Written in blood

Special to The Times

Trend-spotting is a treasured sport when Academy Award nominations are announced. The revelations each year can range from the affirming (minorities make inroads) to the yawningly trivial (each nominated movie features a scene in a coffee shop).

But this year, with the screenplay nominations of Chris & Paul Weitz for "About a Boy," Alfonso & Carlos Cuaron for "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and Charlie & Donald Kaufman for "Adaptation," the Oscars reflect a flowering subgenre of film artist: sibling teams.

What initially seemed a quaint factoid when Joel and Ethan Coen broke onto the scene is now practically a movement: Witness the prominence of the brothers Hughes, Farrelly and Wachowski; and indie staples the Polish brothers, the Dardennes from Belgium, plus the sisters Sprecher.

Call it a kind of sibling revelry in the movie industry these days. With filmmaking a notoriously collaborative medium, a partnership based in family can have an advantage. Says Paul Weitz, "In film, there's always another person, and it's better to have it be your brother than anybody else."

Y tu hermano tambien

Alfonso Cuaron confesses to a certain guilt about luring his book-minded younger brother Carlos -- who as a student had novelistic dreams of being another Garcia Marquez or Fuentes -- into working in movies. "He was married to this beautiful, amazingly great woman called Literature," says Alfonso, "and then I introduced him to the hooker that is Screenwriting."

Carlos traces it back even further, to a time when Alfonso was a 12-year-old who knew his filmmaking destiny and Carlos was a reluctant 7-year-old "prop." "Every time I saw the guy coming with his camera, I was like, 'No! Not again!' "

But by 1999, when Carlos got a call from Alfonso to resurrect a 10-year-old idea about two boys on a road trip to the beach that would eventually become the Alfonso-directed hit "Y Tu Mama Tambien," the Mexico City-raised brothers had found each other to be indispensable collaborators.

"For us, working is telepathic," says Alfonso, 41, who first worked with Carlos in Mexican TV in the '80s and made his feature debut with Carlos' script for the 1992 comedy "Love in the Time of Hysteria."

"The hardest thing is to decide what project to do. But once we start, we allow a stream of consciousness to come out." Also emerging, Carlos says, is their inner teenage boy. "I don't think we have ever left adolescence," says Carlos, 36. "Tenoch and Julio are not based on ourselves, but they are based on our common reality."

The brothers hashed out "Y Tu Mama" over 10 days in the garden of Alfonso's New York home, where the raucous camaraderie of the pair -- not to mention the "stupid guys" they were writing about -- hardly seemed like toiling. Adds Alfonso, "My son was saying, 'When are you going to start working?' Because we were just laughing."

Not that arguments aren't common. Since Alfonso is usually the director, Carlos -- who has directed many shorts and is hoping to get a feature going -- knows how to pick battles. "Cosmetic things I don't want to fight about, like 'I want that lollipop to be blue.' It's stupid because the director is going to win, but we have discussions and fights regarding character and plot."

The beefs, he says, are more about their roles than about their dynamic as brothers. "I can tell you that he's allowed to answer phone calls and get distracted, but I am not," says Carlos, laughing.

But no matter whose project it is, they see themselves always seeking the other for that special shorthand. "We evolve ideas very quickly," says Alfonso. "Even if he didn't write the script, we start talking and in one night I have more clarity than struggling with a story by myself or with another writer."

Working apart together

Chris and Paul Weitz may have to be on set together as directors, but writing, they realize, must be done separately. Otherwise, says Paul, 37, "we would leap at and strangle each other."

Chris, 33, explains the process that has proven to be most harmonious. "We break everything down very carefully beforehand, know exactly what everyone's supposed to write, and then we take each scene back to our lair and gnaw over it like a dog worrying a bone until it's at the point you can swap it over. That keeps us from killing one another."

The two were, however, a joined-at-the-hip comedy team in their childhood, dreaming up zonked-out bits with absurd characters. "When you're kids, you have all these in-jokes and weird skits you do in order to survive the dominance of your parents," says Paul, "so it was an oddly natural thing for us to work together."

Much has been written about the Weitzes' storied heritage: a famous fashion designer father (John, who died last year), an Academy Award-nominated actress mom (Susan Kohner), an agent grandfather who repped Billy Wilder and John Huston (Paul Kohner). "It's usually a crippling blow to have had one's parents be successful," says Paul. "We grew up wealthy, but we also grew up with a lot of really rich kids, and to see them stumble and fall into a Unabomber-like seclusion later in life has been educational."

Says Chris, who attended Cambridge in England and very nearly joined the State Department at 21 before starting to collaborate with then-struggling playwright Paul, "Characters who are completely full of themselves are a recurring theme in our movies, from the Sherminator in 'American Pie' to [Hugh Grant's character] Will in 'About a Boy.' [Will] has this very philosophically ordered life but it's of no value whatsoever."

What especially moved the Weitzes to adapt Nick Hornby's novel -- apart from moving beyond the gross-out humor label that directing "American Pie" had given them -- was the chance to balance sentiment and cynicism. "That's one strain I think we try to have run through everything we do," says Paul. (Credited co-screenwriter Peter Hedges wrote the first draft before the Weitzes took over the project, restoring a faithfulness to the book.)

Isolation also being a theme in "About a Boy," is it ever an issue for a two-headed partnership? Says Paul, "The sting in the tail of being brothers is that it's easy not to pay attention to the friendship."

Chris adds, "We probably forget to do normal brotherly things like hanging out, shooting the breeze and watching sports, because we spend so much time together working. Was it Michael Powell who called collaboration 'marriage without sex'?"

But neither sees solo projects as an option. One might take the lead on something, but, as Paul says, "the other would have his back." As far as Paul is concerned, they're living the dream they envisioned when they were letting their imaginations run wild as kids. "The thing about being a brother team is you manage to extend your childhood into your adulthood."

Figment of a nomination

It wasn't until Charlie Kaufman's script for "Adaptation" was well on its way to status as a Hollywood original that he heard what producer Ed Saxon really thought when he saw the name Donald next to Charlie's on the title page.

"He felt that I had farmed out part of the script," says Kaufman, whose sinuous reimagining of Susan Orlean's nonfiction "The Orchid Thief" incorporates Kaufman himself and a brother. "He assumed it was a relation of mine and was at first kind of angry."

The famously reclusive Kaufman never admits that his credited collaborator isn't real, but he will say that adding Donald as a character -- offering hackneyed platitudes about screenwriting that contrast with Charlie's tortured ideals -- helped enliven a story about the writing process.

"Having somebody alone in a room writing creates problems for the filmmaker," says Kaufman. "Maybe it's a practical way of portraying something that's pretty solitary [so it] isn't completely internal. It gives Charlie's opinions an opportunity to be heard in opposition to somebody else's."

He may have sole credit on his other screenplays ("Being John Malkovich") but brother or not, he views all screenwriting as a collaboration, even if it's with himself. "It's a technique I developed out of necessity," says Kaufman, who cites a breakup with a trusted writing partner years ago as having a paralyzing effect on his work.

"When you're working with somebody else, there's always some other idea coming from somewhere else, as opposed to just from the stuff that's always in your head. That gets kind of circular after a while."

Kaufman says two things helped unblock him: an enforced distance on material "so that I could interact with it again as a separate person," and purposely putting together "disparate ideas."

"I have ideas for stories that aren't meant to go together, and I throw them together to force myself into a situation I don't know the outcome of," he says. "I think that's like collaborating."

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