Any writer knows the sinking feeling: This line, this draft, this entire project, is not quite working. Time to face that frustratingly blank page again. Revisions are not any easier when the starting point involves someone else's words.
David O. Russell wrote 20 drafts of the screenplay for Silver Linings Playbook, based on a novel by Matthew Quick. Ol Parker did 43, for four directors, before The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was done. Tony Kushner's first pass at Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and other sources, was 500 pages long.
Lucy Alibar, right, who adapted Beasts of the Southern Wild with its director, Benh Zeitlin, from her own one-act play, found that her highly personal material needed to be rethought almost entirely for the screen. Chris Terrio spent a year researching the facts behind Argo, then worried that he was straying too far into fiction.
Here these writers, all hopefuls for the best adapted screenplay Oscar — along with contenders like Stephen Chbosky for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, David Magee for Life of Pi and Ben Lewin for The Sessions — share details about their process, inspiration and doggedness to get every word just right.
Alibar's one-act play Juicy and Delicious, performed for a few weeks in New York in 2007, was based on her relationship with her father, a small-town defense lawyer who got paid in livestock as often as cash. To make the play into a film, she first had to learn how to construct a screenplay; Zeitlin lent her his college film syllabus. During their stint at the Sundance Labs they further winnowed the story, about a child and her dying father in a mystical bayou community. At first, Alibar said, "there were like five movies in there."
But much of what Alibar wrote had to be retailored for the cast, especially the star, Quvenzhane Wallis, who was 6 when filming began. The protagonist of the play was a little boy; the monologues became voice-overs, recorded when Wallis was 8.
"I was really concerned that some of the text might be elevated or theatrical," said Alibar, who spent time on the Louisiana set with Wallis. "But she nailed it."
Back home in New York, Alibar wrote the voice-over sections, mindful of both Zeitlin's instructions and her young star's voice and personality. Wallis has "this wonderful way of talking about things that's a little bit metaphorical," Alibar said. "I knew there was a lot I could get away with."
In dramatizing Argo Terrio had a wealth of source material: not only a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman that recounted the Hollywood-style rescue of Americans from 1970s Iran, but also the autobiography of the Central Intelligence Agency officer who directed the mission, Tony Mendez. Mendez, now retired, introduced Terrio around the CIA campus in Langley, Va., which helped set the tone for the script.
"How banal it seems," Terrio said. "It looks like any community college anywhere in the world. I think that informs Argo." But keeping the script grounded in reality also made plotting a challenge. "You're trying to establish an espionage thriller," he said. "But you're not showing some evil madman with a missile in his hangar. You're trying to do it through words and people arguing."
If the first act of the movie, setting up the personalities and political drama, asked a lot of the audience, the final act was even tougher, especially since the outcome was well known.
"I spent months pulling my hair out about the ending," Terrio said, fretting that the real-life people whose lives the film chronicled would find it false. "I was reading things like The Defense of Poesy," the 16th-century text arguing for the power of fiction, he said.
In the end Terrio and Ben Affleck, the director and star, decided it was fine to use a little creative license.
"We could really use every technique available in cinema, which is sight and sound and tension and the ringing phone and the wheels of the car, to really get under the skin of the audience, to say that you should doubt what you know about what happened," Terrio said.
David O. Russell
The emotional instability at the heart of Silver Linings Playbook had an instant, personal appeal for David O. Russell because his teenage son has some of the same behavioral issues Quick explored in Silver Linings, his 2008 debut novel. Russell, who was also directing, wanted to make a film that reflected his experience, in its difficult and hopeful moments.
After The Fighter, the 2010 Boston boxing drama that earned him an Oscar nomination for directing, Russell also discovered he had an affinity for big family stories set in rowdy neighborhoods. "That's as enchanting to me as the story," he said, "the way they live, the way they eat, the way they cook."
He wrote the part of the father with his friend Robert De Niro in mind, and De Niro lobbied for Bradley Cooper, with whom he starred in Limitless, to play his son. "They were very comfortable and close to each other" already, Russell said. That Cooper is from Philadelphia, where the movie is set, was another bonus.
"The fact that we had Italian food cooking in the house that smelled like my mother's house, and Bradley's mother's house, was everything," Russell said.
He also gave his son a small part, as a neighbor who wants to make a video about Cooper's character.
"He had to earn the privilege of doing it, by doing well at school," Russell said with pride.
Hired by the producer Graham Broadbent to adapt Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things, Parker spent 31/2 years revising The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a process he called "a nightmare that I hope to never repeat."
The parade of directors each wanted something different, he said. "Can they take a journey, like in City Slickers?" one asked. Another version called for the story, about a retirees' hotel in India, to skew younger — "Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan, hanging on a beach in Goa and taking drugs," Parker said.
By the time John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) came on to direct, Parker had had it. "I was like, I'm done, I hate the film, I'm written out," he said. "John, in his ruthlessly polite way, wouldn't let me quit."
Instead Parker spent months on the set in India, writing dialogue specifically for the cast. "Bill Nighy has an idiosyncratic delivery," he said. With Maggie Smith "you think you're having a touching moment, and she says something lacerating." (Playing a racist yet heartwarming biddy, Smith is a best-supporting-actress hopeful.)
But it was Judi Dench who was instrumental in getting the film made, and made with the right demographic.
"I did a disgraceful thing to get Judi to do the movie, which was heinously embarrassing, that I've never told her," Parker said. After seeing that Dench was known to say "What larks, Pip!" — a phrase from Charles Dickens — "I plopped that into the script," Parker said.
"Judi's daughter read the script first," he continued, "and got to that part and said, 'Oh my God, Mum, you have to do this, because she talks exactly like you.'"
For all the historical research he did for Lincoln, the writing that most excited Kushner was the made-up stuff. "Especially the stuff behind the scenes," with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Lincoln discussing the 13th Amendment.
"There are no records at all," Kushner said. "We know that it happened, but we don't know what was said. They didn't leave a paper trail. So that gives you room to dramatize."
Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize- winning playwright, used newspaper and witness accounts to help with the speechifying in the House of Representatives, but "they didn't actually transcribe in the 19th century," he said. "They sort of reported in a narrative, and senators or congressmen would submit what they had said.
"As long as I stayed true to the historical moment, I felt like I had the right to invent."
During the course of the year that Daniel Day-Lewis prepared to play Lincoln, Kushner worked with him on shaping the president's oratory. "He wanted to go through the stories," Kushner said. "I don't know that he feels that he's a natural storyteller, and Lincoln was, so he wanted to make sure that the stories fit in his mouth well." (Still, Day-Lewis kept the accent he was developing to himself. "The first time I heard him as Lincoln was on the first day of shooting," Kushner said.)
Kushner can take credit for burnishing a long Lincolnian anecdote with a punch line involving an outhouse. "I turned it into my own version of it," he said. But "I'm certain that he told that story," he added. "He had a fondness, often, for toilet humor."