The pre-Oscar wave of acclaim surrounding independent films continued Thursday with the announcement of the 49th annual Writers Guild of America nominees, which leaned more toward the offbeat than the mainstream.
The independent film writers nominated for best original screenplay were Joel and Ethan Coen (Gramercy’s “Fargo”), John Sayles (Castle Rock’s “Lone Star”), Mike Leigh (October Films’ “Secrets & Lies”) and Jan Sardi and Scott Hicks (Fine Line’s “Shine”). Cameron Crowe rounded out the nominations for TriStar’s “Jerry Maguire.”
Five of the seven nominees are double-threats, having directed their screenplays. Joel Coen directed the black comedy “Fargo,” while Hicks, who wrote the story on which Sardi’s screenplay was based, directed the true-life music drama “Shine.”
Sardi, speaking from his home in Australia, was very excited with his nomination, calling it a continuation of the “ ‘Shine’ phenomenon.” The film, based on the true story of pianist David Helfgott, his mental breakdown and his recovery, has been a popular and critical success, has won numerous awards and is expected to earn some Oscar nominations next Tuesday.
“What this nomination shows is that any story can work,” Sardi said. “You don’t need big heroes or gold medals. The scope of independent films is in telling more original stories.”
The nomination of Leigh for “Secrets & Lies” caught some by surprise, due to the unconventional development of the script. As with all his films, Leigh works with his cast for months to construct the script from scratch with improvisation and rehearsing.
Independent fare also dominated the category of best screenplay based on material previously produced or published. The independent nominees, all from Miramax, included Douglas McGrath for “Emma,” Anthony Minghella for “The English Patient,” John Hodge for “Trainspotting” and Billy Bob Thornton for “Sling Blade,” based on his short film.
Elaine May rounded out the category with United Artists’ “The Birdcage,” her adaptation of the screenplay and stage play “La Cage aux Folles.”
Thornton said he was “numb” but extremely pleased with the nomination.
“I think this signifies that the Writers Guild is loosening up a little,” said Thornton, who also starred in and directed “Sling Blade,” which revolves around the mildly retarded Karl Childers (Thornton) after his release from a mental institution in the South where he has been incarcerated for 25 years for the murder of his mother and her lover. The tale becomes a parable of good and evil as Karl befriends a young boy who is being terrorized by his widowed mother’s lover (Dwight Yoakam).
“Independent films seem to be in the mainstream these days,” Thornton said. “Now it’s OK to look at something other than the commercial movies.”
Notable for their absence in the nominations, despite their offbeat nature, were Columbia’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and Paramount’s “Mother,” which have been among the year’s most talked about and honored screenplays.
The “Flynt” screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, which chronicles the public and private battles of the controversial Hustler publisher, won the Golden Globe, while the “Mother” script by Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson, about a grown man’s tense relationship with his mother, was named best screenplay by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.
Writers nominated for original television movies included Richard Alfieri and Susan Nanus for “Hallmark’s Hall of Fame’s” “Harvest of Fire” on CBS, Tim Cagney for the Family Channel’s “Stolen Memories: Secrets From the Rose Garden,” Stephanie Liss for Lifetime’s “Hidden in Silence” and David W. Rintels for TNT’s “Andersonville, Part Two.”
In the category of adapted television movies, the nominees included William Blinn for CBS’ “The Boys Next Door,” Christopher Carlson & Mark Jean for Showtime’s “Homecoming” and Lionel Chetwynd for TNT’s “Kissinger and Nixon: Peace at Hand.”
Writers were also nominated for episodes of “Law & Order,” “Murder One,” “The X-Files,” “Party of Five,” “NYPD Blue,” “Seinfeld” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”
Winners will be announced March 16 at Writers Guild ceremonies in New York and Beverly Hills.