A tale of intrigue and murder at an English country estate, a sprawling, action-filled adaptation of a beloved fantasy novel and an exploration into the dark world of mental illness were among the screenplays the Writers Guild of America nominated Thursday as the best of 2001, setting up one of the toughest races to handicap in this hotly contested Oscar season.
Original screenplay nominations went to Julian Fellowes for USA Films' class-conscious British murder mystery "Gosford Park"; Joel and Ethan Coen for USA Films' wryly noirish "The Man Who Wasn't There"; Milo Addica and Will Rokos for Lions Gate Films' racially-charged drama "Monster's Ball"; Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce for 20th Century Fox's energetically stylized musical "Moulin Rouge"; and Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson for Touchstone Pictures' dark comedy about an eccentric family, "The Royal Tenenbaums."
Among screenplays based on material previously produced or published, nominated material covered real-life events, popular novels and even a comic book.
Those films included Akiva Goldsman for Universal Pictures' "A Beautiful Mind," about Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, whose battle to overcome schizophrenia was chronicled in Sylvia Nasar's book; and Ken Nolan for Columbia Pictures' "Black Hawk Down," a screenplay based on a best-selling book by Mark Bowden about U.S. military forces under attack in Somalia.
Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis were also nominated for Miramax Films' romantic comedy "Bridget Jones's Diary," which evolved from Fielding's novel; Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff for United Artists' offbeat drama "Ghost World," which was spawned from Clowes' cult comic; and Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson for New Line Cinema's epic fantasy spectacle "The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring."
Five of the 10 screenplays were co-written by the directors of the respective movies, including Joel Coen, Luhrmann and Anderson in the original screenplay category and Zwigoff and Jackson for adapted screenplay.
A Number of Movies Not Eligible for Awards
In the competitive atmosphere leading up to Tuesday's announcement of Academy Award nominations, Hollywood is keeping close tabs on every other key nomination, and the Writers Guild's selections are no exception. "A Beautiful Mind," "Moulin Rouge," "Black Hawk Down" and "The Lord of the Rings" are all considered strong Oscar contenders for best picture.
Curiously, a number of celebrated movies were not eligible for Writers Guild awards this year because at the time the films were made the companies that hired the writers were not signatories to the collective bargaining agreement with the guild, even though the writers may have been guild members.
One of the more glaring examples is Miramax's "In the Bedroom," which was named best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and has received various awards for its stars Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, including a Golden Globe for Spacek.
Also ineligible were the intriguing mystery-told-backward "Memento," whose director, Christopher Nolan, is up for a Directors Guild award this year, as well as DreamWorks' "Shrek" and Disney/Pixar's "Monsters, Inc.," two blockbuster feature-length animated films that won the hearts of many filmgoers this year.
Why can't these two successful and critically acclaimed animated studio releases be recognized by the WGA, while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has even established an entire new category just for animated movies this year?
The guild explained that "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." could have been considered, but neither DreamWorks nor Pixar signed a special agreement covering animation that would have allowed them to be eligible if they would have agreed to permit the guild to determine writing credits for animation projects in the years 2002 and 2003. Under those circumstances, the guild said it would have accepted the writing credits for films released in 2001.
Pixar said the company did not even submit "Monsters, Inc." for WGA consideration, while a spokesman for DreamWorks said the studio did inquire if the guild could accept "Shrek" in the best screenplay adaptation category, but the guild stressed that neither qualified because the companies had declined to sign the agreement.
There has been speculation that the failure of "In the Bedroom" and "Memento" to qualify for a WGA award could hurt their chances in the Oscar writing categories, but Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary went on to win the 1994 Academy Award for "Pulp Fiction," even though that film didn't qualify for a WGA nomination, and the next year Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar for "The Usual Suspects" without having that film nominated by the guild.
Still, there is nothing like the recognition of one's peers, Akiva Goldsman said Thursday morning.
"It's extraordinary," Goldsman said by phone from New York. "You go to your first writing class and read aloud to other people who write and those are always the people who are your best critics. They know what you do every day. It's a funny, odd, twisted vocation, this writing."
'Rings' Writing Team Faced Difficult Challenges
The writing team of Walsh and Boyens, speaking by phone from Wellington, New Zealand, said the nomination was "the highest compliment" they could imagine.
The challenge facing them, the two women said, was not only staying true to J.R.R. Tolkien's work, but taking a story that seemed almost impossible to turn into a movie and bring those characters to life by fitting them in a cinematic structure.
There were times during the long production, they admitted, when things looked so bleak, that one writer looked at the other and joked, "Please kill me!"
"It was the middle of the year 2000 and [director] Peter [Jackson] had already been shooting 200-something days and we were in a constant revision process," Boyens recalled.
Writing, she added, is "pretty messy" anyway, but "it was also exhilarating in a way."
The Writers Guild Awards will take place March 2 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and simultaneously at the Pierre Hotel in New York.