Oscars 2018: How On-Set Collaborations Bolster the Best Original and Adapted Screenplays

Screenwriting prowess would fall short without the creative input of others on a film set.
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By  · Published on February 20th, 2018

Screenwriting prowess would fall short without the creative input of others on a film set.

What encapsulates the “best” scene in a movie? The litmus test of what we as audience members like and dislike on the big screen obviously crosses over with our tastes. However, on a film set, collaboration most definitely brings about the best — or at least most promising or most fun — results that remain indelible for viewers.

That’s certainly the case for this year’s Academy Award nominees in both writing categories. This THR article draws together the contenders for Best Original and Adapted Screenplay as they weigh in on what changed while translating the page to the screen as their scripts passed through different perspectives and circumstances.

Some contenders, like The Big SickThe Disaster Artist and Molly’s Game, had to really depend on who was cast in their lead roles. It was difficult to create the initial bond between fictional Kumail Nanjiani and co-protagonist Emily Gardner’s (Zoe Kazan) parents in The Big Sick. Played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, the parents and Kumail have to interact outside the confines of the hospital despite all worrying about such a dear loved one. However, the three actors — especially Hunter — worked out a dynamic that perfectly captured the honest awkwardness of shared grief among strangers, making the scene incredibly relatable and heartfelt.

For The Disaster Artist, it was more of a case of removing the caricature of Tommy Wiseau and replacing it with some kind of groundedness. Scribe Michael H. Weber said, “despite what we put on paper, our hope was that Tommy would seem like more than just a mysterious clown. […] We didn’t really know how that would come across until we saw…how James brought some real heart to it.”

Similarly, Aaron Sorkin highlighted that working with Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba was vital to bringing Molly’s Game to life, proclaiming that their addition to the cast signalled “the first time those scenes [in Charlie’s office] got better than what I’d imagined.” Per typical Sorkin, the office scenes were all pages upon pages of dialogue, and it was undoubtedly important for a strong cast to be able to carry such a wordy script and make it sound natural and believable.

Having a phenomenal cast feels like the battle already half won, but taking these talented individuals and putting their limits to the test was also a trend with the Oscar contenders. Logan director and co-writer James Mangold revealed how Dafne Keen had to remain mute for a long period of time while shooting. When she finally got a chance to express herself, Keen went all in on co-star Hugh Jackman, cursing and ad-libbing lines (“You never listen to me. You never look at me. You’re not kind to me.”) with such a fervency that it delighted the crew. This created a dynamic energy that made for an extremely memorable, if simultaneously hilarious and subtly heartbreaking scene in Logan.

Nevertheless, technical difficulties hindering a good actor’s performance also had to be taken into consideration on the day of. A scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri required Frances McDormand to constantly be sprayed with fake blood. But the technical aspects of repeatedly doing so were hindering the performance that they decided to just place the blood on her face and use editing to convey the action instead. McDormand and co-star Woody Harrelson could then focus on their performances and bring gravitas to a very emotionally charged scene, which absolutely works in the film’s favor. Although the blood spatter cuts through the tension in that moment in a very visually apparent way, as writer-director Martin McDonagh says, “It was all about humanity and forgiveness.”

But sometimes, you just have to make something work although it downsizes an initial vision on a technical level. Such a predicament befell Greta Gerwig on Lady Bird. Gerwig originally wanted to shoot a conversation between Saoirse Ronan and Odeya Rush in a “church of capitalism” — a mall — but had to switch to a more contained setting due to the extensive amount of background control that would have had to go into prepping the scene. They ended up shooting in a pool, which still worked great. A mall scene would’ve been far more chaotic and stressful for the conversation — one about suffocating in a supposedly dead-end life — yet the quiet nature of having two characters just talk in a pool sharpens the scene’s focus, and allows themes of submergence and reemergence to be physically rendered onscreen.

Guillermo del Toro used the element of surprise on set to quite literally shock one of the stars of The Shape of Water into the appropriate reaction. This was done in order to get the kind of reaction he needed in order to deliver a very special — probably the most important — monologue in the movie. It was definitely one of the most powerful scenes in The Shape of Water as it fully represents the ethos of the film and del Toro himself as a filmmaker. Del Toro elaborates:

“Richard came up with this beautiful gesture, where he grabs Sally’s hands as if to say, ‘Stop talking!’ I kept the gesture in the movie, but on the day we shot the scene, I did something completely different from what we agreed upon. I asked Sally to hit Richard as he looks at his watch. She didn’t tell Richard and he was taken completely off-guard. If affected him even in other takes. He became vulnerable, going from pleading to angry in the space of one dialogue line.”

Mudbound also went above and beyond when it comes to amplifying symbolism and meaning in the original script, but in a different way. In a film with as many overlapping narrative threads and themes, visual cues had to really pack a punch. Virgil Williams describes the scene with Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) as a necessary production feat to drive the point of his story home: “he was flying home during the war, his co-pilot dead and he’s looking death in the eyes. Out of nowhere, the Tuskegee airmen save him. One buzzes and salutes him and that’s what sets him on his personal journey.” Meanwhile, the reality of Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) leaving for war had a much different impact. The Jackson family laying their hands on Ronsel is simultaneously a futile and powerful action of solidarity. For Dee Rees, “it became very important for everyone to put their hands on Ronsel. They were realizing it might be the last time they touched him, that they couldn’t protect him where he was going.”

Then, there are scenes that change entirely from conception to shooting. Get Out‘s iconic twist was borne from a realization that writer-director Jordan Peele had during the film’s rehearsals. In the initial scene, Rose (Allison Williams) pointedly ignores her parents’ racism, which would have tipped off audiences immediately and created less of a suspenseful reveal of her true involvement in the entire charade. Rewriting the scene to have Rose decidedly rebuke her parents’ beliefs — so much that Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) backs down first — was pretty much a stroke of genius to make the audience feel like maybe we were dissecting something that wasn’t there in the first place. Peele says:

“That switch had a really profound effect on how we view these characters, most importantly Rose. She gets our trust, so the rewrite was absolutely essential. It was a total victory.”

Finally, arguably one of Call Me By Your Name‘s most talked-about scenes wasn’t in the script at first either. James Ivory reveals that the phone call that takes place between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) months after their summer romance had ended was initially followed up with a scene of Elio weeping while decorating a Christmas tree; an honestly fine juxtaposition on its own. However, director Luca Guadagnino switched out Christmas for Hanukkah and with no tree, Elio stares into a fireplace instead. This has now become one of the most enduring images in the film. Guadagnino’s choice is a great one, because it ties together all the struggles that Elio was dealing with in Call Me By Your Name: his acceptance of his Jewish identity, his sexuality and the ultimate loss of first love. When Elio sheds his final tears (and hopefully, the audience does too), it becomes the perfect ending.

Overall, filmmaking is a collaborative process that only really flourishes with the input of others; maybe that much is already obvious, but these Oscar-nominated screenplays definitely prove that notion. Perhaps some of these don’t turn out to be the categorical “best” scene in their respective movies, but collaboration and teamwork between cast and crew ensure that there are no filler scenes. Some changes are vital for a narrative’s buoyancy and impact — such is the case for Get Out and Call Me By Your Name — while others provide better characterizations and interactions onscreen that — while subtle — make the films vibrant in unique ways.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)