: Don Johnson’s Richard, who is “gruff and confident” and “will put his feet up on anything”).
Marriage Story's Dramatic Emphasis
For the most part, the screenplay to Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama treats its sad subject with a mediator’s remove. The dialogue, plot, and staging does the work; there’s no need for flamboyant adjectives or extra punctuation. Occasionally, though, Baumbach quietly gives a moment some extra weight. Take what’s maybe the biggest tear-jerker of a scene in the whole film. Charlie’s come out to California for the first time since Nicole left; Nicole’s sister hands him the divorce papers; and then at the end of the day, he and Nicole read to Henry. They have a final moment as a family, and then Nicole sends him off to his dinky hotel. On his way out, Nicole calls his name...only to make sure he doesn’t forget the divorce papers. As he leaves, he flicks off the living room lights, an old habit. And then Baumbach adds an extra sentence: “Leaving Nicole in the dark”—which is what literally happens, but really isn’t meant to be literal at all.
1917's Scene Setting
1917 is probably the least obvious choice of the bunch to be recognized for its writing. The film is—have you heard?—meant to appear as one continuous shot, and within that one shot is a lot of action and not a ton of dialogue. But if you read the actual script, it’s hard not to admire the writing of Sam Mendes and his co-writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns. It would be virtually impossible to match the intensity of the actual film on the page, but Mendes and Wilson-Cairns do their best by bringing the setting itself to life. Walls “groan,” water is “the color of mucus,” a layer of “black fur” covering dead horses turns out to be flies. It’s all easy to picture, and yet the descriptions are rarely obvious ones.
Originally Appeared on GQ