With 10 nominated films spread across two categories, the original and adapted screenplay Oscar nominees could be seen as something akin to an alternate take on best picture.
And with a mix of mainstream, commercial hits rubbing against more refined art house delicacies, plus a number of films that walk the boundary between the two, six of the 10 films, in fact, are best-picture nominees.
Presumed sure-things (and past winners) such as Aaron Sorkin for "Steve Jobs" and Quentin Tarantino for "The Hateful Eight" were passed over for an eclectic group of nominees. Fifteen writers received their first nomination in the category, including four women.
Nominated for adapted screenplay are Nick Hornby for "Brooklyn," Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for "The Big Short," Phyllis Nagy for "Carol," Drew Goddard for "The Martian" and Emma Donoghue for "Room."
Nominated in the category of original screenplay are Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen for "Bridge of Spies," Alex Garland for "Ex Machina," Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley for "Inside Out" (Original story by Docter and Ronnie del Carmen), Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for "Spotlight" and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff for "Straight Outta Compton" (story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Berloff).
"Inside Out" also was nominated in the best animated film category, so co-screenwriter and director Docter now has eight Academy Award nominations, including one win. "Inside Out" imagines the emotional world inside the head of an 11-year-old girl.
In a phone call Thursday morning, Docter said the screenplay nomination is "very meaningful" for the way it breaks the film out for broader consideration.
"People have generally an asterisk next to animated films in their heads," he said from his home in the San Francisco area. "For so many years, they've really been geared toward families and kids, but we really think of them as just films. We're trying to make movies that we as adults would want to see.
"I'll be honest, we made it for us," Docter added. "But, of course, you know that kids will see it too. So you want to be sure that there's plenty there for everybody."
Another box-office hit to land a nomination for screenwriting was "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. In adapting Andy Weir's novel, about an astronaut struggling to survive when he is accidentally stranded on Mars, writer Goddard came to a startling realization.
" 'The Martian' wasn't about loneliness," Goddard recently wrote for the L.A. Times' The Envelope. "Or, at least, it wasn't concerned with the standard depiction of loneliness. There was an optimism in the face of despair that felt unique. In some ways, it felt like a religious story: A man is trapped by himself in the wilderness and has to rely on his faith to save him. But in this case, the religion in question was science."
A different sort of survival story was Randolph and McKay's adaptation of Michael Lewis' nonfiction book "The Big Short," which examined the financial crisis of the late 2000s and a small group of financial sector outliers who not only saw it coming, but managed to turn a profit off it as well. The cast includes Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale.
As directed by McKay, best known for broad, sharp comedies such as "Step Brothers," the film — which grapples with complex financial ideas while making them understandable to the audiences — is at once explanatory and entertaining.
"Doing those simultaneously was always the challenge," Randolph said in a phone call from Los Angeles. "And not just entertaining, but comedic in a certain way, to find the absurdities, to find those sorts of moments. It was a huge challenge."
"Bridge of Spies" screenwriter Charman first came across the name of New York insurance lawyer James Donovan in a footnote of a biography he was reading on President John F. Kennedy. This led to his researching the story of how Donovan was enlisted by the U.S. government to lead the defense of an accused Russian spy in 1957 and then negotiate for the return of U.S. citizens held prisoner in East Berlin.
Charman's pitch caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, and the writer soon found himself handing over a draft to the Coen brothers. Rather than be intimidated by the rare company, Charman relished the specificity of the opportunity.
"It was the most amazing film school," Charman said Thursday from his office in London. "You've got Steven Spielberg and the Coen brothers. A big feeling for me was these people may never be in the same room together again on a project. Just listening to Steven and Joel and Ethan talking and being able to take drafts they did and feeling the baton passed back to me. Suddenly I'm sitting next to Steven Spielberg hearing the words I've written coming out of Tom Hanks' mouth. It was incredible."
The road to bringing "Carol" to the screen has been a long one, with screenwriter Nagy first becoming involved with the project sometime in late 1990s. The film is adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, best known for thrillers such as "Strangers on a Train" and with whom Nagy had a friendship in the last years of the author's life. (Highsmith died in 1995.) The film is both a swept-away romance, an enigmatically unfixed psychological study and an examination of dynamic shifts in power and perspective.
"There's a certain level of category it defies," Nagy said from Los Angeles on Thursday, "and I think that's good. That means we all made the movie we set out to make, which you can't easily define. It's like quicksilver; the minute you call it a lesbian film, you have to rethink that a bit.
"Not to diminish it. It's important that it is that and that is there, but it's more than that," Nagy said. "And I think that's where people might sometimes struggle for words to properly describe it. And perhaps one day we won't have to have that conversation."
For Singer, co-screenwriter along with director McCarthy on "Spotlight," it was the promise of what he called "the nerding-out phase," doing extensive research before beginning to craft a story, that initially drew him in. The pair met extensively with the reporters from the Boston Globe who first broke the story of sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church and the church's efforts to shield abusive priests. From there, they did research and interviews on their own, in a sense reporting the screenplay they were about to write.
"They're good people, they're good reporters and they're good fun," Singer said Thursday from Los Angeles of the journalists who would go on to be portrayed by the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. "So spending time with them was really just a blast. It was one of the things that sort of sucked you in. And beyond that, we always knew there was a chance the story could create a conversation, get people talking about the importance of local journalism and longform reporting. For me, it was incredibly motivating."
Among the most talked about nominations this year was the screenplay nomination for "Straight Outta Compton." It was the only Oscar nomination for the film, which had been a box-office and critical hit and had scored nominations from groups such as the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild.
The film, directed by F. Gary Gray, tells the story of the influential rap group N.W.A, which arose from South Central Los Angeles to worldwide recognition. Recently for The Times' The Envelope, screenwriters Herman and Berloff chronicled their experiences in bringing the story to life. The writers spent months interviewing the surviving members of the group and others who lived out the story.
"We knew that 'Straight Outta Compton' could be more than a musical biopic for a specialized audience," they wrote. "We intended to use the story of N.W.A to create an event movie about America, a movie that explored the themes of freedom of speech, of race, of police abuse and more.
"Wrapped up in all of those big ideas, there would be a story about intense friendship between young African American men, a group that doesn't often get their turn in the spotlight," they said. "And we hoped that these men and their journey would resonate with anyone who has ever been young, ambitious and passionate."