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The creative process can sometimes be highly organized, and others completely ephemeral: for every story that’s been mapped out beat by beat there’s another that arrived completely intact from a writer’s fingers in a feverish outpouring of inspiration. Somewhere in between these extremes is the unglamorous, frequently tedious work of chipping away at an idea, a sequence, or line of dialogue that gets to the heart of what a scribe wants to say — or more precisely, hopes to communicate.

Ahead of the Academy Awards on March 10, Variety spoke with several of the screenwriters nominated in the categories of original and animated screenplay about the scenes they found most difficult to write. Whether it was identifying the kernel of an idea from which the rest of their narrative popped or translating the inspiration of source material (or real life) to something dramatically credible on the page, they explain in their own words how they conquered those challenges en route to Oscar glory.

Samy Burch, “May December” (original screenplay)

Loosely inspired by true events, “May December” follows the relationship between Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) and husband Joe (Charles Melton), who met as pet shop co-workers when he was a teen, as actor Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) prepares to play Gracie in an upcoming film. Though first-time screenwriter Burch skillfully navigated the legal, moral and emotional complexities of the couple’s unconventional romance, she wrestled the most with a scene where Elizabeth receives a letter from early in their courtship that unlocks some powerful, desperately needed truths about Gracie.

“There’s a fractured mirror that we get to see into, finally, that offer some sort of relief,” says Burch, who indicated that the sequence had to hit “three targets at once. We get information about Gracie that we can confirm that she’s lied to us about. It’s a culmination for Elizabeth’s character that this is probably the best she’ll ever perform this role. But more emotionally, it’s almost the closest there is to a flashback.”

Because the scene arrives late in story, the characters’ voices had already become second nature to Burch by then, but she still had several questions to answer simultaneously. “It was just being intentional — for this letter, what does it need to feel like? What do we need to learn?”

To Burch, the revelation of the letter ultimately exposes viewers to the center of an onion — bittersweet and bracing — whose layers she begins peeling the first time Elizabeth meets Gracie and Joe. “It sort of unwraps the foundation that causes all the rest of it,” she says. “My hope was always that whoever watch it would feel this kind of tension and mix of the dark humor and the real genuine sincerity and humanity.”

Arthur Harari, Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall” (original screenplay)

Though it revolves around the trial of a German novelist, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), accused of murdering her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” hinges on the complexities of marriage itself — the love given and harm inflicted, by people sharing deep, long-term intimacy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Triet’s collaborator on its script, her husband, says that a pivotal fight scene between the spouses was the toughest to write, precisely because it had to both indict and exonerate Sandra in the eyes of the audience.

“It scared us, not only because the content had to be subtle and avoid the clichés and ponderousness of this kind of ‘meaningful’ scene, but also because of its dramatic importance,” Harari says. “It needed to live up to the way it had been teased throughout and had to tip the film into a vertiginous dimension with lasting effect on everything that came after.”

Triet says she counted “20 or 30” versions they’d written of the scene before they got it right. “The core of the movie’s in this scene,” she insists. Harari credits her for identifying the north star that gave them a sense of a purpose as they refined what in many moments was a knock-down, drag-out battle between husband and wife. “Justine would say, ‘we need to feel love behind it all,’” he remembers.

Ultimately, they chose to delay an explosion of violence in order to underscore the compassion shared between them rather than the act that marks a point of no return. “They try by all means to continue to communicate, even if it’s a terrible struggle,” he says. “We felt it was important to convey the impression that they still have, or have had, a tenderness and respect that was genuinely loving.”

Adds Triet: “all of the elements were so dense and contradictory — life itself putting you in a naturally occurring conundrum that I had to find a way to portray.”

David Hemingson, “The Holdovers” (original screenplay)

Hemingson has almost three decades of television work as a creator, writer and producer, but “The Holdovers” marks his first feature credit. Telling the story of two boarding school employees assigned to babysit a student over the winter holiday break, Hemingson reverse engineered from his relationship with his own parents a pivotal scene in which Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a mother grieving the loss of her Vietnam veteran son, prepares to watch her sister give birth for the first time.

“Mary’s very much grounded in my feelings toward my mom and how she sacrificed so much for me,” he says. “I did this thought experiment because I lost her quite tragically some years ago and I thought, what if the opposite had been true and what if she’d lost me?”

Hemingson, who is white, struggled to find an expression of Mary’s grief, since the character in his story was a Black pink-collar worker. “This isn’t my lived experience,” he acknowledges. It eventually took a month for him to figure out that the scene needed to unfold wordlessly. “I just felt like I needed to clear everything out and just have it be a pure expression of her grief and her transcendence.”

Despite his misgivings throughout the process, Hemingson says he was encouraged by the trust placed in him by director Alexander Payne as his collaborator. “It was a leap of faith, but when your director believed it, that gave me tremendous confidence,” he says. In retrospect, the scene proved pivotal in connecting the dots of a story he says above all else is about love.

“You’ve got these three very different, very broken people who learn how to connect and heal over this season of miracles,” he says. “And that scene commemorates this idea of finding a way to reach out and use your brokenness.”

Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction (adapted screenplay)

When adapting Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure” for the script to “American Fiction,” first-time writer-director Jefferson wrestled most with the shift between the world of idealistic academic Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and its counterpart depicted in Ellison’s Black-lit parody “My Pafology.” “It had to be a scene that was cinematic, that was brief, but also that forced the audience to lean forward in their seats a little bit and pay attention to what was going on,” Jefferson says.

