When dogged news-hound Jerry Thompson starts anatomizing deceased media mogul “Citizen Kane,” he doesn’t assemble bare facts. Instead, he seeks to solve a mystery: What does “Rosebud” mean in Kane’s life? By tying the movie’s incidents to Thompson’s quest, the screenplay becomes an absorbing mystery, intriguing from beginning to end.
Like Thompson, screenwriters brought investigative instincts to real-life figures in 2016. Each posed a central, fascinating question that served to drive creative choices, solve structural problems and contribute to dramatic impact. In the words of “Sully” scribe Todd Komarnicki, “All great stories are detective stories, so everything is an investigation. To be alive is to be an investigator.”
A formal investigation frames Komarnicki’s treatment of Flight 1549’s Hudson River landing in January 2009, as a skeptical NTSB takes testimony on Capt. Sullenberger’s decision against trying for a nearby airfield. But Komarnicki points to the more personal cross-examination going on along the same lines.
“The heartbeat of this movie is that his questioning, his doubt, erodes 40 years of confidence. When other people are asking ‘Did you do the right thing?,’ he starts to believe that maybe he didn’t. And that’s an expansive question to ask yourself, if you don’t know the answer.”
Much investigated, of course, is the JFK assassination, yet “Jackie” writer Noah Oppenheim was always fascinated by the widow, “the one figure in that story who’d never gotten her proper due….Behind Jacqueline Kennedy’s beauty and status as a style icon, what was the real woman? What role did she play in crafting how we’d view her husband in history?”
“Jackie” explores what Oppenheim calls “the layers beneath the surface” through a laser-like focus on the three-day period from the assassination of President Kennedy to his funeral. “You can learn more about a person by examining them at these pivotal moments in their life,” he maintains, “than by trying to stitch together everything that ever happened to them.”
One person’s learning about himself is the essence of “Lion,” in which Saroo, a young Indian adopted by Australians, wonders (in “Lion” screenwriter Luke Davies’ words), “Can I achieve reunification with my lost mother?” — a needle-in-a-haystack quest rendered possible only by the most advanced technology.
Yet, Davies continues, “I think the great mystery, to him, was that great human mystery of: Who am I? In terms of adopted children finding their birth parents, that question doesn’t always get answered very simply.”
At age 5, we learn, Saroo was abandoned not by a family rejecting him but by fate, as he stepped onto the wrong train to “a completely different destiny. It’s like that ‘Sliding Doors’ thing. One door closes and a million others open and your life changes completely. What I love about this story is how pure that moment of change is.” That prompted the decision not to present the narrative in flashback, but to let the events carry themselves chronologically, as they occurred.
Formulating the right question can help a writer out of a jam. Nicholas Martin wrestled with contrary elements in the life of tone-deaf diva “Florence Foster Jenkins,” her career marked by “hilarity, chutzpah and narcissism.” He asked himself, “How do you reconcile all these very opposing forces…into a story that has to be hilarious and also heartbreaking?”
Martin realized that shaping his script around accompanist Cosme McMoon threw focus to the normative character, the outsider who saw Florence and husband Bayfield as “potty and bizarre …. But as I learned more about their sincerity, in the third draft I changed the point of view to Bayfield, to write a love story about loyalty and trust. This is much sweeter and richer.”Robert Schenkkan, meanwhile, declined to turn Desmond Doss, pacifist Medal of Honor winner that is the main character in “Hacksaw Ridge,” into “a secular saint….How do you take a story about a man of faith and principles, and make it fully human?”
He seized on one curiosity: Why did Desmond refuse to pick up a gun?
“I really turned that into a kind of mystery that comes up in the middle of the first act, during boot camp.” Yet the answer is withheld until the first horrific night on Okinawa, when Doss shares a foxhole with a former tormentor and finally reveals his painful truth. “It’s such a wonderfully vulnerable, human kind of moment,” says Schenkkan. “I think it cracks the character open in a big way.”
Sometimes a central question can shape theme and tone. With regard to Richard and Mildred Loving’s officially forbidden interracial marriage, Jeff Nichols was moved to ask, “How did they live, and what about that is offensive to anyone? What details about wanting to make this home together and create these beautiful children together, what is dangerous about that?”
Convinced that “by looking at the specificity of their lives, you begin to make an argument for the validity of it,” Nichols deliberately tamped down melodrama, and let his “Loving” screenplay ride on the silences of everyday life. “Maybe the film is really just saying over and over again, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But for whatever reason, society continues to make it a big deal….As we take steps forward in this generation at this time, and people are trying to express to us that they’re not being included in society as they should….we have to listen to their lives, or we can’t have a full conversation,” he says.
Ben Younger desires a full conversation with his audience in “Bleed for This,” detailing boxer Vinny Pazienza’s return from a catastrophic neck fracture. Boxing comeback yarns are legion, Younger admits, “but there was something about this injury, and this comeback, that took it out of the genre. “That something emerges via a key question implicitly addressed to the viewer: “How much do you care, or love, about ‘blank’ — this person, this passion, this piece of work?”
Younger believes “Vinny Paz” can offer inspiration to those who are struggling with whatever matters most to them.
“The hope is…you can extrapolate from Vinny’s will and triumph and realize, ‘Mine is not an insurmountable issue. I can move past it.’” The filmmaker, who once felt he’d broken his Hollywood neck and would never get to direct again, is a case in point.
“Vinny just said, ‘I’m going to do this thing.’ I like that idea. A lot.”