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British writers should clean up at the Oscars

Category: 300 News
Article Date: February 25, 2007 | Publication: The Observer | Author: Zoe Ludlow Green

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British writers should clean up at the Oscars
‘YOU BRITS are sizzlin’,’ says Vern. ‘This is totally your year, man.’ Vern tells me he’s a screenwriter, which puts him in the company of most Angelenos. ‘Plot points’ are debated at sunrise in flushed huddles after yoga. Vern is hanging out at Psychobabble, a boho cafe just off Hollywood Boulevard, filled to bursting with some 20 would-be screenwriters tapping at laptops, sharing stories of exploitation, loss and triumph.

‘Someday,’ says Vern, ‘I’m gonna be up on that stage.’ The stage to which he refers is just down the street at the Kodak Theatre, a shopping mall-cumamphitheatre where Oscar will reign tonight. In this bizarre setting for the ultimate in visual awards, Vern has picked up on a strong local strand of conversation: the pre-eminence of British screenwriting (and bookadaptation).

This may just turn out to be the year in which more British fiction than ever before has been successfully translated to the widescreen: PD James’s dystopian The Children of Men, Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland. British writers as diverse as Patrick Marber, Hanif Kureishi and Peter Morgan are also strongly in contention.

So is the Oscar-worthy American screenplay under threat? Controversy rages. One A-list screenwriter rants that Little Miss Sunshine is ‘one of the worst pieces of shit I’ve seen all year’.

Borat, primarily a British confection, is also causing confusion, having landed in the ‘best-adapted screenplay’ category. ‘I don’t understand how Borat is even a screenplay. It’s just a bunch of improvised skits strung together,’ complains a veteran Writers’ Guild member.

Intrigued by the question of Borat’s ambiguous status, I attend a panel of screenplay nominees at the Writers’ Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Peter Baynham, one of the co-writers on Borat, amuses the assembled company by saying that he got into writing to escape the British navy and its ‘enormous men with tattoos’ before demonstrating why Borat is located in the correct category.

Borat’s writing team engaged in an intriguing process of adapting existence as they went along – picking situations in which to place Sacha Baron Cohen, setting up real characters for him to encounter, and trying to predict and script a range of possible responses to his lunacy. The team shot and reshot until characters came up with the desired ‘through-line’. Equally intriguing is the revelation that Borat’s featured excreta was willingly provided by the wardrobe master.

A minor quibble about the scriptwriting process then springs up between panellists Zach Helm, writer of Stranger Than Fiction, and Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine. Helm says the old methods are outworn. He writes scenes until ‘the story suggests itself’, then lets the movie evolve. ‘You blow my mind!’ replies Arndt, a structuralist who insists: ‘You ignore forms and conventions at your peril.’ Guillermo Arriaga, writer of Babel, lightens the mood by stating: ‘I never research, I know nothing about my characters and I never know the ending.’

Something’s in the air. Is the very idea of a traditional screenplay breaking down? What has happened to the screenwriting wisdom of those veteran warhorses Robert McKee ( Story ) and Christopher Vogler, author of the screenwriters’ bible, The Writer’s Journey?

In fact, both Stranger Than Fiction and Little Miss Sunshine adhere to the three-act movie structure, so what do people make of them? Down in Venice, the grad students of LA’s main film schools are also talking movies. Little Miss Sunshine is dismissed as ‘a completely manufactured sham, an indie paint-by-numbers equation’ by one man who cannot reveal his name while he ‘has a script going around town’. He broods: ‘ Sunshine is cute/ugly girl plus angsty/ brooding goth son plus zany foul-mouthed grandpa plus one big road trip equals a play-it-safe, nauseating success.’

A producing student chips in, saying that the nomination for Sunshine just mirrors last year’s Oscars in which aged voters ‘felt they were being bold for voting for Crash, a hackneyed, derivative, overwritten, condescending film about racism’. Will she reveal her identity? ‘No. You can’t make waves in this town.’

The very next night, however, waves were made at a screening of 300, a bloodfest of technical virtuosity which adapts Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in which the Persians invaded Greece. Graphic novels are a major trend with the studios, which are snapping up the rights in such properties.

300’ s director Zach Snyder attempted to give a balanced (if somewhat evasive) response to accusations of trying to incite America to invade Iran, when the crazed viewer yelled: ‘You must have said “Persian” at least 100 times.’ At which point Gerard Butler, star of the film, growled with hybrid Spartan/ Scottish insouciance: ‘That’s because they were fucking Persians.’

One thing’s for sure: everyone here loves The Queen. They are thrilled and awed by the sheer weirdness of British ritual. Patrick Marber’s writing in Notes on a Scandal is probably the most brilliant of this year’s bunch. American audiences shudder with delight at Judi Dench’s ultra-British invective and bemused fascination at the land that can spawn such acerbic voiceover. Let’s hope British writers clean up tonight.

Zoe Green is a writer on The X-Men and associate director with Energy Entertainment


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