Monday, May 27, 2013

One more about screenwriting

My last two posts were about Django Unchained and the state of screenwriting so perhaps it's inevitable that I'd get to the fact that Django won the Oscar for best original screenplay.  And the year before that Midnight in Paris.  Both seem somewhat odd choices.  Nobody expects the Academy to actually choose the best anything but Django is unusually disorganized and quite unfocused while Midnight is basically a bland Twilight Zone reject.

But those are judgments of taste, at least to some degree, and clearly many people would disagree.  Moving to more factual ground it's worth noting that both films very deliberately remove politics from their historical subjects.  Midnight is set in Paris during a time of great artistic creativity but there are no French characters in it except for a brief Cocteau cameo.  All of that activity becomes a mere backdrop to the Americans.  The war becomes just a bit for Hemingway.  And the surrealists are portrayed as mere clowns with not the slightest mention of their constant political activities ranging from Communist provocations to (verbally) attacking priests in the streets.  Django portrays slavery as just the whims of sadists or lazy landowners and not a long-lived and vast institution that had governmental, religious and social support.

But really what's most interesting about these writing Oscars is that while they're for writing a screenplay voters apparently don't have to read the screenplay to vote.  I checked the rules and didn't find any mention or other restrictions (though it's possible there's something not in the rules on the website).  Django for instance was filmed from a larger screenplay and was adjusted during filming and editing.  According to many reports at least one fairly large sub-plot was eliminated while others were reduced, expanded or had emphasis changed.  None of this is particularly unusual though there does appear to have been a bit more for Django.  Another Year was nominated in 2010 and Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008 but Leigh's films often use much improvisation.  Several Pixar films had writing nominations but Pixar's famous highly collaborative filmmaking method almost can't be described as writing, certainly not in the traditional sense of a first script that's then produced.

The point is how can the finished film be used to judge a screenplay when at least in this case you only have a rough sense of what the screenplay was like?  Sure Academy members are film professionals and would have a much better idea of the screenplay from the finished product than, say, me.  But in cases where there are extensive changes, improvisation and what have you it's just impossible to know.  (It's doesn't help that the Academy is invitation-only with no public membership list - the Oscars are proof that they've never had any idea about genuine film art but even on a more trivial level we just don't really know who's voting.)  I don't know anything about the production of Midnight in Paris but from what I've heard about Allen's previous work it was probably a tight shoot that followed the script closely.  But the point is that I don't know - maybe Allen did have all the French life in it but took that out during filming and editing.  Maybe the lead character was a woman in the script (which at least might have removed the whiff of misogyny that the film has).

I also noticed that the adapted screenplay category has a few odd choices.  Toy Story 3 goes into "adapted" just because it uses characters from previous films.  It's not really adapted in any meaningful sense.   Similarly the fantastic In the Loop is tagged adapted because one character comes from a TV show (and though some of the actors do they're playing different characters in the movie).