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By Britton Perelman · February 10, 2020
Last night two screenwriters won the biggest awards for writing in Hollywood — Taika Waititi nabbed Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won won Best Original Screenplay for Parasite.
From a new adaptation of a beloved novel to a fresh take on the mystery genre, to a deep-dive into love and marriage, to a reimagining of a classic villain, to an innovative commentary on wealth and class, the 10 screenplays nominated in the Best Adapted and Best Original Screenplay categories ran the gamut.
Like every year, there’s plenty to be learned from the nominees. Here are 10 takeaways from the 2020 Oscar-nominated screenplays, all of which (with the sole exception of Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood) can be downloaded and read as soon as you finish reading this article.
Some spoilers ahead!
Screenplays are the scripts of films. They provide the dialogue, descriptions, and information needed to shoot the movie. But screenplays have to be more than that, too. Every screenplay should be a well-written, compelling read. A screenplay should captivate, just like a novel or short story, and hold readers until the very last words. All of the nominated screenplays are great reads, a fact that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
While almost all of the screenwriters this year also served as directors, the writer isn’t always the person calling the shots on set. It’s your screenplay, but maybe not your movie. Novice screenwriters might try to direct or edit on the page in a way that’s detrimental to the script itself. Experienced writers know how to influence the filmmaking through their writing. Subtle phrases like “The dialogue is continuous” (The Two Popes), “Follow one housekeeper named Fran…” (Knives Out), and “Frank’s POV of Johnny” (The Irishman) get the point across nicely but don’t impede an editor or director’s ability to do their job.
Introducing your characters is crucial. Every screenwriter knows that a new character must be introduced in ALL CAPS, but then it’s up to each screenwriter how to describe that character. A lot of screenwriters go with short and simple physical descriptions — “This is SCHOFIELD, early-20s. Soft features.” (1917) “JOHANNES BETZLER, (JOJO), a cute 10-year-old boy.” (Jojo Rabbit). Some choose to describe their characters’ personalities — “LAURIE, a 26-year-old without a sense of direction, like most 26-year-olds.” (Little Women) — while still others decide to go without descriptions altogether (Knives Out; Parasite). Wherever you land, make sure your character descriptions reflect who you are as a writer.
Theme should be baked into your screenplay, not drizzled on top like an afterthought. A well-developed theme will be essential to the essence of the story you’re telling, and will come out in interesting ways, be it symbolism, dialogue, or descriptions. Take Best Original Screenplay (and Best Picture) winner, Parasite. Writers Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won don’t hit their readers over the head with theme. The theme is artfully layered into the story and goes through some of the same narrative beats as the plot itself — it climaxes when Ki-Woo and Ki-Tek discuss plans while sleeping in the gymnasium, drops to a low point when all semblance of plan goes out the window at the garden party, and resolves itself in Ki-Woo’s voiceover at the end.
Though there are two categories of writing awards at the Oscars, originality is always essential. As screenwriters, we must infuse our own takes on our stories so that the screenplays reflect our voice, sensibility, and point of view. Rian Johnson put his own spin on the mystery genre, while Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won wrote cutting commentary into Parasite — but even adaptations need a dose of originality! Greta Gerwig masterfully excavated Little Women for a fresh new take on a story that’s been told many times over, Todd Phillips and Scott Silver imagined an innovative origin story for a villain we all thought we knew, and Taika Waititi infused comedy into Jojo Rabbit so that audiences would be gobsmacked by the deeper moral lessons later in the film.
Voiceover is tricky — do it well and your movie might be incredible, do it poorly and your writing comes across as cheesy and trite. Many of the 2020 nominees used voiceover extremely effectively, not to carry the story, per se, but to enhance it. In Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach makes use of V.O. in the very beginning, and then the audience finds out we’re hearing the letters Nicole and Charlie wrote about one another. Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won and Greta Gerwig use similar techniques in Parasite and Little Women, respectively. Meanwhile, Rian Johnson (Knives Out) and Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes) start using voiceover in the “present” scene, then move to a flashback or flashforward while the voiceover continues. Make use of voiceover, but make sure to do it well!
If this year’s nominated screenplays prove one thing, it’s that the “one-minute of screen time per page” rule doesn’t hold up. Parasite clocks in at 141 pages, Marriage Story at 152, The Irishman at 145, Joker at a slim 102 — for better or worse, it’s fair to say that this is more of a guideline than an actual rule.
As screenwriters, it can be tough to not overexplain. Pages in a script are so skinny, and white space is the screenwriter’s friend. It’s a difficulty that also applies to our characters. The best screenwriters leave room for the actors to inhabit their characters, to fill them up and bring them to life when the cameras start rolling. This means not including every detail of a character’s personality or physical appearance, but instead choosing only the most crucial. Taika Waititi allowed Scarlett Johansson to create and inhabit Frau Betzler, and Steven Zaillian, Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won, Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, and Rian Johnson did the same. They knew that the actors would imbue their characters with more than they could put in words on the page, and they trusted them to do it successfully.
Parasite, Jojo Rabbit, The Irishman, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, 1917, Marriage Story, The Two Popes, Joker, Little Women, Knives Out. The 10 screenwriters nominated for Oscars this year knew one very important thing about screenwriting — you must take your audience on a journey. Whether it be through the trenches, into homes of the incredibly wealthy, back in time, through generations, behind closed doors in the Vatican, or on a descent into madness, the audience must feel as though they’ve been along for one hell of a ride by the time the story reaches its conclusion.
And speaking of conclusions… in an interview with John August on the Scriptnotes podcast, Greta Gerwig discussed how she structured her screenplay so that seeing Jo March hold her book at the end of Little Women was the ending audiences didn’t know they wanted. While it’s a great piece of advice for screenwriters, it also applies to many of this year’s nominees. Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns bring their narrative full circle in 1917 when Schofield finally sits down again with his back against a tree, and Steven Zaillian gets it by having Frank ask the priest to leave his door open a little. Rian Johnson does it in Knives Out when Marta looks down on the Thrombey family from the balcony, her coffee mug’s pointed message clear as day. Taika Waititi provides a triumphant ending when Jojo and Elsa dance together in their newly liberated town. Figure out how to give the audience the ending they didn’t know they wanted, and your ending will be perfect.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.
Photo Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
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