The 10 films nominated for screenwriting Oscars this year tell a wide range of stories, about the extraordinariness of ordinary people (a young man coming of age in "Boyhood," a ruthless paparazzo climbing the ranks in "Nightcrawler") and the ordinariness of extraordinary people (a genius mathematician struggling to connect in "The Imitation Game," a highly decorated soldier trying to find his way home in "American Sniper").
To realize those stories on screen, the writers often had to go outside their comfort zones, and Hollywood's as well.
"Everything was sort of like a new thing, and we had to learn every step of how to make this film, how to write it," said Nicolas Giacobone, co-writer of the idiosyncratic black comedy "Birdman," a nominee for original screenplay.
Written with Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, "Birdman" tells the story of a washed-up superhero actor (played by Michael Keaton) who grapples with his insecurities while trying to mount a Broadway play. Writing the film involved weaving together four different voices and laying the foundation for a visually daring film that presents the illusion of being shot in a single take.
"We had an initial meeting in New York, the four of us, and then we did a lot of skyping when we were bearing out the idea and fleshing out what the content was going to be," Dinelaris said. "Alejandro came to us with the idea of a film in one shot, and theater, Riggan Thomson, Birdman all followed."
Giacobone said the challenges presented by the film ultimately motivated them. "I think that for a writer, facing a huge question mark all the time … it's very useful. It's how special things happen at the end."
Also nominated for original screenplay Thursday were Richard Linklater for "Boyhood," E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman for "Foxcatcher," Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness for "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and Dan Gilroy for "Nightcrawler."
Contending for adapted screenplay are Jason Hall for "American Sniper," Paul Thomas Anderson for "Inherent Vice," Anthony McCarten for "The Theory of Everything," Damien Chazelle for "Whiplash" and Graham Moore for "The Imitation Game."
Moore, who had long been fascinated by the British mathematician and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), was determined to tell the man's little-known story.
"When you say 'gay, English, mathematician, suicide,' those are not buzz words that typically light up the faces of Hollywood executives," Moore said. "And I always knew it was a very difficult story to tell, but at the same time a very important one, and one that deserved to be told on screen."
For "Sniper" screenwriter Hall, he didn't know what story he'd find, if any, when he traveled to Texas to meet Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), the Iraq war veteran known as the most lethal marksman in U.S. military history.
"He was just out of the war only nine months, and they were going to write a book on him and do all this stuff," Hall recalled. "But you could tell there was a lot of turmoil going on with him, and you could see it in his eyes. I honestly didn't know if there was a story there until I saw his wife and kid come in the next day and I saw a difference in him, I saw the lights come on. And you realize this guy was suffering from spending a decade at war or training for war, and he was still trying to find his way back and it was going to be a long road."
"Nightcrawler" writer (and first-time director) Dan Gilroy also found inspiration in an unlikely place: the world of Los Angeles' nocturnal news-chasers.
"I heard about these stringers who go out at night, these freelance videographers," Gilroy said. "When I heard about this group of people who did this job in Los Angeles, I became very fascinated by it, researched it and came up with the character," an unscrupulous but captivating loner played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Like "Birdman" and other fellow nominees, "Nightcrawler" is a unique, unconventional vision, and Gilroy said it was gratifying to see such films recognized.
"Most theaters these days are showing sequels and spectacle-driven films," Gilroy said, "so to have films that are lower-budget, that come at storytelling in a different way, that aren't driven so much by visual effects — for somebody who tells stories, that keeps me warm at night."
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