The moment follows a scene in which Monk witnesses a recitation of material from fellow author Sintara Golden, whose novel “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” embodies everything he hates about popular Black literature. “Sintara is the villain of the story in Monk’s mind,” Jefferson says. “So Jeffrey gives us this little sly grin and sort of this giggle before he starts writing, not realizing what a bad decision he’s making right now.”

Jefferson worried that viewers wouldn’t take Monk’s cartoonish “Pafology” seriously as a counterpart to Sintara’s overwrought but earnest prose. “I thought that that people were going to be rolling in the aisles at how ridiculous it was,” he recalls. “But then the seriousness with which actors that we got were performing allows us to believe that this could be a best seller.”

As it came together, the scene proved as revealing about Monk as it was pivotal to his story. “We’ve seen him be loaded up with frustrations, and now we’re going to see what happens when he tries to exercise these demons,” he says. “This is a guy who doesn’t really allow him himself to be playful in front of people, so this is very much a window into his private life.”

Tony McNamara, “Poor Things (adapted screenplay)

Based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, “Poor Things” explores the life of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young Victorian woman “invented” in the Frankensteinian laboratory of scientist God- win Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Her origins prove decidedly more complex: Bella’s body was fished out of the Thames after dying by suicide to escape her sadistic husband, Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott). But introducing the about-face of this back story — and Alfie — after two hours of Bella’s misadventures would be a considerable challenge for McNamara.

“Bringing in a character who the audience didn’t know and had never heard at about at the two-hour mark of the movie seemed fraught with danger,” McNamara says. “It was the challenge of making Alfie in a way he would be the darkest character but not losing the comic tone.”

McNamara discovered that introducing other new characters from Bella’s former life could be a gateway to contextualizing Alfie and the life she was desperate to escape. “His troubled relationship with the servants, I thought, would make it weird and funny, and tell you a lot about what her world had been.” Watching Alfie terrorize his wait staff, viewers wouldn’t need further expository passages.

Additionally, he believed that Bella’s willingness to go with Alfie without even knowing him would shield her from his menace, tonally if not narratively. “I felt the version of Bella I’d created would want to actively go,” McNamara suggests. “She has no fear, she is all courage and adventure. So once I went with that idea of her just choosing to go, and added in this weirdo household Alfie ran, it fell into place.

“I felt like it for all its weirdness I’d given everyone a layered character that arced in a consistent and surprising way that would underpin the story for the actors, as well as a lot of fun scenes.”

Josh Singer, “Maestro” (original screenplay)

“Maestro,” which Singer co-wrote with director-star Bradley Cooper, is ostensibly a chronicle of the career of composer Leonard Bernstein but flips the paradigm of “great men” biopics, turning the traditional B story, which is the marriage between him and Felicia Montealegre, into the A story. “I think it made everything much more delicate and everything much more crucial,” Singer says.

Adding to the delicacy: the couple’s children were regularly consulted throughout production. To avoid unduly blaming for their inevitable breakup either Leonard, who was (for the time in which he lived, necessarily) a closeted bisexual, or the dutiful Felicia, the screenwriters identified a true post-breakup moment that could balance the scales of culpability between them if inserted into the film.
“I wrote the scene where she basically just did this monologue about, I have this suitor and I was very excited… and then he asked about Mendy Wager,” says Singer, identifying Benstein’s confidante, who’s also bisexual. “And Felicia says, ‘I guess I have a certain type.’ ”

The duo made a crucial change from the real story — Felicia originally confided this in actor Cynthia O’Neal, but in the film, she tells Leonard’s sister Shirley, portrayed on screen by Sarah Silverman. This ended up communicating more about the way that, even in conflict, the Bernsteins’ marriage was insulated by familial support. “We wanted her to tell someone who it was very clear had been with her all along,” Singer says. “And so, in some ways it was a much better representation than if we had put O’Neal in there. It’s not exactly true, but it gets at the truth more than exactly true would have.”

Celine Song, “Past Lives (original screenplay)

Song’s semi-autobiographical “Past Lives” revolves around a woman in love with two men: one the Korean classmate she met as a child, the other the American husband she marries in adulthood. Navigating the present-day dynamic between the trio started in the screenwriting process for Song with a bar scene that she would depict from multiple perspectives.

“The thing that really cracked it for me is the thought that it would be the first scene of the film, but we won’t get to hear what the conversation at the end is going to be,” Song says. “We’re making the audience a part of the story right away by asking them a question that a detective might ask, which is, who are these three people to each other?”

Despite drawing from her personal life, Song was determined to tell the best story possible. “There
was no delicateness around the personal in turning it into a script,” she insists. “But I do also think that part of the objectification of it is to not also dismiss the part of the story that is personal, just because it is personal.” She says the juxtaposition gave her an opportunity to inject the story both dramatic urgency and poetry.

“The fantasy of ‘Past Lives’ is that we are able to be so caring and articulate in our conversations with each other, and the thing that I was navigating in the writing is for them to be real and actually speak about what the movie’s about, but yet taking care of each other.”

The two versions of the same events ultimately gave Song a place to start and a place to end up, both narratively and thematically. “Home for this movie is in the scene at the bar,” she says. “It’s like salmon heading upstream… you’re following your instinct, and you have to just make sure that every scene is about home.”



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