Keith MacKenzie 26 letters. A million and more words. No limit to stories.

Here’s to the screenwriters who started it all

A page from the Social Network screenplay

Everything out there begins with a seed. Trees in the forest. The chicken on your plate – chicken-and-egg debate notwithstanding. And in particular, movies.

Movies begin with a little nugget in some writer’s mind. The writer sits stooped over his umpteenth pint in the pub, engaged in banter with his neighbourly barfly or bartender at service, and suddenly, his eyes light up.

He has a great idea for a story.

He scrambles for a pen and scratches out his idea on a beer-soaked napkin, stuffs it into his jacket pocket, and finishes his pint. Quickly.

He then pays the tab and runs on home – like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network – and gets to work. After numerous coffees and two full ashtrays later, presto! A screenplay.

He spends years pitching this to Hollywood types, only to have doors slammed in his face everywhere he turns. Then one day, some producer recognizes the brilliance in his screenplay, options it, and the wheels are put in motion.

Next thing you know, the movie is made, with glossy posters and hot actors and actresses, and makes a killing at the box office.

Moreover, it gains accolades from a little group known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Or simply, the Academy.

Oscar nominations! Everyone worth their salt considers this movie the frontrunner to win it all.

But then, suddenly, another movie steps in and announces its presence with bombastic pomp and ceremony. It’s a $250-million blockbuster, and is backed by everyone in Hollywood. It makes zillions at the box office. It also generates considerable buzz. And Oscar nominations in every category.

The night of the Oscar ceremony rolls around. The blockbuster wins everything. Best Picture. Best Director. Best Cinematography. Best This. Best That. Best Other.

You can hear the ripping sounds as numerous movie critics and film lovers across the globe tear their hair out in frustration. Why should this galactic blockbuster take all the thunder away from that little movie by that guy who came up with the brilliant idea in the pub?

Well, that’s OK. There are the best screenplay categories. This little writer gets his day in the sun as he steps forward to accept his Oscar to thunderous applause from the likes of Scorsese, Clooney, Spielberg, Jolie, and other so-called A-listers.

These awards – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – carry with them a rarified recognition. They pay attention to the fact that great movies all begin with a frustrated writer pounding away on his typewriter. OK, his laptop.

Truth is, movies just don’t get made without a screenplay. The screenplay is what holds everything – everything – together. It’s the very beginning of the whole moviemaking process. What do directors look for when they’re ready to make a new movie? A screenplay. What do actors look for when they’re ready to do some work? A screenplay.

A good screenplay, too.

With the Oscar nominations released this week, let’s consider this fact. Perhaps Best Picture has all the thunder and lightning and glamour. All deservedly so. But that doesn’t mean the Best Screenplay categories are to be ignored or buried deep down under all the Best This, Best That or Best Other awards. It has its own special allure.

One might even say that the best screenplay awards are a consolation prize of sorts for that great film that could have won it all, but didn’t. Or even, should have won it all, but didn’t.

Consider these prime examples. Last year, The King’s Speech won it all. A very Hollywood friendly, warm, inspiring movie loved by millions. But the movie with the crackling dialogue, the deceptive characters you weren’t sure if you liked or not, the dynamic story – yes, the story – that really grabbed people’s attention was the Facebook movie. The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network, while The King’s Speech won a whole bevy of other stuff.

In 2004, Million Dollar Baby was the Hollywood darling. An aw-shucks female boxer rises to glory – and then has it ripped away in violent tragedy – in a tear-jerking masterpiece by Clint Eastwood. But the movies that some might consider better were Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Charlie Kaufman which won Best Original Screenplay, and Sideways by Alexander Payne which won Best Adapted Screenplay. Payne, incidentally, is one of the brains behind 2011’s The Descendants, which generated five Oscar nominations this week including, you guessed it, one for Best Adapted Screenplay.

In 1997, which saw James Cameron and majestic Titanic dominate the Oscars with a record-tying 11 wins, Good Will Hunting won Best Original Screenplay and L.A. Confidential won Best Adapted Screenplay. Both movies driven by the sheer strength of their scripts.

1996? The English Patient – a stellar WW2 pic – won a handful of Oscars. Fargo and Sling Blade won the screenplay awwards.

And my personal favourite? Pulp Fiction versus Forrest Gump in 1994. Gump stared down the shady denizens representing Pulp, and trotted off with six Oscar wins, while Pulp skulked off with just one – Best Original Screenplay.

In Quentin Tarantino‘s Oscar acceptance speech for his screenplay, he said:

Thanks… This has been a very strange year—I can definitely say that. I think this is probably the only award I’m going to win tonight. So, I was trying to think…maybe I should say a whole lot of stuff, right here, right now—just get it out of my system. Because I thought about it all year long—everything building up… Just blow it all—just tonight—just say everything… But I’m not. Thanks!”

Hey, don’t sweat it, Quentin. You may have not won Best Director or any of that other awesome stuff, but you were recognized for coming up with the story for Pulp Fiction in the first place. That’s a pretty noble honour. That angry writer in the bar who feels unrecognized will gladly hoist his pint in your name. And Kaufman’s name. And Payne’s. And Sorkin’s.

Tarantino. Kaufman, Payne. Sorkin. Those writers – and many more – are the people who wrote the idea on the beer-soaked napkin in the first place.

And planted the seed to start it all.

Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Keith MacKenzie


Four books in the fire. Dozens of short stories fluttering about. Mission: To get the word out.

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